The Corner

The Negative Phase

The McCain campaign has put out an ad responding to Obama’s “housing” ad from yesterday. It’s incredible how tough this race has become in the past week or so, with both camps going negative pretty effectively even though both candidates have wanted to project an image that rejects negative campaigning until recently.

On the whole it helps McCain, I think, just given the dynamics of the race. A negative campaign tends to undermine both candidates’ preferred campaign “narratives,” but that does much more damage to Obama, since he is much more dependent on his narrative and persona than McCain is on his. He’s got almost nothing else.

The way things have shaped out the election looks like a yes or no question about Obama. McCain is mostly just the incidental consequence of a negative answer: swing voters see him as an acceptable choice but aren’t excited about him, they’ll take him if the other guy doesn’t seem up to it. The real question is whether that other guy is up to it. They’d like to be able to vote for Obama, but are terribly unsure whether he’s presidential material given his thin and liberal record and his recent arrival on the scene. So Obama’s task is to make the public comfortable with him, and McCain’s task is to make the public uncomfortable with Obama. Now McCain gets to hammer away on the very point he needs to make and Obama is talking about something else.

But we’ll see, maybe the Obama team can really make McCain an issue, as he obviously would be in any halfway normal election campaign. I have to say it really doesn’t look like it so far, and the costs of continuing on this path but failing to get traction could be pretty high for them. It already looks likely to confuse and muddle the message of their convention week.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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