The Public Eye: The Trash Talk Express

By Bob Burnett
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:18:00 PM

Once upon a time, John McCain merited his reputation as a maverick politician, a “truth teller.” Reporters fought to get on his campaign bus, “the straight talk express,” because they expected to hear the Arizona senator spew uncensored opinions on a variety of subjects. Alas, those days are over. Three months from the presidential election, McCain has decided his only hope of besting Barack Obama is to wage a negative campaign. Get on board the trash talk express. 

Polls consistently indicate that voters are focused on five issues: the economy, energy prices, Iraq, healthcare, and terrorism. The same surveys show Senator McCain—mired in dogmatic conservatism and fatally associated with President Bush—has a big problem: with the possible exception of terrorism, Americans judge the Arizona senator as less able to deal with these problems. They see Obama as a better fit for these troubled times. 

McCain is desperate. Less than 100 days before the presidential election, he has decided his only chance to win is to go negative, to attack his opponent at every opportunity. These assaults have occurred in McCain speeches, campaign advertisements and “independent expenditure” ads. Broadly speaking, these commercials have had three themes: Obama is a flip-flopper, negative, and determined to “lose” the war in Iraq. 

The flip-flopper ad began running on July 23, sponsored by “Let Freedom Ring.” It’s similar to a McCain web ad, words that focus on Obama’s apparent reversal on public financing for his campaign. The “Let Freedom Ring” ad also accuses Obama of reversing his positions on Iraq and handguns. 

These ads misstate Obama’s position on public financing, handguns, and Iraq. And they blithely ignore a larger truth: it’s Senator McCain who has made the largest number of policy reversals. It’s McCain who deserves opprobrium for changing his position to further his political fortunes: as two of many examples, McCain once argued against Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, now he supports them; McCain once supported affirmative action, now he’s against it. 

In speeches and commercials, McCain accuses Obama of offering no positive solutions to America’s problems. A McCain web ad labels the Illinois senator “Dr. No,” saying he is against off-shore drilling, a gas-tax holiday, and unconditional support for new nuclear power plants. The ad goes further and falsely states that Obama is against “innovation” and “the electric car.” McCain’s campaign lies by suggesting that Obama has offered no solutions to America’s energy problems. (The RNC has run a similar ad.) 

This tack both misstates Obama’s position and overstates the reality of McCain’s. Obama has a detailed position on energy that emphasizes a omnibus national initiative to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. McCain has no strategic perspective, but instead offers voters a handful of gimmicks: a gas tax holiday that probably wouldn’t reduce gas prices; the promise of new nuclear plants that would take decades to deploy and produce electricity at the same cost as that produced from wind farms, which are far easier to build; and drilling off-shore, a strategy that would take more than a decade to produce uncertain results. (After McCain reversed his position on offshore drilling, his campaign received more than $1 million in contributions from oil executives.) 

On July 25, McCain broadened his “Dr. No” theme, slamming Obama for his alleged audacity of hopelessness. McCain argued the Illinois Senator has no positive ideas about energy and the economy, and lacks a strategy to “win” the war in Iraq. On July 22, McCain told a New Hampshire crowd, “It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” This scurrilous charge was followed by another negative TV ad where McCain accused Obama of voting against funding for the troops and of neglecting to visit wounded soldiers in order to go to the gym, comments repudiated by the Washington Post. 

As we consider John McCain’s recent advertisements and public statements, what’s clear is that with less than 100 days before the presidential election, the Republican nominee has decided he holds a losing hand. Carrying President Bush as a millstone around his neck, and with policy positions that are out of step with the attitudes of ordinary Americans, McCain has grown desperate and made yet another flip-flop: he’s abandoned his pledge to wage a positive campaign. 

Now boarding, on track 2008, John McCain’s trash talk express. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at