The Loser Now is Later to Win


For the first time since he locked up the nomination, Barack Obama has dipped to a tie with John McCain on the electoral map and to a deficit in some of the national polls. Tell us why, John Zogby.

The reversal follows a month of attacks by McCain, who has questioned Obama's experience, criticized his opposition to most new offshore oil drilling and mocked his overseas trip. The poll was taken Thursday through Saturday as Obama wrapped up a weeklong vacation in Hawaii that ceded the political spotlight to McCain, who seized on Russia's invasion of Georgia to emphasize his foreign policy views. "There is no doubt the campaign to discredit Obama is paying off for McCain right now," pollster John Zogby said. "This is a significant ebb for Obama."

The dynamic of the race now is summed up by the usual batch of oddly sexual verbs: McCain is "pounding" or "hammering" or "drilling down" on Obama, while Obama is flustered and defensive. But I try to pay more attention to the ads and messaging in swing states than the groaning of cable news, and there, Obama has been running negative ads on McCain. Here's one. Here's another. Hey, here's another. If you live in, say, Ohio, you're seeing this stuff as often as you see McCain's latest claim that Obama's a celebrity who wants to send tax collectors to put a ball gag in your mouth and lock you in the basement.

But that's just it! Not only are McCain's attacks all about character and weakness; Obama's responses basically validate them. That guy says I've got ladyparts and I hate America and want to raise taxes: In fact, I want to cut some taxes and raise others! Obama, accused of being a wimp, waves his calculator.

What could Obama do, though? There's a character case to make against McCain, whose shifting issue positions and bloated sense of self-importance are almost Obama-like. But every attack on McCain's character comes up against the iron wall of his POW days. This is the irony of that weird meme of a few weeks back that Obama "couldn't take a joke" (after that New Yorker cartoon portraying him as a terrorist): It's McCain who can't be mocked without holy hell unleashing. When the host of one of the Sunday shows accusing a guest of "questioning McCain's integrity" for pointing out that he's changed positions, you've got a problem. The Clintons are/were better aggressive campaigners, but how would the sleaze and naked ambition of that family be matching up against this? The only hope the Democrats ever had of making this easy was a Mitt Romney nomination. That guy made Thomas Beatie look like John Holmes.

Also: Democrats had better hope Zogby's up to his usual accuracy standard. If McCain leads on the economy, as he does here, there's not really any fjord Obama can paddle through to get to the White House.