by dday

There's a story out today that the Presidential campaign has somehow "shifted back" to the economy because John McCain didn't run out last night and tell Barack Obama to his face that he was a Muslim terrorist. And the Politico got these very nice little quotes from McCain staffers that "proved" this.

After days of attempts to persuade voters that Obama’s ties to ‘60s radical Bill Ayers are a crucial character issue, McCain didn’t mention Ayers’ name during the 90 minutes of Tuesday’s forum. His top aides suggested afterward that, going forward, the candidate wouldn’t focus on the former domestic terrorist nor invoke the name of Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Nicolle Wallace, a top McCain adviser, hinted McCain would not bring it up. “If asked about it, of course [he’ll talk about Ayers],” she said.

McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt all but said the controversial pastor remained off-limits.

“What Sen. McCain has said is that it’s not an issue he intends to talk about in the race,” said the aide, though he did note that Obama himself had called Wright 'fair game.'

But Schmidt did say without prompting: “You’ve not seen Sen. McCain advertise on [Wright]."

Apparently, the institutional memory of the Washington press corps has been erased. These things aren't meant to be frontal assaults - George H.W. Bush only brought up Willie Horton in a debate in 1988 after Dukakis approached the subject first. These things happen in the background, over email, through whisper campaigns, and once they're in the ether they don't need to be hyped again and again. It's "out there."

But McCain's campaign isn't as deft as those in the past, for a particular reason which I'll get to in a moment. As for the idea that the McCain campaign's given up on the character attacks, um, no:

ARLINGTON, VA -- Today, John M. Murtagh made the following statement on Barack Obama's relationship with William Ayers:

"When I was 9 years-old the Weather Underground, the terrorist group founded by Barack Obama's friend William Ayers, firebombed my house. Barack Obama has dismissed concerns about his relationship with Ayers by noting that he was only a child when Ayers was planting bombs at the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. But Ayers has never apologized for his crimes, he has reveled in them, expressing regret only for the fact that he didn't do more [...]

"Barack Obama may have been a child when William Ayers was plotting attacks against U.S. targets -- but I was one of those targets. Barack Obama's friend tried to kill my family."

John McCain has a problem. He isn't trusted by the base and so he must appeal to their darkest instincts, but every time he does so he turns off independents. Indeed, during the debate, every time he launched an attack, such as they were, the dials plummeted. But without his base he's sunk and he has no ground game, so attack he must. That's why Sarah Palin is taking the Agnew role and whipping crowds into a frenzy (and Joe Biden is right to call her on it), but McCain is backing away and hedging. That's why his campaign is taking tentative steps in the water with the Ayers and Rezko and Wright stuff but never full steps. They know they must take the campaign into the gutter, but every time they do they destroy this carefully cultivated "honorable" brand, which was never true in reality, but also the only way he could ever win in a down Republican year.

The further problem is that the tentative steps are ugly enough to provoke anger and distaste. And of course, these are ill-suited times for the Republican playbook of smear and fear. Heck, even the racists are undecided.

An Obama supporter, who canvassed for the candidate in the working-class, white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, sends over an account that, in various forms, I've heard a lot in recent weeks.

"What's crazy is this," he writes. "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n----r and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy."

I'm from Philly and I know Fishtown, and that rings very, very true.

The end result is that you get this lurching, haphazard, erratic campaign. Last night we saw the "compassionate conservative" asking for the government to buy out struggling mortgages (an idea that is far less than meets the eye - he would buy homes at full face value instead of what they're actually worth - a huge payoff to the banks). In the same breath, by the way, he calls for a spending freeze on all but the most vital programs. And by this morning, there are Ayers attacks and new ads calling Obama "secretive". There's no rhyme or reason to any of it because of the enormous self-generated bind, having to please the wingnuts and simultaneously cut them off, having to strike a populist tone and simultaneously please his corporate paymasters and lobbyist staff, having to play to win while every attack hurts his own image.

McCain is running a self-negating campaign.