At a town hall in this conservative suburb of Milwaukee last Thursday, a middle-aged man took the microphone and claimed to speak for the 4,000 others gathered in a gymnasium to hear from John McCain and Sarah Palin.
"Everyone here is tickled at what you're doing for us," he said. "We're all wondering why Obama is where he's at--how he got here. Everybody in this room is stunned that we're in this position! We're all products of our associations! Is there not a way to get around this media and line up the people that he has hung with?"
The crowd roared its approval.
McCain's answer focused on just one person Obama has hung with.
Look, we don't care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on September 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more. That's not the point here. The point is Senator Obama said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. We know that's not true. We need to know the full extent of the relationship because of whether Senator Obama is telling truth to the American people or not--that's the question.
Although the questioner had raised Obama's associations, he hadn't directly mentioned Bill Ayers, the man McCain chose to discuss. Ayers is the Weather Underground terrorist who has had friendly relations with Barack Obama for more than a decade. And though Sarah Palin had accused Obama of "palling around" with Ayers, and other McCain campaign officials had discussed him, McCain himself had not. So it was an aggressive answer and the audience loved it.
Moments later, though, McCain seemed to have a change of heart. James T. Harris, a black conservative who hosts a local radio show, told McCain that he had taken an "ass-whoopin' " for supporting the Republican over Obama and implored McCain to fight harder. "We have the good Reverend Wright. We have [the Reverend Michael] Pfleger. We have all of these shady characters that have surrounded him," Harris shouted. "We have corruption here in Wisconsin and voting across the nation. I am begging you, sir. I am begging you. Take it to him!"
The crowd, which had been energized before McCain's arrival by a lengthy stemwinder from former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, applauded wildly and stood ready to explode as McCain began to answer.
"Yes, I'll do that," McCain said quickly and dismissively. "But I also, my friends, want to address the greatest financial challenge of our lifetime with a positive plan for action that Senator Obama and I have. We need to restore hope and trust and confidence in America and have Americans know that our best days are ahead of us. That's the future and strength and beauty of America."
The crowd seemed confused. Are Obama's "shady characters" relevant or not? In the space of about ten minutes, John McCain seemed to be saying "yes" and "no."
Such contradictions have become a defining characteristic of the McCain campaign over the last month as his strategists try to find something--anything--that will stop his slide in the polls. He suspended his campaign and threatened to skip the first presidential debate unless there was agreement on a bailout plan. There was no agreement, and he debated anyway. He said big government caused the current financial mess and then called for more of it. He called for a federal spending freeze and then proposed having the Treasury buy individual home mortgages at a potential cost of $300 billion.
It is, in short, a campaign heavy on tactics and light on strategy. Three weeks out from the 2008 election and John McCain's campaign has no discernible central theme, no succinct answer to the most basic question voters ask as they consider their choice: Why should I choose you over the other guy?
Four years ago, George W. Bush's critique of John Kerry was a simple, two-pointed attack: He's too liberal and he flip-flops. "Much as he tried to obscure it, on issue after issue, my opponent showed why he's earned the ranking, the most liberal member of the United States Senate," Bush said at a campaign event on October 9, 2004. Top aides Karen Hughes and Karl Rove circulated among the press pointing out that Kerry had voted for the resolution authorizing a war in Iraq that he had come to oppose and telling reporters that Kerry "really is a liberal who is out of touch with mainstream America."
Ask McCain advisers for a succinct description of his message, and you'll get several different answers. Obama's too risky. He's too inexperienced. He has bad judgment. He's not bipartisan enough. He has no record. His record is too liberal. He avoids tough decisions. He's all rhetoric. He's the wrong kind of change. And on it goes. Many of these things are true, of course, but in trying to communicate all of these messages at once the campaign risks communicating none of them.
The Obama campaign, by contrast, seems to have settled on one message, which it is driving nearly every day: John McCain is too erratic to be president.
Even for voters not inclined to believe the charge, McCain's last month has lent it credibility.
By the end of the week, however, conversations with several McCain advisers indicated that the campaign may have settled on its closing argument. If they are successful, voters will enter polling stations with this thought in their head: Barack Obama cannot be trusted because he's done nothing and has consistently put his own political ambitions before his country's needs.
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).