The latest slam against Barack Obama doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: “redistributionist in chief.”
But at this point in the presidential campaign, underdog Republican John McCain will take what he can get.
The surfacing of a seven-year-old interview from a Chicago public radio archive, in which Professor Obama spoke of “redistributive change,” has fueled the charge that the Democratic nominee is a closet socialist.
To conservatives, who have long framed him as a classic “tax-and- spend liberal,” now-Senator Obama aims to be nothing less than Robin Hood.
To his supporters, the 2001 recording merely plays out a dusty academic argument over how to bring about social change – through the courts or through laws.
For Senator McCain, behind in a raft of crucial swing states with just days to go before Election Day, the resurfaced recording isn’t the game-changer he needs. But it does add another piece to what can be called McCain’s “kitchen sink” final argument, in which he is summarizing all the charges against Obama and personal associations that McCain hopes will sway undecided voters and even some of the decided.
Indeed, polls are tightening, as they always do at the end of a campaign. Del Ali, pollster for the nonpartisan Research 2000, which is running surveys in many battleground states, says the “redistributionist” argument has not changed the fundamental shape of the race.
“At this point, I mean, they’ve done everything they can in terms of going after Obama,” says Mr. Ali. “What’s going to change, really?”
But in Florida, a must-win state for McCain, one local political expert believes the “redistributionist” argument may help explain why polls have tightened.
“Florida is really a state that’s dominated by small businesses, and that argument bothers small-business owners a lot,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. “It bothers older voters a lot, too. And those are two high-turnout groups.”
McCain has not staged an elaborate closing argument, in the way that the flush Obama campaign was able to purchase a half-hour of TV time Wednesday night on seven networks simultaneously for an infomercial.
Rather, McCain has been dishing out his final arguments the old-fashioned way, in speeches and interviews in key states. Joe the Plumber, aka Joe Wurzelbacher from Toledo, Ohio, who has come to represent the working-class dreams of success of many Americans, remains a fixture in McCain’s discourse – and has even appeared himself on the stump. It was Obama’s comment to Mr. Wurzelbacher on Oct. 13 – about how he wants to “spread the wealth around” – that gave the WBEZ-FM interview from 2001 added currency.
Speaking Monday in Dayton, Ohio, McCain went from Joe the Plumber to “Barack the Redistributor” without skipping a beat. “This is what change means for Barack the Redistributor,” the Arizona senator told the crowd in a high school gymnasium. “It means taking your money and giving it to someone else.”
McCain has also hammered hard on the tried-and-true GOP message of keeping taxes low. “This is the fundamental difference between Senator
Obama and me: He thinks taxes are too low, and I think that spending it too high,” he said Wednesday in Miami.
Obama joked about McCain’s effort to portray him as a socialist at a campaign event Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C.
“Lately, he called me a socialist for wanting to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can finally give tax relief to the middle class,” Obama said. “I don’t know, by the end of the week he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
In his final argument, McCain is also revisiting many of the people and groups associated with Obama that he hopes will sow last-minute doubts in voters’ minds.
There’s Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical, who supported Obama’s early political career and worked with him on a foundation board. There’s Tony Rezko, the convicted felon involved in the purchase of Obama’s home. There’s ACORN, the community organizing association that Obama has consulted for and which is embroiled in allegations of fraudulent voter registrations.
Now, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, are bringing back Obama’s association with Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and a Palestinian-American activist.
Obama knows Mr. Khalidi from their days living near each other in Chicago, when both men taught at the University of Chicago. Earlier this year,
Obama’s relationship with Khalidi came up after the Los Angeles Times broke a story about a five-year-old videotape from a dinner Obama attended honoring Khalidi, in which anti-Israel comments were made.
The Los Angeles Times has refused to release the videotape, citing an agreement with its source, and now McCain and Governor Palin are claiming pro-Obama media bias.
McCain’s closing argument, like Obama’s, also highlights the positive – for McCain, allusions to his service to the nation as a Navy man.
“I’m an American. And I choose to fight,” he said in his speech Wednesday in Miami. “Don’t give up hope. Be strong. Have courage. And fight. Fight for a new direction for our country. Fight for what’s right for America.”
At this stage of the campaign, says political scientist Cal Jillson, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the bulk of McCain’s message should be positive, with less emphasis on tearing down his opponent.
“He’s got to remind people of his heroic service to the country for many decades, and concerns people should have about Obama,” Mr. Jillson says.
“He’s so focused on the latter, and he’s hoping people remember the former.”