I'm sure the Obama campaign has solid research suggesting they should paint McCain as out of touch and closely tied to Bush. But, watching their new anti-McCain ad, I can't help wondering if they're ignoring their most brutally effective case against him. So, at the risk of offering advice to people much more knowledgeable than I am (why stop now, right?), here's the ad I'd run at McCain. It grew out of a conversation I had with Jason yesterday:

Start with McCain in a good light, both literally and figuratively. The narrator says something like: "Before 2007, John McCain was an honorable man. He stood up to his party on tax cuts for the rich, on global warming, on immigration." [Now the clouds roll in, ominous music starts playing...] "But when being honorable threatened his shot at the presidency [flash headline from summer of 2007 declaring McCain campaign dead] John McCain didn't put country first, he put his ambition first. To curry favor with his party's right-wing, he embraced the Bush tax cuts he once called "irresponsible" and renounced his own immigration plan. Later, he flip-flopped on offshore drilling. Now, in the biggest reversal of all, he's embracing the same Bush-Rove politics he condemned eight years ago [flash Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, a quote from neutral organization citing McCain's "Rove-style" tactics]. Why? Because, to John McCain, some things are more important than honor [grainy footage of McCain and Bush waving together from the White House]."

I see several advantages here: 1.) You can insist over and over that McCain is a Bush clone, but people still don't entirely buy it. They have a vague sense that this guy's a maverick. If you concede the maverick point and then explain why he's suddenly hugging Bush, they're much more likely to understand it and believe you. 2.) This cuts right to the heart of the McCain brand. If you're going to shred one of your opponent's assets, it might as well be his greatest one. 3.) It distills almost everything objectionable about the McCain campaign--both the policy shifts and the tactical shifts--into a simple, plausible, coherent critique. 4.) It will drive McCain and his top aides absolutely batty--nothing is more important to McCain than his self-image as an honorable man (witness the reaction to the charge that he got a heads up on those Rick Warren questions a few weeks back). 5.) As negative ads go, it's not even that harsh. You're just using McCain's own widely-known words and tactics against him rather than introducing ugly new information. You could do it in a more-in-sorrow sort of tone.

In fact, this line of attack seems so obvious I'm surprised Obama hasn't gone there already. My only explanation is that the campaign feels it's somehow out of bounds to impugn McCain's motives--as though, by doing so, Obama cedes his claim to a new kind of politics. As Obama said in his own convention speech:

[W]hat I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

It's a noble sentiment. But, unfortunately, this campaign has become all about character. And, as recent events demonstrate, McCain's character is precisely what needs challenging. It's almost as though the McCain campaign interepreted this line as unilateral disarmament and decided to massively exploit the situation in response.

My plea to Obama: Please, please reconsider before it's too late.

Update: I just got a blast-e-mail from Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan saying the following:

Today on “The View,” John McCain defended his campaign’s latest ad campaign, which has been debunked repeatedly as both false and sleazy. In running the sleaziest campaign since South Carolina in 2000 and standing by completely debunked lies on national television, it’s clear that John McCain would rather lose his integrity than lose an election [E/A].

So the Obama campaign is comfortable with this line of attack off the air. They just need to roll it out on the air.  

--Noam Scheiber