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Ad Wars: McCain and the Redefinition of Hope

John McCain's latest ad in the presidential race never mentions Barack Obama but the Illinois senator is everywhere in the spot, which seeks to punch a hole in the idea of "hope" in politics.

Let's take a look at the ad:

The ad is, as nearly every commercial during his successful primary campaign was, heavy on McCain's personal resume -- particularly his captivity and torture in Vietnam.

It begins with a startling contrast between the "Summer of Love" and Woodstock and McCain's own "love of country" as demonstrated by his five years as a prisoner of war.

"Before party, polls and self, America," intones the ad's narrator before reciting a litany of reforms -- campaign finance, military -- that McCain instituted once he came to Congress in the mid 1980s. "He took on presidents, partisans and popular opinion," says the ad's narrator.

His biography dispensed, the meat of the ad emerges: a critique of Obama's message of hope.

"McCain doesn't always tell us what we hope to hear," the narrator says. (Italics added by The Fix.) "Beautiful words cannot make our lives better but a man who has always put his country and her people before self, before politics, can."

And, just in case you missed the message, (and, to be honest, how could you) the ad ends: "Don't hope for a better life, vote for one."

The McCain campaign is playing a dangerous but necessary game here. Poking holes in the idea of "hope" was tried -- unsuccessfully -- by Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary.

Time and time again, the New York senator sought to make the case that while Obama talked a good game, that flowery rhetoric alone would not bring about the change needed for the country. And, time and time again, Obama pointed to his accomplishments in the state senate and decried Clinton's "old" attack politics.

Expect more of the same from Obama in the general election. After all, why mess with success?

McCain's campaign knows, on the other hand, that if Obama is allowed to be the candidate of voters' hopes and dream, the Arizona Republican will almost certainly come up on the short end in November. McCain must make Obama's message of hope look hollow -- an attempt to talk his way out of problems rather than make hard decisions and govern the country out of its current morass.

This ad -- which is running in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- is the start of an extended campaign to redefine hope. Whether it works will be central to McCain's chances in November.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 8, 2008; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Ad Wars  
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