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Branding Strategy

McCain got the volunteer he deserved

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It'd be easy, and fun, to spend this space mocking Ashley Todd, the delusional young woman who made up a laughable story about being accosted -- and branded -- by an Obama-backing mugger in Bloomfield last week. But you know how it is with us liberals: We're always coddling criminals. So when Todd faces charges of filing false police reports, let me suggest this defense strategy:

"John McCain made me do it."

In any election, you can find a certain percentage of whack-jobs. Some of them won't even be candidates. This year, for example, the homes of some McCain supporters in northern Virginia have been vandalized. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, leaflets have been distributed in black neighborhoods, warning that "on the day of the election there will be undercover officers to execute warrants on those who come to vote."

What makes this election different, though, is that this time the lunatics seem to be holding lofty posts in the McCain/Palin campaign. Which is why it seems unfair to single out a mere fieldworker like Todd.

On Oct. 23, the day Todd was presumably scratching a backwards "B" into her cheek, McCain's Pennsylvania campaign was engaged in a branding strategy of its own: sending out an e-mail implicitly comparing Obama to Hitler.

Sent to some 75,000 Jewish Pennsylvania voters, the e-mail warned that Israel faced a potential "second Holocaust" from hostile nations. "Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake," the e-mail implored. "Let's not make a similar one this year!... [W]e strongly URGE you to VOTE for John McCain."

After Democrats objected, the state GOP fired the consultant who authored the e-mail, Bryan Rudnick. But Rudnick says party officials approved it, and three prominent Republicans -- including former state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schwartz Newman -- signed their names to it.

Newman has apologized for not reading the letter more closely, but she still sits on a McCain task force to monitor elections. No doubt she'll scrutinize the placement of other people's signatures more carefully than she did her own. But Ashley Todd merely tied Obama to a fictional mugger, rather than to the author of the Final Solution. She's probably wondering why she hasn't gotten a promotion.

And why not? The McCain campaign has begun treating democracy like it's a reality-TV show. Instead of a presidential contest, it's run more like an installment The Amazing Electoral Race. And like any reality-TV show, the campaign seems uninterested in making distinctions between truth and spectacle. Lacking policies that will actually benefit middle-class voters, McCain has turned to a faux-populist PR campaign -- one more suited to a game show like Deal or No Deal. You, too, can be a winner!

Other than VP candidate Sarah Palin herself, the best example is "Joe the Plumber," the reg'lar Ohio guy whom McCain turned into an overnight celebrity for confronting Obama about his tax policies. By Joe's own later admission, he'd actually benefit under the Obama plan -- which could help him buy that plumbing business Joe yearns to purchase. But by suggesting otherwise in his brief encounter with Obama, Joe did manage to score a talking point ... which is, in fairness, more than McCain did in three televised debates.

So the GOP candidates have been conducting a "Joe the Plumber" tour, and running ads in which people claim "I am Joe the Plumber" -- and then go on to complain that they'd be hurt by Obama's plan, even though Joe himself would benefit. In the McCain fantasyland, Joe the Plumber represents everyone except himself.

But no harm done to anything but the truth. Joe is now mulling a run for Congress. The same day Todd's story was unraveling in Pittsburgh, in fact, Joe was a guest on Laura Ingraham's nationally syndicated talk show. "I'll help you with your [campaign] PR," Ingraham pledged.

This is how deeply unserious the conservative movement has become. Joe has no political experience and owes more than $1,000 in back taxes. I've seen school board candidates undone by less. But for the likes of Ingraham, there's no reason we shouldn't send Joe to Congress. The guy's been on TV! What other qualification does he need?

So let's go easy on Ashley Todd. She probably just saw this as her tryout for The Apprentice: GOP Edition. And by the standards of her party, all she's guilty of is a bit of overacting.

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