Opinion

E-mail to Obama: dishonest TV ad, wrong audience

The Democrat's latest attack on John McCain takes poor aim at his age and knowledge of technology.

After running a brilliant and historic primary battle to defeat Hillary Clinton, the Obama campaign is now in disarray. Why?

Perhaps it's because Barack Obama has never run a competitive race against a Republican. After all, Obama won his U.S. Senate seat in Illinois by running against Alan Keyes, a fire-and-brimstone, right-wing black carpetbagger from Maryland (or perhaps Mars) who had no real ties to Illinois.

Now, facing John McCain's blistering ads, Obama seems unable to fight fire with fire. The Democratic rank and file are furious (while simultaneously denouncing McCain's negativity).

Obama, they may be realizing, doesn't know how to close the deal.

Nonetheless, the Obama campaign has vowed, once again, to take the gloves off and go after McCain hard, linking him to President Bush and highlighting the fact that the Arizona senator is out of touch.

One flaw with this supposed course correction is that it isn't one. McCain-Bush-Economy has been Obama's message for months now. Indeed, ABC News' Jake Tapper wrote on his blog that this is actually the fourth time Team Obama has pledged to engage in a bracing round of fisticuffs.

To prove his newfound determination to go bare knuckle against McCain, Obama unveiled a new TV ad, to air in key states.

It begins with the date "1982," a picture of a disco ball and footage of McCain in clunky glasses from his first year in Washington. "Things have changed in the last 26 years, but McCain hasn't," explains the announcer. "He admits he still doesn't know how to use a computer, can't send an e-mail, still doesn't understand the economy and favors $200 billion in new tax cuts for corporations, but almost nothing for the middle class." All the while it shows ancient computers and a cordless phone that looks like a World War II-era walkie-talkie.

The tax-cuts and economy barbs are familiar boilerplate. What's new is the charge of computer illiteracy and the blatant attempt to attack McCain as too old for the job -- and that speaks volumes.

First, the ad is dishonest. McCain has been one of the Senate's leading authorities on telecom and the Internet.

In 2000, Forbes magazine called him the "Senate's savviest technologist." That same year, Slate's Jacob Weisberg gushed that McCain was the most "cybersavvy" of all the presidential candidates that year, a crop that included none other than Al Gore. Being chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Weisberg explained, "forced him to learn about the Internet early on, and young Web entrepreneurs such as Jerry Yang and Jeff Bezos fascinate him."

Weisberg, an Obama booster, now disingenuously mocks McCain as "flummoxed by that newfangled doodad, the personal computer."

One reason McCain is not versed in the mechanical details of sending e-mail and typing on a keyboard is that the North Vietnamese broke his fingers and shattered both of his arms. As Forbes, Slate and the Boston Globe reported in 2000, McCain's injuries make using a keyboard painfully laborious. He mostly relies on his wife and staff to show him e-mails and websites, though he says he's getting up to speed.

"It's extraordinary," Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, "that someone who wants to be our president and our commander in chief doesn't know how to send an e-mail." For the record, President Clinton sent exactly two e-mails while in office, according to the archives in his presidential library.

Besides, by this logic, Obama is even less qualified to be commander in chief because, unlike McCain, Obama has never fired a gun, flown a plane or led men during wartime.

And if the Obama campaign did not intend to mock a disabled veteran, what does it say about his supposedly "cybersavvy" campaign that they don't know how to conduct a five-minute Google search to find out these things?

But the most revealing aspect of the ad is who it speaks to. According to Gallup, Obama has a 20- to 30-point advantage over McCain among 18- to 29-year-olds. Indeed, his base (not counting African American voters) is upscale college kids and new-economy young voters. These are the voters most likely to think being able to send an e-mail is, like, totally crucial.

The only other constituency -- other than the press -- that will be jazzed by such an attack are the Web-symbiotes of the left-wing netroots, another demographic Obama has locked up.

Older Americans, working-class Americans, veterans and other voters Obama desperately needs probably won't care and might even take offense at Obama's condescension.

There are two explanations for the ad. One is that Obama released it to reassure his base that he's serious about attacking McCain, not to win over swing voters. That, or the campaign actually thinks it's an effective ad.

Either way, the lesson is the same: Obama doesn't know how to get outside his echo chamber. He talks about being bipartisan to hard-core liberals who like the words, but he hates actual deviation from the liberal line. He talks about new ideas, but he merely repackages old ones.

He is a candidate who has never had to sell himself to voters who weren't already sold. And it shows.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com
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