Yesterday started out well for John McCain, with the presumptive GOP nominee garnering exactly the sort of headlines he wanted for his energy proposals. But late in the day came a distraction, one that pushed those energy stories to the back burner: It emerged that Charlie Black, McCain's chief strategist, suggested in an interview with Fortune Magazine that "it would be a big advantage to" McCain if there were another terror attack on U.S. soil. Black also said the assassination of former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto last December "helped us."
Black apologized for the comments, and McCain repudiated them, saying he "cannot imagine why [Black] would say it" and adding that "It's not true." But the damage was done. In some ways, the situation isn't entirely surprising: The McCain campaign, with its freewheeling back-of-the-bus chats with journalists, has long eschewed the sort of message discipline that was so central to the campaign of the previous GOP nominee, President George W. Bush.
In some ways that's been an advantage for McCain, who has generated positive media coverage throughout his career and jokingly referred to the press corps as his "base." But the relatively loose attitude also means it's more likely that the campaign will lose track of the media narrative thanks to an offhand comment. Like his boss, Black has shown himself to be remarkably accessible and relatively straightforward when speaking to reporters throughout the campaign. One can't help but wonder if that's about to change.
As for the comments themselves, its worth putting aside the outrage – Obama spokesman Bill Burton referred to Black's words as a "complete disgrace" – and assessing them on their merits. McCain's campaign is built in large part around his national security experience, and it seems plausible that in the wake of a terrorist attack voters will turn to him over rival Barack Obama, whom Republicans have cast as untested. (In the Fortune interview, McCain explained his comments about Benazir Bhutto by noting that McCain's "knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief.")
The flip side is that voters might place some of the blame for the attack on McCain, whom the Obama campaign has suggested represents the "failed policies" of the Bush administration. No matter where you come down on the question, a case can certainly be made that, purely from a logical perspective, Black's argument was defensible – if not exactly prudent.
Around The Track: