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Integrity as Strategy

Here’s the standard take on how the dragged-out Democratic primary will effect the general election: As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cut each other down, they do John McCain’s work for him. Those two continue to relentlessly bloody each other up, so that by the time one of them goes up against McCain he or she will be a publicly diminished and weakened Democrat with a considerable percentage of detractors within his or her own party ready to vote Republican or stay home. Furthermore, the Democratic Party itself will be in a state of convalescence and in no shape for battle.

Lately, some Democrats have offered a more optimistic interpretation of things. Frank Rich covers this alternative read in today’s New York Times:

The counterargument, advanced by Mrs. Clinton in justifying her “kitchen sink” attacks on Mr. Obama, is that the Democrats are better off being tested now by raising all the issues the Republicans will. It’s a fair point. The Wright, Rezko, Ayers, “bittergate” and flag-pin firestorms will all be revived by the opposition come fall.

But will they? That assumption puts John McCain’s objection to the North Carolina GOP ad featuring Rev. Wright and Obama in strategic perspective. If the Democrats’ slugfest is to serve as a sort of preemptive self-vetting, then McCain’s best bet is to attack the Democratic nominee from a different—untested—angle than any that’s been used during the primary. In this light, things are even worse for the Democrats than the standard interpretation conveys. One Democratic candidate will come to the general election having already taken a big hit on a critical front: character. (Obama would be plagued by the issues Rich mentions; Hillary would lumber under the weight of Snipergate, identity cynicism, dirty pool, and her husband’s outbursts.) With the public perception of his opponent’s character already so compromised, McCain can focus on policy differences—which is exactly what he said he hopes to do. This accomplishes at least two things: it frees up campaign energy to be used more efficiently on critical substantive points, and it makes him look like a breath of clean fresh air compared to the Dems’ nastiness. Not only will the Democrats have brought McCain’s opponents character flaws to the surface, they will have given McCain a campaign blueprint by contrast, saying essentially, “Don’t sully yourself like we did. After nearly a year spent harping on identity and playing ‘gotcha!’ we have nothing to show but an unexpected dip in Democratic support.”

For sure, many in the Republican establishment will continue to hammer at the Democrats on the lurid issues raised during the primary. But, as McCain demonstrated in objecting to the North Carolina ad, he has no problem calling party members out on this. That too can be put to use as an advantage. For every time John McCain tells a GOP mouthpiece to avoid cheap shots or divisiveness, he feeds the growing impression among Democratic voters that for a Republican he’s not that bad.