MSNBC: 'Jack Nicholson' McCain 'Demonizing' Obama, Playing 'Race Card'

On Thursday's Countdown show, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and Newsweek Washington correspondent/MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman went after John McCain for his recent ads attacking Barack Obama, and the Arizona Republican's charge that Obama was "playing the race card" because the Illinois Democrat has repeatedly joked that his opponents will try to discourage people from voting for him because "he's black." Olbermann started off the show suggesting that McCain's ad against Obama featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton exhibited "almost subliminal racism, a black man with two women," and that the ad "intermixed footage of that black candidate with images of two young white women."

Fineman charged that McCain is using negative attacks to distract from the "substantive issues" Obama is "trying to raise in the campaign," and suggested that McCain is in danger of seeming as "obsessed" as Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men" as the Arizona Senator is planning to "demonize Obama to draw out the Republican base." Fineman further characterized McCain as being "in survival mode. It's not quite like the prison years, but he's a tough character in a tough spot, and he's going to use anything he can to survive."

Fineman also seemed to voice agreement with Obama's joke that Republicans will try to use race against him. After noting that Obama campaign advisor Robert Gibbs was not telling the truth in denying that Obama was referring to race in his controversial joke, Fineman suggested that Obama was being "honest" in warning that "the country needs to be on guard," and the Newsweek correspondent recommended that Obama "should have all of his advisors and spokespeople be honest, too." (Transcript follows)

The Countdown teaser began:

KEITH OLBERMANN: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? Meltdown: After the McCain "Britney Spears" ad, with its almost subliminal racism, a black man with two women, John McCain, personally, calls the Obama response "playing the race card."

BARACK OBAMA: They're going to try to say, "Well, you know, he's got a funny name and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the $5 bills."

OLBERMANN: But McCain didn't call that 'playing the race card' when Obama said it three times yesterday, and McCain didn't call that 'playing the race card' when Obama first said it on June 20th.

Olbermann introduced the show: "Senator McCain is saying this afternoon he wants the American people to decide who is playing the race card in this campaign. The first African-American with a shot at winning the White House now under attack for saying something yesterday, that he first said on the 20th of June, to almost no response, or the campaign that has in a TV commercial, intermixed footage of that black candidate with images of two young white women? In our fifth story on the Countdown, who do you think is playing the race card?"

After some further introduction of the subject, including Olbermann's attempt to undermine McCain's sincerity because McCain had ignored Obama's joke about race on previous occasions, the MSNBC host brought aboard Fineman for further discussion. Olbermann started off asking why McCain had ignored Obama's past racial comments, and Fineman charged that McCain had changed strategy to go "all negative all the time," and, painting Obama as a victim, contended that the Illinois Democrat had "walked into the propellar blades of the new McCain strategy."

Fineman then charged that McCain was trying to distract from Obama's discussion of "substantive issues." Fineman: "I think the McCain people watched what happened in the primaries, saw that Obama was able to maneuver the race issue to his advantage, in many ways, in states like South Carolina, which totally flummoxed Bill Clinton. The McCain people decided they were not going to get in the same fix, and they decided to go on the attack as part of their new attack strategy to distract attention from whatever substantive issues Obama may be trying to raise in this campaign."

Then, in an ironic move coming from the man who seems perennially obsessed with FNC host Bill O'Reilly, asked if McCain was in danger of appearing "obsessed looking." Olbermann: "But also looking at the primaries and the Obama experience in that, is there a tipping point here? I mean, Landstuhl, Britney Spears, and the race card in three days, does McCain have to stop this at some point because others have tried this against Obama and inevitably wound up painting themselves into a corner where they didn't just look, initially they looked bitter, and then they moved on to kind of obsessed looking?"

Fineman contended that McCain was in danger of "looking like Jack Nicholson in 'A Few Good Men,' and warned that "demonizing" Obama may alienate independent voters: "Well, obviously, McCain's problem is he doesn't want to end up looking like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men here. But he's got a problem. Most of the Republican conservative base doesn't like John McCain very much. The only route he has to getting their support and getting them to show up, it seems, at least this is their theory, is to demonize Obama, to draw out the Republican base to go to the polls specifically to vote against this demon Obama. That seems to be the McCain strategy. The risk for McCain is that he can lose whatever appeal he still has among independent voters. I just spent the day in Virginia, Keith, looking at that swing state. Obama's running strong in the Virginia suburbs, but McCain's got a shot there. But if McCain does this day after day after day, he's going to lose those independents in Northern Virginia."

Fineman soon described McCain as being in "survival mode." Fineman: "They're throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. This is John McCain in survival mode. It's not quite like the prison years, but he's a tough character in a tough spot, and he's going to use anything he can to survive. And they're getting some positive feedback, they think, from the polls, including the latest Gallup poll, which shows the race daily tracking tightening again. Of course, McCain isn't busting beyond 44 or 45 percent himself. But, at this point, he doesn't seem to care if he can drag Obama down to his level, which he's trying to do, trying to get Obama in an alley fight. That's exactly what McCain is trying to do."

After Olbermann pointed out that, while Obama's campaign denies the Illinois Senator was talking about his race in his recent controverial remarks, that Obama had more directly talked about race in past remarks that were similar, Fineman seemed to recommend that Obama continue to warn Americans that Republicans may run a racist campaign against him: " Well, you can't take Robert Gibbs's statement at face value. You just can't. It doesn't make any sense, and I think it's tactically wrong because Obama is saying that Democrats need to be on guard. Obama is saying that the country needs to be on guard. Obama is saying that it's a challenge for the country to deal, both with the positives and the negatives of his candidacy. He's trying to be honest about it. He should have all of his advisors and spokespeople be honest, too."

Olbermann concluded seeming to agree with Fineman's advice. Olbermann: "Yeah. Howard Fineman of MSNBC and Newsweek. As always, Howard, great thanks."

Below is a complete transcript of the segment from the Thursday, July 31, Countdown on MSNBC, with critical portions in bold:

KEITH OLBERMANN, IN OPENING TEASER:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? Meltdown. After the McCain "Britney Spears" ad, with its almost subliminal racism, a black man with two women, John McCain, personally, calls the Obama response "playing the race card."

BARACK OBAMA: They're going to try to say, "Well, you know, he's got a funny name and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the $5 bills."

OLBERMANN: But McCain didn't call that 'playing the race card' when Obama said it three times yesterday, and McCain didn't call that 'playing the race card' when Obama first said it on June 20th.

OBAMA: I do have to ask my opponent, is that the best you can come up with?

JOHN MCCAIN: All I can say is that we're proud of that commercial.

OLBERMANN: About two days behind his own campaign, McCain also repeats the lie about Obama in Landstuhl, 24 hours after his own campaign's official blogger acknowledged it wasn't true.
...

OLBERMANN: Good evening. This is Thursday, July 31st, 96 days until the 2008 presidential election. Senator McCain is saying this afternoon he wants the American people to decide who is playing the race card in this campaign. The first African-American with a shot at winning the White House now under attack for saying something yesterday, that he first said on the 20th of June, to almost no response, or the campaign that has in a TV commercial, intermixed footage of that black candidate with images of two young white women?

In our fifth story on the Countdown, who do you think is playing the race card? The Republican today accusing the Democrat of playing it and playing it from the bottom of the deck because Senator Obama has responded to the Britney/Paris attack ad, by saying that his opponent is painting him as risky and different. Funny how the McCain campaign did not seem to have a problem with that yesterday when Senator Obama said it three times, or six weeks ago at a Florida fundraiser when he went even further, actually saying of himself, "And did I mention he's black?" This is the tape from yesterday.

OBAMA CLIP #1: They're going to try to say, "Well, you know, he's got a funny name. And he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the $5 bills."

OBAMA CLIP #2: So what they're saying is, "Well, we know we're not very good, but you can't risk electing Obama. You know, he's new, he's, he doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency."

OBAMA CLIP #3: "He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills, you know."

OLBERMANN: Obama senior strategist Robert Gibbs saying in a statement that Obama was not referring to race in Missouri yesterday. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis just as adamant that he was, telling our own Andrea Mitchell by telephone this afternoon about the Obama campaign's perceived indiscretion.

RICK DAVIS, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN MANAGER: His campaign actively has been feeding to journalists all night last night and all day today, the notion that somehow, something we have done in our campaign of which I could not identify for you today, was somehow, had racial overtones.

OLBERMANN: Even though staff members like Mr. Davis speak for the McCain campaign, and we have been told Senator McCain does not speak for the Senator McCain campaign, the Senator himself telling a crowd in Wisconsin that he is proud of the Britney Spears/Paris Hilton commercial, and telling John King of CNN that the race card accusation stands.

JOHN KING, CNN: Is that a fair criticism for Rick Davis to say the Obama campaign is playing the race card?

MCCAIN: It is. I'm sorry to say, that it is. It's legitimate and we don't, there's no place in this campaign for that. There's no place for it and we shouldn't be doing it.

KING: They say that's not the case.

MCCAIN: Okay, John.

[MCCAIN SHAKES KING'S HAND]

KING: I appreciate it.

MCCAIN: I'll let the American people judge.

[MCCAIN TURNS AND WALKS AWAY]

OLBERMANN: There's no place for it. But apparently there is a place for merging the celebrity attack with the false, no longer abandoned Landstuhl attack.

The McCain campaign today sending out a statement from a former doctor at Landstuhl that reads, quote, "Last week, Senator Obama skipped a visit with wounded U.S. troops in Germany because the Pentagon would not allow campaign staff or media to accompany him into the hospital. I served as director of trauma surgery at that hospital for nearly four years and saw the effect that a visit from a celebrity like Senator Obama could have on morale."

Even before it, Landstuhl turned out to be back on the table after the campaign had supposedly gotten rid of it. Senator Obama left wondering again what Senator McCain has in his platform besides attacks on him featuring pop stars.

OBAMA CLIP #1: Given the magnitude of our challenges when it comes to energy, and health care, and jobs, and our foreign policy, you'd think that we'd be having a serious debate. But, so far, all we've been hearing about is Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

[APPLAUSE]

OBAMA CLIP #2: I do have to ask my opponent, is that the best you can come up with?

[APPLAUSE]

OBAMA CLIP #3: Is that really what this election's about? Is that what is worthy of the American people?

OLBERMANN: And if we are addressing what is worthy of the American people, McCain surrogate/apologist, Senator Joe Lieberman, today saying anyone now complaining about that Paris Hilton/Britney Spears ad, quote, "should just relax and enjoy it."

SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D-CT): So the American people have an important choice to make in this election between Senator McCain and Senator Obama. I think the ads that Senator McCain is running are ads in that spirit. They simply compare the two candidates. When you talk about that, you know, to some extent, the appearance of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, people complain about it, I think they should just relax and enjoy it and be drawn, the idea is to draw people into the ad.

OLBERMANN: Anybody with any idea what Senator Lieberman means should immediately contact Senator Lieberman. Time now to call on our own Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT/MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: How did Obama, saying what he said three times yesterday and having actually said something even a little stronger for the first time in Florida towards the middle of June, how did that go from not being playing the race card as of last night, in the McCain campaign estimation, to being playing the race card today?

FINEMAN: Well, it's because the McCain campaign strategy has changed in the meantime. They've gone all negative all the time, all derisive ads, all Britney and Paris. And this is what they've been doing for the last several days, and Obama
walked into the propeller blades of the new McCain strategy.

I think the McCain people watched what happened in the primaries, saw that Obama was able to maneuver the race issue to his advantage, in many ways, in states like South Carolina, which totally flummoxed Bill Clinton. The McCain people decided they were not going to get in the same fix, and they decided to go on the attack as part of their new attack strategy to distract attention from whatever substantive issues Obama may be trying to raise in this campaign.

OLBERMANN: But also looking at the primaries and the Obama
experience in that, is there a tipping point here? I mean, Landstuhl, Britney Spears, and the race card in three days, does McCain have to stop this at some point because others have tried this against Obama and inevitably wound up painting themselves into a corner where they didn't just look, initially they looked bitter, and then they moved on to kind of obsessed looking?

FINEMAN: Well, obviously, McCain's problem is he doesn't want to end up looking like Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men" here. But he's got a problem. Most of the Republican conservative base doesn't like John McCain very much. The only route he has to getting their support and getting them to show up, it seems, at least this is their theory, is to demonize Obama, to draw out the Republican base to go to the polls specifically to vote against this demon Obama. That seems to be the McCain strategy. The risk for McCain is that he can lose whatever appeal he still has among independent voters. I just spent the day in Virginia, Keith, looking at that swing state. Obama's running strong in the Virginia suburbs, but McCain's got a shot there. But if McCain does this day after day after day, he's going to lose those independents in Northern Virginia.

OLBERMANN: And more to that point, I was amazed to hear McCain's answer to that woman at his rally, saying he was proud of that Britney Spears ad, and then his answer to John King about the use of the phrase "race card." Is this a correct impression that this is not a carefully crafted campaign strategy by somebody else, but this is John McCain's personal game plan, and this is John McCain right now?

FINEMAN: Well, I think it is John McCain right now because, I think, they're throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. This is John McCain in survival mode. It's not quite like the prison years, but he's a tough character in a tough spot, and he's going to use anything he can to survive. And they're getting some positive feedback, they think, from the polls, including the latest Gallup poll, which shows the race daily tracking tightening again. Of course, McCain isn't busting beyond 44 or 45 percent himself. But, at this point, he doesn't seem to care if he can drag Obama down to his level, which he's trying to do, trying to get Obama in an alley fight. That's exactly what McCain is trying to do.

OLBERMANN: Well, and to that point, has Obama handled this correctly politically? I mean, should the campaign really be claiming he was not referring to the Republicans noting the color of his skin? And I ask this because the first version of what he said three times yesterday, what he said on June 20th in the Florida fundraiser, the phrasing was very specific.

Let me quote this to you: "We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me, 'He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'"

Well, obviously, that was a reference to the color of his skin, and it was the only thing he did not repeat virtually word for word yesterday.

FINEMAN: Well, you can't take Robert Gibbs's statement at face value. You just can't. It doesn't make any sense, and I think it's tactically wrong because Obama is saying that Democrats need to be on guard. Obama is saying that the country needs to be on guard. Obama is saying that it's a challenge for the country to deal, both with the positives and the negatives of his candidacy. He's trying to be honest about it. He should have all of his advisors and spokespeople be honest, too.

OLBERMANN: Yeah. Howard Fineman of MSNBC and Newsweek. As always, Howard, great thanks.

FINEMAN: Thank you, Keith.

Brad Wilmouth
Brad Wilmouth is a contributing blogger to NewsBusters