We've all heard the "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" meme. And largely that's true. Even if your opponents can't prove you did anything wrong, they can still nail you if you did anything wrong to hide your initial wrong-doing.
Similarly, it's usually not the scandal, but the struggle that gets people. That's what the "Swiftboat" stuff in the last post was all about. It wasn't necessarily that people believed that Kerry was somehow a traitor for what happened in Vietnam all those years ago. It's that his military record became tarnished with suspicion over it. And even worse, he got the taint of a struggling campaign; which can often be the worst thing you can get.
Conversely, the Bushies have shown us that you can get away with murder, just as long as you don't let them see you sweat. The best conman can sell water to a drowning man, while a nervous samaritan might not be able to give him a raft. People like confidence. People like winners. And nothing screams more that you're not winning than when you're struggling to fight off attacks.
McCain's Money Problem
And that's what I'm thinking will happen with McCain's FEC problem, unless he somehow can make it disappear, and now. It doesn't matter if he wins this battle and gets to screw the system he supposedly championed. It doesn't matter if voters have no clue what the scandal is really about because election laws are too complicated to be part of Jay Leno's monologue. Nor does it matter if his media admirers cover-up it up for him. The real problem is just that there is a scandal at all, and one that goes straight to the heart of the reformer myth he's trying to ride.
If he can make this go away pronto, it's the kind of thing that will continue to cause him a minor headache from liberal bloggers and other people who have a memory they're willing to use. But if this doesn't disappear immediately (and based upon Howard Dean's move so far on this, I don't think it will), then McCain is in for a big headache. Not because people will believe it (after all, you can't believe what you don't understand), but because they see him struggling with it. And the more he struggles, the worse he'll look.
And that's the thing: The only difference between a "smear" and something like this is whether or not the attack is fair. But the effect is the same. In politics, as in life, appearances are more important than realities. And the appearance of a struggling campaign is far worse than the whatever it is that's making them struggle. And again, as the Bushies have shown, you can weather any number of horrendous scandals unscathed as long as you keep your head and act like nothing's the matter. Of course, then you run into the problem of ignoring real problems; but that's a separate issue.
But in this case, I don't see how McCain can really do that. This really works against his biggest strength, and if he can't get his money situation resolved, he's totally screwed. So ignoring it isn't an option, he's screwed if he bites the bullet and accepts what the FEC is saying, and so he's stuck with this giant albatross hanging around his neck for quite awhile. And so it looks like McCain's campaign is going to be struggling with this one for awhile. I can't wait.