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Did McCain Just Walk Into a Trap?

So much for slow news days.

John Lewis’s comments about the McCain campaign “playing with fire” are likely to dominate the news cycle for the next 24-48 hours, including the morning panel shows.

The conventional wisdom holds that, whenever the discussion turns to race, this tends to be detrimental to Obama, who for the most part has been scrupulously trying to avoid invoking racial themes into the campaign, at least through official channels. The previous time an issue like this came up, it coincided with a period in which Obama’s lead in the polls was eroding.

This situation is liable to be a bit different, however.

Part of this is because Lewis is no ordinary surrogate. In fact, so far as I can tell, he is not really a surrogate at all, holding no official position with the Obama campaign. Moreover, Lewis is no Jesse Jackson, someone whom many Americans instinctively recoil from. On the contrary, Lewis is someone who McCain praised as one of the three wisest people in his life at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum.

But also, take a look at the trailing paragraph in McCain’s strongly-worded statement to the press today:

“I call on Senator Obama to immediately and personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments that are so clearly designed to shut down debate 24 days before the election. Our country must return to the important debate about the path forward for America.”

McCain is calling on Obama to repudiate Lewis’s comments — which of course is exactly what Obama should (and probably will) do. By calling on Obama to repudiate Lewis, however, McCain allows Obama to be the adult in the room. We have a pretty good idea of what Obama is liable to say:

“John Lewis is someone whom Senator McCain and I both admire greatly. But rhetoric like this is inappropriate and uncalled for, and I repudiate and reject his remarks. As Senator McCain says, this campaign should be about which candidate can best lead America forward in these difficult times, and there is simply no need to inject the racial politics of the past into a discussion about what is best for our country today. We look forward to a vigorous and civil discussion about these issues with Senator McCain over the final three weeks of the campaign.”

Where is John McCain left once Obama does this? Obama gets to have a minor Sista Souljah moment, and also gets to concede McCain’s argument that the campaign should be about the issues. So what happens the next time that the McCain campaign invokes Bill Ayers — or Jeremiah Wright? McCain is not living up to his campaign’s own standards — which Obama has “generously” agreed to.

UPDATE: In the time that I was preparing this post, Obama spokesman Bill Burton put out a statement to Ben Smith at Politico:

Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies.

But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for President of the United States ‘pals around with terrorists.’
As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Senator Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead.

I do not quite agree with Smith’s characterization that “Obama backs Lewis statement”, as there is a bit more nuance in here. But clearly Burton was ceding less ground than I would have expected/recommended. Keep in mind, however, that the Obama campaign very frequently pulls a good cop/bad cop routine between its press shop and the candidate himself. So I would not be surprised if Obama finds an opportunity to field a question about Lewis at a forthcoming presser, and is somewhat more magnanimous in his remarks.

UPDATE #2: I don’t know where people got the idea that *I* am disagreeing with Lewis. I am not — I think Lewis is mostly right, although I think the invocation of George Wallace is a bit much. The whole point of the “trap”, however, is that by ostensibly rejecting and repudiating Lewis — by holding him to a higher standard — Obama can in fact reject and repudiate the tactics of the McCain campaign, which is not living up to that standard.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.