THE AUDACITY OF THE ANTI-McCAIN STRATEGY

Yesterday's widely shared anxiety about the Democratic convention speakers going soft on McCain -- compared to the Republicans who will "strip the bark off" Obama as they did John Kerry at their 2004 convention -- seems to have lifted this morning, especially after John Kerry's and Joe Biden's speeches.

But the strategy against McCain, let's be clear, is still limited, nuanced -- and will one day seem either brilliant or stupid. Where the Republicans went directly at Kerry's character, and will do the same with Obama, the Democrats have decided to accept McCain's character as a given -- "served this country honorably." Even Kerry, whose speech was the toughest and most specific critique of McCain, drew the line between "Senator McCain" -- still an honorable man -- and "candidate McCain."

Now, I can make a strong case that there's nothing honorable about John McCain, without challenging his military service or POW experience or getting into his personal life. I can make the case that he's opportunistic, corrupt, no kind of reformer, etc.

Plainly, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign have made the judgment, probably well-informed by polling, that McCain's wholly undeserved reputation for integrity, independence, and personal decency is so firmly established that it's not worth the effort and money to dismantle it.

That requires a very nuanced message, separating "Senator McCain" from the conservative Republican agenda that as candidate he has no choice but to accept as its candidate. If it works, it's briliant because it is the strategy that Greg Anrig has been urging for months: a full and unhesitating critique of conservatism as an ideology that has now been put to the test and failed absolutely. President Clinton's speech last night came straight from the Anrig playbook:

He still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years, a philosophy we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented.

But people still do vote on the basis of personal character, and that's not an unreasonable choice -- after all, we elect a president to deal with the problems and crises we don't know about as well as the ones we do. Letting the Republicans go after Obama in all the ways we know they will, while leaving McCain's persona unchallenged is a huge risk. It calls on voters to make a fairly nuanced distinction between the candidate and the agenda.

But there's another lesson in George W. Bush's 2004 victory over Kerry by demolishing Kerry's personal reputation: It left Kerry's agenda untouched. As Bush discovered from the day after his 2005 inauguration, he had no mandate for conservative policies such as Social Security privatization because he had not run on them.

But if it succeeds, it will have the effect of giving the next president exactly what George W. Bush didn't have: A mandate. The voters will have rejected not just McCain, but the entire economic and foreign-policy agenda of conservatism. And that's as important as winning the election, perhaps more important. (If McCain picks Mitt Romney, who is basically an automaton with the Republican platform loaded into him in Cobol, the campaign-against-conservatism will be even more likely to be effective.)

Seeing Harry Shearer around the convention is a reminder of the important insight that "there's a thin line between brilliant and stupid." Here's hoping the Democrats are on the right side of that line.

-- Mark Schmitt.