Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Losing It

As the polls below indicate, the Republican ticket is in trouble. A lot of things can happen in four weeks — after all, it was four weeks ago that John McCain was leading in most polls after the Republican convention and the roll-out of Sarah Palin. But then reality stepped in in the form of the economic crisis, and the voters got a chance to see what kind of leader John McCain was in the face of a crisis. The result was something comparable to that little ditty, “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” After the faux-suspension of his campaign and then largely being marginalized by his own party, Sen. McCain flapped around and tried to take credit for the bailout, while at the same time the Republican National Committee was blaming its passage on Barack Obama… except it released the Obama-bashing ad the day before the first attempt to pass the $700B bill cratered in the House of Representatives. To top it off, Mr. McCain then went after Mr. Obama for not getting as twitterpated as he did about the crisis. According to him, that shows Mr. Obama didn’t take it seriously. What it really shows is that Mr. Obama knows you don’t put out a fire by yelling at it.

Now the McCain campaign admits that if they talk about the economy, they lose. So they don’t. They try to turn the page and find something else to talk about. And what’s easier than descending to the gutter and pulling out the fear card tinged with racial overtones? Not much, and as Gary Kamiya details in Salon.com, it’s an old tactic of the GOP, going back to Barry Goldwater.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was in deep trouble as he ran against Lyndon Johnson. At the height of the civil rights struggle, it was a tempting target for the conservatives to whip up fears about scary black people rioting and driving welfare Cadillacs, so that became the subtle message of the campaign: if you elect Lyndon Johnson, the blacks will take over. (I was twelve during the campaign of 1964 and I remember distinctly hearing a neighbor carry on about how the hordes of “coloreds” would come streaming over the Maumee River to live next door to us in our quiet little suburb.) Forty-four years later, the McCain campaign can’t be so overtly racist as some of the attempts by the right wing was in 1964 (and to Goldwater’s credit, he disavowed some of the worst attempts), but they can — and have — pulled out the dog whistles, including running an ad accusing a black man — Franklin Raines, the former head of Fannie Mae — as being the person who caused the entire melt-down of Wall Street, and portraying Mr. Raines as a menacing figure over a terrified little old white lady. Dog whistle? More like a screaming siren.

And then there’s the terrorist angle. As it’s been exhaustively reported in every form of media, Barack Obama lives in the same neighborhood as an aging former radical who is now a professor of education at the University of Chicago, William Ayers. And as it has been exhaustively pointed out, Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers relationship is casual at best. But that doesn’t mean anything to the McCain campaign or to their vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, who has spent the last three days crowing about the alleged connection between Mr. Obama and a “domestic terrorist.” Aside from the fact that this is demonstrably false, Ms. Palin either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that she’s got more connections to “domestic terrorists” than Barack Obama, in the form of her husband and his connection with the secessionist Alaska Independence Party. But as far as Ms. Palin is concerned, the truth is not as important as getting a reaction out of a crowd, and besides, what does reality have to do with anything?

All of this points to the harsh fact that John McCain and his campaign is losing it. Not just the election, but any scruples or principles that he demonstrated last spring when he disavowed negative campaigning, and with it any sense of honor that served him well when he ran in 2000 and suffered for it at the hands of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. The voters have seen what kind of leadership John McCain would use as president, both in terms of a crisis — the 3 AM phone call came from Wall Street, and he phoned it in — and in terms of how he would govern and deal with his opponents. For all his vaunted talk about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle, he has shown a remarkable amount of disrespect and fury for a fellow senator who has the temerity to challenge his privileged right to become the successor to the man who destroyed him and his campaign eight years ago. The voters have seen what kind of judgment he has in choosing his staff and advisers, and if the selection of Sarah Palin is any guide, it shows he puts political considerations above everything else. No one believes that Gov. Palin was the best choice out there as his running mate, and no one believes that Sen. McCain didn’t make the choice as a reaction to the choice that Sen. Obama made — or didn’t make — in choosing his running mate. Even a layman like me can tell you that running a campaign that is nothing but reactive to what your opponent is doing is a losing strategy.

There is still a chance that John McCain could pull it off. Stranger things have happened, and the one thing this election has shown is that nothing is certain. But unless the Dow Jones average goes up 5,000 points between now and November 4 and unless Osama bin Laden shaves off his beard and becomes a power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, chances are that John McCain will lose the election. And he will be the one who did it by losing it… and in more ways than just by not getting enough votes.