As the 2008 presidential campaign was drawing to a close anyone could see the candidates were getting down to the basics – all the variations on all the themes has been tried and what didn’t work was dropped. There wasn’t much talk any longer about Obama being just another Paris Hilton – an empty celebrity admired worldwide but for no good reason. Pointing to the other guy’s amazing popularity and inspiring rhetorical skills and his reassuring demeanor, and warning everyone about such things, turned out to be a bit of a bad idea. Many saw only the resentment of the guy saying, look, I’m not that popular, and my speeches aren’t that good, and I have a hard time being all cool, calm and collected – so that makes me the better guy for the job. It made no sense, and, after Paris Hilton herself mocked McCain with her own video spot – well, that was over. There was the business with saying Obama’s minister had said awful and stupid things about America and that might mean Obama agreed with him. That only prompted one of the best formal addresses in American history – tackling the whole issue of race in America, head on, with insight, intelligence and compassion. Oops – there was no more talk of Jeremiah Wright. Some say McCain decided to take the high road by instructing his campaign to drop the whole thing. Maybe so – or maybe he just didn’t want another amazing speech that helps us all understand each other better and assumes that we’re adults who can think through what is happening, what we value, and who we are. That one backfired.
And some issues just fizzled. Yes, just a few years ago Obama sat on the board of an educational foundation with a man who, when Obama was eight years old, had done terrible things – which meant Obama was pals with terrorists, somehow. All the polling showed that didn’t work that well – the financial system collapsed and the markets panicked and everyone saw the massive layoffs and saw their home or investments, or both, start to edge toward worthlessness. This business with the now quite harmless sixties terrorist suddenly seemed rather insignificant – and bringing it up again and again seemed petty and stupid, and actually irresponsible. Other issues were more pressing – harping on this was just unserious, as they say.
And there was the whole business with Joe the Plumber – Obama’s tax policy would only cut taxes for the ninety-five percent of us who earn less than a quarter million dollars a year, not for the five percent like Joe, or Joe when he eventually gets his plumbers license, pays the taxes he already kind of forgot to pay, saves up from what he can spare from his forty grand a year in salary and then buys his boss’s business, which isn’t for sale, and starts to make a net quarter million a year, which that particular business has never made. That bugs Joe – why should he pay higher taxes when he, hypothetically, becomes fabulously successful – why punish his now wholly conjectural hard work and his somewhat theoretical American success story? Obama says we should spread the wealth around – the idea of progressive taxation that Teddy Roosevelt established. So Obama becomes a socialist, a communist, a Marxist – or a tax-and-spend liberal, or something. This fired up the Republican base – Obama will raise your taxes. Joe said so, now Sarah and John say so. Everyone else is puzzled. How did tax cuts for most everyone become raising taxes for everyone? What’s with this new working class solidarity with the wealthy few, making sure that they don’t have to go back to paying into the kitty at a slightly higher rate, as before, as they are able to do that? What’s with that?
The idea seems to be that you shouldn’t vote for Obama because he’d pick on the kind of high-income folks you might be one day, even if getting there is the longest of long shots. It must have something to do with respecting your betters, and protecting them. Now McCain says Joe the Plumber is his hero, his inspiration, and there will be a place for Joe in the McCain administration. Hell, Joe could be the next Treasury Secretary. The current guy, Paulson, may have once run Goldman Sachs and know all that stuff about credit default swaps and bank collateral margins and the problems with highly leveraged collateralized debt obligations, but Joe is the common man with the right instincts, or something. Do you want an expert, or an angry maverick that will shake things up? But to be fair, McCain didn’t say which position Joe would assume in his administration. There’s always Secretary of State.
None of this makes much sense, and it may all be noise. John McCain’s argument that you should vote for him really seems to come down to the idea that, as he says, he’s fought for this country since he was seventeen, and he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, and he’s good at getting righteously angry about all sorts of things, so we all owe him – he did what he was supposed to do, and more, and he is the one who deserves the job. He earned it – he’s here to collect. And he wants to keep fighting on to victory in Iraq, even if no one can any longer define what victory would actually be there – but that would make up for not winning in Vietnam, which he said we could have won if we hadn’t flaked out. He is just so not over Vietnam. He is still fighting that war, which is somehow really this war, and this time we’ll win. It’s never too late.
You’ve seen this clip – the one where McCain addresses all of us as “my fellow prisoners.” That might not have been that much of a mistake. If we’re going to escape the same sort of defeat as in Vietnam, well, then we stay in Iraq, doing whatever it is we’re doing. Otherwise we all really are prisoners, or something. Or he’s still a prisoner there. It’s confusing.
The doctor from Boston sends an email:
As far as the media convincing the American public that the Vietnam War was hopeless, I was reminded of this quote from Walter Cronkite, broadcast in 1968:
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
I agree that when McCain said, “my fellow prisoners,” he did mean it on some deeper level. Perhaps this campaign has been something like relentless torture to him, where he perceives his opponent to be the one in control. And he just gets angrier and angrier about that. And all the while McCain’s been looking for that key to unlock the door and release him from this jail, and find that central message that so far he’s been unable to create and hold. McCain is still alone, tragically, in solitary confinement. Obama’s been free all along.
That’s probably a better analysis. Which war he is fighting, or whether it’s all one from Vietnam in 1968 to now, may be unimportant. You are seeing a man who has lost control to someone else – and of course Sarah Palin is another he cannot control, or so it seems now. The anger builds and builds. It is torture.
And that leads you to dark places. Josh Marshall understands:
I hope the result of the election can be a rebuke, a closing of the book on McCainism and the moral filth it has come to represent. I’m under no illusion that negative or even nasty campaigning will come to an end in the USA. I don’t think that’s realistic or even necessarily desirable. Hard-fought and brass-knuckle politics is something built into the fiber of American politics. It’s part and parcel of the intensity of belief and passion that many of us have for the issues at stake in our elections.
But McCain’s campaign has devolved into something altogether different … what with its increasingly open appeals to racial conflict and aggressive invocations of blood hatred of Arabs and Muslims. As The New Republic phrases it, McCain’s “subtle incitements of racial warfare and underhanded implications of foreign nativity.” Over the months we’ve become desensitized to the moral depravity of McCain’s campaign.
Those are strong words, but it all makes sense:
There is of course what appears to be a more conventional attack on economics and taxes. But “socialism” refers, if we can speak in shorthand, to state ownership of large portions of the economy. In other words, something like the Bush administration’s decision to have the government purchase a large amount of the financial services industry. But as John Judis notes, a closer look at the language and imargery McCain’s ‘socialism’ pitch reveals it’s actually “about whites paying their taxes so that lazy, indolent, unemployed blacks can live off them.”
But wait. There’s more:
McCarthyism has rightly become an American shorthand for smearing liberals and anyone else from the center leftward as political traitors. The McCain campaign’s current campaign of vilification of Rashid Khalidi is cut from a very similar cloth – the kind of rancid race-baiting that we sometimes see at the fringes of our politics but seldom quite so directly and formally from a national campaign, even going so far as to have McCain himself compare Khalidi to a neo-Nazi. Where McCainism is different is in its particular amalgam of racism and xenophobia specially suited to this historical moment, to this opponent and to Americans’ continuing fears of foreign threat from Muslims and Arabs seven years into the War on Terror.
We’ll always have a national dark side. But some signal needs to be sent, at least for a while, that this sort of filth, his character assassination and appeals to race hatred is not an effective life raft for desperate opportunists looking to save themselves by degrading this country. A McCain defeat would go some way to accomplishing that.
But then McCain did say we’re all prisoners.
Ronald Reagan’s key speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, oddly, makes the case for Obama:
He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief.
He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent – still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned – he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.
And he’s doing it again. McCain will have even more to get over.