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McCain’s Losing Strategy

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McCain’s Losing Strategy

John McCain’s politics have been shifting rightward for a few years now, but due to his lingering reputation as a “maverick” willing to buck party lines and thus appeal to independent voters, he remained the candidate Democrats feared most throughout this year’s Republican primary. During his bid for the presidency in 2000, McCain attacked rival George W. Bush’s sleazy Rovian attacks by declaring, “The political tactics of division and slander are not our values…Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance.” His denunciation of the swiftboating of fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry in 2004, the conviction with which he stood up to the Bush Administration on the issues of torture and the Iraq War, and the promise of a clean campaign made him very dangerous indeed.

Since then, however, McCain compromised on the torture bill, embraced the endorsements of those agents of intolerance he once condemned, employed the same tactics of division and slander he decried in 2000, and has blatantly pandered to the outer reaches of his party. Trying to appeal to the extreme right in an election when Barack Obama is perceived as an extreme liberal was an enormous mistake. Playing politics to win your party’s nomination is one thing, but he has only continued to move to the right during the general election. Rather than appeal to independents, undecided voters and Reagan Democrats, and then count on reluctant hard-right conservatives turning out on Election Day to vote against Obama (as they surely will), McCain has done the exact opposite, pushing independents toward Obama and thus neutralizing his biggest asset. It’s an opportunity completely and utterly squandered and, more than any other issue, one that has fundamentally damaged his chances in November.

It’s the McCain campaign’s inability to persuade or transcend the issues most important to Americans, including the economy and the wars in the Middle East, that’s got his poll numbers in a tailspin. (The Associated Press reported yesterday that at least half a million gallons of crude oil spilled into coastal Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Ike last month.) In a move of palpable desperation, the McCain camp has launched a new strategy of distraction this week, and paradoxically, distracting from the issues (namely, the economy and a stock market in continuing decline despite Congress’s bailout last week) is what McCain has thus far been unable to do successfully while simultaneously managing to further damage his campaign by even trying.

Smear tactics are nothing new to McCain ’08—the candidate himself has routinely questioned Obama’s patriotism—but on Saturday, the bottom of his ticket, Sarah Palin, dug to the bottom of the barrel by accusing Obama of palling around with terrorists (I don’t think even addressing the specifics is worth my salt, so to find out more about the Obama-Bill Ayers connection, check out Wiki’s entry). Palin repeated the accusation yesterday, a sure sign that it’s an approved campaign talking point—at least for her. Today, Palin continued her attempts at character assassination, digging up Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The woman is apparently stupider than we first thought, since she seems unaware of the video clips circulating the Internet and television news programs of her being blessed by a witch doctor in her hometown church. “There’s no place for that kind of campaigning, and the American people don’t want it,” McCain said in April, after condemning an anti-Obama ad that evoked Wright, but simple, old-fashioned political hypocrisy this is not: Palin’s comments are one of a string that point to a disconnect between McCain and his fellow “maverick,” not to mention the disconnect between McCain ’08 and McCain ’00, and even McCain and his own campaign.

McCain and Palin have now flung the door open on the Arizona senator’s involvement in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s. So far Obama and his surrogates have steered clear of mentioning the topic, at least directly, and have focused their attention on McCain’s policies and leadership. But that’s going to change. In an attempt to link McCain directly to the current crisis on Wall Street, a new website is being devoted to exposing McCain’s involvement in the Keating 5 scandal, with a 13-minute documentary of questionable quality titled Keating Economics: John McCain and the Making of a Financial Crisis that was no doubt ready to go for weeks. And by bringing up Ayers, the McCain campaign just gave them a green light.

By all accounts, McCain will go on the attack during tomorrow night’s presidential debate—he has no choice. But it will likely only further the public’s growing impression of McCain as an old crank. McCain’s temper is the stuff of legend on Capitol Hill, leaving many eagerly awaiting the moment when he’ll finally explode like a volcano; instead, his temperament (if not his temper) has bubbled to the surface with the slow, steady pace of magma. We’ve all seen it: In an apparent attempt to contain his anger, his face flushes with blood and his jaw contorts. In his memoir Faith of My Father, McCain admits that he even had a bad case of the terrible twos: he’d throw tantrums by holding his breath until he passed out. His infamous temperament was present and accounted for during a question-and-answer session with the editorial board of Iowa’s Des Moines Register a week ago, during which he joked about aspiring to be a dictator before continuing to brazenly contort Obama’s stance on sex education and snapping at a reporter who dared to question Palin’s qualifications:

Even “former general in the GOP” Mike Murphy, who is firmly on the side of McCain but whose ability to acknowledge his party’s mistakes is refreshing in the face of stubbornly partisan mouthpieces on both sides of the aisle, admitted that the interview presented “the wrong tone.” McCain practically oozes sarcasm, a trait that goes back to his days as a high school wrestler when his teammates called him “McNasty.” He indignantly took issue with another Register journalist who questioned the veracity of his claims and went on to answer a question about Palin’s experience handling a major crisis by citing instances in which she stood up to fellow Alaska Republicans.

Handling a crisis is, of course, paramount not just for Palin, but for the commander in chief. The McCain ideology, like that of the Bush administration, is based upon the expansion of the U.S. military to address nonmilitary problems. Diplomacy, which many experts believe is the best course of action in dealing with Iran, North Korea, Russia and others (to say nothing of the fact that, with our military stretched thin, it might be our only course of action in the next few years), requires a calm, cool and collected head. Imagine if Barack Obama had joked about being a dictator or tossed barbs as willingly and erratically as McCain—this election would be over. Then again, with McCain’s campaign strategy so fundamentally, perhaps fatally, flawed, it probably already is.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.