In a page right out of the Obama playbook, John McCain's campaign is responding directly and forcefully to a smear email campaign currently making the rounds. Betting against the conventional wisdom -- which, until this cycle, held that scurrilous rumors were not worth drawing attention to via a rebuttal -- the Republican nominee is disputing the charge that Sarah Palin supposedly banned a list of books when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
Introducing the comprehensive memo to reporters in an email that recalls the Obama camp's "Fight the Smears" missives, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers decried "the latest false smear spreading from liberal blogs to the mainstream press - that Governor Palin banned books as Mayor of Wasilla. This is categorically false. The fact is that as Mayor, Palin never asked anyone to ban a book and not one book was ever banned, period."
That is true, though not a comprehensive account of the matter. The librarian in question has admitted that she only ever heard from Palin in the abstract on the issue of whether books could be pulled from library stacks. After the librarian responded that she would oppose such a move, no further discussions were held with Palin. Certainly, there was no official list drawn up. However, in a fact the McCain email leaves out, Palin approached the librarian three times to ask about the possibility, which could legitimately appear to some as something of a pressure campaign (especially considering that Palin attempted to have the librarian removed afterward).
Still, the list of books supposedly banned under Palin's tenure is transparently fake. What's interesting, however, is the fact that the McCain campaign responded to this issue with the same force Obama has used to combat rumors about his religion or alleged support for "infanticide." Was there a sense in McCain's universe that the banned books trope was potentially similar in terms of its crippling ability?
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman noted that it's not terribly surprising that McCain would choose to fight this smear, since "book-banners have had a bad reputation in America for a long time," adding that he's never done polling on it because "it's pretty extreme." Still, Mellman can see why the McCain-Palin ticket would have additional cause to fight against this particular lie, since other legitimate knocks against Palin could combine to paint an anti-education picture in the minds of some swing voters. Palin has, for example, declared herself open to teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. "That's already a problem for them," Mellman said, "since creationism is a real issue. Americans are very religious, but they also believe science ought to be taught in public schools. This issue [of banned books] seems to be in a different category in addition to being false, but it's related."
But Republican strategist Alex Castellanos took a different view, suggesting that continued media scrutiny on even the legitimate facts of the Wasilla library episode could move moderate voters in Palin's direction. "I think if the media keeps attacking Palin for things like this, her favorable ratings will climb to over 80 percent like they did in Alaska," Castellanos told the Huffington Post. "A mom being concerned about what kind of books our kids read and asking rhetorical questions about what can legally be done to protect them? What's wrong with that? ... This kind of foolishness is making her a hero to more than the evangelical right. It will make her a hero to working class women."
Regardless of how the issue (and its attendant coverage) shakes out with hard-to-predict swing voters, it's clear that the McCain campaign isn't taking any chances with the false charge of banning a particular list of books. (The fake list can be viewed here.) One other aspect of the GOP's response is worth noting, as well. It took the McCain campaign the whole weekend to issue a response to the emerging smear after its first appearance late last week -- a lifetime in rapid response years. Beyond the question of the fake banned book list, the question of Palin's role in the Wasilla library scene was first raised by Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny in an August 31 email that has been widely distributed online. One explanation for the McCain camp's comparatively laggard pace of response is hinted at in their own research. Several articles cited by the McCain campaign in today's rebuttal email come from Wasilla's local newspaper, the Frontiersman. As the Huffington Post reported last week, GOP operatives lagged behind Democrats in requesting the paper's full archives for research.