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The Outrage Campaign

10/16/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The McCain campaign has the political world transfixed on its parade of falsehoods and culture war attacks on Obama. But the overarching theme here is actually outrageousness. By flagrantly, repetitively lying and putting out anti-Obama ads that run 180 degrees counter to reality, the McCain campaign has exploded the etiquette of presidential campaigns. Or, to put it another way, it's violating what were considered immutable political laws -- and amounts to a giant and risky bet that those laws are no longer operative.

It used to be, campaigns had a message. In making their arguments they routinely stretched the truth, but there was usually some slender factual basis for their statements. They tried to get favorable coverage for themselves and generate unfavorable coverage for the opposition. Finally, if your guy were behind in the last 2 weeks of the campaign, you started lying and sliming with abandon -- and attacking the media.

Now McCain has skipped over all the other stuff and gone straight to the last-ditch, desperate phase. I doubt this will work, because it usually doesn't when employed in the last 2 weeks. But of course, by that time it's always too late. Now, maybe not. So who knows?

But there's one law that, seemingly, hasn't changed -- the law of the news cycle. When a campaign does something audacious and outrageous - no matter how objectionable, or for that matter, stupid -- it dominates the news cycle. The idea is, any news is good news. And with this kitchen sink approach, McCain dominates it on several levels beyond the usual attack-response-counterattack. It's not just McCain attacks Obama. There's also: McCain crosses line attacking Obama. McCain goes where even Rove wouldn't go! Is the media covering McCain well, or does it lack a spine? Obama responds lamely. Obama vows to do a better job responding. McCain attacks Obama even more outrageously/dishonestly/incoherently. And the cycle repeats.

But I doubt this can continue for another seven weeks, because of a couple of other iron laws of media. One, the news cycle always changes, especially in a close race. The media get bored, or impatient -- or maybe, in this case, disillusioned and outraged. Real news happens. The polls shift. A gaffe occurs. The other side "finds its voice." The "narrative" changes. If the race remains close, I don't see how McCain can, in effect, keep topping himself. And that's the final iron law: outrageousness gets old.

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