The Pompano Beach McCain field office, like almost everything else in Florida, is housed in a strip mall. There's a guy waving a flag out front, but inside traffic is light. I've been hearing about empty McCain offices, sapped of enthusiasm, but this one has a few true believers left. "We're still high on the rally down in Miami last week," says one of the volunteer coordinators. "There were a lot of Hispanics there, and it was good to hear them sing the Star Spangled Banner." She's wearing a McCain memorabilia dog tag. Then she adds, "Oh, you know else was there? The Jewish. They turned out in droves."
Then Tim McClellan, the Northeast Broward Regional Field Manager, appears. Tim is a former businessman originally from Michigan. I'm here with Steve Elliott and Benjy Sarlin and we all agree that Tim is a nice guy, forthright and friendly, which you don't usually find in any political office during a campaign. He's also certifiably through the Looking Glass. After we ask a few questions about bread and butter Republican issues like terrorism, Tim quickly segues to crack pot conjecture that Obama is not a citizen.
"That's an internet rumor," I say. "Obama produced his birth certificate."
"But there's no seal on his birth certificate and the font is wrong."
This is the latest twist in the ongoing internet rumor, one being promoted not far away, at this very moment, by a lunatic fringe blogger named Pam Geller at a rally in Palm Beach. The worst thing that ever happened to the conspiratorial right is that they got it right once, with the Dan Rather documents. Now, they chase every rabbit down the hole.
Obama's birth certificate has been verified by the State of Hawaii and multiple news organizations. But that's not good enough by Tim. For him, the better source of fact is a lawsuit by Philip J. Berg, a longtime paranoiac gadfly who has also filed lawsuits demanding "the truth about 9/11." Berg has filed so many lawsuits, as it happens, that the very lawsuit Tim cites was thrown out as frivolous. Nevertheless, Tim says, he fully expects that "the US Supreme Court will prove that Obama's not a citizen."
Context will help understand why this is shocking. Tim is a paid McCain staffer questioning the citizenship of the Democratic presidential candidate. Such a thing would have never have happened in 2004. Bush's campaign, for all its faults, had discipline. First off, had you wandered into a Bush field office with a notebook someone would have taken you down with a flying tackle. And you certainly wouldn't have been able to quote the local honcho straying way off message. But what my encounter with Tim illuminates is even more troubling: he's not off message. With McCain swinging at shadows, like ACORN, Rashid Khalidi, and the liberal media that won't tell the truth, the entire republican apparatus has devolved into an insidious rumor mill. The sub rosa dirty work that once was the province of 527s is now the official line. Some time around six weeks ago, the party held hands, took a deep breath, and stepped off the cliff.
We visit several McCain visibilities nearby, and not one supporter is interested in the issues. They want to talk about "Obama's shady associations"; how his money was raised by the PLO; and the minorities who took down the economy via Fanny and Freddy. And not a single Florida Republican seems to sense the irony of complaining that Obama, who is seven points ahead nationally, will probably "steal the election."
Spending some time among the rank and file makes you realize that the last two weeks have not been about winning this election, but making the country ungovernable afterward. McCain himself infamously warned that the "fabric of Democracy" is threatened. If this true, it's backwards: democracy has been at least moderately damaged by McCain, one of whose own advisors recently acknowledged, after being unable to point to any actual instances of voter fraud, that the whole charge is a "perception" meant to "plant seeds of doubt." I guess the lesson McCain learned from the failure in Vietnam is scorched earth: if we can't have the country, no one can. Let's burn it down -- and poison the wells for good measure.
So far, this tactic seems to have backfired. Resurrecting the culture war and wrapping it in paranoid delusion has stripped the Republican party to its radioactive core. Any remaining moderates are gone. And when you lose not just David Brooks but David Frum, you officially sever all ties to reality. It is almost humorous to watch the remaining "intellectuals" on The Corner contort themselves into a rage in defense of Sarah Palin. If that's who they want as the standard bearer for the cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, and William F. Buckley, Jr., then the game really is over. This is why Colin Powell's earth-shattering endorsement of Obama was framed inside a detailed un-endorsement of today's Republican party. Remember Rove's "permanent Republican majority" of four years ago? Rove's own projection is that Obama will win 338 electoral votes. If he's right, the torch-wielding mob is about be turned back and into the countryside.