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Lipstick on Pigs and Other "Gotchas": Time to Get Serious

10/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just a week ago, I gave Sen. John McCain a lot of credit for teaching me the distinction between disagreement on issues and judgment versus personal attacks and challenging the motives of a political opponent.

Before the ink was dry on my column, Mr. McCain or his campaign - or both - engaged in the very kind of "gotcha" politics that he had promised to reject in this election.

I am talking, of course, about the Republican Party and the McCain campaign jumping all over Sen. Barack Obama when he said last week that Mr. McCain could talk about change all he wanted, but he couldn't change the fact that his policies stand for the status quo - just as "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig."

The accusation from the McCain campaign and Republican surrogates, who were rushed to the microphones within hours of Mr. Obama's comment, was that he had insulted Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mr. McCain's running mate.

It should be recalled that one of Mrs. Palin's famously delivered best lines referred to lipstick: "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!" In other words, according to the McCain campaign, because Mr. Obama used the word "lipstick," he must have been referring to Mrs. Palin.

Huh?

Mr. McCain certainly knew - and I am certain that he certainly knew - that Mr. Obama was not referring to Mrs. Palin when he used his line about lipstick on a pig. So did everyone else. After all, Mr. McCain himself had used that line when he described Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care plan, i.e., no matter how she dressed it up as a worthwhile program, it was akin to putting "lipstick on a pig." As I recall, no one accused him of disrespecting or mocking Mrs. Clinton because he had used the word "lipstick."

So why did Mr. McCain allow his party and his campaign to go down such a low road? I have three theories.

First, Mr. McCain allowed his attack dogs to decide to go after Mr. Obama - and it was too late to pull them back once they did. When Mr. Obama heard about some of his campaign's more aggressive partisans making critical reference to Mrs. Palin's pregnant daughter after the news broke, he immediately repudiated his own campaign aides and called that subject out of bounds. Yet Mr. McCain not only remained silent, but seemed to approve the tactic of trying to link Mr. Obama's remark to showing disrespect to Mrs. Palin.

Second, Mr. McCain may, in fact, have a duality that over time will emerge and cost him the election. On the one hand, he is the honorable, high-minded and bipartisan public official who believes in reaching across party lines to get things done and finds offensive attack-dog, "gotcha" politics - of which he was a victim in his 2000 presidential campaign against then-Gov. George W. Bush.

On the other hand, there is the John McCain we saw seeking the 2008 Republican nomination, willing to pander to the same religious right leaders whom he had called the "agents of intolerance" just a few years before. It is possible that this John McCain, who is willing to be untrue to his core decency, is resorting to a smear tactic to defeat Mr. Obama.

I have a third theory that seems most likely and also is a bit more balanced and fair to Mr. McCain. And that is, since he was the victim of a "gotcha" attack from the Obama campaign when they mocked him in TV ads for not being able to remember how many homes and condos he and his wife own, he decided it was fair game to strike back.

I was disappointed by those Obama ads. I thought they were inconsistent with Mr. Obama's message of a new politics based on issues and civility. The not-too-subtle cheap shots that Mr. McCain was somewhat addled in his old age was not within bounds, as far as I was concerned, and I worried they would invite retaliation. And I think they did.

Both campaigns must know that the American people are not dumb. They understand that it is possible for a husband to be forgetful about the number of homes that his wealthy wife owns without it reflecting badly on his ability to be president. They also understand that Mr. Obama used a familiar expression that had nothing to do with Mrs. Palin - and the McCain campaign shamefully misrepresented the truth when it chose to go after Mr. Obama on that non-issue.

No, the sad truth is - this stuff makes us all feel dirty. My message to both campaigns is, it's time to get serious.

The country is facing great challenges on the economy, energy independence, health care, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the war on terror.

There are too many problems to waste time on "gotcha" politics, with each side counterpunching the other on personal attacks and innuendo, while the American people are getting more and more fed up.

Let's forget about lipstick, pigs, home counts and cheap shots - and get on with the great debate that the American people want and deserve.

• Lanny Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and a political analyst for the Fox News Channel. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America" (Palgrave 2006). This article appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, September 15, 2008.