Over the past few months, as John McCain has waged his relentless campaign of blatantly dishonest personal attacks against Barack Obama -- after McCain promised an "honorable campaign, one that is marked by respect" -- I haven't been able to shake the feeling of déjà vu.
A couple weeks ago, when McCain adopted Obama's message of change, and began insisting that he, not Obama, was the "real reformer," I felt it again, something strangely familiar.
But when I read the news that the McCain campaign had hired Tucker Eskew -- the Republican political hack who orchestrated a smear campaign against McCain's wife and daughter during the 2000 South Carolina primary -- it finally dawned on me: John McCain has adopted Gov. George W. Bush's South Carolina primary strategy.
Back in 2000, after McCain's surprising victory in the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush and Karl Rove did two things: They adopted John McCain's reform message, claiming the Bush, not McCain, was a "reformer with results." And they went negative, attacking John McCain's record and character through numerous surrogates. Many, in the McCain campaign, including McCain himself, blamed Eskew, Bush, and Rove for spreading stories about Cindy McCain's drug use, about their adopted daughter Bridget's birth, and about whether McCain's Vietnam captivity had left him unbalanced.
Reporting on Bush's southern strategy in 2000, Jake Tapper quoted "a senior McCain advisor" as saying "When the going gets tough for Governor Bush, he turns to the darker side of our party...They could care less how they get elected." Back then, McCain insisting on taking the high road, refusing to go negative on Bush and telling supporters that "I can look you in the eye and say I wanted to be president of the United States not in the worst way, but in the best way."
What a difference eight years makes.
Lately, McCain's "maverick" reputation has taken some hits. This probably has something to do with the fact that he's now reversed himself on almost every position upon which this reputation was built. But his adoption of the Bush-Rove South Carolina 2000 strategy should change all that, because who but a real maverick could actually go and hire the man who called his wife a junkie and his daughter a bastard? For a normal politician, such a move would be taken as evidence of how low he was willing to stoop to win an election. But for McCain, it will probably be seen as just another sign of his essential maverickitude.
It's one thing to embrace the politician -- George W. Bush -- who benefited from rumors that your wife is a drug-addict and your daughter is the illegitimate daughter of you and a prostitute. It's still another thing to actively seek the advice of the political consultant -- Karl Rove -- who devised the push-polling strategy for spreading those rumors. But it's something else to actually hire the guy -- Eskew -- who you yourself held responsible for the smears. That's impressive.
One of McCain's favorite sound-bites is that he "would rather lose an election than lose a war." That's admirable, if unfalsifiable. But it has become clear is that, given a choice between winning an election and retaining a shred of personal dignity, McCain has gone all in for the former. Whatever honor he may have displayed in the past when faced with slanderous attacks on his family, the John McCain of 2008 wants to win at all costs.
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