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Mitchell Bard Headshot

McCain's Smear Campaign Will Have an Impact Long After Election Day

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Talk about the "fierce urgency of now." While that phrase might have been been adopted by Barack Obama, it is equally suited -- albeit differently applied -- to describe the destructive campaign being undertaken by John McCain. Because McCain seems to be gunning to win the election, all future consequences be damned.

In the last few weeks, with McCain's poor handling of the financial crisis, poor debate performances, and cynical pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate torpedoing his chances of winning the presidency, McCain unleashed himself and his minions on a dirty and reckless path of attacking Obama with lies, distortions and smears. McCain and Palin both repeatedly invoke socialism when describing Obama's economic policies, even though you would be hard-pressed to find a reputable economist who would agree with that assertion, at least without lumping every president since Franklin Roosevelt into the socialism club. (And that doesn't even take into account the most socialism-reminiscent thing to happen in recent history, the bank and corporate bailouts that were supported by George W. Bush and the Republican leaders of Congress. Are they socialists too?)

Palin has raised the issue of patriotism, making references to "real Americans" and "pro-America areas of this great nation," as if disagreeing with her politics makes you less of an American. She also accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists" (we know the bogus Bill Ayers claim is one terrorist, but who are others?) and declared that Obama was "not a man who sees America as you and I do," a blatant attempt to make an African American candidate seem scary and "other."

Picking up the baton from Palin, one Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, said on Hardball last Friday: "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or Anti-America." (You can watch it for yourself here.) Yes, Bachmann actually played the socialism card, not seen in the United States in more than 55 years, since the witch hunt conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And Robin Hayes, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, said on Saturday that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." I have a question for Mr. Hayes: Barack Obama is a devout Christian who has worked his butt off to rise from a working-class, single-parent upbringing to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and then to forge a successful career as a community organizer, attorney, instructor at a top-ten law school, state senator and U.S. senator. And he is a liberal. Does that mean Obama hates himself?

Interestingly, both members of Congress later lied about making the remarks. Bachmann tried to rewrite history on Tuesday, and Hayes, according to Keith Olbermann on Tuesday, denied making the comment, but an audio recording subsequently emerged demonstrating that the quote was accurate. It was heartening to see Americans react with disdain to these instances of McCarthy-esque fear mongering. Both representatives have placed their re-elections in play, and people of both parties donated almost $1 million to Bachmann's opponent in the 72 hours that followed her call for a witch hunt in Congress.

I understand that the sleaze tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign and their disciples look like it will do nothing but harm to those involved. Most polls point to an Obama victory in November (fivethirtyeight.com, as of today, puts the chances of a McCain-Palin defeat at 93.5 percent). And the Rasmussen daily tracking poll (the most reliable daily tracking poll, according to fivethirtyeight.com) has shown movement to Obama in the last two days, bucking a slight trend in the other direction. The poll has been very stable for the last month, with Obama's numbers hovering between 50 percent and 52 percent and McCain's support remaining between 44 percent and 46 percent. In the last week or so, the numbers have crept a bit toward McCain, with Obama at the low end of his spectrum (50 percent) and McCain at the high-end of his range (46 percent). But in yesterday's poll, the first day that would fully account for Bachmann's and Hayes's statements and Colin Powell's endorsement, Obama's lead grew to 51 percent to 45 percent, and today it was up to 52 percent to 45 percent.

So, yes, maybe the smears won't work to win McCain and Palin the election. But with all of the media's focus on election day, what is getting lost in the process is that the country has to go on after the decision is rendered on November 4. Whichever candidate wins will have to address some of the biggest challenges our nation has ever faced: a failing economy, two troublesome wars, an energy crisis, and the potential ravages of global warming.

And that is why McCain's descent into the gutter is so dangerous. Because now that he has gone "all in" with a strategy focusing exclusively on smearing and lying about Obama, win or lose, he has created a dangerous situation for November 5, the day after the election, and the four years to follow.

There is a scene in Oliver Stone's W. in which the Bush family sits around watching the 1992 election returns, and Barbara Bush is incensed that America has elected Bill Clinton over her husband, since, to her, Clinton was clearly an inferior man. And that attitude was reflected in the way the Republicans gunned for Clinton's head for the next eight years, spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on bogus investigations that turned up virtually nothing of importance.

I am not asking for sympathy for Clinton. But the constant GOP attacks did limit his ability to address the needs of the country, as his every move was viewed through the prism of the investigations. It's amazing that Clinton was as effective as he was, and his presidency was as successful as it was, given the circumstances he was forced into by congressional Republicans. But it's hard to make an argument that the Henry Hydes of the world were practicing "country first." No, they were all about "Republicans first, country second."

Which takes us to 2008. And thanks to McCain's venomous campaign, the Republicans could be even more hostile to an Obama presidency. There is nothing about McCain's conduct that has been "country first."

Is McCain's mind so clouded with ambition for the presidency that he doesn't see that the dam of hate and potential violence he has opened will not suddenly stop on November 4? If Obama does win, does he believe that the Bachmanns and Hayeses of the world will suddenly say, "Oh well, we lost, let's get to work on a health care bill that helps Americans"? Or that the extreme hate-mongers in his party who come to his events and scream "kill him!" and "terrorist!" will, on November 5, suddenly say, "Oh well, Obama is our president now. I admit he's not a socialist terrorist who takes his marching orders from Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and the Iranian government"?

Of course not.

And it's not like McCain can put the hate genie back in the bottle after November 4 if he is able to stage an epic comeback and win. (It's not as unlikely as you might think, especially if you factor in the voter fraud that the GOP has already unleashed. Just ask, for example, the West Virginia early voters who had their computer monitors flip their Obama votes to McCain.) Only now, these hate-mongers would be validated, and McCain will step into office having divided the nation at a time when it needs to be unified to address severe problems.

It's all too late now. Not even the eloquent, stinging words of Powell on Meet the Press condemning the descent into the gutter of the McCain campaign can undo the damage that has already been done. McCain, in his tunnel-like view of the race, with its damn-the-future-win-today approach, has already released the poison of smear into the American atmosphere. It's out there, forcing us to revisit McCarthy-like lies about socialism and Civil War- and Civil Rights-era notions of "real" Americans and being "not like us."

Congratulations, Sen. McCain. Your "fierce urgency of now" has polluted our future. Try and live with that, no matter what Washington building you are working in come January.

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