Strange. On the same day that a new poll showed McCain's negative campaign is damaging his chances, he used the final debate to go even more negative. And McCain and Palin are both going deeper into black-helicopter territory, with talk of "terrorists" and a scary organization they say is going to steal the election.
An observer could be forgiven for thinking that they're not even trying to win anymore -- that they have another agenda in mind. Let's hope that interpretation's wrong. The politics of destruction has already hurt the country enough.
The television pundits initially thought McCain did well last night, but polls confirmed that most Americans knew better: The number of Americans who thought Obama won jumped to 53% in the CBS poll, up from 38% and 40% in the first two debates.
Sure, McCain was livelier , and he didn't wander aimlessly around the stage. Apparently commentators confused his improved vital signs for a more effective performance, but here's what really happened: McCain had already convinced most Americans he's not capable of fixing the economy, but last night he convinced them that... they don't like him, either. Whaddya expect? They told him through the polls that they don't like the meanness -- and in response he got meaner.
The question is: Why? Why would a faltering campaign double-up on a losing strategy? Sure, there's always the possibility that McCain can't help himself, that he's so full of anger and bitterness that he can't control himself. Or there's the possibility is that the Palinites have taken over the campaign, forcing McCain to do their bidding. ("Lassie, go tell Mom and Dad! The bad people have taken Grandpa!")
But there's a simpler explanation for all the wacky conspiracy theories and incitements to right-wing rage: This could be a long term "destabilization" strategy. They expect to lose. So they'd rather lose by an even larger margin, but in a way that encourages their base to question the legitimacy of Obama's administration. McCain's behavior actually makes sense in that light - if their goal isn't to win, but to lay the groundwork for noncooperation (if not active resistance) to the Federal government.
That's not an opposition-party strategy. It's political Posse Comitatus.
Before you decide they'd never be that extreme, remember: That's pretty much what they did during the Clinton years -- with the murder theories, false conspiracy stories, and deeds like Newt Gingrich shutting down the government. It was a watered-down version of the destabilization campaigns the U.S. has used against unfriendly foreign governments for decades.
A real destabilization strategy needs people who will hold demonstrations and perform other acts of protest (which aren't always peaceful). It doesn't take very many. The women banging pots and pans in Chile were few in number, but their psychological impact was great. What was important was that they were angry.
Think about it: When given yet another chance to condemn people at Palin rallies for shouting "terrorist" and "kill him," McCain refused. He danced around the question by saying you'll "always have fringe people" who say things that "aren't appropriate." But he insisted "I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies." He didn't say "that kind of talk is out of line," and - pointedly -- Sarah Palin's never said it either.
So here's the pattern: Paint Obama as an extremist, a terrorist plant. Stir up hatred. Lay the groundwork for arguing that the election was stolen, even if you're veering into conspiracy talk. You're firing up the same crowd that thinks George Bush Sr. and the Trilateral Commission created a secret world dictatorship enforced by UN agents in a fleet of black helicopters.
McCain addressed that crowd in a couple of other ways, too. He used coded language for the far right home schooling lobby, for example, when he said school choice is "the civil rights issue of the 21st Century." And then there's this unforgettable line:
There are good people on both sides of the school choice and reproductive rights issues, but when you use an activist catch-phrase ("schooling as THE civil rights issue") and mock women's health, you're simply playing to the extremists in your base.
That's the extreme pro-abortion position: "Health."
If the goal really is to stir up resistance, the anti-Clinton harrassment of the 1990's will seem tame in comparison to what's coming. But it could backfire, too. The GOP's Achilles heel (that means "weakness," Gov. Palin) is its tendency to keep using once-successful strategies long after their sell-by date. Americans could easily become infuriated if they come to believe one party is sabotaging the other at the expense of the public's well-being.
That may be why so many responsible conservatives like George F. Will (and less responsible ones, too) are condemning this campaign. Conservatism was a fringe ideology for decades, until William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater restored its respectability. An extremist "guerrilla resistance GOP" could set the conservative cause back for decades.
Obama isn't President yet, and Democrats would be foolish to be too sanguine about the outcome. And God knows I hope this interpretation of the GOP's strategy is wrong. We need to restore a responsible public debate and put an end to the destructiveness of the last 15 years. If Obama is elected and Republicans opt for a "destabilization" strategy, everybody will lose.
(UPDATE: John Amato reports that Rush Limbaugh's becoming even loopier, talking of black people with a "30 year plan" to turn their children into militants. Rush then links this conspiracy to Rev. Wright, ACORN, and terrorism. It's all of a piece with the new trend of turning right-wing politics into a war game. It's conservatism as extremist fantasy.)
(UPDATE II: GOP robocalls are now saying the following: " ...Congressional Democrats now want to give civil rights to terrorists... You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington." And the beat goes on.)
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at: