The McCain campaign crossed the line today from negative character attacks to the kind of character assassination that plays to the basest impulses and incites the most dangerous reaction. We've seen the prelude this week in the McCain crowds and in Sarah Palin's well-rehearsed, carefully telepromptered and increasingly ugly diatribes. But the intent became undeniable with the new McCain ad that falsely charges that "Obama worked with terrorist William Ayers when it was convenient"--which all but alleges that the candidate was there planting bombs.
McCain had to back off and almost apologize at an event in Minnesota when a questioner in his crowd alleged that Obama was "an Arab." McCain meekly had to explain, over the evident unrest of his supporters, that Obama wasn't dangerous.
But who was responsible for leaving people to think that he was dangerous in the first place? The McCain campaign grab-bag of tarnished tactics has trafficked in soft hate and hard fears about "the other." It has been said that everything in America ultimately comes back to race. But with Republican campaigns in trouble, starting with Barry Goldwater and continuing with Nixon's "southern strategy" in 1968, it really always does come back to race.
The McCain forces have taken this to a new low; there is no way to deny the deliberate, conscious attempt to portray Obama as unAmerican; not "one of us" as Pat Buchanan said tonight on "Hardball"; someone "who doesn't see America as we do," in the venomous patois of Palin.
In all decency, it is at least worth mentioning, even as we note that Obama is not an Arab or a Moslem, that there is something profoundly unAmerican about denigrating all Arabs or all Moslems as suspect or evil. Or, for that matter, something profoundly unAmerican about playing to the old prejudices that many assumed would prevent any African-American from ever becoming President in their lifetimes. The appeal to intolerance is amplified by commentators like Buchanan and William Kristol, who urge the McCain campaign to pound away at Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. They have a list of names they want McCain to flourish and a wave of innuendos they want McCain to raise. Joe McCarthy would recognize this; it's the smear technique that he virtually patented. To borrow a phrase from that period, a phrase that shattered his reign of intimidation, maybe we ought to ask the McCain forces, the candidate and his supporting commentariat, "Have you no sense of decency left at all?"
I don't think McCain does.
And in effect he is sending a message to voters that he has no chance at all of winning if the campaign is waged on great issues like the economy. So as things get more serious in a deeply troubled America, the McCain campaign gets more frivolous. The campaign manager, Rick Davis, says the financial crash is for CNBC to discuss every day, not for the candidates. Instead, we hear about Ayers, ACORN (conveniently, a "community organization" that helps poor, and in many cases, black families) --and, of course, Obama's middle name. How much of his vaunted courage would it take for McCain to publicly rebuke, on the spot, any supporter who rolls out the name "Hussein" as an epithet that connects Obama to you-know-who?
The reality is that in a country facing two wars and a mounting economic crisis, these desparate and despicable appeals aren't working. Obama's lead is mounting, nationally and in the battleground states. But there is a threat here too that is all too real. When I heard someone in a Palin crowd yell out "traitor" as the candidate lashed out at the Democratic nominee, I thought of the full-page ad that appeared in a Dallas newspaper on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. The headline--"Wanted for Treason"-- was sprawled across a poster-sized photo of President John F. Kennedy.
You don't put country first by running this kind of campaign.
Watch appearance on Hardball.