McCain: Same As He Ever Was

10/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On a recent trip to Europe, I was asked several times how John McCain could get away with lying repeatedly about facts that were easily verifiable. Each time, I was stumped, realizing that the moral corruption that has settled on the McCain campaign appears invisible to about half the American voters, and I do not know why.

What Europe thinks about US presidents doesn't matter much: Europeans are hardly immune to voting for ethically challenged, corrupt, war-mongering extremists themselves, and have no lessons to give on the subject. What is fascinating, though, is that there is a broad understanding in Europe that politicians will lie about contestable numbers, as they do everywhere; a born-again Paul Krugman said it best about George W. Bush: "you needed some grasp of arithmetic to realize that you were being conned." There is also agreement that they will lie when confronted with evidence of actual corruption (the financial kind), if only to avoid jail. Of course, Europeans understand why Americans lie about sex, and Bill Clinton was only made more popular there because of his complicated sex life, in a wink-wink nod-nod kind of way.

But to simply say something did not happen or was not said when there are dozens, sometimes millions of witnesses to the contrary, seems bizarre and returning to the US in the present state of the campaign is truly entering a twilight zone. McCain and Sarah Palin appear to be successfully reinventing the art of campaign lies. Even more extraordinarily, they are doing so themselves, not using surrogates. Comparisons to the Bush vs McCain 2000 South Carolina primary sleaze are inaccurate in that sense: the rumors about McCain fathering a black child were done anonymously, at least in the beginning, not by the Bush campaign (even though the latter surely had a hand in it). The same for the 2004 general election Swift Boat smear against John Kerry: it was at least cosmetically launched by an independent group.

Now, though, we have McCain himself advertising the most blatant lie about Obama's work on the prevention of sexual abuse of young children. McCain, a father himself, is sexualizing children as young as five for the purposes of a campaign ad, with absolutely no consequence. Similarly, although not quite as disgustingly, we have Palin repeating like the Stepford vice presidential candidate she is that she said "no, thanks" blah blah to the bridge to nowhere.

When called out about their lie, both McCain and Palin deflect the questions by repeating the same answer, then saying they are not lying, then saying that Obama is a bad person toO, and the interview is over. Their campaigns are even more grotesque in their responses, a typical one being: " everything that we've been saying we provide detailed backup for - everything." This latter quote, from the New York Times, goes basically unchallenged by the writer, which is fairly typical for such stories, perhaps in a terribly misguided effort to be "balanced" (it is no coincidence that the word in a political context is immediately reminiscent of Fox News.)

It should be eye-opening that in the middle of one of the sleaziest campaign weeks in memory, McCain confirms that he is "the same person as [he] always was." We take this to mean that he was always the sinister, perverted, out-of-touch politician he is now. Many were fooled in the past, but why are they fooled now? Or is it that they are not so much fooled, as they are willing to overlook McCain's sordidness because they have such fear of an Obama presidency? And if so, why? There is nothing in McCain's past to indicate that working Americans, women in particular, would not be far worse off under a McCain presidency than even under Bush.

Or has abortion so distorted American politics (as The Economist recently noted) that nothing else matters to a decisive group of poor to middle class, mostly white American men and women? Or do voters really think that the country is better off with a president who is "like them?" And if so, how do McCain or Bush, with their patrician, wealthy, entitled backgrounds have anything to do with the average American, besides, perhaps, their average intelligence? Both men underperformed in college, but unlike 99% of Americans, they attended super-elite schools on the strength of legacies and it did not matter how they performed academically: plenty of opportunities would come their way regardless.

Now, in an effort to further fetishize academic underperformance and complete lack of curiosity, we are introduced to Palin. She too is presented as someone "like us." At least in this case, the qualifier is closer to the mark, but who the hell wants someone "like them" anywhere close to the White House? Would it not be better to have someone more accomplished, perhaps smarter and harder working than we are, like, say, Bill Clinton or Obama, who have succeeded against all odds and whose backgrounds are far closer to most Americans' than the dynastic McCain and Bush?

Of course, it is impossible to ignore the fact that race must be playing a role in many places, not least in the swing states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In the latter, for instance, half of Hillary Clinton's significant primary winning margin was made up of voters who openly said that the candidate's race was "important" to them in their decision. And that was a Democratic primary.

At some point it becomes hard to blame the traditional media for its improper coverage. Clearly, the McCain/Palin lies have not gone unnoticed, although they are still timidly challenged considering the scope of the deception. And yet, there is barely a blip in polls that still show the two candidates tied nationally. In the more important state polls, the movement is all over the place: to be blunt, the more educated swing states (Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Oregon, for instance) are moving towards Obama or staying close; others (Ohio, Florida) are going the opposite way. There is still far more opportunity for Obama than there is for McCain in the electoral college map, but what a challenge it must be for the Democrat to try to get into the head of voters whose mind can actually be changed by the kind of toxic dribble emanating from McCain, Palin and their surrogates.