I think I lost my lest shred of respect for John McCain last night, and ironically, it came during one of the few passages of his speech that I agreed with.
"If you find faults with our country, make it a better one," McCain said. "If you're disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed."
Fine sentiments, no doubt. But, ummmm .... didn't your running mate, and several other prominent Republicans, recently ridicule Barack Obama for doing just that?
You may recall that early in life, Obama took a job as a community organizer to help laid-off steelworkers. You may recall this because McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, mocked Obama for it, suggesting that the job had no responsibilities. Rudy Giuliani made fun of it as well. So much so, in fact, that "community organizer" has now been rendered a catch-phrase -- like "flip-flopper" and so many others -- meant to stand in for Democratic effeteness and eliteness.
Ordinarily, this would just be your garden-variety political hypocrisy. Like, for example, the duplicity of Palin's speech, in which she praised herself for having taken on the "big oil companies" (boooooo!) within moments of urging that they be allowed to drill wherever they wanted. After all, she said, "We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity, and produced by American workers." (Yaaaaaaaay!) You'll note the rhetorical sleight-of-hand there: When you want to critique the oil industry, you talk about "oil companies"; when you want to pander to the oil industry, though, you talk about oil workers.
But the attacks on Obama are more than just standard political BS. If Republicans believe in people trying to help each other out -- and they sure don't think government should take the lead -- why make fun of Obama on this basis at all? Why attack him on the basis of something their own nominee admits is a noble thing to do?
Part of the answer, of course, is that Palin's own credentials are questionable, so the Republicans have to deride Obama to bolster her own credibility. But more importantly, there's that Rovian strategy at work as well -- attacking your opponent's strengths, not just his weaknesses.
But I'm going to argue that the Rove strategy is far more damaging than most of us assume. And that it damages not just the candidates, but the rest of us too. I'm going to argue that attacking Obama for his strengths is un-American.
In the old days, you'd attack a rival for making a gaffe during a speech. But the GOP attacks Obama for NOT making gaffes. He's TOO GOOD a speaker, see. And thus the snide insinuations: Do we really want someone who talks well to be our president? Do we want a leader who attracts large crowds of foreigners, and who might inspire people? That's the sign of a cult!
Then there was the whole tire pressure thing: Early this summer, Obama noted that Americans could save fuel by making sure their tires were properly inflated, and suddenly GOP activists began mocking the notion.
Everyone -- from the folks at Triple-A on down -- recognizes that properly inflated tires improve fuel economy. If we were all checking this regularly, we could reduce domestic oil consumption by as much as 3 or 4 percent nationwide. And unlike offshore drilling, it would have an impact right now. What's more, this is something people can do themselves, without government's help.
In other words, you'd think that this was just the sort of self-reliant approach the GOP would embrace. John McCain himself noted that it was a good idea ... but as with his speech last night, he only did so after his lackies had ridiculed it. Which just means he gets to have it both ways, benefiting from the attacks and from seeming to rise above them. And of course it's the attacks that everyone will remember: People will remember how the GOP ridiculed Obama's idea for a lot longer than they'll recall how McCain endorsed it.
McCain's speech last night pledged to take good ideas from either party, but when his minions laugh at the most non-controversial idea imaginable, how can we believe him?
What we're seeing from the Republicans is The Sneer. No matter what Obama does -- make a good speech, make a modest suggestion -- the reflex response is to denigrate it. To mock the very presumption of speaking well, of trying to help the unemployed, of taking a small step to reduce the demand for oil. If Obama walked across water, Sarah Palin would deride him for having a Messiah complex.
And the effect of all that is to devalue the very things McCain claims to want -- a thoughtful politics, a caring community, individuals working to make America a bit stronger, more self-reliant.
If you attack a strength as if it were a weakness, you basically erase the difference between the two. You cheapen the political debate, and society as a whole -- even more than the run-of-the-mill negative attack does. Voters get the message that even the most modest step to improve fuel efficiency is just a big joke. Kids of all races get the message that if you really do learn to speak well for yourself, you'll be held up for ridicule. And people everywhere get the message that community organizing is a dishonorable career.
Conservatives like to say that ideas have consequences. So does campaign rhetoric. And Rove's tactic -- attacking your rival where he is strong -- has the consequence of making the country weak.
As Obama noted during the tire-pressure thing, "It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant." Which would be fine ... except they are making us dumb as well.
I get the politics here. The Republicans just don't have many weapons at their disposal. After the past 8 years, they can't run on their record, and the speeches made by McCain and Palin prove that they have only the haziest vision of the future. The Sneer -- that reflex assertion to mock not what is worst but what is best -- is all they have left.
But it's still a despicable, empty-headed way to run a campaign.
I used to have some regard for John McCain. His military service, and much of his career in politics, has been honorable. But he is running a dishonorable campaign, one that is cheapening the very values he claims to be fighting for.
If McCain wins, it won't be the end of the world: He probably will be better than Bush -- no great accomplishment -- and it seems likely that a Democratic Congress will be able to check his worst impulses. But I'll despair anyway. Because it means that these tactics will have worked. And at the very time we desperately need clarity of word and deed, a majority of Americans will have turned their backs on those virtues. They will have decided, again, that they prefer to indulge in the lazy, ironic smirk.