- Illustration: Frank Harris
- John McCain
I've never been one for political yard signs. For one thing, there's never been a major Presidential candidate I've been that excited about. And as a journalist, I prefer to spread my views by covering events that make Republicans look bad. Which has recently gotten much easier.
- Illustration: Frank Harris
- Barack Obama
But this past weekend, my wife brought home a Barack Obama yard sign, and I figured what the hell. Obama is about as good as it gets in our two-party system. And earlier that day, no less than Colin Powell, a former Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a ringing endorsement of Obama.
"He has both style and substance, he has met the standard of ... being an exceptional president," Powell said on Meet The Press. Republican John McCain's campaign, meanwhile, is "trying to connect [Obama] to some kind of terrorist feelings, and I think that's inappropriate," Powell said. "It's not what the American people are looking for."
Maybe, I thought as I planted the sign out front, Powell's remarks will help change the way we conduct campaigns. Maybe there will be a time when we can take pride in the American political process.
Or not. Our sign was stolen by nightfall.
That sort of thing happens in hotly contested campaigns -- on both sides. Some idiot smashed a window at a McCain office in Port Vue last week.
But as Obama has opened up a small but steady lead, the entire conservative movement is behaving childishly.
Take the response to Powell's endorsement. Within hours, Rush Limbaugh was suggesting that Powell endorsed Obama because they are both black. (No word on whether Limbaugh thinks Democrat Joe Lieberman supports McCain because both are white.)
"Powell says his endorsement is not about race," Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail published by the Web site Politico.com. "I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed."
Clearly Powell has no problem backing inexperienced white guys, or he wouldn't have served George W. Bush. But it's no surprise Limbaugh missed the point. After all, he once had to resign a gig on ESPN when he suggested Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb was overrated -- because the media and the NFL were "desirous that a black quarterback do well." Apparently, we have a higher standard for sports commentary than we do for discussing presidential elections.
And that's the problem.
Ordinarily, see, this would be the space where City Paper offers you the contrasting positions taken by Obama and McCain on key issues. We'd quote the non-partisan Tax Policy Center's assertion that "McCain's tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes [and] raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average. ... Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers." I'd note that at a time when families are hard-pressed to afford college for their kids, McCain is doing nothing to make school more affordable, while Obama offers tax credits, enhanced Pell Grant funding and other assistance. I'd cite the fact that McCain has the backing of groups like the National Rifle Association, while Obama has the backing of organizations like the Sierra Club.
But those facts are already just a click away on your mouse or remote control. If you're still undecided, it's not because you can't get the facts -- it's because you're not sure which ones matter. Most Americans pick their president the same way the current president decides his foreign policy: They go with their gut.
So let's boil things down to one issue: Republicans are trying to make you stupid.
Don't believe me? Consider the following statement made by Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, during the vice-presidential debate:
"I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."
So the Republican's idea of "talking straight" is ... dodging the questions. Which is exactly what Palin did all night. Asked about financial regulation, she talked about taxes. Asked about bankruptcy reform, she talked about energy. Asked about nuclear deterrence, she talked about Afghanistan.
The pundits say Palin did this because she isn't very knowledgeable. But obviously the GOP thinks you and I are even dumber, or they wouldn't have put her on the ballot.
Dodging questions, in fact, has been standard operating procedure for McCain. Voters wanted answers on the economy, and they got ... Obama's alleged connections to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers. Families wanted to know how they would insure their kids and they got ... "lipstick on a pig."
Prompted by Obama's use of an old cliché, the "lipstick on a pig" brouhaha may be the moment when presidential politics jumped the shark. For a few days, right-wing commentators could talk about nothing else but how Obama must have been referring to Palin. And they were, of course, horribly offended.
Here, for example, was the Sept. 10 response from Rose Tennent, who co-hosts a locally syndicated conservative talk show with Jim Quinn:
I was so offended by that. I was so appalled by that. ... [Y]ou're a chauvinist pig is what you are, Barack. ... I can't believe it.
It's worth noting that Tennent's co-host was sued in 1988 for sexual harassment. Before becoming a paleoconservative, Quinn had a popular morning-drive show on B-94. (He's also had a stint on a station owned by City Paper's parent company.) But he and a co-host began mocking news director Liz Randolph's sex life, joking on-air that she was promiscuous and had venereal diseases. Randolph had a breakdown, and in 1990, a jury awarded her $700,000. Even today, Quinn plays "The Bitch Is Back" when talking about Hillary Clinton. But "lipstick on a pig"? That goes too far.
Decrying others for "sexism," though, helps cover up your own sins. McCain himself has little to boast about: Earlier this year, he opposed legislation making it easier for women to file suit when they are the unwitting victims of pay discrimination. And when your tax plan continues eight years of helping the wealthy, it's important to accuse your opponent of "redistributing massive amounts of wealth."
McCain and Palin, sure enough, have begun referring to Obama's tax plans as "socialist." This doubtless makes Obama the first "socialist" in American history to receive the backing of a billionaire investor like Warren Buffett. Not to mention the nearly $20 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector (as tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics).
Still don't believe we're being played for suckers? Listen to the conservative intellectuals themselves.
Christopher Buckley, son of conservative pater familias William F. Buckley, endorsed Obama (and was promptly banned from the magazine his father founded, the National Review). The New York Times' David Brooks called Palin a "cancer on the Republican Party." Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, says "there is little sign [Palin] has the tools, the equipment, the knowledge or the philosophical grounding one hopes for ... in a holder of high office." George Will of the Washington Post has written that perhaps "because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, [McCain] is not suited to the presidency."
There's a bit of irony here. I mean, you'd almost never know that "boiling moralism" and excessive certitude have been the chief qualifications GOP office-seekers have been offering for decades. ("At least you know where he stands," is the Republican loyalist's constant refrain.) These conservative thinkers allied themselves with the religious right, content to let schools in Kansas teach creationism so long as they got a tax break to help pay for Junior's prep school. Now they're wondering where this Palin person came from.
Granted, it's not just Republicans who are susceptible to know-nothingism, or to fear-mongering on the basis of race or religion. "I can't tell you the number of committee people who will sit down over a beer and say, 'I'm not voting for a black guy.' It's that bad," a Democratic insider recently confessed to me.
What sets the GOP apart, though, is that it has an entire infrastructure to make sure its fear-mongering gets heard.
Take the Republican attacks on ACORN, a community group McCain recently charged could destroy "the fabric of democracy." You'd think it were planning terrorist attacks, or carrying out unauthorized wiretapping or something. In fact, its chief offense was turning in 1.3 million voter-registration forms.
The attacks on ACORN began months ago. Pundits like Pittsburgh's own Jerry Bowyer have accused ACORN of precipitating the financial crisis: Bowyer and others have charged ACORN with "pushing risky mortgages on home lenders," forcing lenders to give homes to people who couldn't afford them in support of a liberal conspiracy to ... to ... give people housing. Apparently, the most powerful financiers in the world were no match for a couple of protesters in the lobby.
Having decimated American capitalism, conservatives contend, scrappy ACORN organizers have now turned to undermining democracy. They did this, supposedly, by paying people to gather signatures for newly registered voters. Some of those signatures -- it's not yet clear how many -- were bogus.
The conservative apparatus cranked up. Palin mocked community organizing at the Republican convention, but soon everyone from McCain on down was warning of the ACORN menace. Pundits joined Bowyer in sounding the alarm, and Fox News mentioned ACORN 556 times in less than a week. According to liberal media watchdog Media Matters, that's more often than Fox mentioned Palin (541 times) -- and far more often than it mentioned her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden (67 times). Soon enough, Republicans were filing a slew of court challenges -- including a suit filed in Pennsylvania Oct. 17 -- insisting the election's integrity was at risk.
Never mind that imaginary people tend not to show up at the polls on Election Day. Never mind that although the Bush White House made "voter fraud" a priority several years ago, there have been fewer than 150 successful voter-fraud prosecutions nationwide -- out of millions of votes cast. This isn't really about purging voters who don't exist. It's about distracting the voters who do, and blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich. It's about trying to discredit an election before it has even happened. And it will give conservatives someone to resent, a resentment future candidates can pander to.
We're not even through 2008 yet, but the 2010 races are already looking ugly.
The McCain mystique was born in 2000. For a brief period, McCain challenged not just George W. Bush, but modern politics itself. His disarming candor, and his heroic endurance as a POW in the Vietnam War, attracted people from across the ideological spectrum.
One of them was David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, who wrote an inside account of McCain's campaign for Rolling Stone magazine.
For Wallace, McCain prompted a "very modern and American type of ambivalence," one that pitted a "deep need to believe" against the almost equally "deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit."
But as Wallace watched, McCain went off the rails. In the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, McCain was targeted by a series of smears -- that he fathered an illegitimate child, that he was a "Manchurian candidate" brainwashed by the Vietnamese -- that probably cost him the state, and may have cost him the party's nomination.
This year, McCain is the beneficiary of such rumors -- that his opponent is a secret Muslim, or a socialist trying to steal an election. In 2000, he was the victim of "robo-calls" that spread malicious lies. Now his own campaign uses them, broadcasting trumped-up warnings that "Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers."
It says something about the voters, of course, that Bush's attacks on McCain worked. We get the politicians we deserve, and the campaigns we insist on. Which is why it's somewhat unfair to blame McCain for using them.
It's also why it's so important that he lose.
If McCain were elected, some of his worst impulses -- like, say, bombing Iran -- would be reined in by a Democratic Congress. But a McCain victory will be a disaster anyway, because of what it will say about us. It will say that we faced global turmoil, environmental catastrophe and financial collapse ... and that we were swayed by fear-mongering, guilt-by-association and sexy-librarian glasses.
David Foster Wallace died this summer, an apparent suicide. John McCain has engaged in a more protracted act of self-destruction, shedding much of his candor and decency. It's natural to wonder: Did McCain and Wallace both succumb to the "deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit" this summer? Will the rest of us come to the same conclusion?
I wish Obama was the wild-eyed revolutionary McCain wants us to fear. Obama's largely centrist positions, at a desperate moment in history, worry me. So do those millions in contributions from the financial sector.
But what bothers me more is that Democrats are always denounced as a "socialist," or worse, no matter how tepid their proposals. And no matter how much of a "maverick" a Republican might be, he always seems obliged to use the same tactics in order to win. A McCain victory will show that American politics can no longer entertain solutions, but only new forms of divisiveness.
That's why after I finish writing this, I'm getting another lawn sign.