Titillating, content-free, exploitative: With his latest ad, falsely accusing Barack Obama of wanting to teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read, John McCain’s 2008 campaign has become political pornography.
It’s been clear for a while that McCain won’t run on any coherent vision of the future. For one thing, it seems to be a Democratic year; for another, McCain has yo-yo'd between conservatives and independents so furiously that he’s flip-flopped on at least 76 issues. But since senior adviser/puppetmaster Steve Schmidt came aboard in July, the McCain campaign has tried to turn that weakness into a strength by going tactical rather than strategic — by seeking simply to seize one day of headlines after another. Every time McCain attacks Obama for raising gas prices or blowing off American troops or perverting children, he’s just trying to win another news cycle. McCain’s ads are intentionally short-lived eruptions: They get viewers and the media all hot and bothered, and by the time anyone starts to wonder about their substance, an even more gonzo scene comes along. And after a while, they get addictive: Admit it, after Obama talked about putting lipstick on a pig, didn’t you find yourself wondering what kind of guerrilla ad McCain would throw together in response?
Same thing with McCain’s selection of a running mate: He didn’t know Sarah Palin or vet her, but he thought he might get a bounce in the polls out of her. And Palin has not only signed onto the program, she’s amped it up better than anyone could have expected. Whether she’s talking about the Bridge to Nowhere or earmarks or reforming Alaska politics, Palin’s stump speech is full of false statements. But she’s generating megawatts of attention, and she’s getting the GOP base fired up more than McCain ever could.
McCain and Schmidt know they can keep Obama off-balance by hurling objectively ridiculous charges at him: Democrats always take the bait and get unnecessarily defensive. They also know that the mainstream media’s fact-checking is usually useless. Sample quote, from today’s Washington Post: “As for exaggerations, Obama said yesterday that he had supported a measure in the Illinois Senate to double the number of charter schools in Chicago. In fact, he was one of 14 state senators co-sponsoring a non-controversial measure that passed unanimously.” Which means he, uh, supported it, right?
But there’s a difference between knowing you can get away with something and actually doing it. You might, in fact, call such restraint “honor,” a word McCain now refuses to define for the press. And if McCain didn’t already cross a new line in contemporary politics when he said Obama would rather lose a war than an election, surely he has now with his leering sex-education spot. Really, what compares to it? Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, which showed an atom bomb going off? Hardly — in 1964, Barry Goldwater had proposed giving NATO field commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons, so there was good reason for the issue of world war to be on the table. Willie Horton? Please — Michael Dukakis supported prisoner furloughs in Massachusetts, as that ad claimed, and, anyway, an independent group ran the spot, not George H.W. Bush.
The truth is, McCain is running an unprecedented experiment, severing his ads, his speeches and his platform — “Drill, Baby, Drill!” — from any correspondence to reality. No American presidential campaign manager has ever uttered the words Rick Davis used last week: “This election is not about the issues.”
Democrats will find this outrageous. Republicans will view it as comeuppance for liberals and the media. And independents? McCain just wants to keep them horned up on culture war one smear at a time, right through to November 5.