Originally published on PoliticsDaily 10/11/2008
Time will tell, but as I said on last night's Unusable Signal, I think that the spectacle of increasingly ugly and hostile McCain crowds is going to hurt the GOP nominee badly with independents. Fair or not, it raises the spectre of two Americas, and decent people want no part of McCain's Ugly States of America.
The fact that McCain has started to fight the fire he started is creditable, if not laudable. Creditable because, by tamping down the hostility, he risks disarming the only weapon he has left: Obama the Villain. Earlier this week, I shared with some close colleagues my sense that McCain was feeding this narrative more deeply than is evident.
The refusal to even look at Obama during the first debate, his snub of the Democratic nominee on the floor of the Senate, and his reference to "That one...", when placed in context with the campaign's actions this week, send a message: John McCain is the hero who has so much honor, he can't be cordial with his rival, nay, his enemy, our enemy.
McCain has embroiled his most impressionable supporters in a badly written episode of 24. When it looked as though one of them might actually go all Jack Bauer on Obama's terrorist-loving ass, he took a deep breath and walked it back. A little. If I were forced to write a story called "John McCain is Not a Murderer," you'd probably wonder what I wrote in those earlier stories.
So, how did we get here? It's been a looong week, like many this campaign, so let's start at the beginning. Sarah Palin lost the debate, at least to the extent that she could have helped McCain but didn't. With Mac's poll numbers slipping, and no foothold on the economy, panic set in. An already dirty campaign didn't just jump the shark, it shot the shark in the leg and made it talk.
It was a shift that the McCain campaign had signaled, acknowledging to reporters that if the election is decided on the issues, they will lose.
Then, the advertising barrage began with a pre-debunked-by-FactChek ad called "Dangerous."
Even the Associated Press noticed just how badly this new tactic had crossed the line, calling it a "racially tinged, unsubstantiated" attack. As the economy sank deeper into chaos, and the bad polling news continued, the Mac Machine kept up the sideshow.
That look you see on McCain's face at the end of the clip says it all. He raises the spectre of a terrorist-loving boogieman as his opponent, then seems visibly shocked when someone in the crowd makes the leap. Reports of other, similar outbursts began to surface.
Concurrent to this new line of attack was a series of McCain/Palin warm-up acts playing the"Hussein Game," with the campaign issuing just the one "attempt" to unring the bell that they kept ringing.
By Tuesday, reporters were beginning to notice something disturbing at McCain events, a more pervasive atmosphere than the random shouts during McCain's speeches. Several videos surfaced of supporters on their way in to McCain events, making clear that these were not the views of a few random cranks.
Once again, McCain was not helped by the debate, and the attacks increased. Another adconflating Obama with terrorism began to air, and more video of frothing McCainiacs made the rounds.
That brings us to yesterday, when McCain was forced, by what I hope was his own sense of decency, to defend Barack Obama against his own attacks. The mob reacted angrily.
Where does McCain go from here? Now that he knows that a significant number of his supporters aren't modulating his message, what responsibility does he bear? Conservative author Frank Schaeffer lays a heavy burden on McCain:
John McCain and Sarah Palin, you are playing with fire, and you know it. You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations. Change the atmosphere of your campaign. Talk about the issues at hand. Make your case. But stop stirring up the lunatic fringe of haters, or risk suffering the judgment of history and the loathing of the American people - forever. We will hold you responsible.
As I said yesterday, I am ready to credit McCain, even to applaud a politically courageous move, provided he takes that next step. He owes the people of this country, and Senator Obama, an apology, or at least an acknowledgment of his part in the mutation of his campaign into something hideous and unrecognizable to the good, decent people of the United States of America.