The Real McCain

I hate to keep doing this, because I think it’s unfair to Barack Obama, but I can’t help it. I keep seeing, in this campaign, shades of the 1992 Bush/Quayle-Clinton/Gore matchup.

In the last month of the ’92 campaign, with a sluggish economy controlling the debate, the Republican candidate was falling behind in the polls. George H.W. Bush, aghast at the prospect of being forever branded “one-term president,” began leaking bile. Behind in the polls, Mr. Bush was advised to “go negative” and try to tear down his rivals. To his misfortune, Mr. Bush’s master of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, had died of a brain tumor the year before, after apologizing to the many people he’d smeared in his career.

Absent the coaching of a professional mudslinger, Mr. Bush was reduced to referring to Bill Clinton and Al Gore as “bozo and the ozone man.” He sounded weak and hapless and Clinton/Gore won with 100 electoral votes to spare.

Now it’s John McCain’s turn to sound like an angry, impotent old man as he watches Mr. Obama and Joe Biden widen a lead in the polls. Americans today wish we could describe our economy as “sluggish,” rather than “catastrophic.” Senior citizens, who should be part of Mr. McCain’s base, are watching their IRA/401k nest eggs disappear overnight. So much for getting Florida in the GOP column.

I’ll say this for the elder Mr. Bush: at his worst, his bilious name-calling never fell to the despicable level we’ve heard at McCain/Palin rallies in the past week. Accusations of treason, terrorism, veiled race baiting and now the veil has begun to slip as Mr. McCain’s supporters begin to call for lynching.

This is ugly stuff, unworthy of any American, much less a senator and a governor. While we can’t hold the candidates accountable for everything that gets shouted from the crowd at their rallies, the silence from the campaign in response to those shouts has been terrible to behold.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Last year, when it was expected Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, a stupid old lady asked John McCain to his face, “How do we beat the bitch?” His response was a snicker rather than a remonstrance for what was clearly and out of line comment. He then called it an “excellent question” and addressed his chances of beating Sen. Clinton.

In his autobiography, Mr. McCain portrays himself as a selfish and shallow youth who learned the meaning of duty an honor during five and a half years in a prisoner-of-war camp.

In the 1980s, now a U.S. senator, Mr. McCain abused the power of his office to aid a corrupt savings-and-loan operator who showered the McCain family with gifts, contributions and get-rich(er)-quick investment deals. Reprimanded by the Senate, Mr. McCain professed to have learned his lesson and had become a better man.

In the 2000 Republican primary, Mr. McCain was subjected to Lee Atwater-style gutter politics, at the hands of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. Trying to stay alive in South Carolina, he endorsed the flying of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds. Later, he said he regretted that position. He said he’d learned a lesson and was now a better man.

That was then, this is now. Mr. McCain hired one of Karl Rove’s acolytes – Steve Schmidt – to run his campaign. Immediately after Mr. Schmidt came aboard, things began to get nasty and have gotten nastier with each passing week. Mr. McCain, to what little credit can be accorded him, at least seems to wince as he delivers his venom. Sarah Palin, the self-described “pit bull,” winks when she does it.

Barack Obama, for his part, is doing his best to ignore this. The general campaign seems not only like the ’92 contest, but eerily like this year’s Democratic primary, when he slowly pulled away from Ms. Clinton, as she (and the former president) sank to depths unworthy of them.

Soon this will be over and two of the three senators (Ms. Clinton and one other) will have to walk back into their chamber and begin their post-campaign careers. I hope the losing senators will have learned something from the experience. I hope they will become better people. I wish I could believe it.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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