I don't know how long this can last, but John McCain is a conservative Republican who for many years was respected by most Democrats and independents. His Senate votes have usually been the so-called "conservative" position, but there have been some interesting exceptions (campaign finance, torture in the military, etc.). Eight years ago, we all watched as Senator McCain ran an admirable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The favorite of the GOP establishment was Texas Governor George W. Bush. McCain scored an early success, with a big win in the New Hampshire primary. Bush needed to win in South Carolina to reclaim the momentum, and his campaign figured out how to do it. The Bush campaign cut loose with a really savage smear campaign against McCain, among other things suggesting that McCain had fathered a black child outside his marriage. In racially conscious South Carolina, this worked like a charm. Bush won South Carolina, and soon afterward the McCain presidential run in 2000 was history.
I don't know whether or not McCain is much of a student of history in general, but he certainly learned something from his personal history, specifically his presidential campaign in 2000. DIRTY POLITICS WORKS! Well, that's the short answer. Another way to put it - without having to resort to value loaded words - is that in a political campaign, the candidate who is willing to do absolutely anything to win has a big advantage over a candidate who feels constrained by considerations such as maintaining one's dignity or public image. McCain kept his dignity and public image intact in 2000... and then lost out to an opponent who cared nothing about such quaint principles. What did McCain conclude from that experience? If he was ever to get another shot at the presidency, he would not be handicapped again by a personal sense of ethics.
The dilemma for Senator McCain entering the general election campaign: should he risk losing the support of the right wing Republican base by reinforcing his generally favorable image with independents and conservative Democrats? Or, conversely, should he reinforce the party faithful at the expense of alienating the centrists? Clearly, he has chosen the latter, which is the smarter choice. He would not have won over many of the centrists from Obama anyway, and he correctly calculated that getting a strong voter turnout from his party's base is the best way for him to win the election.
McCain's other problem: 2008 figures to be a bad year for Republicans in general. The president - fellow Republican Bush - is very unpopular, and most Americans are apprehensive about the economy. It seems nearly certain that the Democrats will strengthen their presently very narrow control in Congress. The Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, has only been on the national stage for a relatively short time, but he is a great public speaker and has an interesting personal biography. If McCain is to win the presidential election under these circumstances, he has to tear down his opponent. McCain may not be able to raise his own popularity in any significant way, but he can still get elected if he is successful in sharply reducing Obama's popularity.
Several weeks ago, when there was still at least some doubt about whether Senator Obama or Senator Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, Senator McCain publicly stated that he intended to run a high-minded general election campaign, focusing on just the real issues that the next president will have to address. I am in no position to say whether McCain sincerely meant what he said at that time, or if he was simply lying to keep the opposition off guard. At any rate, McCain soon enough remembered the lesson of his 2000 campaign. Always attack your opponent, and drag him down. If he responds in kind, accuse HIM of negative campaigning. If he doesn't, you then imply that he is a wimp for letting you get away with your trash talk. It does not matter if your charges are gross distortions or outright lies. The relatively few people who notice those things were not going to vote for you anyway.
McCain ran an ad attacking Obama's overseas trip (the one McCain had urged Obama to make), made some false statements about Obama and the troops, and snidely noted that Obama canceled a planned visit to wounded soldiers in Germany. The statement about the canceled visit was technically true, but it also strongly implied (which McCain knows is false) that the only reason for the cancellation was that Obama would only visit the troops if he could bring his campaign staff with cameras. Basically, McCain's ad was full of lies and distortions, and the strong implication (which McCain also knows is false) that Obama is unpatriotic. It has also been reported (I don't know for a fact that this is true, but I think it is likely) that IF Obama had made the visit to the troops in Germany, McCain had another ad prepared attacking Obama for making a troop visit an electioneering stunt.
McCain has also run an ad mocking Obama's popular celebrity status, showing images of Obama mixed with images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. My impression is that Ms. Hilton and Ms. Spears are both McCain supporters, and in any case there is absolutely no connection between Obama and either of them. I interpreted the ad as trying to show that Obama is all style and no substance. Some others have suggested a more sinister message: something having to do with juxtaposing a middle-aged black man with two young white sex symbols.
These ads are sleazy on a level that I never would have suspected of McCain, but at least in the short term, they seem to be working. Nobody is talking about substantive issues these days. It is all about the name-calling and innuendo. Obama is in the position of reacting to this trash, and the effect is to pull him down in the minds of many voters.
The Obama campaign should understand a few realities regarding John McCain.
- McCain knows from experience that his best chance to win - and he will do absolutely anything to maximize his chances of winning - is to attack Obama with everything possible, and all the time. For McCain, this can include lies, innuendo, and appealing to people's subconscious racial fears.
- Similarly, McCain has calculated that his own public image will not rise or fall very much, no matter what he does. However, his best chance of winning depends on tearing down Obama.
- John McCain regards Barack Obama with utter contempt. His condescending attitude toward Obama is a constant theme. Why else would McCain actually say that he is "proud of" his trashy ads? I think that the main reason for his attitude is his belief that Obama needs to pay his dues in the Senate for awhile longer before running for president, but the reason matters less than the fact.
It is possible that McCain will overstep his attacks, crossing a line that alienates even many of his supporters, but I think it is unlikely. His most offensive remark so far is that Obama would rather lose a war than an election. That comes pretty close to suggesting Obama is guilty of treason, and McCain has not had to pay a political price for that. Obama and his campaign must realize what kind of a person John McCain really is, and deal with it accordingly.