Maybe the Obama campaign should just fire all their fact checkers. Why vet your ads or even your resume when the McCain campaign keeps proving it doesn’t matter? Right now, the Straight Talk Express is hurtling down a highway of lies. If there are fact checkers hidden somewhere in the back of the bus, they’re like the old Maytag repairman with nothing to do.
It’s hard to single out just one lie. Perhaps the most notorious is the McCain ad that trashes Obama’s “one accomplishment” on education—a bill “to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners.” The nonpartisan Factcheck.org says the charge is “simply false.” But it’s not just McCain’s attacks that show disdain for the truth. The campaign’s claims about Sarah Palin are often whoppers. She did too travel to Ireland (for an airport refueling stop). And she went to the war zone in Iraq (or at least to the Iraqi border to see an Alaskan re-enlist). She’s a reformer who’s trying to suppress an ethics investigation and a foe of earmarks who’s a champion pork barreler. No falsehood is too egregious if it puts a bit of rouge on her pallid record. (I hope I’m spared more false outrage about “sexism” from McCain, who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. If Palin were a man, I’d say the campaign was trying to put a toupee on a bald expanse.)
For now, the Republicans appear to be getting away with it. Although the media increasingly report McCain’s reckless disregard of the truth, they remain loath to call a lie a lie. (If they did, they might be accused of liberal bias or be booed at Republican Conventions.) In any event, the McCain strategists are betting that voters, at least their potential voters, don’t care.
In campaigns and political advertising, facts are always supple things. So why don’t Democrats rush to meet McCain’s low standard? It’s not just virtue. Democratic candidates actually, even fervently, care about the press. When The New York Times, The Washington Post, the networks or Factcheck.org calls a Democratic presidential campaign about the accuracy of a TV spot or a speech, the staff races to deliver the proof. Democratic ad makers have to negotiate with fact checkers to get a spot on the air. By contrast, when McCain’s spinners are questioned about their phony ads, they just shrug or lose their tempers. “We’re running a campaign to win,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told Politico. “And we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.”
Democratic campaign culture is reinforced by Democratic policymaking, which tends to be nuanced (that dread word, suggestive of complex realities, which damaged John Kerry in 2004.) Obama does propose raising some taxes—on the very wealthy. McCain can take that one fact and make it into a mountain of falsehood. On the other hand, Republican positions tend to be hard-line and hard-edged like McCain’s. (Thus every four years they troop to New Hampshire to swear an oath against raising taxes—no matter the economic or fiscal conditions.) That makes it harder to lie about McCain, even if Obama wanted to. The best he can do, and he’s doing it now, is charge that McCain is lying about him.
McCain’s deceptions advance a strategy of campaign as camouflage. He’d rather talk about anything—including whether his ads are deceitful—than have to address the economy, health care, his misjudgments on the war, or all the other issues that were driving him down until that dog sled pulled up in Arizona.
Frum thinks McCain has found a path to the White House. I think McCain and Palin have peaked. The debates are coming—where their camouflage will be stripped away. Recession, McCain’s echo of the Bush-Cheney policies, his admitted ignorance of economics, his indifference to 47 million Americans without health insurance and his bellicose unilateralism will all come home to roost. Palin will remain interesting, but become increasingly irrelevant—unless she memorably reveals her vacuity. If Obama does his part—and he will—the voters will figure things out.
Obama’s victory won’t be a triumph of clean politics; it’s just that McCain doesn’t have enough mud to cover reality all the way to November 4. Afterwards, Palin can go back to hunting moose; maybe she can invite Dick Cheney along and teach him to shoot straight. And McCain—well, he can stand in a corner of the Senate with Joe Lieberman. And maybe he’ll wish he hadn’t lied quite so much. Because the way he’s headed, he’s going to lose more than an election.