Feature

Campaign ’08: So much for the high road

What happened to the idea of waging a clean, high-minded fight?

“Remember when John McCain and Barack Obama promised a kinder, gentler presidential race?” said Scott Helman in The Boston Globe. Going into this summer’s conventions, both candidates were pledging to stick to the issues and wage a clean, high-minded fight. “They even floated the quaint notion of traveling the country together to engage voters in a respectful competition of ideas.” Never mind. With Nov. 4 less than 50 days away and the race deadlocked, civility is out and negative campaigning is in. Both sides have taken their share of cheap shots, but it’s McCain, whose recent “dubious accusations against Obama” have helped vaporize Obama’s once commanding lead, who has “more often been the aggressor.”

That’s putting it mildly, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Some of the nonsense that McCain and his surrogates have been spouting is so blatantly false, it’s hard to believe they “think they can get away with this stuff.” Take McCain’s ad claiming that Obama once advocated sex education for kindergartners. In truth, he merely supported “developmentally appropriate education,” which for 6-year-olds means helping them to avoid molesters. Then there’s the Republican charge that by talking about “putting lipstick on a pig,” Obama had flung a sexist smear at Sarah Palin. But Obama wasn’t even talking about Palin. Rather, he was arguing that McCain’s newfound change mantra was just an attempt to gussy up the same old GOP.

The worst part, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, is that there’s a strong case against Obama on the merits. “He’s wrong about Iraq. He’s wrong about Iran. He’s wrong about offshore drilling. He wants to raise taxes.” But McCain obviously has concluded “that a fact-based case isn’t enough to prevail in November.” I find that deeply disappointing, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. McCain was once a true man of principle, willing to do the right thing on issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform even if it cost him votes. Now, it seems, he’ll “stop at nothing to win.”

Oh, please: The real reason liberals miss the “old McCain,” said Noemie Emery in The Weekly Standard, is that in the past, “his zingers were aimed at Republicans and social conservatives.” Now that McCain is taking on the liberals, he’s suddenly deemed to be somehow beyond the pale. The liberal mainstream press certainly has been thrown for a loop, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. They thought McCain was their buddy, but suddenly he’s making press bias an effective rallying cry and getting his message through without the media. The press was expecting “a harmless, nostalgic loser,” like Bob Dole in 1996. “The enduring scandal of the McCain campaign is that it wants to win.” 

And it just might, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, unless Obama “seizes back the initiative.” By allowing McCain to distract him with his “gutter-style attacks,” Obama has been thrown off stride. So what should he do? For starters, he should resist the temptation to answer mud with mud and keep the focus on the issues—starting, of course, with the rapidly deteriorating economy. But at the same time, he can’t get so lost in wonky policy details that he leaves the impression that he is somehow above it all. The fact is, Obama’s tax, health care, and regulatory plans really would benefit “the vast majority of Americans.” But at this point—thanks to pigs with lipstick and other distractions—“few Americans know what Obama is fighting for.” It’s time he showed them.

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