Feature

McCain and Obama: Who’s playing dirtier?

Jumping into the recriminatory whirlwind of low-road politics.

“So much for St. John,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. With the presidential election suddenly only three months away, the once-honorable John McCain, the straight-talking reformer who pledged to run a “high-minded campaign” for the White House, has decided to take the low road. The latest of McCain’s “desperate” attacks on Barack Obama is a frankly “bizarre ad that flashes images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears” before cutting to footage of Obama in Germany. Bizarre? said Bob Herbert in The New York Times. Sadly, not. In the “nauseating tradition” of previous Republican candidates, McCain is trying to win this campaign by trashing his opponent as an un-American traitor who is suspiciously popular abroad. Now comes the ad featuring the “highly sexualized” white women Paris and Britney, which is designed to tap into age-old stereotypes about what uppity black men really want. We’ll know in November whether such vile tactics bear fruit, but in the meantime kindly “spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain.”

That’s a “tired and transparently ridiculous” allegation, said David Harsanyi in The Denver Post. The ad in question, titled “Celebrity,” was certainly negative, and arguably inept, but its clear intention was to “feed the perception that Obama is an untested lightweight,” not to imply that he lusts for Paris Hilton. The only race card was played by Obama himself, who told a crowd that the McCain campaign was trying “to make you scared of me,” to remind all voters that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” Obama’s campaign later backed away from this “despicable assertion,” said National Review in an editorial, but don’t be surprised if his strategists once again resort to allegations of racism. Should they do so, McCain must fight back “with brio and without remorse.”

Too much aggression could cost McCain the election, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. Before the “Celebrity” ad, his campaign released an ad “falsely accusing Obama of wanting to raise taxes on electricity,” and another that offered a shamelessly “phony account of why Obama decided not to visit wounded American soldiers in Europe.” By the bare-knuckle standards of past presidential races, this is all mild stuff, but for McCain these deceptive, down-and-dirty messages undermine his image as a straight-talking man of honor. McCain has gone “too negative, too early,” said The Dallas Morning News. He promised to wage an honorable campaign on the real issues. Come November, “inserting Britney Spears into presidential politics could prove to be famously misguided.”

But John McCain never promised us a “new kind of politics,” said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. Barack Obama has offered us little else, which is why his “hair-trigger resort to the charge of racism” last week was so bewildering. For many Americans it was a depressing throwback to the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, whose incessant cries of “Racism!” eventually doomed him to the political fringe. Obama’s race is only an asset in this campaign if it is “sold in a post-racial context,” to voters yearning not only for an end to bigotry but to “hyperactive, opportunistic charges of racism.” If Obama cries a racial foul every time he’s criticized, it would be an act of “self-destructiveness worthy of ... dare we say it, Britney Spears?”

Obama is making a big mistake, all right, said Jonathan Chait in the Los Angeles Times. And that’s “letting the race be entirely about him.” McCain has good reason to fear an election decided by the issues, since the public has wearied of Republican rule and views President Bush as a bumbling failure. While portraying himself as an independent man of honor, McCain has flip-flopped on nearly every critical issue, and now shares Bush’s positions on Iraq, oil drilling, abortion, and taxes. Not surprisingly, McCain is now trying to turn the campaign into a referendum on Obama—not on Bush, or McCain, or conservatism. And all Obama can do is complain about the “same old” politics? “Obama’s strategy seems predicated on convincing voters that they really, really like the inexperienced black guy with the foreign-sounding name.” He’s got a much better chance if he convinces them not to vote for the other guy—“the one who embraces the least popular president in modern history.”

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