Posted on Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Something unusual happened during the run-up to the Democratic
convention: A presidential candidate was subjected to a highly
prejudicial, not particularly honest personal attack, and for once the
victim was a Republican. Interestingly, the political press jumped on
it, happily trashing John Mc-Cain for two clueless remarks he never
actually made. Are Democrats finally learning to fight dirty? Should the
rest of us feel good about it? Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is running
TV commercials mocking Barack Obama for not asking Hillary Clinton to be
his running mate—a job she surely didn’t want. Because Republicans, of
course, admire Hillary so. They’ve even found a Clinton delegate from
Wisconsin to make a pro-McCain commercial, because.... Well, because
why? Anybody calling themselves a Democrat who doesn’t understand how
important it is for both parties, not to mention the nation, that
Republicans pay the price for the catastrophic presidency of George W.
Bush needs to turn in his party ID and magic decoder ring and find
another hobby, something solitary and quiet, such as gardening or
compiling a variorum edition of the “Pride and Prejudice” columns of
See, it’s not simply his trademark arrogance and incompetence that have
earned Bush the lowest approval ratings of any president since political
polling began. It’s not merely the interminable morass in Iraq,
worsening conditions in Afghanistan, manufactured “intelligence,” a
legacy of torture, of epic corruption and cronyism, of one massive
financial scandal after another, of runaway budget deficits and economic
Yes, it was foolish and self-deluded of Republicans to imagine somebody
of Bush’s limited abilities capable of handling the presidency. But the
failure’s more than personal. So-called conservative ideology has lost
contact with reality. The GOP has become the party of illusion,
incapable of seeing the world as it is, infuriated by anybody who does.
Contemporary Republicanism isn’t a governing philosophy so much as a
rationalized series of talking points useful in winning elections since
the Reagan presidency. Always of limited usefulness with respect to the
visible world—as Ronald Reagan himself, who knew a script when he saw
one, sometimes realized—GOP dogma has grown downright dangerous.
But back to Democratic dirty tricks. Everywhere you looked, from The
Washington Post to Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC News program, you saw McCain
pilloried for two classic “gaffes.” As the Post put it, the GOP
candidate’s “inability to recall” how many houses he and his wife own
jeopardized his strategy of framing Obama as an “elitist.” Campaigning
in Wisconsin, the Democratic nominee lampooned McCain’s forgetfulness,
also mocking him for defining as “rich” only somebody with an income
exceeding $ 5 million a year.
The point was clear: The famous “straight-talking maverick” is basically
a gigolo (to use a word Republicans used to describe John Kerry in 2004
) whose much younger second wife inherited more money than the Bush
family and Scrooge McDuck combined. For Obama, it was a twofer, also
hinting that the 71-year-old McCain’s memory might be fading.
Alas, neither of these things ever happened. Asked how many homes he
owned, McCain advised the reporter to check with his staff. He didn’t
sound unable to recall, merely unwilling.
It’s much the same with the $5 million thing. Asked to define “rich” by
Pastor Rick Warren, McCain jokingly ducked the question.
“If you’re just talking about income,” he said, “how about $ 5 million?”
He laughed, Warren laughed, the audience laughed.
“But seriously... and I’m sure that comment will be distorted,” McCain
continued. “But the point is that we want to keep people’s taxes low and
Indeed, the comment was distorted, even in supposedly straightforward
newspaper stories and TV broadcasts. As Bob Somerby, who’s long
documented this kind of skulduggery against Democrats, writes, “If you
want to know who the press corps is hunting, just see which candidate’s
jokes they transform into straight assertions.”
Well, so what? Wasn’t McCain himself, with that gibberish about
increasing revenues by lowering taxes, shamelessly citing delusional GOP
propaganda? He was. Indeed, McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts for
the wealthy, explaining that they’d do exactly as they’ve done: blow a
huge hole in the federal budget, endangering the nation’s financial
security. But now McCain wants to be president, so he’s joined the
Republican War on Arithmetic. And given that millions of
low-information, undecided voters don’t get it, shouldn’t Democrats act
on what GOP strategists have long known, that a presidential election is
basically a TV game show, “Battle of the Celebrity Politicians”? Replace
the “straight-talking maverick” with the “blustering old hypocrite” and
you’ve won? Something like that, yes. Not that I have to like it. That
said, if I were Obama, I’d put that famous photo of McCain giving Bush a
big, warm hug on TV so often people would start thinking of him as
George W. McCain.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.