Years from now presidential historians will look back on Sept. 9 as the day the 2008 campaign got completely and utterly stupid.
It's not that there haven't been flashes of occasional idiocy over the past 21 months. (Bittergate, anyone?) But yesterday, the battle between John McCain and Barack Obama plummeted to hitherto unfathomable depths of imbecility--depths from which it's unlikely to ascend before the polls close on Nov. 4. And sorry to say, most of the blame belongs to McCain (although Obama himself is not totally innocent).
From the way the day started, no one could have predicted the festival of fatuousness that would eventually unfold. Around 9 a.m., Obama unveiled a new education plan during a speech at Stebbins High School in Riverside, Ohio. Breaking with Democratic orthodoxy (and the powerful teachers' unions) to embrace reform concepts normally associated with the GOP, Obama promised to double funding for charter schools and to launch a merit-pay program that would hold public-school instructors to higher standards of accountability. It was a serious package of policy proposals meant to address one of America's most pressing problems. At the same time, Obama unleashed a new ad (titled "What Kind?") meant to amplify the day's education message by drawing contrasts with McCain's record. "John McCain voted to cut education funding," it said. "He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education." Not exactly pattycake--but it was all policy, nothing personal, and pretty much par for the course.
The McCain campaign quickly saw and seized its opening. Instead of engaging Obama in a debate about the future of public education--McCain supports school vouchers, for example; Obama doesn't--Crystal City passed Go, waved off the $200 and skipped straight to the senseless mudslinging. In a hastily assembled response ad called "Education," McCain claimed that "Obama's one accomplishment" in the area of education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners." "Learning about sex before learning to read?" intoned the announcer. "Wrong on education. Wrong for your family." Thus our bright, shining new era of inanity began in earnest. The point of the bill in question--which as an Illinois state senator Obama voted for but did not sponsor, and which never passed--was not to give kindergartners explicit sex-ed lessons. It was to give local school boards the ability to warn young children about inappropriate touching and sexual predators. Offended parents even could opt out of the program.
Maybe McCain thinks cautioning kids about creeps is a bad thing, but I doubt it. I even doubt that McCain buys what his own ad is slimily implying--that Obama is some sort of perverted sexual deviant who wants to parade pornographic images in front of the nation's prepubescent children. But the problem is, McCain is treating the American people as if they're stupid enough to believe just that. Obama spokesman Bill Burton called the effort "shameful and downright perverse." I think "cynical" is more accurate.
Incredibly, the day only got more asinine from there. After Burton pissily, counterproductively questioned McCain's "honor"--a move that prompted teeth-gnashing and garment-rending among the Arizona senator's martial minions--Obama went on stage in Lebanon, Va., and said of McCain's newfound "change" message that "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." Again, Crystal City was ready to pounce. Reminding voters that Palin had used the word "lipstick" in her convention speech while joking about the "difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom," former Massachusetts governor and current McCain surrogate Jane Swift quickly declared, in full faux-outrage mode, that Obama had "uttered what I can only deem to be disgraceful comments comparing our vice presidential nominee, Governor Palin, to a pig" and demanded an apology. Soon, other Republican flacks--all of them women, incidentally--were weighing in as well. Meanwhile, Team McCain slapped together another ad, "Lipstick," told reporters that it would "air" on the "Web" and watched with delight as Chris Matthews and Co. broadcast it for free (predictably enough) on their evening gabfests.
The point, of course, was to get everyone speculating about whether or not Obama had committed a heinous act of "sexism." Mission accomplished. Never mind that "you can put lipstick on a pig" is an old idiomatic expression. Never mind that Obama was talking about McCain--not Palin--when he used it. Never mind that Obama also said that "you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called 'change,' [but] it's still gonna stink after eight years." Never mind that in a sensible reading of the metaphorMcCain's policies were the pig and Palin was, you know, the lipstick. Never mind that McCain's former press secretary, Torie Clarke, wrote a book called " Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era." Never mind that Elizabeth Edwards once compared McCain's health-care plan to “painting lipstick on a pig.” Never mind that Obama has used the phrase before, claiming last September that Gen. David Petraeus "has done his best to try to figure out how to put lipstick on a pig" in Iraq. And never mind that McCain said the same thing of Hillary Clinton's health-care plan the following month, characterizing it as "eerily" similar to her failed 1993 proposal. "I think they put some lipstick on a pig,” McCain said, “but it’s still a pig."
Never mind all that. According to McCain, Obama wasn't doing what he, Clarke, Edwards and Obama himself had done before--using a colorful American metaphor. No. In McCain's view, Obama was actually dumb enough to mount the stage, face the cameras and boldly announce that Sarah Palin is a porker. Or at least that's what McCain--a man whose party has long decried the routine accusations of "sexism" and "racism" associated with identity politics, and whose VP said earlier this year that playing the gender card "doesn't do us any good, women in politics"--is hoping that the rest of us are dumb enough to believe. Next thing you know, he'll accuse his opponent of calling Palin a fish.
I understand that this is how politics works. As Jonathan Martin astutely notes, "thanks to the anchor of Bush, a devalued brand, the compelling stories of McCain and Palin and the cultural vulnerabilities of Obama, Republicans plainly have more to gain by making the race about character and identity" than issues, "so they've begun to engage in what is effectively a campaign of baiting and exploiting." I get that the McCain campaign is trying to divert attention from Iraq, energy, health care and the economy and fortify the caricature of Obama as scary and dangerous by forcing him to defend against outrageous, MSM-friendly accusations each and every news cycle. But yesterday the whole charade got a little too moronic for my tastes. I'm sure that partisans will flood the comments to claim I'm "biased." They'll ask why I'm not discussing some doltish thing that Obama said a few months ago. Of course, they'll conveniently ignore the fact that I've taken Democrats to task for falsely claiming that McCain wants to wage a "100-year war" in Iraq; for repeating, ad nauseam, that he is Bush III; for arguing that his lack of computer skills mean he can't be a good president, and for playing the "age card" by insinuating that he's "confused" and "out of touch." Still, the fact remains that as a journalist it's my job to say when a politician is wrong. Obama was wrong then. McCain is wrong now.
Earlier this summer, McCain called for a campaign based on the "politics of civility." Try the politics of stupidity instead. Yesterday represented presidential campaigning at its condescending worst. And the worst part isn't that McCain was acting stupid. It's that he seems to think we're all stupid, too.
UPDATE, 7:09 p.m.: The Washington Post's Dan Balz gets it--especially re: why McCain's tactics are working:
For all the talk about ending business as usual, what is taking place is a reminder that the forces that have controlled politics for many years are now deeply ingrained... The fact-checkers are working overtime to call [McCain's] campaign to account... But in a 24/7, constant news cycle environment, there is no way for most people to keep up as the charges and countercharges fly back and forth. What sticks is the reinforcement of the partisan prisms through which more voters now see the election.
Sad but true.