We cannot expect John McCain to denounce his own furiously protean campaign. As a man of action, he denounces through action. So we see that his campaign has changed strategy yet again. It seems obvious that the pretty poison of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric has made her an elephantine Pandora. Traveling from state to state, she has opened the box in which the most rabid elements of the American soul always lie. The light of fact and reason disappeared from the stump, Palin became the pit bull in lipstick that she promised, then those lower forces showed themselves to the country once again: uninformed, fierce, stupid, and fearful. But now is another time: our nation does not like what it is seeing and what it is hearing.
If McCain has lost the presidency because of his use of these tactics, we may well see Republicans renew themselves by rejecting the kind of politics that McCain used to hate loudly and publicly.
Former McCain strategists and long serving elected congressional Republicans are joined by a constellation of Republican thinkers who also have gagged on what Palin is feeding the public. This can be very, very good for our country. It all amounts to the Republicans having to face the fact that hatred, fear, and divisiveness can now amount to a failed strategy. “Country first” now can have a new meaning if the Republican Party faces its own version of what Lyndon Johnson stood against in such a high and courageous fashion when it came time to step away from lowest levels of our electorate. If McCain has lost the presidency because of his use of these tactics, we may well see Republicans renew themselves by rejecting the kind of politics that McCain used to hate loudly and publicly.
What McCain had been doing was following the example and instruction book of Lee Atwater, the master maker of mud. Atwater took us back to the early 1950s, when heated accusation was proof of guilt.
The 1960s made it difficult to destroy an opponent with charges suggesting an alignment with communists or by using flagrant rhetorical bigotry to rile up xenophobia. This was especially true since the McCarthy witch hunts had proved to be demagogic mirrors of the false charges used against their real or assumed enemies by those in power behind the now forgotten Iron Curtain. Americans were not the marks for the big and small cons that they once were. Too many had identified with the goals of the civil rights movement or had supported it emotionally and monetarily when the movement finally pulled the mask of gentility off the segregated South, proving it to be a backwater of terrorism and unconstitutional law. The enormous public protests against the Vietnam War made it even harder for such charges to produce the desired effect, however many misled Marxist radicals like the Black Panthers made it into the national news.
Yet Atwater successfully retooled the tradition of red-baiting that arose in the wake of World War II. He figured out how to pimp the Republican ride. Lowdown Mr. Lee trained the elephants to shoot mud and water from their trunks whenever threatened. Codes were important to effecting victory because tactics had to keep up with the times. By 1968 racial invective would only hurt a politician or a candidate, so Atwater came to understand an “abstract” way of expressing racial misgivings. A disguised shorthand was surely needed.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently said of Richard Nixon’s famous “Southern strategy” that it was “really racism cloaked as law and order.” The enemies no longer had to be communists; they just had to be enemies, threats to the national way of life, black in any form and white if liberal or radical. That approach arrived after Johnson’s signing of civil rights legislation alienated the reactionary Southern Democrats that the party had endured and compromised with for so long. It was a heroic decision because Johnson knew well that the power of the Democratic Party would be greatly diminished if it lost the South, which it did.
Southern Democrats were then looking for someone either to champion their cause or just leave them the hell alone. Nixon successfully played to the anxieties brought on by the civil rights movement, the urban riots, and the protest against the Vietnam War. It was a bill of goods that traveled well, North and South. Ronald Reagan learned the successful lessons of war in code, using terms like “welfare queen” in his 1976 presidential campaign. Then Atwater, bag of tricks in hand, began working for him in 1981. The rest is well known but I think, for the time being at least, it is no longer an easy game to run. Familiarity is the father of contempt.
As I heard a hustler once say of exhausted cons: “People done got too slick. They know what’s happening. You can’t run them games no more.”
Let us hope our nation remains so.