“Napoleon once said, when asked to explain the lack of great statesmen in the world, that to get power you need to display absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness. Such pettiness and such greatness are rarely found in one person. I look upon the events of the past weeks, and I’ve never come so to grips with that quotation … Your leadership has raised the stakes of hate to a level where we can no longer separate the demagogue from the truly inspired.”
–President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Rod Lurie’s political films remind me of a college professor whose classes I simultaneously loved and hated: you had to sort through a lot of annoying bullshit to get to the brilliant insight at the end. (I figure I’m going to pay for that sentence in the comments section. Have at it!) Nevertheless, I happened to catch the last 15 minutes of The Contender on the tube Sunday morning, right after John Kerry nearly bitch-slapped the utterly deserving Joe Lieberman on Meet the Press, and that quarter-hour (like Lieberman’s performance) fairly reeked of the colossal stench John McCain’s campaign has been emitting for the past couple weeks.

In particular, the last line from Bridges’s speech begs to be viewed in the context of this presidential race. The Republican Party’s entire modus operandi, in the absence of any ideas that resonate with the American people, is now to render the electorate incapable of “separat[ing] the demagogue from the truly inspired.”

McCain once promised that things were going to be different this time. In April he said, point blank, “This will be a respectful campaign. Americans want a respectful campaign … they’re tired of the attacks. They’re tired of impugning people’s character and integrity. They want a respectful campaign — and I am of the firm belief that they can get it and they will get it if the American people demand it, and reject the negative stuff that goes on.”

McCain has never been a man whose phraseology demanded parsing, the way the Clintons’ does — or the way every utterance of the Bush White House demands to have the lies and fiction sifted from the mere stonewalling. But the last piece of that McCain quote may hold the key to the cowardice he has exhibited in recent weeks.

“If the American people demand it, and reject the negative stuff that goes on.” That’s a big “if,” and McCain now seems to be using it as an excuse for his current behavior.

Unfortunately, while “the people” always say they dislike negative campaigning, they far too often fall for it. McCain knows this from experience — from his own demolition at the hands of Karl Rove’s gutter politics in South Carolina in 2000, and from the way Bush’s jackals tore apart Max Cleland’s patriotism in 2002 and Kerry’s military record in 2004.

McCain, particularly as a Navy man, ought to know better after all that. He claimed to know better, promised he knew better. But then, he long claimed to be all about honor and duty and country and bravery and all that stuff.

Well, that’s all gone now. Forget about the Hanoi Hilton, forget about campaign finance reform, forget about all that “maverick” hoo-hah. There’s no honor, no bravery in “he’d rather lose a war to win an election” or “he’s played the race card from the bottom of the deck” or the Britney/Paris ad or the “Moses” ad. For McCain, there’s only cowardice — the cowardice of acting on the belief that he can’t win on the issues, or on a comparison of the candidates’ real characters, but only by creating a bogeyman.

George, didn't you tell me we OWNED this guy?Of course, McCain probably never imagined in April that things would turn out this way. But then, how many of us imagined that by the end of July Obama’s judgment on Iraq would have been validated by the Iraqi government, or that his judgment on Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran would have been validated by the Bushies themselves? We all knew McCain didn’t have a prayer on the economy, but it must have come as something of a shock when Obama was revealed as an oracle on foreign policy as well.

Obama’s arrival back home last weekend, hailed as a genius on at least three continents and with unbeatable press coverage in the States, sparked McCain’s descent into full-on desperation. At the beginning of the week McCain tried to convince us that a candidate whose message of renewed American leadership resonated with foreign audiences must be viewed suspiciously here at home — because heaven forbid the world come to respect and admire the USA again! By the end of the week, Obama’s enormous substantive achievements on his trip had been boiled down to the dismissive phrase “he’s the biggest celebrity in the world” — bigger than Brit! Bigger than Paris!

Big enough for Berlin, certainly...

How pathetic. So far McCain and the Republicans have made this campaign all about Obama: Is he ready? Is he right? (Is he a Muslim? Is he a Black Panther? Is he a himbo? Is he — as the Wall Street Journal has asked — too thin, and therefore not enough like us fatty Americans?) But McCain soon is going to find out that this election’s really a referendum on him and his party — their abject failures, their lack of ideas or vision, their corruption — and, yes, their (and his) cowardice.

Until then, the only course for Obama is full speed ahead. By putting up roadblocks to your hospital visit in Germany, George Bush’s Pentagon sought to create exactly the situation they did, and you fell for it. Screw Bush’s Pentagon, and the rest of the executive bureaucracy — it’s now a wholly owned subsidiary of the McCain campaign.

And BTW, George, didn't you say this guy was your post-Blair butt boy?By comparing you to Britney and Paris, the McCain campaign sought to plant the idea that your popularity and inspiration are a liability, not a positive. (They also reprised the black man-white woman juxtaposition that served Tennessee’s Bob Corker so well in his Senate victory against Harold Ford in 2006.) Screw them! Go to Denver this month, stand before 75,000 adoring devotees and give the speech of your life.

By citing one of your standard stump-speech lines and suddenly claiming that you’re “playing the race card,” McCain and his campaign were trying less to attack you than to inoculate themselves from responsibility for the hideous, cowardly attacks they’re plotting. (“He played the race card first; we’re just responding,” you can just imagine them saying.) Screw them! Your job is to make independents comfortable with the idea of you in the White House, and your race is part of your “riskiness.” Keep right on making light-hearted reference to that discomfort — and keep your powder dry for the Republican attack machine that we all know is just getting started.

As for McCain: You want to be president? Give us a few good reasons why. Defend your domestic policies, and explain how they’re going to solve the economic mess we’re in. Come up with a real plan for solving our oil crisis — not gimmicks like a gas-tax holiday or increased drilling — or else admit that there is no short-term solution. Explain why you remain wedded to an indefinite presence in Iraq when the Iraqis themselves clearly want us out. Convince us that we should trust a Republican executive branch for four more years when even you suggest that the last eight have been such a god-awful shambles.

This is not going to be a pretty autumn for the Republican Party. You are most likely going to lose this election, and even if you manage to win you almost certainly will face increased Democratic majorities in Congress. If you squeak your way to victory only because you stick to the low road and create a caricature of, yes, our first African-American nominee that you know full well has no basis in reality, then you and your policies will run into a buzzsaw of historic proportions.

In short, the only way for you to emerge from this campaign with your beloved “honor” intact is to pull your campaign out of the sewer and return to your high-minded promises of the spring. Win or lose this election on the issues, not on character assassination, and force your party to do the same.

Stop being a coward, Senator McCain, and start being a man.