Political Culture: McCain-Palin Plays the GOP’s Greatest Hits

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Last night I had a dream … of long-faded memories, and basic-cable infomercials:

Voiceover: Remember…this?
John McCain: “Who is Barack Obama?”

VO: That’s right … they’re the hits you’ve come to know and love…
McCain: “He believes in redistributing wealth!”

VO: Here, together, for one last time – the very best of the Republican Party, performed as only McCain-Palin can!
Sarah Palin: “He’s not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”

VO: Yes, they’re all here, all in one place, assembled just for you. You’ll get favorites like these:
(scrolling onscreen)
“That’s the extreme pro-abortion position – ‘health.’”
“We need to know the full extent of that relationship.”
“I’m very concerned that he may have anti-American views.”
“Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon…”

Palin: “…These wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America…”
VO: You’ll want to act now to preserve these precious memories, because in two weeks this priceless collection of favorite GOP attacks from across the decades will be gone – and some of these hits may never come back!
McCain: “His plan sounds a lot like socialism!”

VO: How much do you expect to pay for a package like this?
McCain: “How about 100?”
VO: Well, for two weeks only, you can have this fantastic collection on three 24-hour news channels – all for just $42.50! That’s equal to the McCain campaign’s poll numbers!
McCain: “That’s not a tax cut – that’s welfare!”

(scrolling onscreen)
“…Palling around with terrorists…”
“Obama and his fellow Democrats got caught putting Hollywood above America…”
“…trying to give liberal judges the power to decide whether criminals are sent to jail or set free.”
“…legislation to teach comprehensive sex education – to kindergarteners.”

VO: So call the number on your screen now, while there’s still time! Operators are standing by…
McCain: “…Maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

As the McCain campaign has pulled out all the nasty rhetorical stops the last couple weeks, its desperate gasps have come to sound distinctly like a death rattle for the vaunted Republican Attack Machine. Careening from one corner to another like a punch-drunk boxer, McCain-Palin has tried (so far unsuccessfully) every counterpunch in the GOP playbook – a book that dates not just to 2000, or 1988, or even 1968, but all the way back to 1948 … or maybe even 1920.

Joseph McCarthyIt was during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s – McCain’s teenage years, in case you needed one more reminder of how old he is – that Republicans like Dick Nixon and Joe McCarthy made careers out of sliming political opponents with rumors and innuendo and accusations of un-American activities. Nixon’s “law and order” campaign in public, and his “Southern strategy” in private, were aimed at exploiting the fears and, yes, racism of less-educated whites in 1968, while his paeans to the “silent majority” equated anti-war Democrats with America’s enemies in 1972. Ronald Reagan’s denunciations of “welfare queens” helped drive a wedge between middle-class whites and their own economic interests during the 1980s, while Lee Atwater turned Willie Horton into the Democratic running mate in 1988. And George W. Bush, with his partner in (literal) crime Karl Rove, led an evangelical-Christian revolution against the “elites” in the media in 2000, and those in the Kerry household in 2004.

Every one of those attack tropes has made at least a token appearance in the McCain campaign this fall, and they have taken over completely during the last month as his poll numbers have nose-dived in direct correlation with the New York Stock Exchange. Sadly for him – but happily for American democracy – his litany of attacks has largely fallen on deaf ears outside the Pavlovian GOP base, as the mainstream of the electorate has focused on the nation’s economic maelstrom rather than Republican attempts to create a new bogeyman for the 21st century in Barack Hussein (gasp) Obama.

McCain no doubt began his second run for the presidency imagining that his experienced, mavericky, Vietnam-hero stature would allow him to sail past opponents both conservative and liberal during a historical era that (he also imagined) was all about war. His first messages were positive ones: “I’ll get bin Laden; I know how to do it”; “I’ll bring our troops home from Iraq with honor, and in victory.” But the time for positivity was over when McCain realized he was up against an opponent who commanded broad support for an Iraq position diametrically opposed to McCain’s own – and who seemed to have not only American public opinion, but the approval of foreign leaders (including Iraq’s!), on his side.

Suddenly, according to McCain and his rarely challenged running mate, Obama was a “mysterious” and “dangerous” figure whose loyalties were in question. The GOP candidates began to postulate in creative ways – and the crazies who attend their rallies began to insist in decidedly uncreative ways – that Obama might be un-American, the same label McCarthy had bestowed upon hundreds of politicians, artists and ordinary citizens a half-century before. The subtle racism of 1968 has crept into the McCain campaign as well, from the “celebrity” ads to Rudy Giuliani’s mocking of community organizers, and from last week’s accusations against ACORN to this week’s suggestions that Obama’s tax policies are a restoration of “welfare.” All of this has pushed the hyperpartisan faithful to infamous extremes during ralles over the past few weeks, from the appearance of a “terror monkey” doll at a Palin rally to the command that an African-American media soundman “get down, boy,” and the inevitable breaking out of the “N” word in full earshot of the “liberal-elite media.”

Meanwhile, until the last week or so McCain’s key economic message was a tried-and-true one for Republicans – that Obama, no matter what he said, was “going to raise your taxes.” It was a message that had worked like a charm in ’80, ’84, ’88, and ’04, but McCain eventually discovered that in ’08 voters weren’t intent on buying what McCain was selling. In part that was because Obama was so diligent in describing his tax plans, and sounded so reasonable doing so. However, perhaps McCain’s message also didn’t take because the electorate has finally figured out what happens when you starve the government of revenues yet still expect it to function at full capacity – and because folks have finally realized that targeting tax breaks to big business and the wealthy encourages not investment and hiring, but greed and hoarding.

Four-time Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. DebsIn the wake of the credit crunch and the market meltdown of the last month, and two debates that hadn’t moved the needle an inch in their direction, McCain’s puppeteers must have recognized that the “he’ll raise your taxes” dog wasn’t going to hunt. So, after Obama told Joe the Plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” McCain and Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt cranked up the waaaay-back machine and suddenly seemed to have visions of Eugene V. Debs dancing in their heads. Now Obama’s not a tax-and-spend Democrat – he’s a Socialist! Of course! The problem isn’t that he’s going to raise your taxes — it’s that he’s going to lower someone else’s! Why hadn’t they thought of this before?

Maybe it’s because, outside of Scandinavia and Cuba, Socialism became irrelevant in, oh, about 1991. How many voters under the age of 50 even remember the significance of a phrase like “redistribution of wealth,” much less the central(ized) tenets of the Communist Manifesto? Then again, when your government (led by the Republican president, and with full support from the GOP presidential nominee) is bailing out Wall Street and injecting capital into the nation’s banks to the tune of $2 trillion, who isn’t a Socialist these days?

This newest line of attack, with its musty insinuations of fellow-travelerhood and the tacky populism of all those “Joe” clones in the recent rally crowds, clearly has been designed to drive a wedge between the middle class and the poor. And between, yes, whites and blacks, whom some conservatives had already targeted as culprits in the mortgage crisis via last month’s initial round of ACORN attacks. (By the way, check out the most recent McCain ad, and see if you don’t immediately envision a parade of schoolchildren standing up and shouting, “I am Malcolm X!”)

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This class-warfare stuff doesn’t seem to be working, either, but the McCainites haven’t reached the back cover of their negative-campaigning playbook just yet. The stench of Lee Atwater’s 1988 masterpiece of negativity is evident in a new round of robocalls featuring Giuliani, who insists that “you need to know that Barack Obama opposes mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, drug dealers, and murderers.” In a similar (ahem) vein, Obama’s support for reform of death-penalty laws in the Illinois state senate may yet come under attack. Meanwhile, as the election draws closer Obama’s views on abortion seem to become more and more “radical” in the eyes of the far right, and Sean Hannity has recently requested an audience with Obama’s coke dealer from the early ’80s. (He didn’t inhale, OK?)

I fear – actually, I hope – that as two weeks turn into one, and as McCain’s chances slide inexorably toward oblivion, he’ll resort to tearing the last and most pathetic page out of that GOP playbook: direct name-calling. This was George H.W. Bush’s last stand in 1992, referring to Al Gore as “Ozone Man” and Bill Clinton as a “bozo.” Such depths of depravity would befit a candidate, an ideology, and a style of campaigning that have all seen their best days come and go.

I believe it’s a good thing that McCain has resurrected the GOP’s greatest hits this fall; now that we’ve seen them one more time, perhaps even the Republicans should know it’s time to let them rest in pieces. Then again, maybe McCain will come from behind and actually win this election, and all of these immoral attack lines will be vindicated once more. If that happens, I will offer not a retraction of this rant, but merely a dismissal with a historical pedigree of its own, courtesy of Emily Litella: never mind.