With just three weeks left until Election Day, the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain has left no doubt that it intends to run out the clock by playing the politics of distraction. Throughout the week, in ads and at events along the campaign trail, McCain and running mate Gov. Sarah Palin have launched attacks on rival Sen. Barack Obama’s character and judgment, asking their base to ask themselves: “Who is Barack Obama? Is he really American enough to run our country?”
These sorts of tactics are not unusual, particularly in a race tight as this one. But in asking voters to question Obama’s character and readiness to become president, does McCain risk drawing questions about his own?
“This contradicts everything McCain’s ever stood for. He lost in 2000 because of these kinds of politics, and [he] decries it,” says Democratic strategist Julian Epstein. “The fact that he’s now practicing it shows he was very insincere about that and doesn’t mind going to any lengths to win. It totally contradicts and belies his assertion of preferring to put country first. He’s clearly putting campaign first and country second.”
Republican strategist Todd Harris says that people always decry negative politics, but it exists because it works. Not that long ago, he adds, this contest was a referendum on whether Obama was prepared to be president, but the economic crisis has changed that. “That’s why you see all this talk about his associations. Is he risky? Do we know enough about him to make him leader of the free world?” Harris says. “The open question in this political and economic environment is whether anyone cares about those things given how much people are hurting.”
Recent polling suggests probably not. In a Gallup survey, 43% of voters said Obama’s economic and tax plans make them more likely to vote for him; 44% said McCain’s plans make them less likely to vote for him. Obama continues to lead in national and continues to make gains in important battleground states. In addition, the Obama campaign has bought 30 minutes of primetime on NBC and CBS for an infomercial that will air on Oct. 29.
On the stump in Ohio, the Democrat said, “In the last couple of days, we’ve seen a barrage of nasty insinuations and attacks, and I’m sure we’re going to see more of that in the next 25 days. We know what’s coming. We know what they’re going to do. …They can try to turn the page on the economy; they can try to deny the record of the last eight years. They can run misleading ads; they can pursue the politics of anything goes. It will not work. Not this time.”
But University of California-Davis political scientist Larry Berman fears the McCain camp’s negative tactics could have a lasting adverse effect on the nation. “A lot of the hatred on the right focuses on this issue that Obama’s somehow less than American or less deserving than people who look like McCain or Palin, and it’s something I never thought I’d see in America again,” says Berman, who believes the Republicans are playing with fire.” If Obama wins, Berman says, he will be leading a much more divided nation.
Citing an incident this week when someone at a Palin event cried “Treason!” in response to her criticisms of Obama, Berman adds, “She had an obligation to tell him to be quiet; instead she encouraged it. This is the kind of leadership that I think is just frightening. The collapse of the economy is such a major issue right now, and people are seeing the attacks as a distraction from the fact that McCain probably doesn’t have the right sort of answers.
At this week’s presidential debate, McCain announced a mortgage plan in which the government would buy up bad loans that left many scratching their heads for a number of reasons. Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner says that a congressional plan to renegotiate mortgages has been in effect for about week and questions the need for another. In addition, McCain hasn’t offered any specifics about how to determine who would be eligible. “It’s somewhere between bizarre and absurd and makes no economic sense at all,” Tanner says. “It’s clearly driven by politics and an attempt to say he cares.”
Still, political pundits and analysts question whether either candidate has been truly honest with the American public about how dire the economic situation really is and how they propose to fix it.
“In the defense of both candidates, there’s only so much they can say because there’s only so much they know. There’s a lot of uncertainty on the part of a variety people, including the head of the Federal Reserve and prominent economists,” says University of Michigan political scientist Vincent Hutchings. “But the candidates aren’t being terribly forthcoming when they skirt the question of what sorts of sacrifices are going to be required, and these are the kinds of sacrifices that one does not have to be an economist to recognize. We are either going to have to cut spending sig or raise taxes. No politician likes to say that and voters don’t like to hear it, but it’s the truth.”