Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An innocent game of cards.

John McCain’s camp has recently injected life into its campaign by running two shamelessly crass ads that question—with no substance at all—whether Barack Obama is fit to lead. And when I say no substance, I mean just that: none.
“The One,” which would have the Christian Right burning Obama in effigy had it come from his campaign, doesn’t even aspire to a level of bullshit befitting a general election. In one minute and fourteen seconds of what looks like a public access channel’s reminder that trash pickup procedure has changed, the ad says nothing about Obama’s policies and only mentions McCain to let us know who paid for the commercial. My favorite part is when it quotes Obama making fun of the very type of ad in which the quote is being shown to demonstrate his arrogance—that is, unless we’re to believe that Obama honestly told a crowd that the clouds would open up and God would demand that we vote for him. Hmm…
Then, of course, there’s the furor over “Celeb,” which has even inspired a rebuttal by Princess Hilton herself. This one at least takes some shots at Obama’s energy policy and his alleged pledge to raise taxes. It stretches the truth, of course—Obama plans to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the richest two percent of Americans, not raise taxes across the board—but at least it tells big league lies and delivers them with somewhat better production value than its Old Testament cousin. The gist of the commercial: Obama’s just another pretty face, but his fiscal and energy policies are unreasonable. Thus he is not fit to lead.
As for McCain’s decision to lampoon the daughter of big name donors (the Hiltons have donated the maximum $4,600 to his campaign), well, some might say it bespeaks a lack of honor, but that’s just crazy talk. The man’s a veteran! A former POW! How dare we question his integrity? He’s just tough as nails, and these soy-latte-drinking Hollywood types better just deal with it! Because he’s a real man! Like us! Fine, fine, but I’ll tell you what: he ain’t like me or anyone I grew up with. I’m not married to a multi-millionaire brewing heiress, I don’t wear $500 shoes, and I’ve never courted those Hollywood types or media folk by whom McCain seemingly feels so jilted. Or perhaps we’re supposed to have forgotten that McCain was himself a media darling admired by celebrities not too long ago. Maybe he’s sad that he never got to take those shoes to the Playboy Mansion.
So, ignoring the whole “celeb” portion of the ad, how about the bit that touches on Obama’s energy policy? How irresponsible, really, is it for a presidential candidate to oppose offshore drilling during an energy crisis? The overwhelming majority of discourse on the topic would have us believe that the answer to this question relies on whether you place greater value on the environment or on the economy, but that is a deceptive move.
The assumption that offshore drilling would significantly lower the price of gas hinges on the mistaken (and, frankly, ridiculous) supposition that somehow that oil will be reserved for domestic use and that oil companies will not use it to capitalize on the exploding demand for oil in China and India. One need only look at Exxon-Mobil’s recent reporting of record profits—followed by a buyout of $8 billion of its own stocks as a cash reward to shareholders—to decide whether oil companies are so altruistic. Of course, they have their moments of charity. For example, as soon as McCain changed his stance on offshore drilling (surprise! He was against it once!), his campaign received $1.1 million in donations from oil companies that had previously given him next to nothing. The truth is that offshore drilling will provide a drop in the ocean of the world’s oil supply, providing increased profits to oil companies with little benefit to consumers and plenty of taxpayer-funded cleanup in the future.
Of course, it’s politically efficacious to cite the most simplistic version of supply and demand in order to get Americans on the side of producing more, more, more, and so of course polls now show over sixty percent of our countrymen/women calling for increased drilling. In response to this wave of support for a bad idea, Obama has shifted his stated views, cautiously floating the notion of maybe drilling in the future.
Flip-flop? Well, sure, if we’re to utilize such idiotic terms, then yes, I suppose this adheres to the definition of a, um, flip-flop. And a purely political one at that (as they all are). That’s a godsend for the Republican talk machine, since they can tarnish Obama’s golden boy image, but does anyone besides the Republicans really see a halo around Obama’s head?
I for one have plenty of complaints about Obama’s imperfections and can identify purely political causes for most of them. For starters, I don’t like ethanol as our primary choice for an alternative fuel, but I also understand that without pushing that button Obama would have had a very difficult time getting a key primary victory in Iowa. I don’t like that Obama passed up an opportunity to critique Israeli policy, choosing instead to run the same old tired lines about Israeli-American solidarity that nobody should even be questioning by now, but of course he was already having problems with the Jewish community. I don’t care for any politician that brings God into the campaign, but a homosexual Wiccan would probably have a better chance of winning the White House than an atheist, so the man’s got to prove his spiritual mettle.
Obama’s not perfect, but every dubious stance he takes is matched tenfold by John McCain and aimed at getting elected. I voted Nader in 2000 on principle, and frankly never felt too guilty about it—but this is another ballgame altogether, and McCain’s continuation of the Bush era scares me to death.
Besides, McCain’s record isn’t free of flipping or flopping. Just to run down a quick list:
-The “maverick” McCain opposed offshore drilling before the presidential candidate McCain favored it.
-McCain opposed ethanol and now favors it.
-McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts, and now supports them.
-McCain now opposes the campaign finance reforms that he brought to the table with so much fanfare a few years ago.
-Remember when McCain was absolutely opposed to any form of torture? Yeah, me too.
-McCain once criticized Bush for visiting the notoriously racist and anti-Catholic Bob Jones University—now, he’s open to visiting the place himself.
-McCain was pro-choice, but has since gone pro-life (just in time, too!)
-McCain fought tooth and nail to prevent Arizona from celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. Now? Well, that would just be political suicide.
But we can’t bring that up, because then we’re “playing the race card.”
That most toxic of all hands to be dealt, the race card, is obviously the domain of Barack Obama. At least that’s what McCain would have us believe. This came about because, in response to the aforementioned McCain ads, Obama remarked that his opponent would try to paint him as different-looking, with a funny name and nothing in common with the average voter. McCain’s rebuttal is to accuse Obama of focusing on race. But is Obama the one that brought race into the arena? And is he wrong in his characterization of McCain’s ads?
My answer to both questions would be a resolute “no.” The truth is that, devoid of any substance, McCain’s ads play strictly on the notion that many people look at Barack Obama and think him less “presidential” than McCain, more arrogant, more entitled, more elitist, more “Other.” McCain’s ads, especially “The One,” ask nothing more of Obama than “who the hell does he think he is?” And who does Obama think he is? A senator that opposed an unpopular war, a constitutional law professor at a time when the Constitution suffers daily assaults, a community organizer with a history of championing the poor and the middle class, a politician who has driven low-minded opponents to sheer exasperation by his lack of “dirt”? How did this activist for the downtrodden get painted as an elitist? What exactly makes a tireless worker who made good on the opportunities afforded him automatically don the label of entitlement? What has he done that makes him more arrogant than his temperamental opponent?
A couple of days ago David Gergen—a moderate analyst who has advised the administrations of Ford, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton—put McCain’s strategy in no uncertain terms:
I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, “The One,” that's code for, “he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.” Everybody gets that who is from a southern background. We all understand that.
So who really played the “race card” in this recent dustup? Obama may have come closer to identifying it, but he was simply identifying his opponent’s strategy. In fact, the McCain camp knew all along who its audience in these ads was: those same folks that can’t stand to see a black man act “uppity,” those same folks for whom it matters that Obama’s middle name is Hussein, those same folks that have no time for substance and so rely on a centuries-old foundation of prejudice to inform their opinions. When analysts say Obama may not appeal to white blue collar voters, it’s because he’s black. Soccer moms? He’s black. Nascar dads? He’s black. Latinos? He’s black. Elderly Jews? He’s black and kind of Muslim-ish. There are plenty of reasons for McCain’s supporters to not vote for Obama, of course, but the recent ads address nothing so effectively as pure, ignorant xenophobia.
If that sounds too simplistic then I urge you to take a look at those ads and tell me if there’s anything about them that indicates an attempt at sophistication. The dirty work is done. McCain need not directly soil his hands, because the message is out. As the “Straight Talk Express” rolls on to engage proactive voters, ads like “Celeb” and “The One” will continue to appeal to the basest impulses of the less-informed.
Fortunately, I think, we live in a nation that has at least changed enough to not capitulate entirely to such a horrific plan of attack. Still, there is blood in the water, and I do believe I hear the sound of Swift Boats on the horizon.
illustration by Lukas Ketner

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