The Great Unmasking
Everywhere you turn these days, you find the press in an agitated-to-furious state about the McCain-Palin campaign. Many reporters are downright angry, according to the Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz, in part because of the "lipstick on a pig" controversy. That’s obvious to anyone who has watched the news this last week. Many in the press are lacerating themselves for covering this story, and they blame the McCain campaign for having done it to them.
A broader anti-McCain critique is embodied by one of the Washington Post’s resident Obamaphiles, E.J. Dionne, Jr., "The campaign is a blur of flying pieces of junk, lipstick and gutter-style attacks . . . McCain has shown he wants the presidency so badly that he’s willing to say anything, true or false, to win power."
It’s touching that the MSM has recently developed such delicate sensibilities. It’s also a shame that their fury at false attacks was missing during the last eight years, when Democrats hurled one false, hateful, and misleading charge after another against President Bush. But perhaps because Bush was the object of the attacks, the press didn’t feel the urgent need to police them. It’s also worth noting, I suppose, that having become enraptured by a man whose candidacy was based almost entirely on his persona, the mood and feelings he created, and his ethereal promise of change, many in the press now pretend they want the election to focus on a substantive debate about, oh, say, Medicare Part B.
My own view is that the debate about "lipstick on a pig" was silly and will soon be forgotten. Yet it’s not as if it broke any barriers in that regard. To take just one arguably more serious example: Recall that in February, Barack Obama said, "We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years."
It’s a charge Obama repeated, even though he knew it was untrue. (The Annenberg Political Fact Check said, "It’s a rank falsehood for the DNC to accuse McCain of wanting to wage ‘endless war’ based on his support for a presence in Iraq something like the U.S. role in South Korea.") The fact that the accusation was false didn’t seem to matter; one Obama aide told the Politico, "It’s seldom you get such a clear shot." But for some reason, the press didn’t go into a tizzy on this matter. Puzzling.
Presidential campaigns have long been a mix of lots of things: substantive speeches and political ones, policy papers and personal countenance, issues and character, biography and narrative, charges and counter-charges, and appeals to evocative images and American symbols. Elections are often intense affairs that involve high moments and low ones, moments of drama and trivia. This campaign is no different. And compared to past presidential campaigns – the 1800 election between Jefferson and Adams, two of our more important and impressive Founders, comes to mind – this campaign is a walk in the park.
The important political point is that McCain is controlling the conversation of the election. He has stripped Obama of his mythological standing and has begun making a strong case that he and Palin, rather than Obama and Biden, are the authentic agents of change in this election. Obama is also in a dangerous place for a politician: constantly explaining himself and declaring, in an obvious state of frustration and confusion, "enough is enough." If this continues for the next seven weeks, McCain will probably win.
Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, made an interesting analogy this morning. He spoke about how for years people claimed the Miami Hurricanes were a dirty team–and they won championship after championship. I actually don’t think either the McCain campaign or the Obama campaign are particularly dirty. And the effort to portray Republicans as the Party of the Mean (in contrast to Democrats, the Party of Issues) is a tired liberal talking point.
One other observation: The ferocious response Sarah Palin’s nomination has provoked among the political class is turning this election into one based on a cultural narrative rather than an economic debate. The dripping condescension that some of Palin’s critics are demonstrating toward her is boomeranging. She is becoming a heroine to many Republicans, who are as energized as I can remember in defense of Palin. And in attacking Palin, many Democrats and liberal commentators are mocking her faith, worldview, and life experiences. In that sense, a great unmasking is taking place. A wide swath of liberals are revealing their arrogance, their cultural elitism, and even their ugliness. It may be therapeutic. And it may also cost them the election.