On Thursday, John McCain at last did away with all above-the-fray pretense and added his voice to the right-wing chorus now openly trying to portray Barack Obama as a fundamentally anti-American figure.
McCain, whose running-mate previously accused the Democratic presidential nominee of “palling around with terrorists,” sought to frame Obama’s rather tenuous connection with Bill Ayers in the most sinister terms possible.
“Senator Obama says he was just another guy in the neighborhood,” McCain said. “We know that isn’t true. We need to know the full extent of the truth because of whether Senator Obama is telling the truth to the American people or not.”
Of course, Obama’s honesty isn’t what is really at issue here. It’s no coincidence that the McCain campaign insists on referring to Ayers as a “terrorist” (as opposed to, say, an “aging ‘60s radical”) and that speakers at McCain-Palin events this week have been invoking Obama’s middle name, Hussein, as if it were an epithet. (And let’s not forget the frothing crowds at McCain events, who have taken to shouting “terrorist!” at the mere mention of Obama’s name.)
The McCain campaign is going for maximum emotional effect, hoping that voters in the post-9/11 era will be sufficiently suspicious when they are told that a black candidate with a Muslim-sounding name has “ties” to a “terrorist.” And actually, the technique really isn’t new. Since 1988, when the late Lee Atwater masterminded the G.O.P.’s campaign to associate Michael Dukakis to flag-desecration and pledge of allegiance bans, questioning the Democratic nominee’s “American-ness” has been a staple of the Republican playbook.
It worked masterfully with Dukakis and with John Kerry (the effete, French-looking liberal who’d sold out his fellow Vietnam veterans, as the caricature went) in 2004. But it doesn’t always succeed – and, for numerous reasons, it isn’t likely to this time around.
For one, the political climate right now is very similar to 1992, the one campaign when the anti-American angle backfired miserably for the G.O.P, with the economy in turmoil and voters believing – overwhelmingly – that the country was heading in the wrong direction.
Initially that year, George H. W. Bush’s campaign saw Bill Clinton as an easy mark. He’d essentially dodged the Vietnam draft and, as a student at Oxford and Yale, had opposed the war. A month before the election, with Bush trailing by about the margin that McCain now trails Obama, the Republican nominee launched an attack on Clinton not unlike the one now being aimed at Obama.
“I’m just saying: Level with the American people on the draft, on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his own country from a foreign soil,” Bush said of Clinton.
The Clinton campaign accused Bush of “McCarthyism,” but Bush persisted, raising the issue again days later when they met in a debate: “I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country in a foreign land, organizing demonstrations against it when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted.”
At that, Clinton delivered a response that took the issue off the table for the rest of the campaign, noting that Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, had been among the first in the Senate to oppose Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
“Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy,” Clinton said, “and you are wrong to attack my patriotism.”
In truth, though, the Bush attacks were already failing before Clinton’s effective rejoinder. Polls before that debate showed Clinton comfortably ahead, with the Vietnam issue causing him no harm. With economic uncertainty all around them, voters weren’t in the mood for the character-assassination politics that they’d responded to four years earlier with Dukakis. This is the first time since ’92 that the economy has played so central a role in the presidential race. Not surprisingly, early indications suggest there is a limited appetite for McCain’s attacks.
Clinton also survived the caricaturing effort because of the power of his personality. His warmth, soothing Southern charm, and all-American appetites for Big Macs (and women, for that matter) certainly lessened the impact of “anti-American” charges, as did his instinctive ability to identify voters’ insecurities and to express empathy. Obama doesn’t have quite the same skill set, but he is similar to Clinton in one important way: Most voters instinctively like him and want to give him the benefit of the doubt, no small quality to have when your opponents accuse you of “palling around with terrorists.” A different Democratic nominee with Obama’s “associations” might face more skepticism from the public.
There’s also some backlash potential for McCain as he goes down the Ayers road, since there really isn’t much to the Obama-Ayers connection. Obama probably should have known better than to allow one of his campaign events to be held in Ayers’ home in 1996, but there’s no reason to believe the two had or have a meaningful personal relationship. Ayers had become a respected member of Chicago’s Hyde Park community, and Obama, an aspiring politician in the area, probably figured it wasn’t worth it to challenge his neighbors’ judgment. This wasn’t his best moment, but it’s not exactly scandalous, either.
The risk for McCain is that the cynicism of his attacks becomes clear to swing voters and that it offends them. What goes through these voters’ minds when they see the predominantly white crowds at McCain’s rallies madly cheering as white speakers try to paint the first black presidential nominee in history – a man most of these voters like personally, even if they aren’t sure they agree with him ideologically – as un-American? Obama seems to have picked up on this, and has begun pointing out that McCain didn’t have the nerve to mention Ayers when the two candidates shared the stage at Tuesday night’s debate.
The “anti-American” card is effective with some voters, but they are almost all on the right – the kinds of people who have been cursing Obama at McCain’s events this week. They were off-limits to Obama from the very beginning of this campaign. In the same sense, there were plenty of voters in ’92 who bought into Bush’s attacks on Clinton’s patriotism. They, too, were on the right and instinctively resentful of Clinton. Together, they weren’t nearly enough to stop him at the ballot box – although their resentment persisted and helped ultimately to fuel his impeachment in 1998.
The right’s hysterical resentment of Obama isn’t likely to ebb anytime soon, either. The good news for Obama is that it probably won’t be enough to stop him next month. But if he does win, he’ll have to deal with it for years to come.