In an election year, the time between Labor Day and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Mud-Slinging Season. Both parties are in the spirit of the season.
The Democrats, traumatized by the Swiftboat campaign against Kerry in 2004, have been assuring their base since the primaries that they won't let it happen this year. This year, we hear over and over, they will give as well as they get. In reality they always have given as well as gotten, but as altruists their self-image is so wrapped up in the idea that they are nice, benevolent people that they evade their own mudslinging. Their moments of victimization at the hands of the beastly Republicans (Swiftboat! Swiftboat!) are seared into their memory, but they forget that they invented Borking.
Obama has been reeling since McCain chose Palin as his Vice-President -- and whether you like McCain or not (I do not), you have to admit that his choice was brilliant, simply because it stole the spotlight from The One. (Picking a VP has always been about helping a candidate win an election. JFK is reported to have loathed Johnson, but he needed Texas so LBJ was his man.)
So what do Democrats want Obama to do now? What else? Get dirty:
According to NBC and the New York Times, Democrats have put enormous pressure on Barack Obama to start hitting John McCain in a more personal manner and to get his momentum back in this race. Team Obama says that the “bed-wetting” will not knock them off their game plan, but according to Andrea Mitchell, that may change.
Obama has taken some mockery because he has announced three or four times that he will take off the gloves.
Wham! You do that again and the gloves are off. Wham! You must not have heard what I said. One more time and the gloves are coming off... Wham! Okay. Okay, that hurt. It is bare knuckle time, baby. Wham! You are about to ANGER ME. I shall doff these expensive gloves. And I am just crazy enough to do it. Wham! What the hell is wrong with y... Wham!
The geniuses at Obama Central came up with an ad criticizing McCain for not using email. (That is some bare-knuckle brawling, man.) It turns out that McCain can't type because of his injuries from being tortured. Obama's attack succeeded only in reminding people that McCain is a war hero and that Obama's campaign is too incompetent to use google. Over the weekend the Obama camp decided to attack McCain because he is old.
Mickey Kaus is unimpressed by Obama's negative campaigning against McCain's supposed lack of honesty.
a) MSM outrage doesn't sway voters anymore. It didn't even back in 1988, when the press tried to make a stink about George H.W. Bush's use of "flag factories," etc. After this year's failed MSM Palin assault, it certainly won't work;
b) When Dems get outraged at unfairness they look weak. How can they stand up to Putin if they start whining when confronted with Steve Schmidt? McCain's camp can fake umbrage all it wants--the latest is that an Atlantic photographer took some nasty photos that the mag didn't run!--and nobody will accuse MCain of being weak. That's so unfair. A double standard. Dems can learn to live with it or complain about the unfairness for another 4 years. Their choice.
c) It's almost always impossible to prove that a Republican attack is a 100% lie. Either there's a germ of truth (Kerry did hype his wartime heroism at least a bit) or the truth is indeterminate (i.e., there's no way of knowing what Obama meant by "lipstick"--just because he and McCain used the word earlier doesn't mean he didn't think using it now, after Palin's speech, didn't add a witty resonance).
d) Lecturing the public on what's 'true" and what's a "lie" (when the truth isn't 100% clear) plays into some of the worst stereotypes about liberals--that they are preachy know-it-alls hiding their political motives behind a veneer of objectivity and respectability.
e) Inevitably the people being outraged on Obama's behalf will phrase their arguments in ways well-designed to appeal to their friends--and turn off the unconverted. ('This is just what they did to John Kerry and Michael Dukakis!' As if the public yearns for the lost Kerry and Dukakis Presidencies. 'Today's kindergarteners need some sex education. Just because Republicans are old fashioned ...' etc. Or 'These are Karl Rove tactics,' which signifies little to non-Dem voters except a partisan rancor they'd like to put behind them.)
As always with liberals, there is a weird disconnect from reality. All their huffing and puffing about going negative should not be necessary because they have the MSM to do their mud-slinging for them. For the last two weeks we have seen the most remarkable attempt, both extensive and intensive, at character assassination at least since Clarence Thomas or Dan Quayle. The media have been desperate to define Sarah Palin as stupid, inexperienced, strange and nasty. They have employed outright lies, such as that Trig Palin is not really Sarah's son, but her daughter's son. Leftist radio host Randi Rhodes has suggested that Palin molests teenage boys. It has been observed that in two days Palin underwent more investigation from the media than Obama has suffered in 18 months. Charlie Martin is keeping track of the rumors about Palin; he is up to 71 now.
The left side of the blogosphere believes its mission is to sling the mud that is beneath Obama to sling. Andrew Sullivan hyperventilates:
I intend to be relentless for the next six weeks, morning, noon and night, weeks and weekdays, exposing the lies of the McCain-Palin campaign and showing their unfitness - in terms of competence, decency, intelligence, and experience - to become president and vice-president of the US. I will be making arguments and presenting facts in ways I do not expect and do not want Obama himself to engage him.
But these last two weeks - and this absurd, insulting pick for veep - has roused me. As I know it has roused many. McCain needs to be more than defeated. He needs to be exposed as the dishonest, despicable, desperate and dishonorable cynic he has become.
Let's hope he wiped the foam from his mouth when he finished writing that.
(Sullivan, just to provide context, happily publicized the unfounded rumor about Trig Palin's parentage. When the rumor became a joke because of pictures of Sarah Palin in full pregnancy, and testimonies from eye witnesses in Alaska, Sullivan was still demanding that the McCain campaign prove the arbitrary lie was not true.)
McCain has slammed Obama with some effective ads. He belittled Obama as a celebrity, likening him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He mocked Obama's messianic pretensions. He attacked Obama for wanting to teach sex education to kindergartners. He hit Obama about his use of the phrase "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," which ad managed to dominate two or three news cycles.
McCain's ads have been effective at defining Obama because Obama is an oddly undefined man. There is something shadowy and obscure about him. Who really is Obama? Charles Krauthammer has observed,
Eerily missing at the Democratic convention this year were people of stature who were seriously involved at some point in Obama's life standing up to say: I know Barack Obama. I've been with Barack Obama. We've toiled/endured together. You can trust him. I do.
An undefined man is vulnerable to hostile definition. By contrast, earlier this year the Obama campaign quietly trotted out a series of prominent Democrats to belittle McCain's military service. (Another smear campaign Democrats evade as they keep telling themselves, "We're the nice guys! We're the nice guys!") This campaign failed because voters know who John McCain is. Democrat sniping at his military experience was a loser that only reflexive, anti-American leftists could entertain as a good idea.
I would submit that Republican negative campaigns have been quite effective for over three decades now. This is not, as Democrats believe, because Republicans are naturally mean-spirited and Democrats are these wide-eyed Bambis who must force themselves to attack their fellow man. It is because Democrats cannot be honest with the American people about their socialism; if they were, the party would go the way of the Whigs in two weeks. This sets them up like bowling pins to be knocked down by a few ads pointing to the facts of a candidate's liberalism.
John McCain promised "to take the high road," then immediately went negative against Obama. Despite protestations of high-mindedness on both sides, they both have gone negative, as candidates have since the birth of the Republic. They do it because it works. When mud-slinging stops working, then the slinging of mud will stop.
Neither side can afford to run just positive ads because both parties are essentially the same: they are welfare state parties. They are two gangs fighting over power so they can spend the taxpayers' money the way their pressure groups want it spent. Neither party stands for real political values such as individual rights and liberty. Neither side has ideals worth advertising.
When you have two parties dedicated to expanding government power in a country that once believed, long ago, in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then it is best to say as little as possible about your true intentions. It is much safer to attack the other party and keep the focus on them -- attack, attack, attack. Rush Limbaugh has made a career mocking liberals, but you'll notice he says little positive about Republicans these days. What is there to say? "The Republicans will destroy your freedom only half as much as the Democrats"? Not many votes in that message.