Leaders we deserve: John McCain gets personal

October 10, 2008
Ad Hominem Attack

Ad Hominem Attack

John McCain began his presidential campaign with a reputation as a free spirit and gadfly of the Republican party machine. At first his campaign was characterised by his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. As the election approaches, he is relying on a more negative strategy.

In emotionally-charged public meetings, anger of John McCain supporters is being channelled against a common enemy. Watching one of the rallies on a TV clip, I also had an emotional reaction It left me feeling that in a close election, the ideals of the founders of the USA become overtaken by deeper atavistic fears.

In Britain today, as in America, there is a popular fury over the present financial chaos, and fears for the future. The British public too is finding enemies to turn their anger against. Bizarrely, the conservatives are out-doing the government in attacks on the avarice of city fat-cats, and the need to punish them and withhold future bonuses. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, recently regarded as toast, has gained ground in opinion polls.

The Ugly Campaign

In the USA, the presidential campaign is turning ugly [October 8th -9th 2008]. BBC viewers witnessed the heightened emotional state of Joh McCain supporters in one public meeting. We saw clips including a pro-life demonstrator who shouted above the general din that Obama was a baby murderer. This may have been media distortion and simplification, although it conforms to a report in the New York Times.

Senator John McCain joined in the attacks on Thursday on Senator Barack Obama for his ties to the 1960s radical William Ayers, telling an angry, raucous crowd in Wisconsin that “we need to know the full extent of the relationship” to judge whether Mr. Obama “is telling the truth to the American people or not.”

..what has been most striking about the last 48 hours on the campaign trail is the increasingly hostile atmosphere at Mr. McCain’s rallies, where voters furiously booed any mention of Mr. Obama and lashed out at the Democrats, Wall Street and the news media.
“I’m really mad!” shouted a man in the audience in Waukesha, where Mr. McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, were conducting a town-hall-style meeting. “And what’s going to surprise you, it’s not the economy. It’s the socialists taking over our country.”

McCain the maverick

Throughout the campaign, McCain supporters have emphasised his maverick tendency as a positive characteristic. The point was illustrated earlier by American columnist David Brooks. (I have synopticised the quite brilliantly-written piece).

On Tuesdays, Senate Republicans hold a weekly policy lunch. The party leaders often hand out a Message of the Week that the senators are supposed to repeat at every opportunity. John McCain generally spends the lunches ridiculing the whole proceeding. This sort of behavior has been part of McCain’s long-running rebellion against the stupidity of modern partisanship. In a thousand ways, he has tried to preserve some sense of self-respect in a sea of pandering pomposity.

When McCain set out to win the presidency he would venture forth in his bus, going places other Republicans don’t go, saying things politicians don’t say. But McCain hasn’t been able to run the campaign he had envisioned. Instead, he and his staff have been given an education by events.

McCain started his general-election campaign in poverty-stricken areas of the South and Midwest. He went through towns where most Republicans fear to tread and said things most wouldn’t say. It didn’t work. The poverty tour got very little coverage on the network news. McCain and his advisers realized the only way they could get TV attention was by talking about the subject that interested reporters most: Barack Obama.

McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them, running a much more conventional race, of the kind McCain himself used to ridicule. The man who lampooned the Message of the Week is now relentlessly on message. Both McCain and Obama had visions of upending the system. Maybe in office, one of them will still be able to do that. But at least on the campaign trail, the system is winning.

The leaders we deserve

The deterioration of political campaigns into emotionally-charged rallies can not be good for the ideals of democracy. American voters are facing a critical decision in critical times.

There can be no ‘right answer’. The result is, for all the complex interactions and distortions, deliberate or unintended, the will of the electorate.

The charismatic Obama has a wider appeal internationally, if we can believe what is being written by commentators of all hues. If anything, that may be strengthening the beliefs of the committed. ‘Nobody loves us and we don’t care’ as one group of disgruntled football supporters has been known to chant ‘.

The republicans are far from beaten.

Acknowledgements

To J.G. for alerting Leaders we deserve to the David Brooks article.
To anyone claiming image rights to the thumbnail which I grabbed from the net and can’t yet locate the original. I will be pleased to acknowledge its provenance.