There's something happening here, and what it is, is all too clear. McCain - Palin rallies over the last few days have disintegrated into festivals of hate, and the two candidates at the center of this are encouraging it.
There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.
In recent days, a campaign that embraced the mantra of "Country First" but is flagging in the polls and scrambling for a way to close the gap as the nation's economy slides into shambles has found itself at the center of an outpouring of raw emotion rare in a presidential race.
...Standing at the center of the crowd, McCain and Palin drew on the crowd's energy as they repeatedly trained their fire on Obama. McCain and Palin are soaking in the crowd's anger, amplifying it, and feeding it back.
"Senator Obama has a clear radical, far-left, pro-abortion record," McCain said after being asked about the issue.
The answer prompted a shower of boos from the crowd members. They booed again when he mentioned William Ayers, who bombed U.S. facilities to protest the Vietnam War as part of the domestic terrorist group the Weather Underground. They booed again at the mention of Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal from Massachusetts.
And McCain is promising more than anger. He's promising that he will name names. He's promising a new economic black list for Wall Street -- and for Capitol Hill.
"Will you assure us," one woman asked, "that, as president, you will take immediate action to investigate, prosecute and name the names of the people actually responsible?"
"I will," McCain answered. "The same people that are now claiming credit for this rescue are the same ones that were willing co-conspirators in causing this problem that it is," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd. "You know their names. You will know more of their names."
Just look at that statement for a moment. Two weeks ago, John McCain suspended his campaign and trotted back to Washington, claiming he had to help shepherd in the bailout agreement. Two days ago he was bragging about it. Yet here he is saying that the people "claiming credit" for this agreement need to be prosecuted.
The language McCain and Palin are using: "radical," "palling around with terrorists," "willing co-conspirators" is growing more heated by the day. It's language that's compounded by the "dangerous" commercials McCain is running across the country.
It's the kind of language that you use in describing an enemy in wartime. It's the kind of language that not only excuses violence, but encourages it. More and more it sounds as if McCain has inhaled the ghost of Joseph McCarthy and is exhaling the fevered rancor of Charles Coughlin.
The "Straight Talk Express" long ago left the station. "Country First" is the last thing on their minds. Nothing remains of John McCain's campaign but a tight little ball of festering hate. Considering the volatile nature of the country at the moment, and the fear so many are facing as they watch their life savings evaporate, that hate is all too easy to spread. There are millions of Americans looking for someone to blame for this disaster, and McCain is desperate to give them a target. He's said many times that he wants to reach across the aisle, and he's doing that, but he's holding a knife in his hand.
Maybe it's guilt over McCain's decades of voting for and evangelizing for the deregulation that brought on the crisis. Maybe he's desperate that the mob not look at his own record for the source of their troubles. Maybe he's simply angry because he sees his chance slipping away. Whatever it is, it's ugly. And getting uglier. Any decent candidate -- any decent human being -- would be working now to tamp down that ire, not raise it.
What John McCain is doing is no more responsible than tossing lighted matches into a tinder dry forest. Someone is going to get burned.
Even some in the McCain campaign have finally realized they may be going too far, and it will be interesting to see what comes of this internal debate within their campaign, if anything. Judging the folks like Salter and Schmidt who have been employing these tactics and making the decisions thus far, there's doesn't appear to be much hope at the end of the day.
Some McCain campaign officials are becoming concerned about the hostility that attacks against Sen. Obama are whipping up among Republican supporters. During an internal conference call Thursday, campaign officials discussed how the tenor of the crowds has turned on the media and on Sen. Obama.
Someone yelled "Off with his head" at a rally Wednesday for Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin in Pennsylvania. Later that day in Ohio, a man stood outside a rally holding a sign that said "Obama, Osama." At a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday, someone in the crowd wore a T-shirt depicting Sen. Obama wearing a devil mask.
The Obama campaign, with widening leads in several national polls, dismissed the attacks. "Sen. McCain's campaign has admitted that if he talks about the economy, he'll lose, so we fully expect him to continue his angry, personal attacks," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "Barack Obama will continue to talk about his plans to strengthen our economy and create jobs because that's what American families care about."
Mark Salter, a senior McCain adviser, says Sen. McCain is "happy" with the campaign. "We believe we can turn this around and fight our way back," Mr. Salter said.
A couple points: The first is that this is clearly not something John McCain is comfortable with. Aides have attested that his crankiness and short-fuse (even shorter than usual) may be a result of him agreeing to pursue a course he knows is destructive and dishonorable. Nevertheless, he is panicking and acting in desperation. As he’s done on several occasions in recent months, politics trumps principles - not exactly the tact that initially attracted millions of Americans to this once-Maverick candidate. As former Michigan Governor, William Milliken (R), recently said as he backed away from his support of McCain -- "He is not the McCain I endorsed."
It’s also interesting how McCain has travelled across the country boldly attacking the character and decency of Obama. He was quick to tell crowds that he was going to “take the gloves off” for that second presidential debate and really stick it to Obama. But when he had that opportunity, when he was face to face with Obama, he didn’t have the courage or the decency to say anything of the sort. Maybe he realized it wouldn't play well with voters who were watching their investments and livlihoods go up in flames. Maybe he realized how ridiculous, petty and divisive his attacks truly are. But regardless of the reasons for his silence, Joe Biden put it well when he said, “In my neighborhood, when you've got something to say to a guy, you look him in the eye and you say it to him."
Talking Points Memo dives more into the “Cowardice Issue:”
The image is coming into focus. Even McCain's confidants are now suggesting that it was his anger and frustration with Obama that led him to embrace Steve Schmidt's Willie Horton-on-Steroids campaign for the White House. And whether it's the appearance before the Des Moines Register Editorial board or his tense refusal to make eye contact during the first presidential debate, I don't think many people would deny at this point that McCain's hostility and contempt for Obama -- what even Wolf Blitzer calls his "disdain" -- is palpable.
After the first debate many people wondered aloud whether it was hostility and contempt or fear and intimidation that kept McCain from looking Obama in the face even once. But with two weeks and more evidence to consider, it is clear that it was both: Hostility that is magnified by the person's mortifying inability to face the person who inspires it. That's the kind of unchanneled, clogged up anger that makes you unsteady, that makes you make mistakes.
McCain's moral cowardice has been one of the subtexts of this campaign ever since he wound up the nomination and turned his attention to Barack Obama. But I did not realize it would reveal itself in such a physical dimension.
The tell came this week as McCain unearthed the Ayers story which, for whatever its merits, was fully aired months ago and has no clear relation to the particulars of October other than McCain's collapsing poll numbers. He's on it. Palin's on it. He's releasing slashing new TV ads like this one. Both of them are ginning their crowds up into spiraling gyres of right-wing delirium -- a ready-made Lord of the Flies (and let's admit that's a gentle allusion, given the tone of these barnburners) if Obama happened into one of the auditoriums at the wrong moment.
He ever swaggered on for a couple days about how he was going to 'take the gloves off' when he met up with Obama in Nashville. But when the two of them were there in each others physical presence ... nothing. By a myriad of gestures and reactions Obama owned him. Nor is it a matter of shifting off the tactics, because as soon as McCain made his hasty retreat from the stage at Debate #2 he was right back at it. In every other aspect of life, high and low, refined and unlovely, we have a word for that kind of behavior: cowardice.
And now Obama can lightly taunt McCain with that very cowardice, his inability to just say it to his face. And if my take on the inner workings of McCain's mind at the moment is right that should simply unhinge him even more.