The next attempt was to try and portray Obama as the dangerous and unknown ‘other’, the man with the mysterious past, who consorted with ‘terrorists’, had a strange and Muslim name, unusual and partly foreign family history, who had associated with a pastor who had called upon god to damn America, and so on. The McCain campaign did not identify Obama as the anti-Christ, but one can be sure that some of their fervid religious supporters were doing so. All these were attempts to portray him as someone ‘not like us’, “who does not see America as we do” (to use Sarah Palin’s words), whose loyalties were suspect.
While this was a totally despicable tactic, another problem is that it was hard at this late stage to make the charge stick that Obama was a dangerous, wild-eyed, Marxist, Islamic, terrorist. After all, the country had seen him for almost two years and over twenty debates looking calm and self-assured and surrounded by establishment figures like Warren Buffett, responding with a steady hand to the financial crises and other issues as they came up.
Even strong McCain supporter Charles Krauthammer had to concede that Obama seems so unflappable that even if a grenade went off in the room he would still manage to complete his thoughts in a coherent way. Such coolness does not jibe with the idea of a wild-eyed radical.
The next-to-latest message, when it seemed almost certain that McCain was going to lose, was to argue that a divided government is good for America and since the Congress is assuredly going to be in Democratic hands, people should vote in a Republican president to thwart any action. ‘Vote for a stalemated government’ is not an inspiring message, to put it mildly. Furthermore, while it may have some appeal in good times when people don’t want the government to mess things up, when times are seen as tough as they are now, people want things to happen and to have decisive action. They want things to change and stalemate and gridlock is the last thing on their wish list.
The very last message was a weird one that emerged at the end of the campaign. It was alleged by McCain and Palin that Obama was going to bankrupt the coal industry. Even I, who have the luxury of being able to follow politics fairly closely, was baffled by what they were getting at and had to do some digging to find out what was going on. It turns out that this is a piece of esoteric politics, involving some consequences of cap-and-trade greenhouse gas environmental policies. Furthermore, Obama’s policies on this issue are similar to ones that McCain has supported in the past and for which he was also accused of bankrupting the coal industry.
Did the McCain camp really think that the state of the coal industry was an attention grabber in the last few days before the election? How many people would know or care about the workings of the coal industry? It was quite surreal. The only reason I could think of for bringing this up at this late stage was that he hoped it would get some votes in the coal mining Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states on which the McCain-Palin camp was pinning its hopes.
The problem for the McCain camp has been that each of these alternative messages seem to have been developed on the fly, not thought through, and not given much chance to take hold. If a new message did not produce quick results, it was summarily abandoned and a new message promoted. This rapid fire switching gave the impression of a campaign lurching from issue to issue and gave the Obama camp the opportunity to hammer home the message that McCain is erratic and impulsive.
Also, some of the messages contradicted each other and led to confusion, not a good thing when you are trying to define your opponent negatively. After all, how can you say that Obama is an arugula eating, country club, Hollywood-style, elitist celebrity, while at the same time that that he is a Marxist terrorist sympathizer? How can he be the faithful follower of a ‘dangerous’ Christian minister Jeremiah Wright while also being a Muslim? To successfully pull off such successful double lives would require Obama to have the skills of The Scarlet Pimpernel or Raffles.
It was not surprising that none of these scattershot attacks on Obama worked. If you seek to define someone negatively, it has to be done early in the campaign and have at least some basis in reality while your opponent is still a blank slate in the minds of voters. Once people have formed their own impressions, it is hard to change them.
It is telling that even at the end, the lack of experience issue was still the major concern that some people had about Obama, suggesting that it had always been the McCain’s strongest argument. This charge had some factual basis and was introduced early enough to be a defining issue for many voters. But now those concerns were superceded by even greater concerns about Palin’s lack experience.
McCain had problems from the start. Bush and the Republicans were deeply unpopular. The drop in violence in Iraq, rather than benefiting him as someone who had strongly supported the surge, had the effect of taking Iraq out of the news and becoming a non-issue. The economic crisis arrived at a bad time, focusing attention on his own admitted weak spot.
But when the history of this campaign is written, I suspect that the direct and indirect fallout from the Palin selection will loom large as the one single event that caused his campaign to lose focus and stumble.
POST SCRIPT: Palin and Africa – Getting even weirder
Remember the Fox News report quoting an anonymous aide to McCain who said that Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent? Palin’s followers were outraged by this leak and demanded the leaker be identified and punished.
Well, a McCain aide “Martin Eisenstadt” did admit to the leak but it turns out that his whole character is a hoax. He was also responsible for the false story that Joe the Plumber was related to Charles Keating, which I mentioned on my blog.
A knowledgeable commenter Samantha, who says she is a freelance reporter for the BBC and seems to know a lot about “Eisenstadt’s” history, mentioned this hoaxer in a comment on this post. She has been following “Eisenstadt” and if you click on her name it will take you to some really interesting stuff where she interviews him.
What is still not clear from this latest story from the New York Times is what is the hoax: the actual story that Palin did not know that Africa was a country, or the claim that “Eisenstadt” is the leaker. The article is not precise on this.