Obama and the netroots: looking a tad desperate these days

Megan's Fourth Law of Politics:  The party that starts looking for implausible and unprovable conspiracy theories about the opposition candidate is in trouble.

This spring, it was bizarre accusations against Barack Obama:  he's a closet muslim, his wife is a black nationalist, etc.  Now, suddenly, the Democrats are the one frantically hunting for buried treasure.

First, the solemn questions about a trivial anecdote from John McCain's time as a prisoner of war:

McCain's been getting a lot of mileage out of his "Christianity-in-captivity" story. It's been in ads, and speeches, and his talks from the pulpit. And for good reason: It's extraordinarily affecting. In it, McCain is spending another Christmas Day locked in a Vietnamese prison. A guard walks up to him and, with his foot, etches a cross in the dirt. McCain and his captor stare at the symbol for a moment, before the guard scratches it away and leaves McCain to his thoughts. "To me, that was faith," says McCain. "A faith that unites and never divides, a faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity."

What's peculiar about this story is that, as a DailyKos commentor noticed, it precisely echoes a tale from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago:

Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
It's quite a coincidence. A couple bloggers have started looking for some further evidence that this story actually happened to McCain.

What, exactly, is the point of this exercise?  Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973, the same year that John McCain was released from the POW camp.  There is no way of proving what the bloggers hope, which is that no mention of this story was made until after the book's publication.  And even if that were the case, all it would prove is that John McCain didn't tell this story until after the book's publication, not that it didn't happen.  Vietnam is a country with pretty rich Catholic tradition; tracing a cross in the dirt at Christmas is not something so unthinkably bizarre that it could only have happened in one communist dictatorship. 

The only way this would actually hurt McCain is if you found a signed letter from him saying that this never happened.  Since it's very unlikely that such a letter exists, the very best that this effort will achieve is sowing seeds of doubt in a few minds, making themselves look desperate to almost everyone else (and thereby making people wonder what's wrong with Obama, that they're this desperate), and outraging a number of people that you would call McCain's honor into question with absolutely no evidence, or hope of obtaining same.

Then there are the insinuations swirling around McCain's performance at the Rick Warren event, which his supporters are calling a win, and which Obama's supporters are calling a draw, from which I infer that he won.  Since we all know this is impossible, of course he must have cheated:

ohn McCain reportedly was somewhat more coherent than average at Rick Warren's forum. But there's now some doubt about how he achieved that. The two constestants candidates were asked the same questions, with Obama going first. To avoid giving bachelor #2 McCain an unfair advantage (beyond the unfair advantage of an audience of rich people who had shelled out $500-$2000 per ticket), McCain was supposed to be in a "cone of silence" (Warren's term) while Obama was on.

But he wasn't; he was in his limo on the way to the church. His staff says he didn't listen; maybe that's true. But nothing would have prevented a staff member from listening and calling McCain on his cell phone. (I believe that he does know how to use a cell phone.) McCain didn't bother to correct Warren when he told the audience about the "cone of silence," and Warren seemed surprised to learn that McCain hadn't been in the communications-free room.

This was a serious misstep on the part of the Obama campaign, and his supporters could best help him by never mentioning it again.  Sure, it's conceivable that this could have happened.  Is there any way to get any evidence that this happened?  No.  There are two possible scenarios:

  1. After a bad showing, they make an accusation they can't possibly prove, thereby looking like bad sports.
  2. After a bad showing, they make an accusation they can't possibly prove, and the McCain campaign produces his cell phone records, thereby making them look like jealous toddlers.

I've obviously seen the tightening national polls, and what I'm starting to hear is that among likelies and battlegrounds, McCain's gaining a commanding lead.  Since I'm hearing that from McCain supporters, however, I've been a little sceptical.  Less so after this weekend's performance.

 

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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