By Daniel Larison
The campaign controversy of the moment seems to be whether McCain has been telling lies about his opponent, with the additional accusation from the opposing camp that he is also engaged in race-baiting. Of course, he is telling lies, and he isn't engaged in race-baiting, but in this bizarre election cycle you can be sure that he will be rewarded or at least forgiven for the former and then punished for something that he isn't doing. This is exactly what happened during the primaries when McCain lied about Romney's views on the war and Obama's campaign and supporters denounced the Clintons for exploiting racism, and it is all happening again just as it did earlier in the year. It is happening again mainly because this is how the two campaigns seem to operate when they are in closely-contested elections, which means we will continue to see more of this until November.
Trivial as they seem, these episodes sum up both campaigns and the media's treatment of both remarkably well. As he did in the primaries, McCain is simply making things up about his opponent's positions and actions, and just as his campaign did during the primary fight against Clinton Obama and his supporters are pushing fantastic claims that McCain is exploiting racism. (As with Clinton, McCain may be benefiting from prejudice, but attempts to show that they are actively exploiting it have been laughably weak.) Remember the memo the Obama campaign circulated documenting the instances of how the Clintons allegedly politicized racism? Then as now, the things that have provoked criticism have typically been entirely or mostly unrelated to race, and even when there is some small connection it requires hysteria and hypersensitivity to find something malevolent in that connection. This line of attack on Obama's opponents is not a new one, but the Obama campaign may be making a serious mistake in assuming that this attack will work as well in the general election as it did in the Democratic primary. Regardless, it will receive more attention and gain more traction in the press on the assumption that they have been using all year long, which is that whatever race-baiting the Clintons were supposedly employing, the GOP would use it even more extensively.
Back in January, the media criticized McCain for his lies about Romney, but ultimately forgave him on the twisted grounds that he doesn't enjoy lying, and so he remained their hero. The same will happen concerning McCain's lies about Obama. Meanwhile, McCain will suffer more damage from sustained media criticism that he is supposedly trafficking in racist tropes, despite the self-evident absurdity of the charge. The phony controversy about the alleged racism in McCain's horrible ads will distract attention from their insipid quality, but it will still generally work to McCain's detriment if journalists accept the idea that McCain's campaign is trying to promote or use racism in the election. If their response to the accusations against the Clintons is any indication, many will accept this idea, and Obama will profit from this sort of scurrilous charge. One thing seems likely: as I guessed a few months ago, the election will turn heavily on the biography and character of the candidates, and it will therefore be one of the more divisive and unpleasant general election campaigns we have experienced.
Cross-posted at Eunomia