The standard GOP character attacks, launched in the face of a once-in-a-half-century economic crisis, have failed. Obama’s favorable ratings went up. McCain’s went down. Obama now has a commanding lead.
What went wrong with McCain’s attacks? The audience’s shouted slurs ruined the classical Republican approach of plausibly deniable racism. Imagine if at the old boy's country club someone said, “Well, I’m not sure the Cohens would fit in here.” Wink wink. And his buddy responded, “Oh yeah. You mean because they’re Jews, right?” It ruins the ruse, like the sitcom stooge who asks “Hey, why are you kicking me under the table?”
The McCain campaign has used plausible deniability before. Why, for instance, did it deploy Bill Ayers (who is only tenuously connected to Obama) but not mention Reverend Wright (who is, in Obama’s words “like family to me,” and officiated at Obama’s wedding and baptized his children)? Deniable racism. The real payoff of the Ayers ads is putting the words 'radical' and 'terrorist' next to Barack Obama’s name. If accused of racism or anti-Muslim sentiments, however, the campaign and its surrogates can just feign innocence and say “We’re only talking about an aging white hippie and Obama’s judgment. Why are you playing the race card?” Clearly, however, the attacks revived the “secret Muslim” rumors that have been spread since 2004.
But the GOP base didn’t get the memo on how to bash Obama as a secret Muslim—i.e. implicitly. So the attacks backfired, turning the GOP’s carefully hedged strategy into out and out racism that the press and independent voters couldn’t ignore, with disastrous consequences for McCain. And now McCain has wisely ordered his campaign not to go after the Wright-Obama association, to avoid another racial dust-up.
I wish he would bring on Reverend Wright. The damage was done during the primary. Bring on the whole parade of black bogeymen. The racial stuff only hurts the Republicans. It appears that McCain, for the moment, has backed off. But Obama and Biden’s shrewd “say it to my face or you’re a coward” strategy seems to have succeeded in baiting McCain (an old schoolyard scrapper) into renewing the attacks during tonight's debate. One hopes that will ignite another round of infighting and distraction in the McCain camp.