Time Magazine editor Richard Stengel's question stemmed from blatantly deceptive tactics used directly by the McCain campaign of late, chock full of distortions, out-of-context statements and other “personality”-based knocks while ignoring the issues voters say are their highest priorities - the economy and Iraq.
McCain was cruising along last night, showing America what “high-minded” campaigning can look like, when he was asked about his questionable campaign tactics. McCain’s recent ads have been debunked and called “deceptive” by Factcheck.org but not before insinuating Obama is a pervert seeking to corrupt small children.
The recent negative streak was sparked off by Sarah Palin’s convention speech where she likened herself to a pitbull and ended the appearance by playing the song "Barracuda". McCain followed this with a series of TV ads which have been blasted by critics, but which have also launched him into the lead in polls. Even worse, McCain's camp made claims Obama was the one pulling dirty tricks, for example using "subliminal suggestion" to somehow label Governor Palin a pig through unrelated statements.
The sad reality is that negative campaigning works in the U.S., because by and large, the American people consistently succumb to manipulation. Research shows Americans are not likely to change their minds once committed, even if presented with compelling evidence. The old saying "bad news travels fast" reinforces how negative campaigning seems to stick in our minds where all else fades.
During the primaries, Hillary Clinton pulled incredibly close to Obama’s vote totals using fearmongering and doubt-raising spots. McCain noted this and went sharply negative early on, using lies and innuendo to “win ugly”.
Pacifism - A Weakness or a Strength?
Despite an energized anti-McCain blogosphere, Obama himself has shown far more restraint and “pacifism” then the opposition and even his own supporters. Many say he must "fight back", citing the laid-back approaches of Al Gore and John Kerry who sat by as they were swiftboated and slimed. Obama still seems to believe it's time to elevate the discussion, sticking strictly to the issues with the "audacity to hope" America will see the mud-slinging for what it is.
It’s clear Obama walks the walk in his aim to clean up politics today – Republicans know he could have put this whole thing away by selecting Mrs. Clinton as his running mate. But he resisted compromising his anti-establishment platform, instead choosing a far less “entrenched” VP in Joe Biden. This signals that he is serious about real reform – resisting great pressure from the less ethical wing of his own party, represented by Hillary who had herself lied and used misleading attack ads during the campaign.
McCain on the other hand, has abandoned his signature issues - election reform, torture, immigration - to appease the less ethical segment of the GOP. But more recently, McCain’s message has begun to sound a lot more like Obama’s, calling our government and economy “broken” and newly suggesting “change” come through him, even though he agreed with the current administration on almost every issue, and reversed himself on the others.
What WAS McCain’s Response to the Question?
Just like a politician, McCain simply deflected the question last night asking about his earlier promise to run a "high-minded" campaign. His response was slick, made almost as an aside: “Has it gotten rough? Yes.”
But McCain avoided taking responsibility for his part, saying “it” got rough instead of “we” got rough. He also minimized the importance of the question by not answering it directly, which shows he didn’t like it.
Your Part To Play?
Americans today need to improve our own ethics and see through all political manipulations. The young voter today sees the previous generation as a nation of bitter, partisan hypocrites who have frittered away our treasury and will be handing them the bill, plus interest. I can overlook crazy pastors, past drug use and verbal gaffes as long as my candidate has a plan to reduce the deficit so I am not embarrassed about handing my daughters this debt. Our government should structure the tax code so the breaks and benefits help as many Americans as possible, not a select class of donors.
I am staying focused on the issues Americans agree are most important – the economy, energy policy, repairing our global image. It’s clear Obama’s plan to give working families tax breaks instead of big-money fatcats is what will best help my daughters have a secure future. McCain is "married to money" in numerous ways yet said himself last night he was divorced from the day to day problems of ordinary people. You could have turned it off there.
Here's What Obama Should Do Next
Obama seems to be turning up the tone a bit in combatting distortions, but that isn't really an answer if he's spending his time and money defending himself from ridiculous claims. It's not hard to picture Obama keeping his integrity but losing the election - this is a serious dilemma. Go negative and you lose your soul too.
Obama has started to spotlight how his use of technolgy and innovation distinguish himself from McCain. He recently used his campaign apparatus to quickly raise disaster relief funds for the Red Cross, at once demonstrating forward thinking, compassion and service in practical, necessary ways and without much fanfare. The contributions poured in even more when McCain's campaign copied the idea the next day, showing America who is the natural leader of the two.
Obama should next go completely out of the box and introduce an new level of transparency into his campaign. I think Obama should film and share his staff meetings and deliberations. This may just satisfy America's thirst for reality-TV voyeurism while showing unprecedented honesty and candor in the innermost decision-making sanctum.
There is no doubt McCain would be unable to copy this tactic while continuing to produce dirty tricks.