At the heart of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign is the claim that he “puts country first.” He brags he has never put political considerations before what’s right for the country. (We can debate whether there have been exceptions). An important corollary to the principle of putting country first is unifying the nation. So Senator McCain often points out the many times he’s worked with Democrats on contentious issues. What’s sad is that Senator McCain’s current campaign strategy not only fails to put country first, it puts the country in danger.
The McCain campaign has unleashed numerous and serious attacks against his opponent, Senator Barack Obama. Attacks on an opponent are nothing new and can be legitimate. What Senator McCain’s campaign is doing, however, transcends what’s acceptable. It is increasingly ugly, divisive and dangerous.
Senator McCain’s running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, is pounding away at Senator Obama for his relationship with William Ayers, a founder of the domestic terrorist group, the Weather Underground. She has talked about his affiliation with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose anti-American rhetoric nearly torpedoed Senator Obama’s campaign in the primaries.
Raising these associations in order to question Senator Obama’s judgement is fair game. A would be president needs to demonstrate Judgement and that includes the kind of people they associate with. That Senator Obama has repudiated both Mr. Ayers and Reverend Wright is his campaign’s responsibility to put forward.
Governor Palin, however, is questioning more than Senator Obama’s judgement. She questions his patriotism. She is presenting him as an “other,” so different from mainstream America that he can be considered a traitor. As reported by the Associated Press and others, Governor Palin accused Senator Obama of being someone “who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough , that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” She describes him as someone who does not see “America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism.” By implication, Senator Obama must see America as an unexceptional force for evil. In contrast to “us,” he must be unpatriotic. And he certainly must be different.
It’s not just the running mates who have descended to this low level of campaigning. Again from the Associated Press: In Florida on Monday before Governor Palin spoke and in Pennsylvania today before both Senator McCain and Governor Palin gave speeches, partisans warming up the crowd referred to the Democratic nominee as “Barack Hussein Obama.” Senator McCain, back in February, was so incensed by this tactic that he personally repudiated them when this happened in Ohio. (This time the campaign issued statements saying it does not condone this “inappropriate rhetoric”). The reason is that it’s “widely viewed as an effort to link Obama to radical Islam even though he is a Christian with no such ties.”
Some McCain-Palin supporters are embracing this rhetoric and all it’s implications. During Senator McCain’s speech in Pennsylvania today, members of the audience shouted out “socialist,” terrorist” and “liar” when he mentioned Senator Obama. And here’s how how Dana Milbank in the Washington Post describes what happened during a speech by Governor Palin in Florida earlier this week.
“In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric‘s questions for her ‘less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media.’ At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, ‘Sit down, boy.'” Another man in the audience apparently yelled out “Kill him!” during her speech, although it was unclear whether he was referring to Senator Obama or Mr. Ayers.
That death threats and cries of treason would be voiced at a Governor Palin rally is not surprising. Her speeches ooze with scapegoating. Hatred is a logical consequence of her words. It’s a tactic used in many countries, many times, when times get harsh — focus the people’s anger on the “others,” those who are unlike them and can be blamed for causing the problem. In America, at one time or another, the “others” have included the Chinese, the Irish, the Japanese, welfare cheats, illegal immigrants, and African Americans. In Germany in the 1930s it was the Jews.
Demonizing opponents is not putting one’s country first. It is not pulling the country together to deal with serious problems. It’s the exact opposite. It elevates those who hate and diminishes those who would unite us. It hides problems and builds anger. It divides the populace and undermines our ability to stand on common ground. Especially in light of the current economic crisis, it is playing with matches in a cellar swamped by gas.
Again, questioning Senator Obama’sjudgement, attacking his record, criticising his proposals, mocking his experience; these are all legitimate lines of attack for the McCain campaign to take if that’s what it wants to do. It’s the Obama campaign’s job to counter those charges. But Senator McCain’s campaign generally, and Governor Palin specifically, goes far beyond that tactic to a place beyond what’s legitimate.
Senator Joe Biden today called Governor Palin’s rhetoric “mildly dangerous.” That is an understatement. It is unAmerican. It is unacceptable. It is divisive and extremely dangerous. If Senator McCain truly believes in putting his country first he would put a stop to it. By failing to do so, he makes clear that his own personal ambition is more important to him than America. That is both a shame and shameful.