McCain Versus Obama : Become president or die trying

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The US presidential election has taken a nasty turn and the fault is all on one side.

The US presidential election has taken a nasty turn and the fault is all on one side.

John McCain, the Republican candidate, has recently launched a series of campaign advertisements that attack Barack Obama’s character and misrepresent the Democrat’s positions to an extreme degree, even by the standards of presidential elections. For intelligent independents who had believed that Mr McCain was a cut above all that, it is a sadly disillusioning thing to see. Even sadder would be if Mr McCain’s decision to play dirty works – as perhaps it might.

Negative advertisements are not in themselves a bad thing. It is legitimate and indeed desirable that political opponents should attack each other’s policy positions and fitness to lead – and that second test makes the question of character fair game too. In fact, a critic of Mr Obama’s campaign so far might reasonably argue that he has spent too little time confronting his rival. He has been inclined to dismiss the Republican (“four more years of George W. Bush”) and even to ignore him. Whereas Mr Obama’s campaign is mostly about Mr Obama, Mr McCain’s is very much about his opponent.

In itself, that is fine. There is nothing wrong in Mr McCain hammering away at Mr Obama’s policies or lack of experience. What is so disappointing in Mr McCain’s new strategy is the derisive and debased tone of the attacks.

One advert portrays Mr Obama not as a politician with weak qualifications but as a vapid celebrity akin to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, whose images are intercut with his. Another says that Mr Obama sees himself as a messiah: cue images of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Mr McCain has accused Mr Obama of preferring to lose the war in Iraq to losing the election, and (falsely, it appears) of refusing to visit wounded soldiers because he was denied a photo opportunity. (Had the visit gone ahead, he would no doubt have accused Mr Obama of using the soldiers for campaign purposes.) He says that Mr Obama will tax electricity (both propose a scheme to limit greenhouse gases that would have this effect). Another advert absurdly tells voters to blame Mr Obama for high petrol prices.

Mr McCain promised a respectful campaign. Early on he suggested that the two embark on a national tour of unmoderated debates, allowing them to talk through the issues in a way that US campaign orthodoxy forbids. Mr Obama rejected the idea — as any frontrunner would have been inclined to — but Mr McCain, renowned for his willingness to work with political opponents, impressed voters with his view that candidates can disagree courteously and even learn from each other. How far he has moved from that stance. The prevailing tone of his new campaign adverts is contempt: they sneer, they mock and they outrageously misrepresent.

Now Mr McCain has accused Mr Obama of “playing the race card”. Mr Obama has often remarked that his opponents want voters to notice his “funny name” and the fact that if he became president he would look different from his predecessors. Recently, for the first time, and perhaps unfairly, he linked that observation directly to the McCain campaign. Affecting outrage, the campaign said that this amounted to a charge of racism. Given the angry tone that Mr McCain and his team have injected into the campaign, it was a case of protesting too much.

Some speculate that this new turn in strategy could succeed and may indeed already be working. Mr Obama’s still narrow lead in the polls appeared to wobble last week under the onslaught. That makes it no easier to watch Mr McCain, of all people, descend to gutter politics. The Republican spent years gaining the respect of allies and opponents alike for his integrity and plain speaking. Now, it seems, he would rather lose a reputation than lose an election.

The Financial Times

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