Before leaving work, I read that McCain continued to allow his audience to shout "terrorist" and "traitor" and "kill him! -- and that his henchmen were blaming Obama for the crowds baying for his blood. I was thinking that McCain has crossed the line into demagoguery -- and, with the threat of violence, fascism. When you demonize your opponent -- painting him as an outsider, a friend of the country's enemies, an exotic unknown with a hidden agenda -- that's demagoguery. When your supporters call for blood and you don't stop them, that's fascism. When your henchman say that the target of those calls for violence himself incited the rage, that's fascism.
But this afternoon, McCain took several steps back. In Lakeville, MN, Ana Marie Cox reports, he faced down supporters drunk on fear and hatred of Obama -- several times:
And then later, again, someone dangled a great big piece of low-hanging fruit in front of McCain: "I'm scared to bring up my child in a world where Barack Obama is president."
McCain replies, "Well, I don't want him to be president, either. I wouldn't be running if I did. But," and he pauses for emphasis, "you don't have to be scared to have him be President of the United States." A round of boos.....[snip]...he just snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, "I'm scared of Barack Obama... he's an Arab terrorist..."
"No, no ma'am," he interrupted. "He's a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements."
We've reached the point where McCain's erratic swings are good news -- he won't go straight down Demagogue Road. We're witnessing psychomachia -- or pardon the expression, jihad -- in a man who's selling himself as "a cool hand at the tiller."
Ever since he launched unleashed the whirlwind of personal attack, it's been two steps forward and one step back. The war is within his camp, as well as within himself. Today's WSJ reported on the in-house debate:
The McCain campaign released a new video attacking Sen. Obama for his contacts with Williams Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, a radical group tied to bombings during the Vietnam War era. Mr. Ayers is now a professor and a figure in mainstream Chicago politics.
But Sen. McCain vetoed proposals to attack the Illinois senator for his 20 years as a member of the church led by Rev. Wright, whose harsh comments about racism in America and other issues created problems for Sen. Obama during the Democratic primary contest. Sen. Obama publicly severed ties with Rev. Wright earlier this year.
So McCain is holding back. Wright is far more toxic than Ayers. I know people from a full range of political persuasions who are troubled by Obama's 20-year bond with Wright. Focusing the campaign on guilt-by-association in the midst of a world financial meltdown remains despicable. But if you're going to go that way, focusing on Ayers rather than Wright is just dumb. Ayers is a relative outlier -- what career politician doesn't have an Ayers-level problem among the hundreds or thousands of people s/he has associated with? Wright, on the other hand, is part of Obama's intellectual history and by Obama's own account integral to his spiritual development.
Sen. McCain has said Rev. Wright is off limits.
That decision, and the worry that the campaign could open itself to accusations of racism, has kept Rev. Wright out of their strategy.
One McCain senior adviser said the difference between Mr. Ayers and Rev. Wright isn't race, it's religion. "It's not appropriate to attack someone's faith," he said.
Which way will McCain swing at last? Will the mea culpa that Joe Klein predicted come before election day rather than after? Will he embrace the press in a warm bear hug, shower Obama with personal praise, and slam him for proposing a trillion dollars in new spending and premature withdrawal from Iraq, as he has every right to do? Or will he pitch himself down the path of all-out character assassination?
Watching the war within would be exciting theater, if it weren't so terrifying.