Monday, October 20, 2008

McCain's truth, with a pound of Salter

Mark Salter unloaded his alternate-universe view of how the media has viewed the rival campaigns today, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Wounded, angry, aggrieved, Salter makes Hillary Clinton's aides in their post-caucus shellshock sound (retroactively) like jolly good sports. In Salterland, the media invented the McCain's-gone-Rovian narrative out of whole cloth:
The other guy is much more negative, by some almost immeasurable factor. His message on McCain has been consistently negative since the North Carolina primary. Barack Obama has not made a public statement in this country which did not include a full-throated attack on McCain. It's just a fact. They have ads saying McCain opposed stem cell research. McCain voted for stem-cell research as he got ready to run for President. He offered, against the consensus advice of his staff, the immigration bill. Obama runs an ad saying, "He's turned his back on you." For three weeks Obama has walked around this country calling McCain a liar, dishonorable, and erratic. Those are character-based attacks that he has been leveling at us for weeks and weeks and not a single reporter has called him on it. It's just insane. McCain won't even use Rev. Wright, out of an abundance of caution. So he raises the next guy, Bill Ayers, and you know what we get? We get called racist. How is that racist? You got me.
God, where to start?

Not all "negatives" are alike. Of course Obama "has been consistently negative" when talking about McCain: he's running against him. The question is whether you go after policy or character. At the outset, Obama chose the former; McCain, the latter. At the Democratic Convention, the major speakers all killed McCain with kindness. Their personal praise for his heroism and his Senate record was sustained and specific; they then each lit into his current policies as a continuation of Bush's policies. The refrain of Obama's convention speech was the antithesis of a character attack: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

McCain, in contrast, began his campaign against Obama with character attacks. First, Obama was a vapid celebrity, a political Paris Hilton. Fine: very funny. Next, the truly vicious -- and a McCain signature against past rivals: Obama "would rather lose a war than lose a campaign." In other words, he puts his personal interest above the national interest; in other words, he's no patriot and has no 'honor' - always a McCain monopoly in McCain's narrative. Then, the insinuations that rose almost to the level of incitement to violence: he's not one of us. He pals around with terrorists. Who is Barack Obama? Barack Hussein Obama?

As for Obama's later "character" attacks: he called McCain on his lies after McCain had been verifiably, relentlessly lying for months about Obama's positions and actions. Remember? Obama canceled a visit to wounded soldiers when he learned the press could not accompany him. He favored teaching "comprehensive" sex education kindergartners. He voted against requiring hospitals to keep viable fetuses alive. A press corps generally acknowledged to be very favorably disposed toward McCain was virtually unanimous: McCain's distortions of Obama's positions and record were orders of magnitude more extreme that Obama's slanting of McCain's. Karl Rove acknowledged that "McCain has gone in some of his ads -- similarly gone one step too far." But to Salter, McCain's descent into filth is a storyline invented by the media.

Yes, Obama did call McCain's behavior "erratic." That's only because it was; Obama was one of a very large chorus. The charge was hard to counter:
His first response to this crisis in March was that homeowners shouldn’t get any help at all. Then, a few weeks ago, he put out a plan that basically ignored homeowners. Now, in the course of 12 hours, he’s ended up with a plan that punishes taxpayers, rewards banks, and won’t solve our housing crisis. This is the kind of erratic behavior we’ve been seeing from McCain.
This from Obama after weeks of being impugned as a terrorist pal and alien. Hardly a scurrilous "character" attack. In fact, Obama has been far gentler than no less a Republican stalwart and uber-hawk than Ken Adelman, who astonished even himself with a judgment confessed today to George Packer:
When the economic crisis broke, I found John McCain bouncing all over the place. In those first few crisis days, he was impetuous, inconsistent, and imprudent; ending up just plain weird. Having worked with Ronald Reagan for seven years, and been with him in his critical three summits with Gorbachev, I’ve concluded that that’s no way a president can act under pressure.
For weeks, when confronted about his own lies and smears, McCain and his surrogates have simply blamed Obama. A dirty campaign? Obama drove him to it by declining to play by McCain's rules and debate on McCain's terms. Ads 100% negative? Obama runs more negative ads in absolute terms (never mind that they're 1/2 to 1/3 of Obama's total, or that they're focused on policy as opposed to character assassination.) Salter takes this reversal of reality to the extreme, and apparently believes it:
JG: What do you say to people who say, "The McCain I like I haven't seen in two or three months, and I hope he comes back to us."

MS: That's the McCain who's running in this race. You just don't report what you see. It's the whole thing about our rallies. Ninety-nine percent of our rallies, if there's a disruption, if there's something ugly shouted, they're Obama supporters.
Having built his identity around ghost-writing McCain's, Salter insists that the campaign has not changed McCain. On that one point, we should probably believe him. In the Land of McCain, the hero on center stage is always honorable, the opponent is always corrupt, and those who don't buy into this narrative don't report what they see.

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