Game show politics

Published 7:18 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Something unusual happened during the run-up to the Democratic convention: A presidential candidate was subjected to a highly prejudicial, not particularly honest personal attack, and for once the victim was a Republican. Interestingly, the political press jumped on it, happily trashing John McCain for two clueless remarks he never actually made. Are Democrats finally learning to fight dirty? Should the rest of us feel good about it?

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is running TV commercials mocking Barack Obama for not asking Hillary Clinton to be his running mate — a job she surely didn’t want. Because Republicans, of course, admire Hillary so. They’ve even found a Clinton delegate from Wisconsin to make a pro-McCain commercial, because …

Well, because why? Anybody calling themselves a Democrat who doesn’t understand how important it is for BOTH parties, not to mention the nation, that Republicans pay the price for the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush needs to turn in their party ID and Magic Decoder Ring and find another hobby. Something solitary and quiet, such as gardening or compiling a variorum edition of the “Pride and Prejudice” columns of Maureen Dowd.

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See, because it’s not simply his trademark arrogance and incompetence that have earned Bush the lowest approval ratings of any president since political polling began. It’s not merely the interminable morass in Iraq, worsening conditions in Afghanistan, manufactured “intelligence,” a legacy of torture, of epic corruption and cronyism, of one massive financial scandal after another, of runaway budget deficits and economic stagnation.

Yes, it was foolish and self-deluded of Republicans to imagine somebody of Bush’s limited abilities capable of handling the presidency. But the failure’s more than personal. So-called “conservative” ideology has lost contact with reality. The GOP has become the party of illusion, incapable of seeing the world as it is, infuriated by anybody who does.

Contemporary Republicanism isn’t a governing philosophy so much as a rationalized series of “talking points” useful in winning elections since the Reagan presidency. Always of limited usefulness with respect to the visible world (as Reagan himself, who knew a script when he saw one, sometimes realized), GOP dogma has grown downright dangerous.

But back to Democratic dirty tricks. Everywhere you looked, from the Washington Post to Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC News program, you saw John McCain pilloried for two classic “gaffes.” As the Post put it, the GOP candidate’s “inability to recall” how many houses he and his wife own jeopardized his strategy of framing Obama as an “elitist.” Campaigning in Wisconsin, the Democratic nominee lampooned McCain’s forgetfulness, also mocking him for defining as “rich” only somebody with an income exceeding $5 million a year.

The point was clear: The famous “straight talking maverick” is basically a gigolo (to use a word Republicans used to describe John Kerry in 2004), whose much-younger second wife inherited more money than the Bush family and Scrooge McDuck combined. For Obama, it was a two-fer, also hinting that the 71-year-old McCain’s memory might be fading.

Alas, neither of these things ever happened. Asked by a reporter how many homes he owned, McCain simply advised the reporter to check with his staff. He wasn’t unable to recall, merely unwilling.

It’s much the same with the $5 million thing. Asked to define “rich” by Pastor Rick Warren, McCain jokingly ducked the question.

“If you’re just talking about income,” he said “how about $5 million?”

He laughed, Warren laughed, the audience laughed.

“But seriously,” McCain continued “… and I’m sure that comment will be distorted. But the point is that we want to keep people’s taxes low and increase revenues.”

Indeed, the comment WAS distorted, even in supposedly straightforward newspaper stories and TV broadcasts. As Bob Somerby, who’s long documented this kind of skullduggery against Democrats, writes, “If you want to know who the press corps is hunting, just see which candidate’s jokes they transform into straight assertions.”

Well, so what? Wasn’t McCain himself, with that gibberish about increasing revenues by lowering taxes, shamelessly citing delusional GOP propaganda? He was. Indeed, McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, explaining that they’d do exactly as they’ve done: Blow a huge hole in the federal budget, endangering the nation’s financial security.

But now McCain wants to be president, so he’s joined the Republican War on Arithmetic. And given that millions of low-information “undecided” voters don’t get it, shouldn’t Democrats act on what GOP strategists have long known — that a presidential election is basically a TV game show: “Battle of the Celebrity Politicians?”

Replace the “straight-talking maverick” with the “blustering old hypocrite” and you’ve won? Something like that, yes.

Not that I have to approve.

That said, if I were Obama, I’d put that famous photo of McCain giving President Bush a big, warm hug on television so often people would start thinking his name was George W. McCain..