The election has taken a nasty turn. This is mainly the Republicans’ fault
AS RECENTLY as a few months ago, it seemed possible to hope that this year’s presidential election would be a civilised affair. Barack Obama and John McCain both represent much that is best about their respective parties. Mr Obama is intelligent, inspiring and appears by instinct to be a consensus-seeking pragmatist. John McCain has always stood for limited, principled government, and has distanced himself throughout his career from the religious ideologues that have warped Republicanism. An intelligent debate about issues of the utmost importance—how America should rebuild its standing in the world, how more Americans could share in the proceeds of growth—seemed an attainable proposition.
It doesn’t seem so now. In the past two weeks, while banks have tottered and markets reeled, the contending Democrats and Republicans have squabbled and lied rather than debated. Mr McCain’s team has been nastier, accusing Mr Obama of sexism for calling the Republican vice-presidential candidate a pig, when he clearly did no such thing. Much nastier has been the assertion that Mr Obama once backed a bill that would give kindergarten children comprehensive sex education. Again, this was a distortion: the bill Mr Obama backed provided for age-appropriate sex education, and was intended to protect children from sex offenders.
These kinds of slurs seem much more personal, and therefore unpleasant, than the more routine distortions seen on both sides. Team McCain accuses Mr Obama of planning to raise taxes for middle-income Americans (in fact, the Democrat’s plan raises them only for those earning more than $250,000); Mr Obama claims Mr McCain wants to fight in Iraq for 100 years (when the Republican merely agreed that he would gladly keep bases there for that long to help preserve the peace, as in Germany) and caricatures him far too readily as a Bush toady (when Mr McCain’s record as an independent senator has been anything but that).
An issue of life and life
The decision to descend into tactics such as the kindergarten slur shows that America is back in the territory of the “culture wars”, where the battle will be less about policy than about values and moral character. That is partly because Mr Obama’s campaign, perhaps foolishly, chose to make such a big deal of the virtues of their candidate’s character. Most people are more concerned about the alarming state of the economy than anything else; yet the Democrats spent far more time in Denver talking about Mr Obama’s family than his economic policy. The Republicans leapt in, partly because they have a candidate with a still more heroic life story; partly because economics is not Mr McCain’s strongest suit and his fiscal plan is pretty similar to Mr Bush’s; but mostly because painting Mr Obama as an arrogant, elitist, east-coast liberal is an easy way of revving up the Republican Party’s base and what Richard Nixon called the “silent majority” (see article).
The decision to play this election, like that of 2004, as a fresh instalment of the culture wars is disappointing to those who thought Mr McCain was more principled than that. By choosing Sarah Palin as his running-mate he made a cynical tryst with a party base that he has never much liked and that has never much liked him. Mr McCain’s whole candidacy rests on his assertion that these are perilous times that require a strong and experienced commander-in-chief; but he has chosen, as the person who may be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency, someone who demonstrably knows very little about international affairs or the economy.
What Mrs Palin does do, as a committed pro-lifer, is to ensure that the evangelical wing of the Republican party will turn out in their multitudes. Mr McCain has thus placed abortion, the most divisive cultural issue in America, at the centre of his campaign. His defenders claim that it is too big an issue to be ignored, that he has always opposed abortion, that culture wars are an inevitable part of American elections, and that it was only when he appointed Mrs Palin that the American public started to listen to him. All this is true: but the old Mr McCain, who derided the religious right as “agents of intolerance”, would not have stooped to that.