Anger Management II: Backlash Against McCain’s Tactics of Fear & Loathing

While John McCain has shown problems of a personal problem handling anger as discussed in the previous post, he is also trying to instill anger and fear in his supporters in the hopes of getting back into the race. Joe Biden has referred to both McCain’s personal anger and his tactic of using anger as a political tool. The Trail reports:

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden sharply attacked the recent moves of Sen. John McCain’s campaign in a speech today, casting the Arizona senator as “an angry man, lurching from one position to another.”

They quote further from Biden

“You know, the idea here that somehow these guys are once again injecting fear and loathing into this campaign is … I think it’s mildly dangerous,” Biden said. “Here you have out there these kinds of, you know, incitements out there — guy introducing Barack using his middle name as if it’s some epitaph or something,” Biden told a crowd more than a thousand at a rally in Tampa, apparently meaning to use the word “epithet.”

“They have chosen … to appeal to fear with a veiled question: ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?'” Biden said.

The McCain campaign tries to spread a false answer to this question on Obama by distorting the facts on matters such as Obama’s past associations with people such as Ayers and Wright, hiding the fact that Obama’s association with Ayers was not very significanl and that Obama does not share radical views with either.

Steve Benen notes the hypocrisy of McCain launching such attacks considering that he has far closer associations with extremists  than Obama ever has:

But as long as we’re on the subject, McCain’s associations continue to be increasingly interesting as well. We’ve known for a while that McCain has befriended a convicted felon who advised his supporters on how best to shoot federal officials, used the money of a convicted criminal to help buy a house, befriended a radical anti-Catholic televangelist, befriended a radical anti-American televangelist, was a long-time associate of Charles Keating, and hired for his campaign the publisher of a Confederate nostalgia magazine who has described Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist.” This week, we also learned about McCain serving on the board of the extremist U.S. Council for World Freedom, where he worked alongside Iran-Contra figures, and a eugenics researcher studying “white superiority.”

Keith Olbermann did a report on John McCain’s associations with extremists and terrorists:


This type of smear works well with conservatives. Conservatives often hold beliefs which are counter to reality and typically have blinders which prevents facts from influencing their beliefs. Many conservatives are also prone to following conspiracy theories, making them gullible enough to even belief theories going around the conservative blogosphere that Obama is really a socialist as well as a terrorist trying to infiltrate the government.

Basing their attacks on such weak associations can also backfire against the authoritarian right, beyond the hypocrisy of having far more examples of real extremists uncomfortably close to their political leaders. This emphasizes characteristics of conservatives such as lack of toleration for freedom of association. Most people understand that going to a church led by Rev. Wright or sitting on committees (along with Republicans) with Ayers is not rational grounds for attack. Many people are not aware of the political views of those in their church, and this attempt by conservatives to write off not only Obama but everyone attending his church as un-American carries the stench of McCarthyism.

While these attitudes might fire up the conservative base, they alienate most thinking Americans. David Weigel of Reason (via Andrew Sullivan) posts a couple of videos showing the attitude of McCain/Palin supporters who believe the smears coming from their candidates and writes:

Via Jonathan Martin, who says “it’s difficult to imagine even the most hard-core conservatives saying that Al Gore or John Kerry were terrorists.” This is a huge problem with the McCain campaign’s negative turn. No swing voter took offense if a Bush surrogate called Kerry a limp-wristed, French-looking fraud. But I think they wince when they hear someone accusing Obama of terrorist “bloodlines.” The guy still has a net 18-point favorable rating. People simply don’t look at him and think “radical.” The velocity with which the McCain campaign has become a political arm of Sean Hannity’s America makes it look ugly and desperate, rather than strong, as Bush I looked when he mocked Dukakis or Bush II looked when he mocked Kerry.

After a second video, Weigel adds:

This is the blowback when McCain/Palin go hard negative. They rev up the base, but what on-the-fence voter wants to associate with people like this? It reminds me of the collapse of the illegal immigration issue. Yes, a majority of people told pollsters they wanted “secure borders,” but once they started associating those opinions with beer-bellied Minutemen snooping around the AZ-Mexico border, or mouthbreathing radio hosts like Michael Savage…

This view isn’t limited to libertarians such as Weigel. Even some conservatives realize that raising such anger is counterproductive. Andrew Sullivan also links to David Frum who warns fellow conservatives:

We conservatives are sending a powerful, inadvertent message with this negative campaign against Barack Obama’s associations and former associations: that we lack a positive agenda of our own and that we don’t care about the economic issues that are worrying American voters.

Republicans used negative campaigning successfully against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, it’s true. But 1988 and 2004 were both years of economic expansion, pro-incumbent years. 2008 is like 1992, only worse. If we couldn’t beat Clinton in 1992 by pointing to his own personal draft-dodging and his own personal womanizing, how do we expect to defeat Obama in a much more anti-incumbent year by attacking the misconduct of people with whom he once kept company (but doesn’t any more)?

Here’s another thing to keep in mind:

Those who press this Ayers line of attack are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that is going to be very hard to calm after November. Is it really wise to send conservatives into opposition in a mood of disdain and fury for a man who may well be the next president of the United States, incidentally the first African-American president? Anger is a very bad political adviser. It can isolate us and push us to the extremes at exactly the moment when we ought to be rebuilding, rethinking, regrouping and recruiting.

Besides seeing the danger in whipping conservatives into a fury, Frum is correct that this tactic gives the impression that conservatives lack any real agenda. I find it difficult to take seriously any group which is unwilling to argue the virtue of their positions against those of their opponents, but instead relies on distorting the views of their opponents along with dishonest smears. Republicans cannot simultaneously be the party of dishonst smear tactics and also be taken seriously as a party of ideas.

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