All down hill from here

| Staff Columnist

Last June, the cover of The Economist featured the smiling figures of John McCain and Barack Obama, strutting in front of Old Glory beneath the title “America at its Best.” The connotation—that the coming election was to be a historic choice between two equally competent but philosophically distinct candidates—was enticing. After all, this was an election deeply rooted in reality.

There was the war, unpopular but of questionable outcome. McCain had consistently voted for it and Obama against it. There was the economy, bad enough to warrant divergent views on just how to get us out of the hole. McCain was for low taxes for everybody, including big corporations, and a smaller, more efficient government, Obama for taxing the rich and crediting the middle and lower classes and investing the rest in infrastructure. There was also the environment, with Obama in favor of an 80 percent reduction of green house gases and a stiff ban on offshore drilling and McCain for a less stringent 60 percent reduction and in favor of drilling.

These issues were titanic in their importance, but divisive, and it was up to the people to decide what course to take. The candidates, both disdainful of the baser practices of campaigning, were to refrain from any identity politics whatsoever and stick to the issues. Such feelings are typical in June. But for a while, it looked like maybe the good weather would hold all the way to November.

Then came the Republican National Convention, which by anyone’s standards, was positively Bushian in tone, content and message. Hypocrisy of Zell Millerian proportions was on high display. From Sarah Palin’s denouncement of a bridge she originally supported to Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice, thrice-married former mayor of the most cosmopolitan city in the nation, brashly employing “cosmopolitan” as an insult (at whom I need hardly name), to Mitt Romney’s masterful castigation of Obama for supporting the very anti-torture legislation that McCain himself helped steer through Congress, it was clear to anyone that 2004 had come again.

How did it get to this? Well, pretend you’re John McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis. It’s early July, and your campaign is floundering. With the economy the way it is, most people are looking for more help, not less hindrance. And the surge didn’t bring the conclusive results you might have been hoping for. And the environment turns out to be of growing importance to the people who aren’t shamelessly exploiting it. Also, your party is loosely associated with the most unpopular president since Hoover. In short, if you leave this election to the issues, you’re cooked. So given your position, you could be forgiven for reaching out to the dark side, in the form of one man: Steve Schmidt.

Don’t be dismayed if you don’t know who he is. That means he’s doing his job. A reverent disciple of Karl Rove and a central player in George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, Steve Schmidt has involved himself in most of the politically-significant Republican elections of the last decade, according to The New York Times. Nicknamed “the bullet” for his intense nature and bald, bullet-shaped head, Schmidt, who specializes in Republican message development and strategy, is now the de facto manager of McCain’s campaign. Schmidt’s tactics, though effective, are not new. He is, like Rove, a Picasso of hypocrisy. And just as John Kerry, a decorated war hero, ended up painted less patriotic than his coddled, draft-dodging opponent, so Schmidt has begun to render Obama, a man with an established record of public service, as more out-of-touch with the lower classes than John McCain, who recently admitted to needing help remembering just many properties he owns.

The consequences of Schmidt’s tactics are easily visible. To salvage McCain, Schmidt banished any chance of honest policy from the election’s remaining days. Take the economy. What began as honest-to-goodness big government vs. small government referendum has come down to accusations that Obama wants to “raise taxes for everyone, which mean fewer jobs” (this from some of McCain’s most recent advertisements). This was never Obama’s position, but now the task for Obama is not to push his policy, but to clarify what his policy, in fact, is. It comes down to a war of identity, just like every other Bush era election. I’m waiting eagerly for Chicago Community Organizers for Truth.

The real shame here is not that such (admittedly dastardly) tactics will hurt Obama’s chances—that’s all up to how Obama responds to this tonal shift. No, the crime here has been perpetrated on us: As the globe warms, as the economy continues to founder, and as Pakistan (a nuclear-armed country!) continues to dissolve, here we are again, caught up in the same old garbage. I don’t care whose side you’re on; the question of whether Obama is an elitist, Sarah Palin a good mother or McCain a maverick shouldn’t affect the outcome. This wasn’t supposed to be a street fight, though I guess it was inevitable. Stupid Economist, for making me believe otherwise.

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