The overreach

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by Jeff Fecke • 9/16/08 • One thing that I’ve found interesting in the past week has been the zeal with which the McCain campaign has gone with the “lying to the American people” strategy. Whether it’s choosing to have Sarah Palin continue repeating the “Bridge to Nowhere” lie or John McCain running ads against Obama that are chock-ful-o-lies, the McCain camp decided last week to go all-in on the lying strategy, betting that the Obama campaign and, more important, the press wouldn’t call the bluff.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota. In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, will available for sale in September.

But both did. And the lies were so audacious, so over-the-top, so clearly lies that the press has taken a giant step back from John McCain, and granted him the adversarial relationship he’s been claiming in the face of all evidence.

Today’s data point in this shift is long-time tire-swing devoteé Richard Cohen, who pretty much repudiates McCain as sharply as he can:

The precise moment of McCain’s abasement came, would you believe, not at some news conference or on one of the Sunday shows but on “The View,” the daytime TV show created by Barbara Walters. Last week, one of the co-hosts, Joy Behar, took McCain to task for some of the ads his campaign has been running. One deliberately mischaracterized what Barack Obama had said about putting lipstick on a pig — an Americanism that McCain himself has used. The other asserted that Obama supported teaching sex education to kindergarteners.

“We know that those two ads are untrue,” Behar said. “They are lies.”

Freeze. Close in on McCain. This was the moment. He has largely been avoiding the press. The Straight Talk Express is now just a brand, an ad slogan like “Home Cooking” or “We Will Not Be Undersold.” Until then, it was possible for McCain to say that he had not really known about the ads, that the formulation “I approve this message” was just boilerplate. But he didn’t.

“Actually, they are not lies,” he said.

Actually, they are.

Now, let me remind you, that’s not some guy with a website saying that. It’s Richard Cohen, WaPo denizen and inveterate blog-hater. He’s the guy who put the “conventional” in “conventional wisdom.” So when he writes stuff like this:

McCain has turned ugly. His dishonesty would be unacceptable in any politician, but McCain has always set his own bar higher than most. He has contempt for most of his colleagues for that very reason: They lie. He tells the truth. He internalizes the code of the McCains — his grandfather, his father: both admirals of the shining sea. He serves his country differently, that’s all — but just as honorably. No more, though.

Or this:

McCain has soiled all that. His opportunistic and irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin as his political heir — the person in whose hands he would leave the country — is a form of personal treason, a betrayal of all he once stood for. Palin, no matter what her other attributes, is shockingly unprepared to become president. McCain knows that. He means to win, which is all right; he means to win at all costs, which is not.

Or this:

…McCain lied about his lying and maybe thinks that if he wins the election, he can — as he did in South Carolina — renounce who he was and what he did and resume his old persona. It won’t work. Karl Marx got one thing right — what he said about history repeating itself. Once is tragedy, a second time is farce. John McCain is both.

Well, let’s just say that the worm has turned.

The lying gambit could have worked. Had the McCain camp been more willing to wait for the election to draw near, they could have used lies and distortion in the waning days of the campaign to swing the election their way. But they got impatient. And they pulled the trigger on the strategy too hard, to early. And in doing so, they made what could prove to be a catastrophic miscalculation.

As I’ve written many times, there are two John McCains. “John McCain” is an honorable, likable guy, a conservative, sure, but not an asshole about it. He’s able to work across the aisle, listen to and respect his opponents, and generally behave in an honorable fashion. “John McCain” disappeared in 2006, replaced by John McCain: a nasty, surly jerk who’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal his way to the presidency. Up until last week, the media wanted very much to believe that the real John McCain was “John McCain.” But now, with McCain standing behind the lies and deceit of his campaign, there’s no hiding the fact that the guy calling himself John McCain these days is not honorable.

And this is a problem — because honor was the one thing McCain could sell, the one thing he had that no other Republican could offer. Absent that, he’s Mitt Romney with a war record, George W. Bush, only grumpier. And absent that, it will be very easy for Americans to decide that’s not the kind of change we can believe in.

McCain basically dared the media to go after him last week. And while the media in America is a docile creature, it still can charge when provoked. All indications are that the media now feels it’s being played, and it will respond by treating McCain like the politician he is, not the demigod he was. And that means that the American public will hear often over the next seven weeks about how big a liar McCain is, and how he picked a liar for a sidekick, too. That’s pretty mavericky, if by “maverick” you mean “douchebag.” But that’s John McCain.