Saturday, October 11, 2008

The hunter gets captured by the game

It’s come to this: Sen. John McCain is so bereft of message, so at a loss for a bedrock theme that he was booed on Friday by his own supporters.

This latest reversal of fortune is one we could have seen coming out of sheer political necessity. After more than a week of tireless assaults on the character of Sen. Barack Obama, and a few days of an escalation of rhetoric so intense it led to people in the crowd inciting to violence against Obama, McCain found himself in the unenviable position of undercutting his own strategy — by praising Obama on the stump.

What might seem at first blush like a return to reason, a walk back from the brink of fomenting a national disaster, was really nothing less than the most recent mistake from a campaign increasingly trapped in its own existential ball of confusion.

After a week of whipping the faithful into a frenzy about Obama, now McCain discovered he’s built an animosity machine that would go of itself, despite his best attempts to get it under control. It was clear on Friday that the hunter had been captured by the game — the game whose rules he thought he had mastered.

At Lakeville South High School in a suburb of Minneapolis, McCain was engaged in one of his town-hall forums, presumably back in his element.

A man in the crowd, soon to be a father, said he didn’t want to bring a child into a world of an Obama presidency. The man told McCain he was “scared” of an Obama presidency.

“I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be,” McCain said. “But I have to tell you — I have to tell you — he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared” of “as president of the United States.”

The crowd booed loudly McCain.

Later at the town-hall meeting, a woman stood up and told McCain that she didn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.”

McCain, visibly flustered, took the microphone from the woman. “No, ma’am, no, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.” The crowd applauded McCain.

At another point in the proceedings, after a voter expressed hopes for a “real fight” at the next debate (Wednesday at Hofstra University), McCain replied, “We want to fight, and I will fight, but we will be respectful.”

Then he said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him and I will —”

The crowd booed again. “I want everyone to be respectful and let’s make sure we are, because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America,” McCain said.

The crowd applauded again.

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This is the danger in McCain’s relentless pursuit of swing voters and the virulently passionate low- and no-information voters he has relied on. McCain has had to walk back his own personal-attack campaign strategy, and contradict the same diehard supporters still left in his corner — undercutting both his own campaign offensive and the passion of those in the base he needs for even a chance at the presidency.

There won’t be much from this event that’ll find its way into a McCain campaign ad. It looks bad when you overrule your supporters at your own campaign rally.

Lawrence O’Donnell, a longtime observer of presidential politics, saw McCain’s dilemma. “Now he finds himself in this position having … created this monster he can no longer control,” he said Friday on MSNBC’s “Countdown.” “It’s a terrible place to be.”

“There’s a way to play this game so that you end up with no good choices,” he said. “We are watching a campaign that has maneuvered itself into exactly that position.”

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With McCain himself effectively condemning his own strategy of personal character assaults, it will be interesting to watch his plan of attack at the Wednesday debate, whose focus will be on domestic matters.

Meanwhile, his campaign associates are playing for time by trying to redefine it."The four weeks that are left are an eternity. There's plenty of time in the campaign," Republican strategist Joe Gaylord told The AP last week. It’s an idea that piggybacks on the old dictum that “a week is a year in politics.”

But when the real-life clock is so short for a campaign running out of ideas, that luxury bromide is no longer in effect. John McCain is now lurching toward the point at which a week in politics is exactly seven calendar days.

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