Monday, October 27, 2008

Suicide on the Straight Talk Express

It’s a staple of tabloid TV: the video feed from a closed-circuit camera inside a school bus. A fight erupts. Then two. Then all at once it’s a battle royal inside a moving vehicle, the driver just barely managing to keep control of the wheel. Sign of the times.

What would the raw video feed inside the John McCain Straight Talk Express look like right now?

There’s a knife fight in progress in one row of seats in the back, gunfire between two advisers a few rows up, hair pulling between senior aides a few rows behind the driver. Off to the side, the fax machine is groaning with confirmation pages of resumes sent to hiring managers, think tanks and law firms across the country.

You’d expect to find order on this bus, authority consistent with the military discipline of its driver, the man in charge, John McCain — the man with his name emblazoned on the side of the campaign jet.

But it’s all too clear: With policies and statements careering from one side of the rhetorical road to the other; infighting and backbiting among senior staff; and now with McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, the Vogue Rogue from Alaska, willfully going off message … the only chauffeur of the Straight Talk Express right now is Toonces the Driving Cat.

Longtime fans of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” will fondly remember Toonces. In a series of one-scene skits first aired during the 1989 season, the puppet feline was inexplicably behind the wheel of a large automobile occupied by himself and any number of screaming passengers, helpless as Toonces, unable to understand frantic English, unable to steer worth a damn, reliably drove the vehicle off a cliff.

Hell, if we’re dropping pop-culcha, let’s go one further: The McCain campaign has gone over that cliff more than once this presidential season, often enough to look like a political version of “Groundhog Day” — in McCain’s case, an endless recycling of the same mistakes.

The final precipice awaits on Nov. 4.

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The McCain campaign has been in a relative free fall for about two weeks. With diminished financial resources, dwindling crowds at campaign rallies and cratering support for his own running mate, the campaign now has to contend with ethical issues within the party. Again.

The case of Ashley Todd, a one-time College Republican volunteer self-implicated in a case of potentially explosive racial distortion, has been laid at McCain’s doorstep. So far, no response from the standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln — no response to this potential racial IED from one of his party’s own.

And today came news that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms had arrested two men in Tennessee, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, neo-Nazis believed to be part of a white supremacist group that intended to assassinate Barack Obama, and perhaps more than 100 other African Americans, more or less indiscriminately.

The men planned the national killing spree with Obama as its last target, Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the ATF Nashville field office, told The Associated Press.

"They said that would be their last, final act — that they would attempt to kill Senator Obama," Cavanaugh said. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying."

So far, no response from Team McCain.

We can expect statements about these deeply corrosive incidents from his campaign, count on it. But the question is why the inevitable response of condemnation would take more than hours. McCain’s response upon finding that Todd’s statements to police were a fabrication — were a cheap hoax that reawakened the worst in our racial history — should have been immediate. The calculation behind a delayed reaction is hard to understand.

It’s especially necessary from the McCain campaign to respond because of the increasingly volatile exhortations of the crowds at recent McCain and Palin campaign rallies (“Terrorist!” “Kill him!” “OBAMA BIN LYIN’”), outbursts that both candidates have generally downplayed or ignored.

It’s this slowness afoot, this vacancy of spirit, this absence of gumption that’s becoming obvious at many levels.

◊ ◊ ◊

Start with what's happening internally. “The lack of discipline and ability to draft and stick to a coherent message is unreal,” a House GOP leadership aide told Politico’s Jonathan Martin in an e-mail on Thursday.

“The staff has been remarkably undisciplined, too eager to point fingers, unable to craft any coherent long-term strategy. The handling of Palin (not her performances, but her rollout and availability) has been nothing short of political malpractice. … You have half of the campaign saying Ayers is a major issue, and then the candidate out there saying he doesn’t care about a washed-up terrorist. You have McCain one day echoing Milton Friedman and the next day echoing FDR.”

“It’s a natural and human reaction when you’re struggling to make up ground, but that doesn’t make it right,” said Dan Schnur, a former McCain communications adviser, speaking about the defeatist McCain aura to Politico. “As long as the campaign is still potentially winnable, [this is] an unnecessary distraction. This looks like it’s reached a point where the candidate has to step in himself and crack some heads to remind everyone why they came to work for him in the first place.”

◊ ◊ ◊

American political lore has it that the Democratic Party betrays a tendency to become a “circular firing squad,” undercutting the party’s best intentions with the friction and squabbling that, truth be told, the democratic process is heir to, more than the Democratic Party.

The McCain campaign of 2008 has gone the Dems one visual metaphor better. This free-fire zone on wheels is running on fumes right now: a presidential candidacy bereft of message, fractured from within, flat, listless, unemotional.

For the sake, then, of nothing more than keeping up appearances, of achieving at least a semi-dignified climbdown and exiting with principles intact, you’d have to think John McCain would take charge, to stand up on principles, to denounce the actions of Ashley Todd and the two men arrested in Tennessee, and to do it without the consultation and chin-pulling that seem to characterize so much of the McCain campaign.

In short: To make more of a case for him as president, rather than a case against Barack Obama as president. To be the Maverick® he’s always said he was.

Mercifully, the garage lies dead ahead for the McCain campaign. The only question left is: for the next seven days, who’s really driving what’s left of the Straight Talk Express?

We know it’s not John McCain.

Maybe it’s not even Toonces.

Maybe no one’s behind the wheel at all.
Image credit: McCain: Daniel Cowart: Unknown. Keystone Kops: Public domain.

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