With the presidential election only 3 weeks away, John McCain faces a stark choice: Will he go down in history as a principled conservative who lost an election standing on his convictions? Or will he go down as an opportunist who lost while bringing out the darkest elements in American politics?
With the national and international financial system in a midst of collapse, Americans worried about saving their jobs and their homes, the Iraq War lasting longer than World War II, and Osama Bin Laden still holed up in the mountains of Pakistan, 72-year-old John McCain is a man whose ideas and persona are out of step with this moment in history.
After 8 disastrous years of Republican rule under George W. Bush, all of the tides of history point towards a Democratic victory on November 4th. Obama's principle obstacle to the presidency has been whether a majority of Americans were ready to accept him as Commander in Chief. After his performance in the first two debates, and his calm and steady response to the financial crisis, Obama seems to have passed that threshold. Obama holds commanding leads in national polls and in all the states won by Kerry in 2004, and is also leading in 9 states won by Bush. The election now appears to be shaping up as a possible electoral vote landslide combined with large Democratic pick-ups in the House and Senate.
McCain's campaign believed that their only chance was to change the subject from the economy and make Obama scary and unacceptable, a man who "pals around with terrorists." In the face of the vast economic crisis, that strategy appears to be failing, turning off moderates who want answers to their problems, even as it may be firing up the base.
More disturbingly, McCain's strategy is bringing out the dark underbelly of American politics -- a strain of hate-filled nativism and racism that always lurks just below the surface of parts of the American political psyche. Historian Robert Hofstadter called it "the paranoid style in American politics". This strain is showing itself in increasingly angry crowds at Palin/McCain rallies which yell "terrorist" and "off with his head" about Obama. Even McCain himself appears to be taken aback by the virulence of his crowds' reaction, partially defending Obama over the boos of his own supporters. Since it was the Palin/McCain campaign that had unleashed these forces with its implications that Obama was sympathetic to terrorism, John McCain has reached the point of political schizophrenia.
John McCain is now at a crossroads. At this historical moment, he has virtually no path to win the presidency. The question is whether he will lose with honor or lose with disgrace. Will his legacy be like that of his Arizona Senatorial predecessor Barry Goldwater, who ran a campaign of conservative principal in a liberal year and lost in a landslide, only to see his principals come to power 16 years in the form of Ronald Reagan? Or will his legacy be like some combination of Richard Nixon, Robert Dole and George Wallace, one of a man whom, in his overweening ambition for victory, took the low road and tapped the dark forces of American politics to his own everlasting shame and dishonor?
If McCain hopes to maintain his honor, here's the type of statement he should make:
My friends. I have been deeply disturbed to watch the reaction that my recent campaign has stirred up in many of my supporters. I want no part of racism and jingoism.
I profoundly disagree with Barack Obama on the direction I believe our nation should take in both domestic and foreign policy. But he is a patriot and a man of great political talent whom, as conservative columnist Charles Krautheimer has written, has a first class intellect and a first class temperament. I will continue through the remainder of this campaign to tell you why I think he's wrong about the direction America should take in this dangerous world and why my experience makes me more qualified to lead this nation through the domestic and international crises which we face. But I will no longer run a campaign based on tearing Obama down as a man and trying to make you scared of him.
I am announcing today that I am asking Sarah Palin to step down as my running mate. She is profoundly unqualified to stand a heartbeat away from the presidency. She is ignorant about foreign policy, ignorant about domestic policy and more frighteningly, ignorant of her own ignorance.. She has aligned herself with the forces of the religious right whom I denounced as "agents of intolerance" when I ran against George W. Bush in 2000. The nation would be in great danger if she were to become President, far greater danger than if Barack Obama were to become president. I am disappointed in myself that I allowed myself to be pressured into selecting her by threats from elements of my own party to create a floor fight at the Republican convention if I selected a qualified candidate who might be pro-choice. I allowed my ambition to override my better judgment. I am now going to fix that mistake.
I am also announcing that I am firing my chief Campaign Strategist Steve Schmidt and all of the other disciples of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater whom he has hired to run my campaign. They have already done far too much to poison our politics and polarize our nation. During the 2000 Republican primaries, when they ran a campaign of smears and lies about me -- even spreading the rumor that I had an illegitimate black baby when the truth was that my wife had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh -- I said there was "a special place in hell" for people like that. I was right then and I was wrong to hire them now. I have allowed them to run a campaign of personal destruction against Senator Obama which, I am ashamed to say, has brought out some of the worst elements in American politics, elements which I do not want my good name to be associated with
I am now correcting that mistake. As of today, they no longer work for my campaign. I am asking Mike Murphy, who ran my campaign in 2000, to take over. With the nation facing economic crisis and two wars, I will spend the next 3 weeks telling the country why I think my plans for handling these problems are better than Senator Obama's, but I will not continue to tear down Senator Obama.
My friends, Senator Obama and I strongly disagree and how to defend our nation from foreign threats. Senator Obama wants to set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq which I believe will lead to a humiliating defeat for our military. Like my father, Admiral John McCain, I believe that America could have won the Vietnam War, if we had the resolve to see it through to the end. I suffered for 5 ½ years in a North Vietnamese prison in that cause. Instead, America's troops were sold out by a civilian leadership that did not have the stomach for the necessary sacrifice. The result was a humiliating defeat for America which weakened the morale of our armed forces.
I will not let that happen again in Iraq. I believe the surge has worked in reducing violence and that Gen. Petraeaus has put into place a successful counterinsurgency strategy which can work if given enough time. But I will give you a little bit of straight talk. While my campaign may have implied that victory is near, this strategy will require that we keep large numbers of American combat on the ground in Iraq for at least four or five more years. If that's what it takes, I call on the American people to stick with me in pursuing this strategy, rather than allowing the American military to experience the shame of another Vietnam-style defeat.
Turning to domestic policy, I started my political career as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, standing for unfettered free markets, deregulation of the economy, and low taxes for Americans of all economic classes. I do not intend to let the temporary economic crisis which America is facing make me abandon my fundamental beliefs. I believe that the government that regulates best, regulates least. I believe in low taxes for all and I reject the idea that the tax system should be a vehicle for redistributing wealth from the rich, who have earned it and provide jobs, to the poor and the middle class. Many Americans may suffer temporary economic dislocation from the current economic crisis, but I believe that with tax cuts for corporations who create jobs, the invisible hand of the free market will eventually right itself and restore balance to out economy. I do not intend to support socialist principles for short-term gain. Let the free market, which I have supported for my entire political career, work its magic.
These are my bedrock principles and the ones on which I intend to stand during the remainder of this campaign. It is possible that in this moment of economic fear, more Americans will agree with Senator Obama's liberal domestic policies and his foreign policy of defeat and appeasement. However, if it comes down to it, I would rather lose an election standing on my principles than win by avoiding the issues and attacking Senator Obama's character. I trust that the American people will eventually realize my principles are right, just as they saw that Barry Goldwater's principles were right when they elected Ronald Reagan. I believe in America enough that I'm willing to take that chance. Thank you, and God Bless America.
Do I believe McCain will take such steps? Not really. His personal ambition and sense of entitlement to the presidency are too great. More likely, he will continue to run a conflicted and schizophrenic campaign, allowing speeches by Sarah Palin and campaign ads from his staff to try to scare people out of voting from Obama, even as he recoils from some of the dark forces this strategy unleashes. He will continue his erratic behavior on the economy, trying to pull new economic proposals out of his hat. In the end, it's unlikely to work. And in the end, it will bring dishonor to Sen. McCain and destroy his historical legacy.