McCain's Desperate Smears Signal His Failure as a Leader Under Pressure

Nov 07, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain has failed yet another leadership test. This time, it was on how he responds under the pressure of a crisis.

A little more than two weeks ago, Barack Obama took a commanding lead in the Rasmussen daily tracking poll, an advantage he has steadily built on ever since. (Obama's 52 percent to 44 percent lead as of today is larger than any advantage held by George W. Bush or John Kerry at any point in the 2004 general election campaign.) This turn of events came after months of the race being steadily tight, with neither candidate taking a lead of more than a handful of percentage points. McCain's campaign was staggered by a two-punch combination of the candidate's unsteady handling of the financial crisis (There is no problem! There is a problem! I'm suspending my campaign! I'm going to Washington! I scuttled the deal! I'm not debating! Okay, I'll debate!) and the public perception of his ticket's defeat in both the first presidential debate (in which McCain looked angrier than Lou Piniella after the Dodgers sweep) and the vice presidential debate (in which Sarah Palin did a pitch-perfect impression of a female version of Ron Burgundy).

So with McCain's campaign in a freefall, with polls in swing states moving in Obama's direction, and with the electoral college map steadily collapsing in on McCain, and with the election less than a month away, McCain had time for one last major move, one last gesture to stop the bleeding and try and turn around the runaway train leading his campaign off of a cliff. This was a time for McCain to show his mettle, to demonstrate how he reacts in a time of crisis. And what did McCain choose to do? He opted to viciously attack Obama's character with recycled lies and distortions, all in an effort to get Obama and the media to stop talking about important issues like the economic crisis.

In other words, McCain failed the grace-under-pressure test.

In fact, he failed it in two regards. Obviously, on the surface, it is disgraceful that someone who was viciously and disgustingly smeared in 2000 by Bush, and who obviously was deeply wounded by the attacks, would then turn around eight short years later and do the exact same thing to another candidate. Aside from the hypocrisy of the whole thing, the electorate should reject the attempt of a candidate to engage in personal and false attacks on the character of his opponent, all while important issues, including an economic crisis and two wars, demand attention. This tactic, in and of itself, should provoke a negative reaction from voters.

But there is really an even bigger tactical blunder in McCain's latest desperation heave (the third or fourth since 2007, depending on what you include on the list). The effort is, in a word, lame. Bush proved in 2000 and again in 2004 that lies and smears can be effective. But the caveat to that rule is that the smut-tossing has to be done in a smart, calculated manner. McCain's attacks this week have been awkward, clumsy and ill-conceived, more likely to blow up in his campaign's face rather than in his opponent's camp.

McCain and his talking-points-reading running mate have decided to smear Obama with false charges that he was friends with Bill Ayers, who, when Obama was eight years old, was a member of the Weather Underground. They are also once again bringing up the incendiary remarks of the retired pastor of Obama's former church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

These attacks are recycled, having played out at length during the Democratic primary. So Obama not only successfully came up with solutions back then, explaining that he condemned Ayers's actions and never had any relationship with him, and eventually leaving Wright's church and condemning Wright's words, after giving an eloquent and insightful speech on the roll of race in modern society, but he now has the benefit of time and trial-and-error to craft an equally effective response to McCain's warmed-over sleazy attacks.

But an even more dramatic tactical error by McCain was his failure to realize that he and his running mate have skeletons in their closets that are far larger than the ones trumped up against Obama. And in many cases, the charges against the Republican ticket are newer and fresher to this campaign.

For McCain himself, by dredging up these old distortions of Obama's record, he has opened the door for Obama to introduce a whole new generation to McCain's involvement in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s that necessitated a bailout by the government that eventually cost more than $500 billion. McCain, as a member of the so-called Keating Five, was criticized by the Senate for his role in the fall of one of the biggest thrifts, Lincoln Savings and Loan. (In fact, the Obama campaign just released a video detailing McCain's involvement in the scandal.) At a time when voters are fleeing from McCain because of his poor handling of the current financial crisis precipitated by financial industry failures, the last thing he needed was a reminder that he played a leading role in a large, similar debacle 20 years ago.

And Paul Begala revealed on Meet the Press on Sunday that in the 1980s, McCain served on the board of the ultra-conservative U.S. Council for World Freedom, which was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for its ties to anti-Semitic and racists organizations. Certainly, McCain's actual conduct trumps the fact that Obama occasionally found himself in situations with Ayers.

The past conduct of Palin and her husband offers a treasure trove of affiliations that far exceed in actuality any of the events of Obama's life that have been distorted by the McCain campaign. On the wacky religious front, Palin has credited a pastor who protected her from witchcraft (you can see him do it here) with helping her become governor. If that was the whole tale, it would just be one of those funny, wacky items to provide some amusement. But the story is much more dangerous than that. A longer clip of the preacher's sermon shows his belief that the church's teachings should infiltrate the country's culture, economics, politics, education, media and government, accusing the "Israelites" of doing so already. And this is the same church that on August 17 of this year welcomed Jews for Jesus leader David Brickner, who blamed terrorist attacks on Israel as being punishment from God for not believing in Christianity. Brickner said: "Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It's very real. When [Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment -- you can't miss it." As much as the McCain campaign thinks Ayers and Wright will scare the Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida, I'm sure the goings on at Palin's church (which she has yet to denounce) will seem even scarier.

And the membership of Palin's husband in the Alaska Independence Party, which advocates for the secession of Alaska from the union, and Palin's recording, as governor, of a welcoming address for the party's convention, in which she praises its work, is far more damning than anything Obama has done, either in actuality or according to the McCain campaign's smears. Again, Obama barely knows Ayers, but the Republican candidate for the vice presidency has expressed support for a party, one in which her husband was a member for seven years, that no longer wants to be a part of the United States, and whose leader, Joe Vogler, has espoused anti-American sentiments that are every bit as incendiary as what Rev. Wright said. (A sample from Vogler: "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government.")

In the end, when McCain faced the biggest crisis of his general election campaign, he was, in effect, being given a test of how he would respond under pressure to an adverse situation. And what did he do? He chose a morally indefensible strategy based on lies and distortions, and the strategy was poorly conceived and sure to be ineffective.

In other words, McCain failed the test miserably. No voter, not Democrats, independents or Republicans, should want McCain to apply these kind of knee-jerk, dishonorable, ineffective tactics to the problems facing the country.

If Americans want any hope of changing the culture of failed leadership that the United States has endured for the last eight years, they have to reject a candidate who has allowed himself to fall into the gutter, and who has displayed an acute lack of understanding of what is needed in a challenging time. McCain's decision to personally smear Obama with lies and distortions should go down in history as the final nail in his political coffin. Let's hope it does.