The woman, a venture capitalist from the Denver area, looked a bit like Cindy McCain, and so it was disconcerting when she announced, in a focus group of undecided voters conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, that she had decided she just couldn't vote for John McCain this year. "I supported him enthusiastically in 2000, but he's hired the same people who ran him into the ground last time to run his campaign," she said. McCain's tone was more negative now. "It breaks my heart."
Most people don't care about the consultants a candidate hires very few handlers achieve the celebrity status of a Karl Rove or a James Carville. Most voters who supported McCain in 2000 but not this year have more obvious gripes: they don't like the way he's shaved his policy positions to approach Republican dogma. They may remember that he opposed the Bush tax cuts before he favored them. They may remember that he was more moderate on social issues like abortion in 2000, decrying the extremists on both sides and saying that "people of good intentions" could come to some understanding. They may be surprised by his free-range bellicosity, rattling sabers from Iran to Georgia. All of which is summed up in a single image: McCain hugging no, nuzzling up to George W. Bush. And yet, as the venture capitalist pointed out, the most disheartening aspect of McCain's 2008 campaign is not his embrace of Bush's policies but of the Bush style of campaigning.
We have just now completed the month of August, which is the cruelest month for Democrats, the month when Republicans go for the jugular, trotting out arguments some valid, most scurrilous that paint their Democratic rivals as weak, élite or unpatriotic. This is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, the Bush family's gift to the process. Ronald Reagan never staged an ugly August. He attacked his opponents, but on the high ground of policy. His most famous advertising gambit was a balm: "Morning in America," a series of ads filled with gorgeous American images that didn't even mention Reagan's 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale. But then Reagan was operating at the beginning of a political pendulum swing, utterly confident that his ideas were better than the tired industrial-age liberalism and post-Vietnam pacifism of the Democrats.
George H.W. Bush or rather, his designated sleazeball Lee Atwater gave us the first truly ugly August, in 1988. Atwater had conducted a series of focus groups among blue collar Democrats in Paramus, N.J., in May and found all sorts of fodder: Michael Dukakis was "against" the Pledge of Allegiance. More substantively, Dukakis ran a weekend prison-release program in Massachusetts that allowed an African-American felon named Willie Horton to go on a killing spree. But what was most distinctive was a new tone: a derisive, sarcastic negativity that predicted, and enabled, Rush Limbaugh's brilliant, destructive trade.
A repentant Atwater died of brain cancer before he could slice and dice Bill Clinton in 1992, and Bob Dole was too honorable to try in 1996. But the arrival of George W. Bush and Rove an Atwater protégé brought August back with a vengeance in 2000 and, spectacularly, with the "independent" Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004.
This summer McCain has waged a nonstop assault from the derision of his "celebrity" ads comparing Barack Obama to Paris Hilton, to McCain's own filthy attack on Obama as someone who would "rather lose a war than lose an election." (Obama has tried to strike back, but creative personal attacks just seem foreign to the Democrats' DNA.) The Republican Convention will doubtless be another assault on Obama, featuring McCain groupies like Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani as attack dogs. Some of these attacks those criticizing Obama's inexperience are well within the bounds of traditional politics, but the uninterrupted gush of negativity has successfully diverted the media's attention from the fact that 80% of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction.
Michael Crowley of the New Republic recently observed that the McCain campaign was the most sarcastic in memory. He's right: sarcasm comes naturally to the fighter jock. He disdains all those his colleagues in the Senate, his political opponents who aren't as courageous as he thinks he is. But McCain has proved a selective maverick, surrounded by special-interest lobbyists who shape his foreign and fiscal policies. In fact, I suspect that this year's McCain is closer to the real thing than the noble 2000 version. This one is congenitally dark, the opposite of Reagan not confident enough in the substance of his ideas, especially on domestic policy, to run a campaign that features them. Instead, his natural sarcasm has enabled him to perfect the Bush way of politics. He is, sadly, Mr. August.