In my Baltimore Sun column today, I discuss the shocking behavior we have witnessed from the McCain-Palin campaign and its surrogates, the Republican National Committee and rank-and-file Republicans who are acting like crazed jerks at political rallies. The concluding graph reads:
The race-based fear-mongering and incitement of culture-war definitions as to who is and isn't a "real American" are not just appalling, they're backfiring. The Republicans have reached the bottom of the barrel, and it's not a pleasant place.
After filing it, I began to wonder how much of this barrel-bottom scraping is really about John McCain. Without defending him -- he deserves all the criticisms he's receiving -- it occurs to me that there is a simpler explanation for all the anger and flailing around this cycle: The Republicans are losing. Let's not forget that four years ago George W. Bush was inciting antigay hatred, questioning John Kerry's patriotism and going negative in his political ads at almost the same rate (estimated 75 percent) that McCain is now (100 percent). With relish, Dick Cheney sneered and mocked both Kerry and John Edwards. And an enraged Zell Miller (2004's version of Joe Lieberman) practically blew a gasket at the Republican convention.
My point is that if 2008 represents new lows for the GOP, it is more a matter of style than severity. Indeed, Bush-Cheney had more time and money to prosecute their often nasty reelection effort than McCain-Palin have had at their disposal. What's different this time around is that, unlike Bush's persistent if sometimes thin lead through the autumns of 2000 and 2004, but for the brief period following the St. Paul convention the McCain-Palin ticket has been trailing, sometimes by margins we haven't seen this late in a presidential campaign in years.
So it looks grim for the GOP, and in McCain's defense many of the grim, frustrated Republicans don't much like or trust him; other than on abortion, McCain is viewed by the wingnut elements with suspicion (on immigration, campaign finance, evangelism and so on). That is, some Republicans are mad not just because they are losing but because they are losing with the Maverick Apostate as their nominee. Which is why, when McCain last week in Minnesota called for a more respectful tone, his own crowds booed him.
I wonder: If McCain had won eight years ago and ground the country down with two mismanaged wars and a failing economy, as Bush has, and it were Bush now peddling his fluffy “compassionate conservative” talk, wouldn't Bush be trailing consistently in the polls? And wouldn't we be witnessing the rearing up of these underlying, seething resentments that Republicans generally kept in check in 2000 and 2004 because the outcome looked more favorable? (One exacerbating effect is that Bush-Cheney would not have run such a poorly funded, disorganized campaign, whereas McCain has heightened political-ideological anxieties with his erratic and underfunded campaign.)
Character, conservatives incessantly remind us, is revealed under duress. But as Colin Powell suggested Sunday on "Meet the Press," under duress it is elements within the Republican coalition who have revealed their true character. In 2008, we find at the bottom of the barrel the real sore-losermans.