Weird. Sad. Surreal

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This afternoon on the campaign trail, John McCain began dialing back (or began trying to appear to be dialing back) the rising tide of hatred and verbal violence he and his running mate have been whipping up over recent weeks. After all we’ve seen over recent months, I think it would naive to conclude that McCain did this for any other reason but that the attacks appeared to be backfiring. Perhaps that’s ungenerous. But to think so requires a leap of faith, a judgment not grounded in any evidence from the last year of the man’s behavior. The aim of such a bludgeoning assault is to force the subject of Obama’s relationship to Ayers back to the center of the campaign dialogue. But that’s not what happened. By week’s end that campaign narrative was all about the ferocity and recklessness of McCain’s attacks.

There’s something else to note too. Over the last 48 hours several name brand Republicans have come out and either chided or denounced McCain’s borderline incitement. And given how taboo it is to level such criticism of your own nominee at this stage of the election you have to assume these criticisms were only the tip of the iceberg, with a far more intense and angry barrage of criticism voiced privately.

Here are a few clips put together by CNN that are worth watching.

The first passage to watch starts at 25 seconds in. A participant tells McCain he’s “scared” of any Obama presidency and McCain responds that he “is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared [of] as President of the United States.”

Those are the words. But look at the facial expressions. McCain looks down as he says it and has the countenance of someone who been forced to tell someone else they’re sorry. There’s some mix of gritting your teeth and saying something you don’t want to say mixed with some sort of shamefacedness. Look at the video. Because while I feel like I intuitively ‘get’ the gestures I find it hard to quite capture them in words. Perhaps you’ll do better and you can share your thoughts with me.

In the next clip McCain is speaking up close with a woman in the audience who says she can’t trust Obama and then blurts out that it’s because he’s “Arab”. Some reports have it that she said ‘Arab terrorist’. But at least on this tape only ‘Arab’ is audible.

McCain shakes his head, as though losing his patience and snatches the mic back out of woman’s hands. “No, Ma’am. No, Ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Again, there’s a lot there when you actually see the video. And I encourage you to watch.

I get from his expression a sense of a man that is, in addition to all the other things he’s angry about, is frustrated or angry at the situation he’s gotten himself into. But he has sown the wind and now he’s reaping the whirlwind. “Even,” says TPM Reader RB, “as he says ‘You don’t have to be scared of an Obama presidency’ to a handful of followers (and, more importantly, of national reporters), he is spending millions to bombard as many people as he can with the ad named “Dangerous”. The small hand giveth, and the large hand taketh away.”

And yet this conveys too much suggestion of planning and intent. I have more the sense of someone desperately casting about and losing control of the situation itself. Even hypocrites can get in over their heads. Indeed, in a more nuts-and-bolts strategic sense McCain has really gotten himself into a hole because the campaign he’s been running has almost entirely been premised on the claim that you should be scared of an Obama presidency. Not that McCain, if he’d run a very different campaign, couldn’t have run on issue disagreements with Obama. But right now if you take away fear of Obama becoming president, there’s almost no reason not to vote for him since McCain has basically conceded the issue agenda to Obama. If you look at every poll for months, voters are dying for change. Fear of Obama is the only thing keeping him from leaving McCain in the dust. Take that away and McCain’s done.

I’m not sure what else to say about this episode. But it is something to behold.

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