Are They All As Sleazy As McCain?

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Either because of age or recent immersion in politics, a lot of readers have asked, is it really usually this bad? Do they all get this sleazy? As sleazy as McCain?

The simple answer, I think, is, No. They don’t. I don’t think there’s any question that McCain’s is the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign, certainly in the last 35 years and possibly going much further back into the early 20th century.

You may say, wait, Willie Horton? The Swift-boat smears? What about those?

But here’s the key point, one that is getting too little attention. President Bush’s father didn’t run the Willie Horton ad. And this President Bush, however much they may have been funded by his supporters and run with Karl Rove’s tacit approval, didn’t run the Swift Boat ads. These were run by independent groups. Just how ‘independent’ we think they really are is a decent question. But even the sleaziest campaigns usually draw the line at the kind of sleaze they are wiling to run themselves under their own name.

In this case, though, the kind of toxic sludge usually run by one-off independent groups in very limited ad buys makes up virtually all of McCain’s presence on TV.

Even setting aside this distinction, McCain’s campaign has charted new territory in deliberate lying and appeals to racism and xenophobia. But this distinction itself is too little recognized.

Late Update: One reader points to Richard Nixon’s campaigns as the obvious competitor for McCain in the sleaziest of all time derby. And this is why I flagged the “in the last 35 years” caveat. But let’s break this down. The best argument here would be to compare McCain’s terrorist-baiting to Nixon’s red-baiting. And it’s not a bad comparison. But this was much more a matter of the Nixon of the 1950s. That didn’t figure in the 1960 campaign. And red-baiting per se, at least of the 1950s variety, wasn’t Nixon’s pitch in the 1968 or 1972 elections, but rather a more general stab-in-the-back, take the country back for the real Americans from the anti-American hippie freaks. Now, there’s a separate question of whether Nixon outdid McCain in the category of illegality and dirty tricks in the 1968 and 1972 campaigns. And at least on the basis of what’s publicly known at the moment, there seems little doubt that Nixon wins in that category. Regardless, McCain’s in excellent company. And I’d stick to my claim that McCain likely outdoes Nixon on things that happened in presidential campaigns.

Late Update: TPM Reader PB responds …

The campaign you are in the middle of always seems to be the one where the other guy is running the “dirtiest” in history. Republicans are making the same charge against Obama, and I don’t doubt they believe it. I don’t want to diminish the extent to which the McCain campaign has mired itself in the muck, but I think you are losing the forest for the trees. It should be noted that for whatever reason, McCain has so far refused to go places that Hillary went in the primary (Wright, explicit comments about “hard-working, white” Americans supporting her, distributing emails with pictures of Obama in Muslim garb, etc.).

Yes, the Willie Horton ad was run by an outside group, but in this case that is a distinction without a difference. Bush repeatedly brought up Horton on the campaign trail, and the “independent” group that ran the ad had extensive ties to Bush’s campaign. The only difference here is that McCain is signing his name to the sleaze, while Bush tried to erase his fingerprints.

As for the Swift Boat campaign against Kerry, W. just did a better job of covering up his campaign’s involvement. Rove’s fingerprints were all over the Swift Boat attacks and the Dan Rather “Memogate” story. It’s a mistake to try to separate out what is done by independent groups and what is done by the campaigns proper, as these groups rarely operate fully independently of the campaigns. Bush and his campaign surrogates could have condemned the Swift Boaters and called for a halt to the attacks. Instead they sent people like Bob Dole out to say that the issues the group raised were “legitimate.”

No one campaigns sleazier than a Bush. The fact that the family maintains plausible deniability to distance itself from the sleaze it peddles on their opponents only makes them more, not less slimy. McCain’s sleaziness is unique only insofar as he seems to have an extraordinary ability to believe that he is hewing to some imaginary code of honor while engaging in dirty, illegitimate attacks that he would righteously denounce were they launched against him. I was very much struck by McCain’s righteous insistence that the content of the robocalls his campaign was running were “true.” In the narrowest possible sense, that is of course correct, but the same could probably be said of the robocalls Bush made against him in SC in 2000. I don’t doubt that every fact presented in those calls was true, that did not change the fact that the overall intent of the call was to mislead and misdirect.

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