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Why McCain Lost: a Flashback

Photo Source Mason Votes | CC BY 2.0


After a week of media fawning, flags racing up and down staffs, and memorials coast-to-coast, John McCain will finally be laid to rest this weekend in Annapolis amid eulogies from George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Give McCain some credit for using the occasion of his funeral to illustrate vividly that there’s less than a dime’s worth of difference between the politicians of our time.  I’m only surprised that McCain’s final will and testament didn’t follow the Caesarian tradition and call for seven days of war games as part of his memorial. (The best protest Trump could make against this prolonged McCaingasm is not to drone anyone this week.) The image of McCain as some kind of free-wheeling political contrarian was, of course, almost entirely the creation of the press corps that is now weeping over his corpse. McCain was no Cicero. His jokes, barbs and long-winded floor speeches were largely for show. When it came time for voting (on matters ranging from war in Iraq to apartheid in South Africa), McCain was an unvarnished creature of the far right. Politically he wasn’t far removed from the political savages of our time: Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and Dick Armey. Those spitting cobras have been rightly consigned to a kind of historical detention for their racism and warmongering, but McCain has been almost universally venerated, largely because he knew that the easiest way to manipulate the press was to preen for the cameras and give them an occasional pat on the head. As a parting shot, here’s the last piece Cockburn and I wrote on McCain for the print edition of CounterPunch, shortly after he blew what should have been a sure thing against Barack Obama in 2008. — JSC

“I don’t know what more we could have done to win this election,” John McCain said in his concession speech in the Biltmore hotel  in Phoenix. Actually there was a lot he could have done. He ran an awful campaign. Obama is now enveloped in an aura of inevitability, but let us raise a toast to that vital ingredient, luck. Never was there a luckier man in the timing of economic collapse, the ultimate October surprise.

The morning of the third presidential debate, a friend of ours in Landrum, South Carolina, conducted an informal survey of voter sentiment in this rural town in the heart of Dixie. He pulled over at a convenience store-cum-coffee shop, and walked in with a wad of McCain/Palin stickers. “Don’t you bring those things in here,” said the man behind the register. Our friend strolled around among the regulars sipping their coffee, most of them retired, and could find no takers. “Not one, and these were people who voted 100 per cent for Bush in 2004. They’re angry.” Why? After a terrible summer of soaring gas prices and plunging stock portfolios, “a lot of them have lost their retirement funds and health savings.” Our friend said that at local nursing homes – an upscale place near Tryon – some residents are telling staff they can’t afford to stay. He added that all the talk about Obama’s links to terror, to Islam, to bombers has also had the effect of intimidating elderly Republicans from even putting McCain/Palin signs in their yards.

Our friend’s experience in Landrum came amid the inglorious tailspin of the disastrous strategy of trying to sink Obama by hanging former Weatherman Bill Ayers round his neck. When Republican consultants like Mary Matalin and Steve Schmidt first pondered this tactic in the late summer, it must have seemed to them like a no-brainer – a reprise of the way George H.W. Bush finished off Michael Dukakis in 1988. Lee Atwater, Bush’s smear manager, picked up Al Gore’s use of Horton – the black rapist furloughed for a weekend, under a law passed by Gov. Dukakis – and retooled it, throwing in slurs about Dukakis as being some foreign outsider. So, in the final weeks of Campaign 2008, Barack Hussein Obama would be hit with similar accusations (actually, first aired by Hillary Clinton last April) of being an alien radical, with intimate ties to a man who had tried to blow up Congress and the Pentagon.

It might have worked but for the fact, which apparently escaped the notice of the well-paid campaign consultants running the McCain campaign – that America was engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. There was a total disconnect between the financial hurricane hitting America and some archaeology about a Sixties radical sitting with Obama on the board of the Woods Fund, a nonprofit financed by the Annenberg Foundation (and today featuring board members from other known terrorist organizations such as British Petroleum and the Swiss banking giant UBS, whose U.S. operation has on its payroll as a vice president McCain’s pal and advisor, Phil Gramm).

In fact, some of the archaeology was of scant comfort to McCain. In  the early 1970s, when Ayers was underground and being sought by the FBI, he found refuge in an old mining camp in the Oregon Cascades, called Jawbone Flats. This mining camp was then owned by Vic Atiyeh and his wife. The camp was being run at the time as a kind of hostel by Atiyeh’s nephew George, a Vietnam vet who would later play a central role in the campaign to protect the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. The crown jewel of these old-growth stands, Opal Creek, is adjacent to the mining camp.

Vic Atiyeh, a Republican of Syrian descent, became the first Arab-American governor in the United States, when Oregonians elected him to the post in 1979. He served as one of best and most popular governors in Oregon’s history, from 1979 to 1987. And in 2008 , Atiyeh the Arab, host of domestic terrorists, wasJohn McCain’s honorary campaign chairman in Oregon.

It could have been different. At the end of August, the gods seemed to be smiling on McCain. Hurricane Ike kept Bush and Cheney out of the Convention in St Paul. Palin’s surprise nomination nullified Obama’s bounce and seemed to invigorate McCain. Then the economic crisis intensified. At this fraught moment, with Obama keeping a cautious profile, McCain could have seized the initiative. Even after the stumble about the fundamentals of the economy being sound, the senator could have recouped by saying that he was returning to Washington to lead the opposition to the bailout. McCain could have gone into the first debate attacking Obama for his support of the bailout. He could have sent Palin round the country denouncing Wall Street greed and predatory bankers, as she did in her debate with Biden. Unlike McCain, Obama and Biden, Palin had no Wall Street cash showing in her campaign war chest, filled only with virtuous mooseburgers. Unfortunately for McCain, Palin’s brain wasn’t filled with much useful material either. She helped McCain keep the Christian fundamentalist vote. She  helped lose him the vital suburban vote.

With Phil Gramm whispering in his ear and McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis’ lobby shop still on Fanny Mae’s payroll, McCain chickened out. He played a feeble role in Washington and voted meekly for the bailout, and, thereby, threw away the chance to put Obama on the defensive.

This election advertised not only McCain’s stupidity but also the absence of an effective third force in American politics, at a moment when the credibility of both parties and of both major candidates is open to sweeping challenge. Voters were disgusted with the entire system and the direction the country has  taken. Disapproval of Bush and of the Democrats running Congress has been at the same high level. Obama and McCain share many positions, starting with the bailout and continuing with endorsement of a belligerent foreign policy from Georgia to Iran, total fealty to Israel and a ramp-up of the doomed Afghan campaign. With this in mind, it is instructive to look back at the Perot campaign of 1992.

After scoring very high polling numbers in June of 1992, showing him to be in the lead over Clinton and Bush, Perot announced his withdrawal from the race, later disclosing that he didn’t want his candidacy to prompt release, by Republican operatives, of compromising photos of his daughter before her wedding. Perot didn’t re-enter the race until October 1. He talked his way into the debates and riveted the nation with his famous denunciations of free trade and laments for America’s industrial decline, which he blamed on both the major parties. Five weeks later, he won 19 per cent of the vote, thereby costing George H.W. Bush the election.

A similar scenario could have unfolded in this election, with the most likely standard bearer of a third force being Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas. Paul had plenty of money and a national organization. He would have able to launch effective attacks on both candidates, on the issue of war and the bailout. At his well-attended  shadow convention in St Paul, he could have declared as an independent. He declined.

Ralph Nader is a man for whom the economic crisis has come as total vindication of everything he has been proclaiming for decades about the corruption of Wall Street, the ties between Wall Street and Congress, the economic sellouts of Clinton time, from free trade deals to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Yet, Nader had no party and hence suffered from hugely diminished political purchase on everything, from volunteers to finance to media presence, at a moment when his message could have resonated hugely with the furious and fearful electorate. The political groups and coalitions that rallied to Nader in 2000 were  all shadows of their former selves. Eight years of Bush have pushed the environmental and labor lobbies back into the Democratic Party, where their voices are inaudible and political influence scarcely visible to the naked eye. Obama pounds the drum for nuclear power and hugely toxic coal-to-gas conversion plants and campaigns through the industrial wastelands of the Midwest, while remaining more or less mute on “free” trade.

Seldom has economic caastrophe come so propitiously for a candidate. But though crisis helped him, Obama did not rise to the occasion. He actually got less inspiring as the weeks pass. On September 23, he stated on NBC that the crisis and prospect of a huge bailout required bipartisan action and meant he likely would have to delay expansive spending programs, outlined during his campaign for the White House. Thus did he surrender power even before he gained it. The next day, he told reporters in Clearwater, Florida, that “issues like bankruptcy reform, which are very important to Democrats, is probably something that we shouldn’t try to do in this piece of legislation.” In addition, he said that his proposed economic stimulus program “is not necessarily something that we should have in this package.” Then he worked the phone, hectoring recalcitrants in the Congressional Black Caucus to vote for the bailout, whose paramount importance was as a show of force, as dramatic as nineteenth-century cavalry cutting down demonstrators at Peterloo. As an instigator of beneficial change, the Clinton administration was over six months after election day 1992, when Clinton turned to Al Gore and said, “You mean my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and some fucking bond traders?” Gore nodded, and Clinton promptly abandoned his economic plan to follow the dictates of Wall Street tycoons like Robert Rubin, now a top advisor to Obama. Obama beat the speed of Bill Clinton’s 1993 collapse by almost seven months.

In terms of political change one can invoke 1932 and 1964, but the strongest parallel here is really with 1960 and John Kennedy, respository of so many youthful hopes. Of course it wasn’t long before reality caught up with the hopes, and overtook them, with deepening involvement in Vietnam and the disaster of the Bay of Pigs. There will be similar bruising engagements with reality in the months ahead, and with America in a weaker condition. But for the moment, the feelings of triumph for Obama and his supporters is unalloyed.

I Ain’t No Senator’s Son…

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

The Shadow President: the Truth About Mike Pence by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner

DeGaulle by Julian Jackson

The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin and the Secret Closets of American Culture by  Anthony Heilbut

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week (on vinyl).

Tokyo 1975 by Dexter Gordon

The Blues is Where It’s At by Otis Spann

The Tide of Life by The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi

The Evil Genius of Society

Paul Goodman: “Children, if we observe them, seem normally to be abounding in simple faith. They rush headlong and there is ground underfoot. They ask for information and are told. They cry for something and get it or are refused, but they are not disregarded. They go exploring and see something interesting. It is the evil genius of our society to blight, more or less disastrously, this faith of its young as they grow up; for our society does not, for most, continue to provide enough worth-while opportunities and relevant duties, and soon it ceases to take them seriously as existing.”

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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