At some point this week, John McCain's presidential campaign realized that having mobs of supporters who appeared to be ignorant, blood-thirsty, and xenophobic might not be quite what they were looking for when it comes to momentum. And so, as several local bloggers have mentioned, he started trying to backpedal from some of the rhetoric that his campaign -- led by Sarah Palin -- has been putting out there in an attempt to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt about Barack Obama.
The problem is, McCain has done nothing to question the underlying thinking and assumptions that have fueled these fires. By passing them by he essentially reinforces the dangerous framing, and does little toward any truly just treatment of the issues that have come up.
Take the exchanges in this town hall meeting, for example. A man says he's scared of an Obama presidency, and McCain says that you wouldn't have to be scared of an Obama presidency, but doesn't say why, or why whatever there was to be scared of in the first place isn't really a legitimate concern.
A woman says she's worried because Obama is an Arab. McCain says no, he's a decent family man. So, according to McCain, being an Arab man is the opposite of being a decent family man? Not only is this a minimally effective request for respect toward Obama, it's essentially an endorsement of the racist premise of the remark.
No, the recent tempering of the tone doesn't seem to be much more than a shift in political strategy and perhaps a move that makes McCain himself feel a little better about getting up in the morning. But until some of the underlying awfulness that's driving things can be confronted, there will be only temporary peace without any sort of justice.
I know this practice is not at all constrained to Republican politicans, by the way. It's rare that a candidate of any political persuasion confronts a difficult or controversial issue head on at a level that really moves the conversation forward, so I know I shouldn't expect much here. But I do expect better than this.
I'll note too that it shouldn't be lost on anyone interested in framing that while all of that was going on, President Bush was cautioning in his speech about the financial crisis that "anxiety can feed anxiety." WOW - is it possible that an administration that has based much of its public relations around major policy decisions on feeding Americans with anxiety and fear could now be admitting that maybe this isn't always the most useful practice?
Is it possible that John McCain and George Bush are both realizing at the same time that when your citizens are so riled up with misinformation and doubt about their future, they don't ALWAYS decide to act exactly how you want them to? Let's see how well that works out for them.
UPDATED on 10/13/08 to add this great segment from On the Media: Smear Campaign.