Anyone who has watched rivals needle each other in a pickup basketball game will recognize what is happening right now between Barack Obama and John McCain. It starts with bumps, shoves, maybe a few elbows—and then suddenly it’s a windmill of fists, torn shirts, and a lot of bad words about mothers. On Thursday, the presidential race reached a whole new level of nasty.
Like many such fights, it all started with a principled debate over competing formulas for calculating tax revenue. Excuse me, I’m sorry: That’s in an alternate universe. Like all such fights, this one was about symbolism and positioning. The subject of this spat—stay with me here—is how many houses McCain owns. In an interview with Politico, McCain could not remember how many houses he has. (In fairness, it does seem complicated! He owns none. They’re in his wife’s name, and he only shares four with her; she has at least three other properties.)
The Obama campaign recognized this gaffe for what it was: The number of Americans who do not know how many houses they own is so small they could probably fit in a golf cart. It is not a problem that afflicts the average American family. The campaign rushed to make an ad showing McCain as out of touch, but it strays into even more radioactive territory by making a subtle dig at McCain’s age. (Listen to the narrator’s tone when he says of McCain: “He lost track, he couldn’t remember.”) Obama brought the house business up on the stump. His surrogates romped around on cable TV declaiming against McCain.
So much for Obama’s aspirations about lifting our politics out of the gutter. Those promises are easier to keep when you’re ahead in the polls, and Obama’s double-digit lead has disappeared. McCain has run a string of ads attacking Obama’s record (often by misrepresenting it), and his good friend Joe Lieberman has questioned Obama’s patriotism. We have officially reached the “all’s fair” stage of the campaign.
And to be fair, Obama’s ad was a legitimate shot, as these things go. Up till now, Obama has had to selectively edit McCain’s comments on the economy to paint his rival as out of touch. Here, he didn’t need to edit anything.
The McCain team wasted no time in its response, saying it was now free to talk about Obama’s various questionable associations: Tony Rezko, William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright. Why were they now fair game? Because Obama had attacked McCain’s wife.
You may find that hard to follow. Here’s how it goes: Every marriage has its power-sharing aspects. My wife remembers the names of our friends’ kids, and I fix the sink when it leaks. In the McCain household, Cindy McCain, an heiress to a beer-distributing fortune, owns the houses, and McCain does the running for president. Ergo, an attack on McCain’s houses is an attack on Cindy. In a campaign that has turned umbrage-taking into a high art, this would get at least a 16 from the judges (or, if you prefer the old system, a 9.8).
A McCain spokesman fired back, calling Obama “pointy-headed” and reminding people that he had once said poor folk in Pennsylvania clung to their guns and religion out of bitterness. He also pointed out that Obama lived in “a frickin’ mansion,” which he “bought in a shady deal with a convicted felon,” and earned $4 million last year. *
The campaign then issued an ad linking Obama’s home purchase to Tony Rezko, the aforementioned convicted felon (on fraud and bribery charges, for those of you scoring at home) whose wife purchased land next to Obama’s when the senator bought his current house. Letting the influence-peddler help him, says Obama, was one of his greatest lapses in judgment.
Who wins? Who knows. Certainly McCain’s remarks make him look out of touch. But the fight may have also focused his base: Before all this, Rush Limbaugh was predicting a revolt if McCain picked a pro-choice vice president. But Obama’s attack on McCain caused Rush to redirect his fire. McCain and his wife “did not get a sweetheart deal from a fraud embezzler like Tony Rezko to buy their houses,” he said. “But the Messiah”—Limbaugh’s favored term for Obama—”did.” Meanwhile, a third-party group announced an ad linking Obama and former Weather Underground member Ayers.
McCain responded so violently because the attack is potentially devastating in an election that is likely to be all about economic issues. But merely engaging in such a fight is also a threat to Obama’s brand. He’s the candidate of change, and this is politics as usual. Ayers, Rezko, and Wright were going to come out sooner or later, but now they’ve been fully unleashed. One thing is for sure: The game has gotten uglier, and it will likely stay that way.
Correction, Aug. 22, 2008: This article originally and incorrectly said that John McCain’s aide claimed Barack Obama’s house was worth $4 million. His charge was that Obama had earned $4 million last year. (Return to the corrected sentence.)