The Jekyll and Hyde campaign
Carlton M. Caves
2008 October 11

Although the media refuses to acknowledge it, the election is pretty much in the can at this point. It is shaping up as a decisive victory for the Democrats, at both the presidential and Congressional levels, the only question being how big the victory is going to be. It will be very important to see how the details in the Congress come out once the votes are counted, but the most interesting aspect of the remaining presidential campaign will be the fight for John McCain's soul, now being played out before a nationwide audience.

McCain, as Democrats are wont to point out, is an honorable man, who has served his country with dedication and courage throughout his life. He has bucked his party on important issues, he has worked across party lines in the Senate, he has spoken out against the intolerance and bigotry of the religious right, and he was victimized by the smear tactics of Republican political operatives in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

It is thus not surprising that he now seems such an erratic, dispirited, old man, because the Mr. Hyde campaign he is supposedly in charge of is so at odds with his Dr. Jekyll self-image. His campaign is being run by Republican operatives schooled for two decades in the Atwater-Rove tactics of smear and fear---we have nothing to offer but fear itself. His vice-presidential pick, chosen impulsively in a moment of wild desperation, is now dragging the ticket down with her evident lack of preparedness, even as she spouts the most vicious Republican attack lines about Barack's palling around with terrorists and eggs McCain on to go even more negative. McCain is heard over and over again endorsing campaign ads that make scurrilous claims about Obama's record. As he sinks lower in the polls, all this must seem like a nightmare to McCain.

After angry rallies last week in Waukesha and La Crosse, Wisconsin, full of bitter and hateful invective against Obama, which McCain did not object to, the Jekyll side of McCain reasserted itself briefly at a town-hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota, yesterday. He admonished a woman who called Obama an "Arab" by saying, "No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about." He responded to a man who said he was "scared" of an Obama presidency by declaring, "I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you---I have to tell you---he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared" of "as president of the United States." His reward for this response was to be booed loudly by the angry crowd.

Standing alone at this town hall meeting, without his campaign staff to whisper vile nothings in his ear and without Palin to further incite the crowd's anger, McCain's gut prompted him to do what is right, as he has done so often in his career. It remains to be seen what will happen in the remainder of the campaign. McCain's Jekyll side is like a lone voice crying in the wilderness of his own campaign's smear-and-fear atmosphere.

I do strongly believe McCain will act honorably after the election. Freed of his campaign staff and of Palin, he will make a gracious concession speech, but we need him to do more than that. We need not expect him to admit that he lost mainly because the country is in bad shape, for which the Republican Party, bereft of ideas and increasingly isolated in its narrow ideological base, bears a heavy responsibility. But we can hope that he will tell the Republican base something they very much need to hear:

My friends, the American people have elected as their new president a good and decent man. On January 20, he will become the president of all the people. I call on all Americans to join me in wishing him the very best as he undertakes his new responsibilities.

Now I want to speak directly to the Republican base. Many of you are frustrated and angry at this loss. Some of you will claim that I lost because the other side cheated or because of unfair and biased coverage in the media. I want to make it absolutely clear that I reject those claims. Many of you will hear vile and hateful attacks on the new president in the right-wing media, especially on talk radio. I want you to know that I condemn such attacks now and that I will continue to do so. They have no place in America and no place in our party.

After a brief vacation, I will return to public life in Washington. As I said in my acceptance speech, I will be working with my friends in government on both sides of the aisle, as I have done throughout my career in public service. I had hoped to do so as president, but instead I will continue working with my colleagues in the Congress as Senator from Arizona. I ask all of you, especially those in my party, to join me in working respectfully and civilly with the new administration, as we all work together to make America a better place.

After a bitter campaign that has served mainly to diminish him and to turn "maverick" into the punch line of a joke, McCain can redeem himself with such a speech. But that's not the reason he must make it. Some figure in the Republican party has to tell the Republican base, without mincing words, that they have gone way over the line in their expressions of hate and anger at the other side. There is no other figure in the Republican party who has the stature and the willingness (we can hope) to do this, so McCain it has to be. If he doesn't, I'm afraid we will find that the Munich analogy for our time is not 1938, but 1923.

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