Given the extent to which the self-definition of elite Washington reporters depends not only on their access to power but also on their role in reinforcing its prerogatives, it would be odd if eight years of a limitlessly corrupt, pathologically dishonest and lawless presidency did not leave its mark. And while we might have hoped that these actions would help the press to stiffen its collective backbone, unfortunately it has done just the opposite.
Republicans are running a presidential campaign at a moment of historic unpopularity for their party and with a candidate who has a panoply of potentially negative associations for voters. In the first place, John McCain’s stances on the issues, while consistent with the desires of his party’s base, are at odds with the professed wishes of the American people. Second, while he bills himself as a man of principle, he has in fact changed his position–"flip-flopped"–repeatedly on fundamental issues such as immigration, taxes, campaign finance, reproductive choice, etc. (See "Loving McCain," July 7.)
Third, owing to the inheritances of the woman with whom he conducted an adulterous affair before leaving his disabled first wife, the Republican enjoys eight separate residences across the country as well as the corporate jets she puts at his disposal, and he ambles around in shoes costing more than $500 a pair. At 71, he would be the oldest first-term President in US history if elected; and on the campaign trail he frequently becomes confused, loses his temper and sings songs about bombing Iran. He has engaged in discussion with supporters about that "bitch" Hillary Clinton. On one occasion in 1998, he joked that Attorney General Janet Reno was the "father" of the "ugly" teenager Chelsea Clinton.
His opponent has no such liabilities. His party is on an upswing. His positions are popular. He has never been associated with personal scandal; has earned, together with his wife, all of his family’s money himself; is young, vivacious and without McCain’s mean streak. But Barack Obama is black, and burdened with a Muslim-sounding name, in a country that has yet to transcend the racial horrors of its past or the reflexive parochialism and xenophobia of much of its populace. McCain must depend on these two factors to remain competitive in an election year when all indications suggest that a conservative Republican would have little to no chance of victory.
Of course, a presidential campaign cannot openly traffic in racism and xenophobia. So it must conduct this campaign in a kind of code. Historically blacks and dark-skinned immigrants have been accused of "not knowing their place" by whites who see their positions challenged, and are deemed to be "uppity." The code word du jour is "presumptuous."
Think about it: the candidate who won his party’s presidential nomination and is leading in every national poll stands accused of acting as if becoming President requires some planning and preparation. Apparently ignorance and incompetence have become prized virtues in George W. Bush’s Washington, and so potential competence is considered a cause for concern.