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As has been well documented at TPM, John McCain ran a deceitful, jingoistic, superficial, nationalistic campaign which grew ever more incendiary towards the end. But there is one place that McCain did not go. He did not ultimately base his campaign on racial polarization. Yes, there were a few subtle coded messages, and McCain's attacks on Obama's patriotism harbored a racial undercurrent. Yes, there were Muslim rumors and Rev. Wright ads by third parties that McCain failed to publicly deplore. But in the end, McCain did not adopt a full-throated race-baiting strategy that probably would have helped his campaign.
Consider for a moment not what McCain did but what he might have done. First and foremost, he might have attacked Obama's association with Rev. Wright as Sarah Palin and others clearly wished he would do. Such an attack would have complemented the campaign's strategy of exploiting Obama's associations in order to question his patriotism. Why Bill Ayers and not Jeremiah Wright? Wright's criticisms of America were in many ways more explicit and more recent than Ayers'. Obama's association with Wright was also more profound and contemporary than his relationship with Ayers. I can see only one reason for going after Ayers but not Wright. Wright is black, and an attack on Obama's association with him would have been an implicit appeal to the deep-seated prejudices that still pervade this country. Indeed, had Wright been white or any race other than black, I expect that McCain would have attacked the association very hard. But John McCain made clear that he would not play the Wright card, and other than a brief reference last April, he stuck to that principle, even as the campaign grew desperate and as subordinates like Palin visibly chafed at the restriction.
John McCain did not go after Obama's association with Farrakhan. Only last week, Dr. Vibert White Jr., a former Farrakhan deputy, asserted that Obama's ties to Farrakhan were close, insisting that there was "an open line between them." This news was not widely covered by the mainstream media. Why not? The media did not hesitate to raise Farrakhan's name in the past; Tim Russert even challenged Obama to denounce Farrakhan on national television. Had the McCain campaign made an issue of the White's claims, the media would have dutifully covered the story, as they covered such stories in the past, claiming that it was newsworthy because McCain had made an issue of it. Associating Obama with Farrakhan would also have bolstered McCain's attacks on Obama's patriotism and added anti-semitism into the mix. Had the news about Farrakhan just before the election been more widely played, it would likely have cut into Obama's support just as the Wright news did in the primary. Why Ayers and not Farrakhan? Once again, I can only conclude that McCain held back because Farrakhan is black and associated with black nationalism.
John McCain did not attack Obama for being soft on crime, reliving Bush Sr.'s Willie Horton moment. He did not emphasize Democratic support for welfare benefits for poor black women. He did not embrace Confederate themes or coded "states rights." He did not try to marginalize Obama as a "black" candidate or insinuate that Obama would represent "special interests" at the expense of "ordinary" people. The New York Times reports that McCain was "devastated" when John Lewis, whom he admired, compared him to George Wallace. Newsweek reports that the campaign rejected ads that would inflame racial tensions:
[McCain] had set firm boundaries: no Jeremiah Wright; no attacking Michelle Obama; no attacking Obama for not serving in the military...Schmidt vetoed ads suggesting that Obama was soft on crime (no Willie Hortons). And before word even got to McCain, Schmidt and Salter scuttled a "celebrity" ad of Obama dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (the sight of a black man dancing with a lesbian was deemed too provocative).
Perhaps these reports are simply campaign spin, but they fit the known facts. The campaign did not make an issue of Wright, Michelle, Obama's lack of military service, or crime policy and did not cut an ad showing Obama dancing with DeGeneres, which certainly would have fit in well with the celebrity attacks. After Lewis's criticism, McCain did tone down the rallies and rebuked his own supporters on a few occasions.
One might argue that McCain avoided racially polarizing attacks purely out of self-interest in order to avoid being accused of racism and alienating voters. But there are many ways to subtly exploit racial divisions without engaging in behavior that is unambiguously racist. That is the point of coded attacks that Republican politicians have often used effectively, from Reagan's states rights to Willie Horton to the "call me" ad used against Harold Ford. While such tactics might have turned off some voters, few of those were likely to vote for McCain in any case, and it would have been difficult for the Obama campaign to accuse McCain of race baiting without emphasizing Obama's skin color which the campaign clearly wished to avoid.
One might also argue that congratulating McCain for not exploiting race is faint praise, like complimenting someone for not cheating on a test. But this is politics we're talking about and Republican politics at that. Ever since Strom Thurmond and, more prominently, Richard Nixon, Republican politicians at every level have brazenly exploited race prejudices to their advantage. McCain explicitly broke from this tradition to his campaign's detriment. In a school full of cheaters, the one does not cheat does indeed deserve praise.
Some will doubt these arguments because they believe that John McCain has no scruples and that if he didn't focus on Wright and Farrakhan, it can only be because he saw political advantage in not doing so. But while McCain certainly does not have the level of integrity that the media once praised him for, that does not mean that he has none. Most people, however unscrupulous, have lines that they do not cross. And while I'm sure that the Obama campaign was prepared to respond to Wright and Farrakhan attacks, it's difficult to imagine that the campaign strategists wanted these subjects raised. So John McCain gave the Obama campaign exactly what it wanted--an election in which Obama's race was minimized. To project an unspecified political motivation behind this move is to show a lack of intellectual charity towards a man who, when it came to race, did exactly what he said he would do.
When I think back to how prominently the issue of race figured in the Democratic primary and how much worse I feared the polarization would be in the general election, it is amazing to me how small a part it played in the end. Other than a brief tempest surrounding McCain's celebrity ads, race was absent from the political dialogue between Obama and McCain. John McCain could have made it otherwise. Other Republicans have done so, and his campaign would have benefited. He chose restraint. It is for that reason that in his concession speech, McCain was able to graciously praise the historic election of our first African-American president without dishonesty or hypocrisy. I credit him for it.