Commenting on campaign tactics has become one of Barack Obama’s signature campaign tactics. On the night he won the North Carolina primary, Obama predicted that John McCain would “play on our fears,” “exploit our differences,” and stir up “fake controversy” in running against him. It was a smart, if cynical, move by Obama. It made McCain look dirty. It inhibited him from criticizing Obama, since anything he said could be portrayed as a fake controversy or fear-mongering. And the press was unlikely to call him on it: Many reporters believe that Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections by fooling the public in this manner.
Last week, Obama went a step further. At a fundraiser, he said, “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?” Obama is no longer just preemptively defining the opposition to him as illegitimate; he is defining it as racist.
Republicans have been slow to respond to this provocation. McCain is often said to be someone who responds indignantly to attacks on his honor. In this case, he ought to do so. He should say that he has no intention of running anything but an honorable campaign against Obama — but also no intention of being intimidated out of waging a tough campaign for fear of being called names. Obama’s suggestions, he should add, are disgusting and, yes, divisive.
Some people will vote against Obama because he is black, and some will vote for him for the same reason. McCain cannot stop every American who opposes Obama from making racist cracks about him, although he surely can and should denounce those that come to his attention. But we should distinguish between the fringes of our politics and its center.
One of the presidential candidates has injected race into the presidential campaign in an ugly way — a way that may prove all too effective if it is not countered. His name is not John McCain.