“Sarah Sarah Sarah,” they chanted in Bethlehem, Pennyslvania, in the basketball stadium of LeHigh University, as the travelling Republican circus — the divine Sarah, John McCain, wife Cindy and now daughter Megan — entered the auditorium. If McCain was a jealous type — and he is — he’s an angry, fizzing, perpetually punchy old goat — this would be killing some big part of him.

I can’t imagine he’s the type who’s willing to accept his sudden eclipse with equanimity, especially to a young woman. Dammit can you imagine what the strategy sessions are like:

“Sarah you have to go after Obama’s weatherman connections…” 

“– sure well I was a sports journalist so, you betcha I know…”

“No we’re talking about the Vietnam War, about the time of the Tet Offensive.”

“Offensive — it’s outrageous.”

“Somebody give her a cue card…”

Argggghh.

Courage, John. Grit your remaining teeth John and get on with it.

The McCain team was forty minutes late getting onto that stage. Their warm up act, just like Palin’s warm up act in Florida the day before, had returned to using the full “Barack Hussein Obama” nomenclature in his warm-up, and it was alleged that the McCain team was taking a pause to try and work out what to do about it. Or were taking a pause in order to give the appearance of doing such. Three hundred and fifty one years ago, during the primary struggle between Obama and Hillary, McCain had condemned a shockjock who had thus introduced him in Cincinnati.

Now, the question is purely tactical. The McCain team has no qualms about opening up a whole descant of dogwhistle politics — but the last three rallies have had stray creeps brought to the pitch of emotion yelling “traitor” whenever Obama’s name is mentioned, and even “kill him”, and the situation puts McCain in a difficult position.

Condemn the comments and you kill the mood of identification you need to make the rally a success. Ignore them, and it looks like consent. Worse, if you can’t hear it, and you’re caught grinning while the news networks play it back and subtitle it just so it can be real clear. It’s ugly stuff in a country where one in four Presidents has suffered a serious assassination attempt, successful or otherwise.

But it is also worth the risk. Like the Democrats, the Republicans have on staff their congitive psychologists and their politico-psychosocial-linguisticians (George Lakoff is the most prominent of these on the other side), and the Hussein mention is part of a double strategy, the other part of which is the Bill Ayers connections.

Trying to explain the political context of the Weather Underground in the ‘zeroes is like teaching Chinese to a lungfish, but the GOP don’t need or want to do that — all they have to do is connect “domestic terrorist” to the “Hussein” name and hope they can create an unconscious identification in a certain type of voter. It’s part of the whole culture of the talking points, focus groups, 15 second ads, and the debate worm — essentially post-politics, the bypassing of the human subjects to connect with a series of impulses and affects.

In that vein, tomorrow, John Murtagh, who alleges that the Weather Underground tried to firebomb his family home when he was a child, is due to do the media rounds, with a neat line: “Obama says he was eight-years-old when Ayers was active. Well I was eight-years-old when he tried to kill my family.”

Neat.

Sadly for McCain, the sort of people who will salivate at this on cue, do not appear to extend far and wide into independent voters at the moment — and they’re not even that keen on John McCain. For the first time in memory of a VP and Presidential candidate roadshow, people have been reported leaving these events after Palin has finished doing the warm-up.

Madder Lake, if memory serves, the old Oz blues band, used to get this. Hired occasionally to open for an overseas poppier act, the promoter would be gobsmacked to see three hundred people leave as one on the last note of Twelve Pound Toothbrush. Why leave something you already paid for? Because it’s as, an old bluesman — actually redman — said, voting with your feet. Ditto in Bethlehem. They never liked McCain, and a lot of them came for a glimpse of the divine Sarah, for the identification, for the sense that the values they hold are incarnated in someone, somewhere.

Nothing that they heard in last night’s debate will persuade them that McCain is that man. The reaction in the morning to the debate was the like a Advokaat hangover, the pain made worse by a memory that the actual drinking itself was a deeply unpleasant act.

The rules for this pseudo-town hall style debate had been agreed by the candidate’s teams so as to prevent nasty surprises — to whit, no follow up questions from petitioners (their mikes were cut off after they’d finished their question).

Nor was there any opportunity to pose questions to each other. Politico nominated it the “worst debate ever” and as the US meltdown started to play through worldmarkets — a CNN debate repeat was interrupted by a switch to the CNN Asia feed so we could watch the Nikkei lose 10% in a day — the disconnect between the “dinner theatre” debate, old tired lines endlessly repeated, and the real challenges the world and America faced became total. Obama was widely picked as the winner, but only in the sense that McCain had to, I dunno, glass him or something, to get a win.

After a terrible start, Obama’s ability to actually answer in cogent paragraphs suggesting a degree of thought about the issues, started to come through. McCain stuck to his script of short punchy promises, and hacks at his opponent — much of the fuss focussing on McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one”, which, tiresomely in the American context, has been worked over for possible racial motives, but sounded, as all campaigns eventually sound, like a bickering couple (“I said semiconductors were a good investment but this one, this one, wanted a rumpus room. 4000 per cent yield! 4000 per cent!” “Frank for chrissake that was thirty years ago”).

The Palinites would disagree, but it seems clear that America likes the calm joined up thinking better than the scattershot attacks. Everyone’s suddenly realised that the rules they apply to choosing a lawyer or a financial advisor — damn right you want someone smarter than you not someone, as was famously ironically said of Dubya “someone you could have a beer with”.

As Obama’s campaign gets more streamlined — once again seeming to become as quasi-anorexic as its leader in what it actually proposes — the McCain campaign becomes more like The Price Is Right, desperately looking for something the public will buy. The latest? A three hundred billion direct government buyout of mortgages — on top of the one trillion bail-out — that seems to mark the final collapse of the McCain campaign from any sort of minimal free enterprise probity, into crude right-wing populism.

I’m not against a mass state buy-out of mortgages — indeed a larger one, as a substitute for the bailout would be the go — but it has to be recognised for what it is, a piece of genuine socialism, an acknowledgement that the capitalist system is simply unable to sustain a way of life.

The mortgage buy-back — which McCain seemed to be only half-enthused by, and which he didn’t hit enough during the debate — marks the final schism between McCain, the business class Republicans and associated classical liberals, because it is, effectively, the white flag of surrender. But McCain is past caring. Indeed, he’s starting to fall apart. Everyone is. To go back to that old politico-socio-psycho-linguistics again, the slips are getting bigger.

Obama spoke of “I can take four more weeks of John McCain’s insults, but the country can’t take four more wearyers of…” etc. He meant to say “years” but his brain crossed it with “weary” to come up with a finnegenism expressing his fears about the campaign. McCain had a better one, trying to refer to keeping his eye on others in the Senate which came out as “my fellow prisoners”.

Prisoners of what? Of the evil zombie march his campaign has become? Of the process by which he has shredded his reputation for a campaign he’ll lose? Of Cindy? Her contribution today was to damn Obama for voting against funding the troops (just as John McCain did), which “sent a chill through my body”. Or — get your notebook out Bolter — as Republicans call it, an orgasm. “I want Barack Obama to spend a day in my shoes”. So do I. It would be more entertaining than the debate.

Now, in the evening, after the rallies have finished, the teams reappear on the cable shows — Michelle Obama on Larry King, and Palin and McCain on a FOX News interview that would shame the news director of TV Pyongyang.

Even with Sean Hannity feeding her Bill Ayers questions, she, Palin can’t get her lines out. Even McCain baulks at going the full court press.

“Well I think it goes to the truthfulness of Senator Obama — it doesn’t so much matter about an unrepentant terrorist and his wife — who incidentally was worse than he was…” and snorts and laughs. And you know the old McCain emerges — because the old kamikaze can’t keep a snicker of approval for the old bombthrowers, especially the chick. Better than the stiffs he’s hanging around with.

Be calm prisoner. Soon the Vietcong will be at the gates to liberate you once more.

Peter Fray

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