On FOX News, Shephard Smith, a burly man whose tragedy is that, without even TV makeup, he perpetually appears to be wearing eye-liner, was clearly angry. Not the fake frikked up anger that FOX anchors deploy on dippy liberals, but the real thing. The source of his ire? False attacks on the … Democrats?

“Well Barack Obama has made it clear that he regards Israel as our greatest ally and a permanent friend,” he hammered in the wake of a rocky interview, with the air of Mr G defending Funny Girl against the claims of Cabaret, “and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that that’s not his true belief.”

Then he looked down the barrel and shook his head,”it’s crazy what’s getting out there.”

That he was defending the sainted one on the Poor Unbalanced network was one thing — but what was truly strange was that the man he was defending him against was Joe the Plumber, doing a phone interview on foreign policy.

The McCain campaign, knowing that it has no choice but to keep upping the ante, had gone from using Joe as a talisman, to getting him on the road — he’ll be appearing with Walnuts in a couple of rallies later in the week, and this morning he was doing a personal appearance at a “patriotism” store that sells mainly US flags and lives, no doubt, on mail-order from the Bay Area Black Bloc anarchist collective (“first class post — must be flammable”).

Joe’s role was to be the heartfelt, yet trusting voice of the average folks, speaking home-spun wisdom about the strange European ideas of the Democrats.

“Joe said Obama’s plan sounded like socialism,” Palin has been saying in her rallies, and note the phrasing — it’s the “Joe don’t know much but he know what he know and it’s the wisdom of the ages” sort of thing.

Sadly, Joe’s media-training was even worse than Palin’s, and when an old zionist in the audience threw out the remark that “Barack Obama means the death of Israel,” Joe, instead of referring him back to the campaign, said “those were comments I would agree with … I think that’s true.”

Whoever the questioner was knew his mark, knew Joe was just busting to say his piece on just about anything. And he’s entitled to his opinion, but the principle effect of the moment was to make the McCain campaign look even more wildly undisciplined than it already is — which is damn hard.

McCain has known for ages that portraying Obama as a current radical leftist won’t work, that every poll shows it turns people off the McCain campaign more than anything. Despite the shrieks of conservapundits to open up that front, he’s stuck to the idea that Obama is naïve, not Hamas, and tried to use that as a way of tarnishing the “hope change” rhetoric. The questioner clearly wanted to jam the campaign up and force it to the right.

Well he got it half right. The McCain campaign had to release a statement saying they disagreed with “Joe the Plumber” on Obama on Israel, thus destroying the magic bond that had existed between them, and Joe went on to that FOX news interview go say, when asked what his evidence for the assertion was “that I’m not a foreign policy guy … I’ll just put it back on you guys to find out the truth” and “well the guy who asked the question, he was from middle America, it was something he felt deeply about.”

Me, I suspect the guy was from Mossad, on deep cover as an old Columbus Ohio Jew, his beige casual-wear expertly constructed in the Tel Aviv labs, given to him by his handler Mem, to help blend him in. But anyway, it marked the point at which Joe began to cross from the asset to the liabilities column on the McCain-Palin balance sheet. Mark the moment that FOX news lost love for Joe the P when he said to Shepherd Smith: Listen, I know you wanna really get some answers on this one, I’m just not gonna help you out here, Shepherd.

Cos, really, that’s exactly what you want to hear when you’re a mid-afternoon anchor with four hours to fill, your interviewee saying, “ha suffer and die sucker, twist in the wind”. Shepherd had a tough time, but it’s nothing compared to what the McCain team must be feeling, watching Joe the P rise from the primeval swamp of GOPolitics, like Godzilla, trampling all before him.

What’s next? Fluoride? The Fabian society’s role in such? Here’s my bet and if I’m right, every Crikey subscriber has to buy me a drink if they ever run into me: by the end of the week, Joe the Plumber will be talking about central banking, Andrew Jackson, the gold standard and the whole megillah, and though it will be too late, the campaign will send him down the same liftshaft that Carly Fiorina and Joe the McCain Brother were sent.

Poor old Walnuts. You can see, in the most recent McCain-Palin joint interview, his deep loathing for Palin — indeed there’s a video fakemashup which has him reaching across and knocking her over as she goes into one of her “you betcha” routines. McCain’s a warrior-psycho, but he knows foreign policy in depth, and values deep thinking about it (in strategy at least — ethics not so much) and having Palin and Joe as his running mates must be deeply galling to him.

Indeed both Sarah Palin and Joe Wurzelbacher illustrate the desperate delusions and deep stupidity of populism, its interest in identity and emotion (“he’s from middle America he feels this deeply”) above actual work and governance. Formal education is not necessary to political participation but intellectual curiosity, a belief that knowledge is real, that argument matters is. Among all the terrible — but hopefully self-defeating campaigns — the McCain has won, this basic assault on reason and knowledge, this celebration of a smug dumbness, is the worst thing they have done to themselves and their nation. Country first, hah.

Nothing goes right for the McCain campaign at the moment, though their plugging away at this socialism stuff has undoubtedly got them closer to a possible win. Today, McCain ducked out of an open air rally in Pennsylvania because of rain — while Obama spoke to 9,000 people who braved a downpour, the candidate in a rain jacket, water streaming down his face, telling them that “this is too important — we’ve got to go out in rain and sleet and hail and…”

The conviction of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska could have helped the GOP, given Palin’s (late-ish) stand against him — save for the Senator’s stubborn refusal to stand down from the ticket, giving the Republicans a convicted felon as a candidate, and McCain-Palin a challenge they can’t resolve. It’s funny really, but also sad — Stevens succumbed to the temptation to get a bunch of free stuff for his house, and turn Alaskan politics into a dynastic succession, at the end of a decades-long tenure as “the father of Alaska”.

Palin et al are piling in on him, yet it was Stevens who ensured that Alaskans get a royalty from their own oil — rather than Exxon et al having a free hand — supported the largest closed-shop in the US when the Trans pipeline was built in the 70s, and in the 1940s — the 1940s! — as a young lawyer won land rights for the Inuit in a decade long campaign. People ain’t forgotten it in “the land to which the tide is tending” (the meaning of “Alayeska” in Aleutian Inuit) and don’t be surprised if this rogue state/nation send the felon back to the Big House, not the big house. If they do, I think I surely will move there.

Third problem is the way the infighting in the McPalin campaign is spilling out into the open. That Palin is now routinely ignoring her handlers is now open knowledge. She did a transcendentally weird joint appearance with Elizabeth Hasselback, who appears on women’s morning show The View, her claim to fame hitherto being an American Idol finalist, is a nervy blonde, and of course, a Republican.

Hasselback introduced Palin at a rally, and then Palin went into an extended rave about the clothes issue and how “Elizabeth said I should say…” and “Elizabeth thinks…” and man it was strange. It was a goddam slumber party. Were ear piercings and a pillow fight far behind? There was something gleeful about it — it was an escape from the Law of the Father, of old Walnuts, grumbling about “why doncher read a briefing note for once in yer life” and “you spend that much money on clothes you could read the Constitution once in a while and find out what you would actually do!!!!!” and of course “you kids get off my lawn.”

It’s for this that an unnamed McCain staffer said that Palin was not just a “diva”, but “a whack job.” Of course she is, and goes back to her profound incuriosity, her sense that she has a set of beliefs and why disturb them with facts that would just lead to confusion?

It’s not that the Obama campaign has been without errors. After Joe Biden was subjected to, well, a whack job interview in which he was asked if Obama was a communist, the Obama team banned interviews with that station and then with the whole of ABC Florida. Wise? Maybe they needed to be as heavy as possible in a swing state, but it’s an ugly and repressive way of treating something better laughed off.

But by and large the Obama campaign is disciplined, tight, and has a truly extraordinary movement on the ground, reaching millions of people a week — and now pushing McCain to buy advertising time in places like Montana (won by Bush with 20% in 04), North Dakota (ditto) and West Virginia (you got a purty mouth boy). If by some wild chance the polls were wrong, but happened to be wrong in Obama’s favour, the GOP would be reduced to a dozens states, Texas their only big population base. The party might then be fully taken over by the religious right and unelectable for a generation. Well a man can dream.

Tomorrow, Obama has his half-hour film ad on all networks (except ABC) including the Spanish networks, and the cable. It’s huge — a tens of millions of dollars buy — dwarfing McCain’s remaining funds. Will that put the lid on it? We will find out, but it’s fair to say that when FOX is getting pissed off with you because your rough trade pickup is going crazy in the green room, then you are in last days of Kurt Cobain territory. He was an eye-shadow sort of guy too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey