The Anger Factor

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008; 10:09 AM

The media are getting mad.

Whether it’s the latest back-and-forth over attack ads, the silly lipstick flap or the continuing debate over Sarah and sexism, you can just feel the tension level rising several notches.

Maybe it’s a sense that this is crunch time, that the election is on the line, that the press is being manipulated (not that there’s anything new about that).

News outlets are increasingly challenging false or questionable claims by the McCain campaign, whether it’s the ad accusing Obama of supporting sex-ed for kindergartners (the Illinois legislation clearly describes “age-appropriate” programs) or Palin’s repeated boast that she stopped the Bridge to Nowhere (after she had supported it, and after Congress had effectively killed the specific earmark).

The McCain camp has already accused the MSM of trying to “destroy” the governor of Alaska. So any challenge to her record or her veracity can now be cast as the product of an oh-so-unfair press. Which, needless to say, doesn’t exactly please reporters, and makes the whole hanging-with-McCain-on-the-Straight-Talk era seem 100 years ago.

As for the sudden insistence that Palin is a delicate flower who must be shielded from harsh rhetoric, take this example. Joe Biden, asked if Palin as VP would be a step forward for women, said: “Look, I think the issue is: What does Sarah Palin think? What does she believe? I assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think. And that’s obviously a backward step for women.”

A typical political shot? Not according to the RNC, which said the “arrogant” remarks are “better suited for the backrooms of his old boys’ club,” while Palin is trying to break “the highest glass ceiling.”

Of course, she wasn’t picked because she is a woman, was she? And I’m sure if Hillary was the nominee, the RNC would be extremely respectful of her attempt to shatter an even higher glass ceiling.

The lipstick imbroglio is evidence that the Drudge/Fox/New York Post axis can drive just about any story into mainstream land. Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama was calling Sarah Palin a pig? What about the fact that McCain has used “lipstick on a pig” before? What about the book by that title by former McCain aide Torie Clarke? Never mind: get the cable bookers to line up women on opposite sides of the lipstick divide and let them claw at each other!

Obama, punching back about “phony outrage,” knows where to point the finger:

“What their campaign has done this morning is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country. They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw out an outrageous ad because they know it’s catnip for the news media. . . . See, it would be funny, it would be funny except, of course, the news media decided that was the lead story yesterday.”

“Remember when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama promised a kinder, gentler presidential race?” asks the Boston Globe. “They said the issues would be front and center, the nasty personal attacks kept at bay, and they even floated the quaint notion of traveling the country together to engage voters in a respectful competition of ideas.

“Goodbye to all that.

“With less than 60 days to Election Day, the rival campaigns are at each other’s throats. In the last two days alone, put-downs have flown like daggers: McCain’s campaign called Obama’s ‘disturbing,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘offensive,’ and ‘disgraceful.’ Obama’s campaign fired back with ‘pathetic,’ ‘perverse,’ ‘dishonorable,’ and ‘shameful.’ Though McCain has more often been the aggressor, the back-and-forth — to borrow a recent McCain campaign description of Obama running mate Joe Biden — has reached ‘a new low.’ ”

The greatest anger I see is among liberal pundits who were once McCain admirers. I know the conservative indictment is that it was easy to back Mac against Bush in a primary, but harder when the opponent is their liberal love Barack. Still, I sense some genuine disappointment.

Time’s Joe Klein is particularly exercised:

“Back in 2000, after John McCain lost his mostly honorable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he went about apologizing to journalists — including me — for his most obvious mis-step: his support for keeping the confederate flag on the state house.

“Now he is responsible for one of the sleaziest ads I’ve ever seen in presidential politics, so sleazy that I won’t abet its spread by linking to it . . .

“I just can’t wait for the moment when John McCain — contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat — talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.”

TPM’s Josh Marshall can’t resist an I-told-you-so:

“One of the interesting aspects of this campaign is watching the scales fall from the eyes of many of John McCain’s closest admirers among the veteran DC press corps. I’m not talking about the freaks on Fox News or any of the sycophants at the AP. I’m talking about, let’s say, the better sort of reporters and commentators in the 45 to 65 age bracket. To the extent that the press was McCain’s base (and in many though now sillier respects it still is) this was the base of the base. And talking to a number of them I can understand why that was, at least in the sense of the person he was then presenting himself as.

“But over the last . . . maybe six weeks, in various conversations with these folks, the change is palpable. Whether it will make any difference in the tone of coverage in the dominant media I do not know. But it is sinking in.

“All politicians stretch the truth, massage it into the best fit with their message. But, let’s face it, John McCain is running a campaign almost entirely based on straight up lies. Not just exaggerations or half truths but the sort of straight up, up-is-down mind-blowers we’ve become so accustomed to from the current occupants of the White House . . .

“So let’s stopped being shocked and awed by every new example of it. It is undignified. What can we do? We’ve got a dangerously reckless contender for the presidency and a vice presidential candidate who distinguished her self by abuse of office even on the comparatively small political stage of Alaska.”

Kevin Drum, now blogging at Mother Jones, looks ahead to a McCain administration:

“John McCain has obviously decided that he can’t win a straight-up fight, so he’s decided instead to wage a battle of character assassination, relentless lies, and culture war armageddon. So what happens on November 5th?

“If McCain wins, he’ll face a Democratic Congress that’s beyond furious. Losing is one thing, but after eight years of George Bush and Karl Rove, losing a vicious campaign like this one will cause Dems to go berserk. They won’t even return McCain’s phone calls, let alone work with him on legislation. It’ll be four years of all-out war.

“And what if Obama wins? The last time a Democrat won after a resurgence of the culture war right, we got eight years of madness, climaxing in an impeachment spectacle unlike anything we’d seen in a century. If it happens again, with the lunatic brigade newly empowered and shrieking for blood, Obama will be another Clinton and we’ll be in for another eight years of near psychotic dementia.”

At Huffington Post, John Neffinger sees a turning point for Obama:

“This ‘sex ed’ ad the McCain campaign just launched is waaaay over the line. After a parade of out-of-context quotes, it shows Obama smirking naughtily as the voiceover talks about him wanting to provide ‘comprehensive’ sex education to kindergarteners. The voiceover by itself is hard-hitting, but together with the visuals, the ad basically paints Obama as a pedophile. (In reality, the legislation provides for educating younger children about the difference between good touches and bad touches to help protect them against pedophiles.)

“So this is it. This is Obama’s Dukakis-and-the-death-penalty moment.

“Everyone who sees this ad can see how dirty it is. And if Obama wants Americans to respect him, they must be allowed to see him react with the kind of anger — controlled, but still palpable — that they would feel if somebody did that to them.

“That means Obama must address the issue, personally and promptly, and do it just right. He must talk about honor and shame, how he has young daughters, and how just like any parent, he wants to do everything he can to protect them from pedophiles.”

In a more temperate post at the New Republic, Michael Crowley faults Obama:

“Here’s the case for longer-term concern. It feels a bit as though Obama is out of steam, something that’s happened before. The man needs big moments to rekindle his fire. Throughout the campaign, he’s found those moments. His knockout Jefferson-Jackson performance in Iowa last December. That dazzling Kennedy family endorsement. Claiming the nomination on June 3. The unity event with Hillary. Invescopalooza. But what’s left now? A killer debate performance, perhaps — but anyone who remembers last fall wouldn’t bank on that (even if he did improve with time).”

I hate to waste any bandwidth on this trumped-up lipstick thing, but it’s interesting that some conservatives, such as Laura Ingraham, don’t think that’s the right road for the GOP. National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez detects a whiff of identity politics:

“Talking about Hillary Clinton and sexism at a women-and-leadership Newsweek forum earlier this year, Sarah Palin said it ‘bothers me a little’ to see Clinton running as a victim. ‘She does herself a disservice to even mention it.’ Palin added that any ‘perceived whine . . . doesn’t do us any good . . . women in politics, or women in general.’

“You go, girl. Who needs to play victim? Life’s unfair. Politics gets ugly. So what? Fight on! To Palin’s credit, she hasn’t whined about sexism since becoming the Republican vice-presidential nominee. But her campaign has. . . . I know it resonates, but it honestly doesn’t do anyone any good unless the purpose of this teaching moment is to mirror the Left’s usual whining and hypersensitivity in order to demonstrate how silly the whole thing looks when you’re on the other side. To have a GOP campaign actually whining about sexism . . . well . . . bothers me a little.”

At Pajamas Media, Roger Kimball dismisses the episode:

“I really wish that former Gov. Jane Swift hadn’t called on Obama to ‘apologize’ for the be-lipsticked pig is still a pig line . . . Was this a ‘mega gaffe’? Maybe it will turn out to be, but I for one hope that the McCain camp gives it a rest. Of course it was a reference to Sarah Palin’s line about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was that the hockey mom wore lipstick; and of course Obama intended some of that porcine unpleasantness to rub off on S. Palin, Governor of Alaska. He was doubtless also, I am reliably informed, alluding to the colloquial phrase about putting lipstick on a pig, i.e., ‘slang for when someone tries to dress something up, but is still that something.’ . . .

“I think it is bad form for Republicans to play this silly game. I do not know Sarah Palin. But from what I know of her, I would guess that if she even noticed Obama’s desperate little performance her first, and probably her last, reaction was to laugh.”

But Power Line’s John Hinderaker views the flap as a metaphor:

“I have mixed feelings about it. Watching the video, I think it’s plausible for Obama to say that he wasn’t talking about Governor Palin. On the other hand — come on. Does he seriously believe, given all the water under the bridge, that he can use the words ‘lipstick’ and ‘pig’ in the same sentence without people thinking he’s taking a shot at Palin? His audience certainly took it that way. Maybe it’s just another example of Obama’s lack of skill on his feet, when he doesn’t have a teleprompter to tell him what to say.

“The more interesting question is whether Obama is starting to come apart at the seams. As his party’s presidential nominee, he should be doing battle with John McCain, not Sarah Palin. But he seemingly can’t help himself. Over the last couple of days, several generally apolitical people have told me that they think Obama has been melting down ever since Palin’s nomination was announced. Hysteria does appear to be sweeping the Obama camp, with over the top attacks on both Palin and McCain. One wonders whether their internal polling numbers are really, really bad.”

I raised the what-if question on Hillary yesterday, and now Politico examines what might have been:

“Republican Rep. Candice S. Miller says Barack Obama had only one shot at Palin-proofing the Democratic ticket — and he missed it when he passed over Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate. ‘Every woman in America knows what Barack Obama did to Hillary Clinton: He looked at her and thought, ‘There’s no way I’m doing that,” said Miller. ‘If Hillary was on the ticket, he’d be in a much better position to win women voters.’ Sarah Palin’s presence — coupled with Clinton’s absence — may be altering one of the great verities of American politics: that women voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats.”

A former Hillary adviser is quoted as saying that the “Obama people have got to be kicking themselves’ for not putting choosing Clinton as his No. 2.”

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