It's finally dawned on John McCain: he'd rather lose an election than lose his soul. After weeks of pandering, opportunistic flip-flopping and, worst of all, telling voters that an Obama presidency would be dangerous and risky, implying that Obama would coddle terrorists and may even be one himself, McCain, in a moment of sudden clarity, spoke the truth the other day.
Maybe you saw it, or heard it. If not, watch it here. For more than a week, ever since McCain and Sarah Palin ramped up the Obama-hangs-out-with-domestic-terrorist-William Ayers routine, the crowds at their rallies had been growing increasingly lynch mob-like, shouting out racist epithets and punctuating the candidates' references to Obama with alarming cries of "kill him!," "traitor!" and "terrorist!" McCain and Palin did nothing to calm their venomous fury. But on Friday, just as some anxious Republicans were encouraging McCain to go after Obama with even more intensity, the Arizona Senator finally stepped back from the abyss. Twice during a town hall event in Wisconsin, he not only refused to take the bait from voters, he actually set them straight, refuting their assertions that Barack Obama is dangerous and scary, and that he's even - gasp! - an "Arab," as one woman put it.
"No," said McCain. "Senator Obama is a decent person...and a person that you do not have to be scared, as president of the United States." Later he called Obama "a decent family man" and assured that woman that Obama is not an Arab. His audience didn't want to hear it. Some gasped in astonishment and cried out "What?" in disbelief. Others booed.
You can't really blame them. For weeks they've been told just the opposite. Had the McCain campaign not fueled the rumors, not spread the innuendo, not insinuated that Obama is some sort of radical socialist Allah-lover, then that belief would be confined to the online world of conspiracy theorists and lunatic fringe bloggers (I, by the way, consider myself a lunatic mainstream blogger, so there). So the McCain-Palin camp absolutely deserves some of the blame here, and their sudden shift leaves many of his supporters not sure what to believe.
It's a relief to watch McCain see the light, to see him remember how he felt in 2000 when he was savaged by the vicious, underhanded attacks of the Bush-Rove campaign machine. You have to wonder if, deep down, he's realized he is not going to win this election, and he'll be damned if he's going to go out with no class at all. Or, if, instead, he recognizes that he can't possibly win on character attacks, and that his only hope is to tack towards the high road and re-focus on the issues, in particular the economy.
I've been salivating thinking about this Wednesday's debate. Both Obama and Joe Biden had challenged McCain in recent days, telling rallies that if McCain had nasty things to say about Obama, he'd better look Obama in the eye and say them to his face on Wednesday, instead of skirting the sensitive issues when they're together and saving the vitriol for the campaign trail. But now, with McCain backing down, I wonder if the Ayers issue will come up at all during the debate. Unless Bob Schieffer asks about it, and even if he does, I have a sneaking feeling that McCain will go soft, and lay into Obama on legitimate policy differences instead. That won't be as entertaining, but wouldn't it be refreshing?
The problem for McCain, though, is that once again, he has undercut his own most effective argument. For months, from late in the primaries until the conventions, his case against Obama was built on the Democrat's lack of experience and readiness. It's a legitimate argument: Obama simply hasn't been in elective office that long, has a thin resume in the Senate, and was, at least initially, quite vague on many major issues. But then McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, and there went that approach. Since then, his main thrust has been that Obama is naive, dangerous and untrustworthy; that voters don't really know who he is or what he would do; and that his questionable past associations raise real doubts about his true intentions for America.
Oops. Can't argue that one anymore either. Not when you just said "he's a decent family man" and that there's no reason to fear an Obama presidency. Now it's McCain whom voters aren't sure about. What does he really think? It's hard to know. The very same day, the McCain campaign released a new TV ad attacking Obama again on the Ayers issue, raising the same old fears about him and labeling him "too risky" to be president. At the end, McCain says, as always, "I'm John McCain, and I approve this message." Do you? Then why did you just contradict it in front of hundreds of voters?
Clearly, McCain is conflicted, or perhaps unable to rein in the baser instincts of his campaign managers. For a brief moment Friday, McCain veered toward sanity and reason, not toward saying whatever he must to win. McCain himself has said before that he always seems to sabotage his own political ambitions, that something inside keeps him from grabbing the brass ring, that in the end he tends to say or do something that keeps the biggest prize just out of reach. He may have just done it again, but at least this time, he really did put country first. We'll see if he stays on that path.