I've spent the last several days wondering why McCain would try to incite an angry mob by harping constantly on Obama's associations with Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko. Sure, McCain needs to "disqualify" Obama in order to have a shot of winning, given the late date and his depressed poll numbers. On the other hand, you have to think the growing ugliness on the right is turning off a lot of independents. I can't imagine anyone other than a loyalist watching clips from McCain's rallies and thinking, "These are the people I want running the country in this time of crisis." So, on balance, it seemed contrary to McCain's self-interest (something even the McCain campaign has finally acknlowedged by repudiating some of its own supporters).
But today's outburst by John Lewis, in which the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero accused McCain fomenting hate a la George Wallace, made me wonder. Maybe McCain has been playing for a bankshot here: Stir up enough nastiness on the right that you goad Obama supporters into crying racism, then righteously denounce the playing of the race card, as Team McCain did this summer, when Obama suggested the GOP would try to make people scared of him.
McCain's hair-trigger response to the Lewis comments kind of gets you thinking along those lines, no? (On the other hand, what are you supposed to say when a civil rights icon accuses you of Wallace-esque tactics.)
Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign. I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track.
Fortunately, I think the Obama campaign response was pitch perfect--denouncing the analogy to Wallace, but embracing Lewis's condemnation of the hatefulness McCain partisans are spewing:
Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies.
But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for president of the United States ‘pals around with terrorists.’
P.S. Ben Smith sees a change in the Obama approach to accusations that he's playing the race card. Ben writes: "Last time McCain voiced outrage at the suggestion, from Obama himself, that he would use race against the Democrat, Obama quickly backed down. But the terrain has changed, and it seems to be a fight Obama is now comfortable having, perhaps in the hopes of amplifying a backlash against McCain."
I disagree somewhat. Obama is still disavowing any suggestion that he's accusing McCain of racism--he doesn't want any part of that. What's changed is the emergence of this harsh language on the right, which the Obama campaign (rightly) feels comfortable condemning.
Update: I'd just add that, even if McCain had a bankshot strategy in place here, it seems to have gotten away from him a bit, as reflected in the need to repudiate supporters.