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The Whine-Track Candidate

How John McCain and the Republicans became the aggrieved party.
groupdissing the troopsParis Hiltonblack rage

Whoever foots the bill, it’s a quadrennial Republican pastime to portray a Democratic candidate as unfit to live, much less hold high office. Left with a choice between ignoring the attacks or engaging in rapid rebuttals, Obama seems determined to avoid the fate of doomed predecessors like Michael Dukakis or John Kerry, whose failures to respond to negative campaigning contributed to their election-day losses. Instead, his campaign has responded rather meekly, with fact-based denials--an uncomplicated task, given the absurdly dishonest tone of ads like McCain’s Obama-snubbed-wounded-soldiers spot--or a frontrunner’s posture of dismissing the hits as “desperate.” On Monday, the campaign finally released an ad linking McCain to Bush--but it was nowhere near as personal as McCain’s ads about Obama have been.  

Time will tell whether that works out for him. But McCain’s summertime transformation from happy warrior to feckless attack dog also offers Democrats a chance to perform a piece of political jujitsu that could reverberate for years. It’s time to close the whining gap.

America doesn’t like a whiner. A generation of progressives learned this the hard way. Sometime between their New Deal–era successes at fighting for the nation’s underdogs and their failed Reagan-era defense of the Great Society, liberals morphed in the public imagination from noble warriors to carping Chicken Littles. A decade and a half after Bill Clinton returned an optimistic shine to their brand, his party remains seen as the home of serial victimology, forever carping about the unfairness of the world. With Democratic leaders cast as process-obsessed kvetchers, the implication about their rank-and-file supporters was clear enough: The Democrats were the party of losers--personally, economically, and politically.

The old image came through vividly in last-month’s mini-scandal over ex-Senator Phil Gramm’s diagnosis that the United States had “become a nation of whiners.” A Reagan-era star who’s been out of politics for most for most of the Bush years, the McCain advisor was simply touching an old button from his political heyday. Make a choice, America: Are you whiners or Republicans?

Of course, the idea of casting any party as the whiners’ faction is silly. Politics is the act of organizing grievances. Pretty much every political group that has ever existed has involved significant amounts of bellyaching. That’s especially true of the modern right, whose Nixon and Goldwater contingents alike organized themselves around noisy, grouchy complaining about eastern elitists, bureaucrats, long-hairs, and the other bullying bad guys of the Republican imagination. But when insurgents, as the GOP was in the ’60s, harp on opponents’ every word, questioning their patriotism or their integrity or their fairness, it can sound like righteous indignation. When a party in the deep autumn of its political era does so, it comes off as petty bitching. And exhibit A, improbably enough, is John McCain.

With his five years of stoic imprisonment and his history of making nice with old tormentors, John McCain seemed like a perfect addition to the decades-long tradition of playing the foil for grievance-obsessed Democrats. But a funny thing happened to cheery McCain: He started whining himself.

The jury’s still out on whether McCain’s first three negative ads and accompanying attacks will sway voters. But there’s no doubt that they’ve already succeeded in driving a week’s worth of news, as talking heads debate whether the Illinois Senator is an out-of-touch celebrity, a troop-disser, a race card–player, or a fussy hysteric. Critics, including a onetime Republican rival and one of McCain’s own former top campaign aides, say the salvo has made him seem bitter and unpleasant, which is surely true. But Obama’s reactive posturing seems mostly like a slightly more competent update of previous Democratic losers. He expresses dismay or bemoans cynicism but doesn’t use McCain’s own words to make the sort of emasculating, delegitimizing point that seems most appropriate: John McCain is a sniveling whiner.

After all, what is the Republican really arguing for in his newly ferocious incarnation? He’s not actually talking about leadership, or plans to leave Iraq. He’s complaining about Obama’s good fortune. Boo hoo! The press likes Obama. Sob! The general public enjoys novelty and spectacle. Does someone have a hankie? Some people find his race an appealing reason to vote for him. Cry me a river. And forget pointing out the hypocrisy of such a line of criticism from the guy who’s never lacked an invitation to “Meet the Press,” nor been shy to accept one. Pointing out hypocrisy is for losers. Pointing out un-American wussiness, especially in someone whose life story involves plenty of the contrary, is a tactic the GOP’s own strategists would recognize. Ronald Reagan would have known just what to say in Obama’s place: “There you go again.” He’d have found a way, sweetly, to suggest over and over again that McCain ought to grow a pair. The response would have simultaneously belittled McCain and preempted future recurrences of the attacks. More importantly, it would have established an easy--and extremely unflattering--framework for people to interpret further Republican negative spots: as yet another example of the party’s inability to shut its whiny pieholes.

Painting the Republican as the whiner’s candidate isn’t exactly a stretch. Like the Democrats of an earlier generation, the Republicans in their own age of hubristic overreach seem to revel in playing the victim. Things are always so darned biased against them: The media harps on negative news from Iraq. The secular elitists look down on the religious fundamentalists. The neocons are invariably misunderstood and discriminated against. Those poor young conservatives can’t even get a date on an Ivy League campus. The griping has long been part of the Republican style, but in 2008, with the rest of their brand so thoroughly damaged, it’s all they’ve got left. And when a political movement changes its focus from complaints that are based in reality (illegals are pouring over the border!) to gripes about process (the mean, mean New York Times asked for rewrites of McCain’s op-ed!) its candidates start to look awfully puny, however heroic they used to be. If only their opponents would point it out.

Right now is the Democrats’ moment. Goodbye, John McCain, war hero. Hello, John McCain, bellyacher. What are the Republicans going to do in response? Complain about how unfair it is to say such things about a decorated national treasure? Typical. The whiners.

Michael Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.