Jewish Journal

Shock, awe and lies on the campaign trail

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

September 14, 2008 | 4:40 pm

The hug to nowhere

Can open lying be a good campaign strategy? That's the question that political junkies are weighing this week.

Politics is not science. Political statements are not "peer reviewed" for accuracy. That being said, I've never seen a campaign engage in such open, easily countered lying, as McCain and Palin have done in the last week. It's really astonishing. They say things that are not true, such as that Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, and even after widely debunked, they still say it. And this is only one of maybe a dozen examples in a week. In fact, other than the spelling of their names, I can't find anything either of them has said recently that is verifiably true.

Now in fairness, this week has also seen McCain do very well in the polls. So in the short term, can we say that lying is working? I don't think so. I think McCain got a huge bounce out of selecting Palin, but the debunking of their words since then is a "lagging indicator" that may derail their whole campaign. I think that those who love Palin on the Republican base will not care at all about the truth question. She is their rock star and she can do no wrong. In their view, the media is at fault for attacking her. That should help McCain in the short term to firm up his shaky base, and guarantees that he will not blown out in November and can actually win.

But what about the rest of us? Those in the "reality based community" as right wingers tend to call everybody but themselves? I have a pretty high tolerance for campaign tactics, even when they are used against my side. I can take a perverse pleasure in a good shot, whoever takes it. But this makes me wonder is if these folks have so much contempt for us that they think we will swallow anything if it is said loudly enough.

I should have seen this coming, though. It's inherent in the quirky personality of John McCain. The affable McCain that reporters saw in 2000, and came to worship, emerges only when he is not challenged. There are some people who simply cannot endure being challenged, especially about their integrity. McCain, in my view, is one of them. And for months, whenever he has been challenged, he has simply made things up. When he was read one of his own quotes by Tim Russert, he simply asserted that he had never said it. This is fairly typical of McCain. His temper is explosive when he is challenged, and one way to prevent the explosion is just to deny the charge whatever it is.

McCain has had few tough elections, and has never had a tough media. They have always made excuses for him. Now they are treating him, finally, as a serious candidate who should be questioned. He doesn't like it one bit. His first response, before rage, is denial that he ever said or did what the questioner is asserting, regardless of the truth. Some politicians get angry, evade, push back, but avoid just simply flat-out lying. I wonder if McCain's untruths are his way of holding back the rage.

Now comes the Palin pick, and McCain's camp is totally unprepared for questions because they hardly checked her out at all. So they just made things up. Then they had to endure being fact checked, such as about her alleged trips to Iraq (which never happened) or to Ireland (a refueling stopover). Following McCain's stubborn lead, they just repeat the lies again and again, demanding that they be accepted as the truth.

I don't think this is going to work. If it does work, where does that leave us in a McCain presidency? Perhaps more than McCain ever intended, this whole week of lying is opening a window into his very character and temperament which form, after all, the central rationale for his campaign.

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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