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When Obama secured the Democratic nomination, John McCain pledged to run a civil campaign founded on the issues. While he almost immediately kicked that pledge to the curb, I must confess that I hadn't expected McCain's message to deterioriate into that which he had once condemned: the very Karl Rove politics of smear and deceit that doomed his candidacy in 2000. And I certainly hadn't expected him to best Rove at his own game. But he has.

Without any discernable plan to get the economy back on track, expand access to healthcare, achieve energy independence or take the fight to the terrorists in the tribal regions of Pakistan, McCain has pinned his electoral fortunes on two new narratives. The first displaces issues with feel-good catchphrases like "country first" and "original maverick." The second uses innuendo and untruths to reinforce subsconscious fears and biases about Obama.

Cross-posted from Our Republic

An example of the latter can be found in McCain's new ad on education, wherein Obama is cast as someone who supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners. The fact that it is a blatant lie is immaterial. It's out there -- and some people will go to the polls in November believing it.

It is the same strategy McCain's employed with taxes. Under Obama's tax plan, 95 percent of Americans would get a tax cut and seniors with incomes under $50,000 would pay no income taxes at all. Nevertheless, McCain continues to carpet bomb the swing states with ads saying Obama will raise everyone's taxes. And surprise, surprise, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 51 percent of Americans and 41 percent of seniors believe Obama will raise their taxes.

It's the most cynical and dishonorable campaign strategy I've ever seen -- and it appears to be working. It's working in part because the McCain campaign has cowed the media into abandoning its commitment to objective fact. So now when McCain throws a ball, the media widens the strike zone.

Given this reality, the question is no longer as simple as whether playing McCain's game will do more damage to Obama's brand than its worth. The more important question it seems is whether, under these circumstances, the high road leads anywhere at all.

Originally posted to Republicus on Wed Sep 10, 2008 at 08:05 AM PDT.

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