The Straight Talk Express has taken a nasty turn into the gutter. Sen. John McCain has resorted to lies and distortions in what sounds like an increasingly desperate attempt to slow down Sen. Barack Obama by raising questions about his patriotism. Instead of taking the Democrat down a few notches, these baseless attacks are raising more questions about the Republican's campaign and his ability to control his temper.
The most offensive line comes from McCain himself. The Arizona senator has repeated that Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.'' That is one of the more outrageous statements by a major political party candidate seeking the presidency. The looming choices about the long-festering war in Iraq are not between winning and losing but about how quickly or slowly the United States can reduce its military forces without jeopardizing recent security gains. Even McCain acknowledges that, and insulting Obama in such a reckless way is not presidential.
That is only one example of the darker tone enveloping the McCain campaign since several of Karl Rove's acolytes took the wheel. A new McCain ad suggests that while Obama traveled abroad last week he "made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.'' That's a compelling punch line, but it's below the belt.
What actually happened: Obama planned to visit wounded troops at a medical center in Germany until the Pentagon said it would not allow him to bring a retired Air Force major general who is one of the campaign's foreign policy advisers. The Democrat may have been poised to blur the line between political events and official troop visits by members of Congress. But there is no evidence that he was snubbing soldiers because he could not appear with them on television.
McCain has even attempted to plant doubts about whether Obama is a socialist. He said earlier this month that the Democrat's voting record "is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.'' Asked whether he thought Obama is a socialist, McCain responded: "I don't know. All I know is his voting record, and that's what people usually judge their elected representatives by.''
This is a classic smear campaign. As the Times' PolitiFact notes, the National Journal rated Obama the most liberal senator by analyzing just 99 of 442 votes last year. He did not finish near the top in two previous years, and other ranking services rate his record as significantly less liberal than Sanders'. But McCain was not troubled by the details. He mentioned Obama and socialist in the same sentence, and the seeds of doubt were planted.
Virtually all candidates, including Obama, distort their opponent's record. But McCain has gone beyond reasonable bounds. The self-described "happy warrior'' in the 2000 presidential campaign has turned sour in 2008, and the candor and straight talk that once made him such an attractive candidate are rapidly disappearing.