Desperation politics in the US is getting down, dirty... and racist

As the poll gap widens in the race for US President, the Republicans are showing signs of panic politics

There’s something very, very ugly happening in the United States at the moment. Yes, Wall St is ugly, but it pales – literally – in comparison to the dirty politics of racism, xenophobia and fear. It is the politics of desperation and with just three weeks until the US election, it is being flung around like the proverbial, hoping more than enough will stick to the first African American who has a true shot at the White House before he gets any further ahead in the polls.

A few days ago at a Florida rally, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told a fired-up crowd of what is quaintly called the Republican base, to hold on to their hats (they wear hats in US politics). She was firing the starter’s gun for a deluge that has seen the Grand Ol’ Party wallowing in the political gutter, and showing a Michael Phelps flair for the muck in its wake.

The Governor has been introduced by supporters who ask the gathered crowds to imagine how they’ll feel on November 5 if they wake up to find the President is a guy by the name of Barack Hussein Obama. That’s right, Hussein. The folks boo and hiss. As if these people who turned out to the rally had been in hermetically sealed caves during the painful primaries, and had not realised that the black guy running for President has a name that sounds, well, Muslim, ergo foreign, double ergo–risky.

Not enough for ya? At the next rally the crowd was whipped up by the call to make sure that “on November 4 they leave Barack Hussein Obama wondering what happened”. The response was cries of “terrorist”, “traitor” and even “kill him”.

Now most of us love a good political stoush, no matter what we may say to the contrary, but this is bordering on the dangerous in a country that doesn’t have a terrifically flash record when it comes to intolerance of difference at the top. We are yet to meet politicians who have risen to the giddy heights of presidential candidature who do not indulge in a little dirt, and we have yet to meet any who don't have something in their respective closets that they would prefer to keep amidst their sewer-trekking wellies. But the now well-thumbed political playbook in the US of A is looking extremely shabby.

It is undeniable that the Republican party is the master of that playbook, and that they are resorting to dirt because of a poll-plunge brought about by being the incumbent party in the White House presiding over the most significant economic collapse, some say, since 1929. It is no surprise that the mascot for the party is the elephant, given its ability to deposit the sort of stuff we are seeing flying around at the moment.

Just launched is a new set of campaign ads–the ones that are approved by the party committee. These ads play on the gangster history of Chicago, from where Obama hails. They are in black and white, reminiscent of the J. Edgar Hoover era, and they make extraordinary allegations of guilt by association between Obama and some unsavoury types. The key pitch this week is to link Obama to Bill Ayers, the former domestic terrorist and founder of the 1970s anti-Vietnam group the Weather Underground. At the time Ayers was involved in the group, Obama was eight. Serendipitously, years later they ended up living in the same neighbourhood in Chicago–Ayers at this stage a successful university professor. He hosted a meet-and-greet for Obama when he was running for the Illinois senate and they served on two non-profit boards together. End of story? Heck no.

Palin tells her crowds that Obama “pals around” with this guy which means voters don’t really know who Obama is given he has “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist. That, according to the Governor who has just been found guilty of abuse of power, is not negative, it is “truthfulness”. Her boss McMaverick chants, “who is the real Barack Obama?”.

Surely if McCain did not know who the real Obama was he could have asked him during the debates they have been in together. Last week, it was in McCain’s favoured “town hall” format. That’s supposed to be up-close and personal, so couldn’t he have shuffled over to his opponent and asked him his pedigree, and while he was there, ask him how many terrorists he associates with?

As Joe Biden put it, where he comes from if you have something to say to a man, say it to his face.

Instead, McCain came over as angry and nasty in that debate. He referred to Obama as “that one” (now the slogan of a much sought after t-shirt ), while those in the audience were his “friends”. Actually, he used the term friends 22 times in 90 minutes. Given he was supposed to have only half the talking time, that was a reference to “my friends” once every two minutes. Surely if he was with so many good mates, he would have been comfortable enough to enquire of the things that are surely worrying him about the “real Obama”. But no. And the reason in terms of political strategy is clear.

The Republicans are working this on three levels. There is the completely above board, keep McCain out of the muck public debate level. Then there is the negative push through the ads–the Chicago gangster-style ad is prima facie. And then, there is the netherworld. That’s where every supposed principle is up for sale, particularly to the base of the flailing Republican Party. There’s a certain raw meat-eating element at play here (think moose), where the tactic is to fire out a not-too-subtle implication such as “Hussein” and let the frenzy begin. Be in no doubt that the party knows and approves every little step here.

So what are they fighting? They are fighting a certain Mr Jones, Mr Dow Jones, and given the way Mr Jones has been coddled in the last few year, he’s proving a scary opponent. The latest polls show Obama at 52 to McCain’s 41 (Newsweek). That’s an eleven point gap in just one month, so the panic is setting in over a growing realisation that the maverick & co. are not cutting the lipstick outside the diehards. Palin has secured the blue collar male, but it is the swing vote Republicans must have to hold on to power.

Now that there is an undeniable lynch mob attitude operating at certain levels, surely it is up to McCain to summon the guts to denounce it. Yes, Obama comes across as a cliché classic liberal who refers to McCain as erratic. Pinch me, but I think erratic is a pretty good description. Was it not McCain who presented his credentials as anti-establishment only to back the bail out? Was he not the guy who wanted to be seen as challenging Bush on the environment, immigration and torture? Now he seems to be consumed by only a new type of surge–this one economic, with no way of paying, and the old Republican party doesn’t like it.

What’s a guy to do but turn feral?

Everything that is easy to do in Washington has been done, so Americans are looking for a leader. They don’t need a “friend”.

All the while, in the real world of economic chaos and trillions of dollars being wiped off retirement savings, the world’s financial leaders have been meeting in Washington. McCain’s leader George W. Bush has tried to calm the economic waters by saying “we have the tools to fix it”. It's enough to remind you of McCain in full debate flight telling the audience that he knows how to fix the economy… and how to get Osama bin Laden. Well John (and George), to use a Sarah Palin adjective, how patriotic is it to hold on to the secrets the rest of the world has been scrambling for? W, you should deliver the economic miracle, while McCain nabs the bin Laden guy as promised for good measure. Then surely “Hussein” can be retired as a campaign strategy.