McCain's campaign was polite by historical standards.

McCain's campaign was polite by historical standards.

McCain's campaign was polite by historical standards.

The history behind current events.
Nov. 5 2008 4:49 PM

McCain Ran the Sleaziest Campaign in History?

Not even close.

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Compared with the foregoing, McCain's slaps at Obama seemed more pathetic and desperate than vicious. His atavistic broadsides against "socialism" rang hollow. Ads about Obama's loose links to a Palestinian-American scholar and to a domestic terrorist whose name few Americans knew fell flat. Cheeky digs at Obama's celebrity status provoked more mirth than ire. McCain's ugliest tactic was to revive an old slur that Obama backed sex education for kindergarteners, but it met with such ferocious rebuke that it was rapidly withdrawn and forgotten. Against these negative themes, too, must be counterbalanced McCain's admirable stands, as when he fired staffers who stoked racism or anti-Muslim sentiments and rebuked his own hate-spewing supporters at rallies.

The claims about McCain's supposedly unprecedented negativity, then, don't signify any deep truth about his character. Rather, they reveal important aspects of American politics today. The efforts to purify politics at the turn of the last century may not have succeeded in eliminating negativity, but they did erect new norms that stigmatized ungentlemanly campaign tactics—norms that remain powerful. When candidates go negative, they almost always draw scorn from the news media and often hurt their own campaigns more than they help. When McCain went after his opponent, this powerful disdain for negative campaigning kicked in, bringing out all our censoriousness.


The scorn for going negative, moreover, has been especially acute among reformist high-minded liberals in the tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Eugene McCarthy to Obama—men whose successes rested on their supporters' wish for a politics free of the compromises and rough-and-tumble inherent in democracy. By introducing his campaign in a Stevensonian vein, Obama fashioned an image as one who would never initiate attacks. Remarkably, and much to his credit, Obama sustained that image throughout the campaign, even during those moments in August when, flagging in the polls, he acceded to his supporters' calls to hit harder against McCain or, the previous fall, against Hillary Clinton.

The hyperbole about McCain's tone also stems from the human tendency to try to explain away electoral losses. In any election, the defeated are naturally loath to concede that the other side's platform or candidate was more appealing. Instead, we tend to ascribe to the other side an extreme skill in black arts—whether dangerously persuasive rhetoric, election stealing, or the evil genius of a Lee Atwater or a Karl Rove. Although Obama was in little danger of losing the election following the mid-September financial meltdown, his supporters, having seen two presidential victories slip through their grasp, couldn't quite shake the notion that the Democrats were vulnerable, and they grabbed onto these time-honored rationalizations.

Finally, the protectiveness that Obama elicited from others also explains why McCain's fall campaigning was reviewed so harshly. Throughout the year, Obama was often spared the task of defending himself because others with prominent media platforms did it for him. As the campaign progressed, a whole slate of possible criticisms—including legitimate concerns about his record or his foreign-policy chops—were deemed, as if by cultural consensus, beyond the pale. Indeed, it's worth recalling that October's hyperbolic claims about McCain's negativity echo similar (and similarly unfounded) claims about Clinton's campaigning back in the spring. Does Obama somehow invite historically unprecedented negativity? Or are his enthusiasts just unusually quick to perceive it? In any event, Obama benefited more from labeling his rivals as uniquely sleazy than he suffered from whatever sleaziness they displayed.

Obama fully deserved to defeat McCain on Tuesday. But he deserved to win because his party and his program presented the better hope for a better America, and not because he is purer of heart than other politicians—or any less able to throw a punch when his political future demands it. Like all good politicians, Obama appears to understand this important distinction. The rest of us should, too.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, has written for Slate since 1996. He is the author of several books of political history.