Sarah Palin may be wrong about the existence of a “real” America where people are decent and patriotic – and a “fake” America where they’re not. But John McCain’s election chances now appear to hinge on the existence of a “real-ly stupid” America.

Since mid-summer, the McCain campaign has devolved into silly arguments mixed with guilt-by-association smears: Barack Obama is a celebrity like Paris Hilton; Obama had a passing connection to a violent Vietnam War-era radical, William Ayers; Obama once represented the grassroots group, ACORN; Obama spoke at a party for a Palestinian-American who has criticized Israel; Obama is a “socialist” and a “redistributionist” because he favors a progressive income tax.

The sad fact is that McCain, who once disdained the politics of smear and distraction, has become its chief practitioner, joined by his running mate, Sarah Palin, who seems to have no constraints on what ugly or dangerous words come out of her mouth.

Despite the risks already surrounding the first major-party African-American nominee, Palin fired up her angry crowds by accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a reference to his limited association with Ayers. Some of her supporters responded by calling Obama a “traitor” and yelling “kill him.”

More recently, McCain and Palin have linked Obama to a Middle East scholar at Columbia University named Rashid Khalidi, whom – like Ayers – they depict as a “radical,” but with the extra advantage of him having an Arab name.

"It seems that there is yet another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years," Palin told an excited rally in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Oct. 29.

"This is important,” she instructed her fans before identifying Khalidi – whose name she mispronounced as “Kha-lah-di” – and saying: “in addition to being a political ally of Barack Obama, he's a former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organization."

A chorus of angry boos followed.

Later, when asked about her new attempt at guilt-by-association, Palin insisted it wasn’t “negative campaigning,” it was just calling someone out on his record.
However, Khalidi denies he was ever a PLO spokesman and it turned out his research organization received grants from a Republican international organization that had Sen. McCain on its board.

Khalidi, who was born in New York and graduated from Yale, advised a Palestinian negotiating team during peace talks in the early 1990s that were sponsored by George H.W. Bush’s administration.

This latest McCain-Palin smear was even too much for the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial writers, who said they disagree with Khalidi’s criticism of Israel policies toward Palestinians but nevertheless called the GOP campaign tactic “condemnable – especially during a campaign in which Arab ancestry has been the subject of insults.”

When the Post asked Khalidi if he wished to comment on his sudden notoriety brought about by the McCain-Palin campaign, he responded via e-mail that “I will stick to my policy of letting this idiot wind blow over.” [Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2008]

An Idiocy Gust

Another gust of that idiocy has been McCain’s endless embrace of “Joe the Plumber,” a 34-year-old Ohio man named Joe Wurzelbacher.

Wurzelbacher isn’t even a licensed plumber, but – since the third presidential debate – he has become McCain’s symbol of an American everyman, someone whom the 72-year-old McCain has called “my role model.”

Wurzelbacher launched his strange rise to national stardom by chatting along a rope line with Barack Obama about his tax proposals, specifically the plan to lower taxes on middle-class Americans and raise them on people earning more than $250,000.

Wurzelbacher said he was considering buying his boss’ company, which he thought might make slightly more than $250,000 and thus might see a rise in taxes under Obama’s plan.

Obama responded by noting that any tax increase in that case would be slight and reiterated his contention that his tax plan would help America’s embattled middle class in that it would “spread the wealth.” Since then, Obama has noted that the vast majority of small businesses don’t clear $250,000 and almost no plumbers do.

Nothing in the Obama-Wurzelbacher exchange was very remarkable. In effect, Obama was reiterating the century-old case for a progressive income tax that assesses higher rates on the well-to-do than on those with modest incomes.

It was a concept famously advocated by John McCain’s Republican hero, President Theodore Roosevelt, who in his New Nationalism speech of 1910 sounded far more radical than Barack Obama.

“The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means,” Roosevelt said.

“Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

However, McCain – apparently swapping his old role model (Teddy Roosevelt) for his new one (Joe Wurzelbacher) – accused Obama of “socialism” because of his support for rolling back tax cuts for the rich that were passed in the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency (and which McCain initially opposed).

Finally, Traction

In the final days of the campaign, McCain believes he has found traction by labeling Obama the “redistributionist-in-chief.”

McCain’s argument, however, makes no real sense. As Colin Powell noted in criticizing the tone of McCain’s campaign, all taxation is about redistribution of money, usually toward projects that benefit the larger community, such as road construction or schools.

Since the days of the Cold War, the federal government has used taxes to redistribute trillions of dollars from citizens to what President Dwight Eisenhower labeled the “military-industrial complex,” which has been a bastion for conservative Republicans.

Ironically, too, the American tax structure has historically redistributed wealth from more liberal and Democratic states (with higher income levels, like Connecticut) to more conservative and Republican states (with more poor people, like Mississippi).

The ironies continue, since one of the most “socialistic” states in the country is Alaska, where Gov. Palin has raised taxes on oil companies so she can send bigger checks to Alaska residents.

Also, many of McCain’s supporters who most vociferously denounce Obama’s tax plan are people like Wurzelbacher who live on a modest middle-class salary and would benefit from Obama’s tax plans compared with McCain’s.

This "redistribution" debate also plays out against the backdrop of the Bush administration's tax and economic policies that have resulted in a dramatic redistribution of the nation’s wealth to the highest-income categories, creating income disparities not seen since the late 1920s right before the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

Yet, John McCain and his advisers apparently have latched on to a final hope: that enough voters won’t do the math about tax plans or carefully evaluate the guilt-by-association smears before they go to the polls, that they’ll just vote their gut reactions to scary words, like “socialism” and “Kha-lah-di.”

The McCain-Palin political calculation is based on a lowest-common-denominator judgment about the American people.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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