Remember a few weeks ago when a McCain campaign advisor said that this year's campaign would be about 'personalities, not issues?'
And it began to be, with a flurry of negative ads by the McCain campaign, and misleading and irrelevant attacks on Senator Obama (i.e. claiming that the timeworn phrase, 'lipstick on a pig' was actually a sexist attack on Sarah Palin.)
Then we've had two weeks of the worst economic news since the Depression, and the focus was forcibly ripped back onto issues.
Now that the rescue plan has passed though the McCain campaign has wasted no time in saying they will be going back to the negative ad campaign.
Specifically, having used up Jeremiah Wright and milked the 'muslim' theme for all it is worth they intend to concentrate on Obama's past associations with disgraced fundraiser Tony Rezko and former Weatherman Bill Ayres. Never mind that when Rezko knew Obama he had not been convicted of anything, nor that Obama's associations with Ayres are at best of the 'acquaintance' variety and mostly occurred years in the past before Obama had any reason to know anything about Ayers' past, they intend to Willie Hortonize the campaign (former GOP operative Lee Atwater once bragged that he would have Mike Dukakis 'married' to murderer Willie Horton by the end of the campaign, and at least in the political sense, he did.)
In fact, the GOP are masters of pesonal attacks and distortions (does the term, 'swift-boat' raise any flags?) So we knew this was coming.
But that doesn't mean their campaign tactics have to work. There are two reasons to think they won't.
The first is that the issues this year are just plain too big. In 2004 they were plenty big (and Kerry was leading in the polls throughout the summer) but with the help of the 'swifties' the Bush campaign was able to sufficiently polarize the electorate to help their man across the finish line. But this year, after four more years of Bush failures, the issues are fundamentally huge. Rescue package or no, another Great Depression is staring us right in the face. Our army is still dangerously overextended, still fighting two wars at once and we now face a resurgent Russia to add to the same challenges that we faced in 2004.
The second is that the Obama campaign appears to be ready to respond to this crap. That makes a huge difference. The common theme between the Dukakis and Kerry campaigns is that they chose not to respond until it was too late. In contrast, Bill Clinton (who the GOP didn't even have to look for questionable associations, they had plenty on the candidate himself) was the master of the counterattack, and when he was negatively attacked, his campaign was able to throw it back, and harder (generally within hours or even minutes of the attack so it got into the same news story.) Obama has already pointed out that McCain 'plans to turn the page away from the issues and towards negative attacks' even before the first ones hit the airwaves.
Make no mistake. The Republicans are desperate to win the Presidency this year. They know very well that the failure called neo-conservatism that manifested itself in the 2006 congressional elections may well prevent the party that just two years ago had total control of the government from regaining Congress for at least a generation. Democrats are poised to make huge gains in the Senate. There is even an outside chance they could get to the sixty votes needed to prevent the GOP from even using the filibuster but even if they don't it seems likely that the GOP will be effectively prevented from using that tactic unless they can convince moderate Republican Senators like Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe to suddenly become such fierce partisans that they would go along with filibusters designed to do nothing other than derail the Democrats (unlikely IMO that they would do that very often.) Democrats will almost certainly increase, maybe even substantially increase their margin in the House, probably by enough so that they could even survive the defection of some 'blue dog' Democrats on key legislation and still push through a liberal agenda.
So there is only one path the GOP has to block what they would see as the ultimate doomsday scenario: having a Republican in the White House, who would use his veto pen to stifle a wholesale rush towards (for example) withdrawl from Iraq, universal health care and tax rates where the wealthy pay their fair share. They still haven't given up on gaining a consrvative majority on the Supreme Court but that certainly can only happen with a Republican President (even though he'd have to nominate someone who could get past a Democratic Senate.) Having even lame-duck Bush in the White House has stifled Democratic efforts to do a lot of things, ranging from ending the Iraq war to providing health care for children, so the GOP is now going to put all its resources behind getting John McCain there. And to do it they will smear, distort and engage in the politics of personal destruction against Barack Obama.
But don't despair. Those politics can be defeated (as Bill Clinton proved) and it's the only thing they have left anymore.