David Cox: Mean time

Column by David Cox

It happened in Buena Vista. Then Minneapolis.

I guess it was inevitable that 2008 political races would get downright mean.

On Labor Day, when each year our very own BV becomes the political capital of Virginia, senatorial candidates Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner wasted no time in trying to flatten the other. Gilmore hit first. As soon as he got to the microphone, he was slogging away – how this race was all about whom Virginians can trust (both sides cheered, the Warnerites especially loudly) and the other guy wasn’t to be trusted. Warner the candidate promised to finish abolishing the car tax, and didn’t. He promised not to raise taxes, and did. And worst of all, he said something really stupid back in 1994.

Mark Warner, by now obviously and thoroughly ticked off, rattled off the $6-billion shortfall that Gilmore left (in part because of the car tax fiasco), the $1 billion surplus he attained, the “best-” this and that rankings which his administration produced.

It’s clear the two basically despise each other. But Jim Gilmore had better try a different ploy, unless he’s aiming to get Mark Warner so P-O’d that he’ll say something stupid again. For quoting something that dates from fourteen years ago sounds just mean…if not downright silly. In any event, things have gotten mean.

Switch to Minneapolis. I missed most of Wednesday night’s preliminaries. But like 37,999,999 other people I wasn’t about to skip Sarah Palin’s self-introduction to the nation. She did an amazing job. Some good speechwriter cooked her up a dandy (reportedly he used to write for George W. Bush, giving him the most prominent presence of the present administration in all the convention). And she delivered it expertly: Zinger after zinger got the crowd aroaring.

But a little goes a long way. The good political chef serves up some potatoes along with the red meat. Her speech aimed more at denigrating Democrats than providing substance of what Republicans would do. To resurrect a line from the 1988 campaign, amid all the blood she drew, where’s the beef?

After a while, it just got mean. Perhaps the most-quoted line was, to me, the most offensive. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” Yeah, OK. But does she truly intend to contrast so favorably what she was doing in her thirties and forties with what Barack Obama was doing at age 24? That’s a cheap shot, and it’s about as fair as Dems mocking “Sarah Barracuda” for being a beauty queen or hockey mom in her younger years. That would be just as silly, just as absurd, and just as mean.

Paradoxically, not 24 hours later, her new boss seemed to contradict her even as he praised her. John McCain had nice things to say about his running-mate. But he also cited “the constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving…problems” that beset the country, even though hers was the most partisanly rancorous speech of any of the nominees. He spoke of reaching across party divides to get things done, yet chose a self-described “pit bull with lipstick” who instantly proved herself one of the ablest practitioners of leaving the other party’s blood on the floor. Hence I wonder: In what direction is the “Straight Talk Express” travelling?

Yes, each side misrepresented the other. We have fact-checkers for that. Each side attacked the other’s policies (sort of): We have debates for that.

But meanness? At risk of sounding Obaman, we’re a better country than that.


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