Pretending to cry: When will the media laugh the faux outrage off the stage?

The McCain-Palin campaign channels Al D’Amato’s spirit and acting ability.

Readers may remember New York’s Al D’Amato, a.k.a. Senator Pothole. As the honorific implied, D’Amato excelled at constituency service. The somewhat unfair rap went: If you need a lecture, visit Moynihan. If you need a traffic light fixed, visit D’Amato, Our hometown Jewish Old Age home had a nice plaque thanking him for some timely help. So did dozens of other places around town. D’Amato was always on the sleazy side. He had various brushes with prosecutors and ethics types. He would not have fared well in anybody’s crusade against earmarks. To D’Amato earmarks, were kindof the point. Of course he inhaled.

Al also tended to the salty side. (This eventually landed him in hot water. In 1995, he got on the Imus show and mocked Judge Ito in a cheesy fake Japanese accent.) To anyone who followed politics, it was side-splitting watching him react when his hapless 1992 opponent Robert Abrams called him a fascist. D’Amato pretended to cry, choosing to interpret Abrams’ comments as a slur against Italians. I wish Youtube were around to record it. Jon Stewart couldn’t script it better.

I spotted Al in the crowd in Saint Paul last week. I spotted his political ghost among Republican operatives pretending to cry at the thought of Barack Obama calling Sarah Palin a pig. A whoa you might ask? Their story is an obvious bubbe meise, but here are the facts if you were lucky enough to miss it.

Obama was knocking John McCain’s efforts to dress up supply-side tax cuts for the wealthy as something other than what they are. Reaching for a folksy parallel, Obama noted that a pig with lipstick is still…. a pig. I think that’s a pretty accurate analogy. One problem: Governor Palin had been describing herself as a pit bull with lipstick. So Republican operatives feigned umbrage. Her spokeswoman pronounced Obama’s comments “offensive and disgraceful. He owes Governor Palin an apology.”

Well no. I’ve seen Barack Obama give many speeches and interviews. It’s not exactly his style to insult women this way. That’s more John McCain’s territory. He’s the guy who tells crude jokes with the punch line that Janet Reno is Chelsea Clinton’s father and who chuckled when a questioner called Hillary Clinton a bitch. When issues came up about Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter, Obama noted that such things are politically off-limits, and that his own mother had him when she was 18. Palin responded by channeling the spirit of Spiro Agnew and trashing Obama’s background as a community organizer.

Desperate to distract attention from Republicans’ awful economic track record and from their own platform, the McCain campaign is trying to stoke every cultural resentment they can find. They want the politics of resentment to sell a regressive tax plan that nonpartisan experts conclude is worse than Obama’s for 80 percent of American households while adding $1.2 trillion in federal debt , a health care plan that does not try to cover tens of millions of uninsured people.

Democrats dislike women is one meme. Democrats hate small-town America is another. That would be news to Hubert Humphrey of Wallace, South Dakota, Harry Truman of Lamar, Missouri, Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia, and John Edwards of Seneca, South Carolina. Democrats are repelled by Governor Palin’s small-mindedness, not her small-town roots. It’s only a matter of time before “Obama hates minorities” comes along.

When campaign operatives spin these talking points to reporters, it must be hard for either side to keep a straight face. If reporters laughed this stuff off with another barnyard epithet, we’d probably have a better campaign.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.