John McCain is learning today the only thing more politically dangerous than being disliked by the right wing of his party is being supported by it. I happened to catch some of CNN’s coverage today of the dust-up involving Bill Cunningham’s controversial intro today. Basically, Cunningham- a Cincinnati area and syndicated talk radio host- railed on Obama today instead of introducing McCain, calling Obama a “hack” and repeatedly using his full name- Barack Hussein Obama. Nothing wrong with calling a man by his full name, but among the conservative conspiracy world, referring to Obama as “Hussein” has become a sort of code for asserting that he is a crypto-Muslim, or at least needlessly sympathetic to the Muslim world. If Bush’s use of the phrase “wonder-working power” was a signal to evangelical Christians that he was in their court, Cunningham’s invocation of “Hussein” was the same message, sent to rabid right-wing conspiracy theorists and racists of all stripe.
McCain repudiated Cunningham’s remarks- prompting a cranky response from Cunningham- in a later news conference. Unfortunately for McCain, in a general election between him and Obama, things are going to get worse before they get better. While the Republicans have been researching how far they can go without coming across as racist or sexist, the radical wing of the party has no such concerns. The dirty secret that Republicans have tried to conceal in building their “big tent” coalitions of social conservatives, religious conservatives, free market conservatives, and foreign policy hawks is that their party remains a last redoubt for racists and sexists of all stripes.
During the general election, McCain is going to have to work to constantly distance himself from “supporters” whose wild attacks on Obama will serve as a constant source of embarrassment. A constant drumbeat of ultraconservatives coming out of the woodwork to say, in effect, “I’m voting for McCain to keep a black guy/Muslim/guy with a funny name out of the Oval Office” are going to remain a liability to his campaign- particularly because McCain needs to seek the support of the more strident conservatives to shore up his support in the party.
For the next nine months, John McCain is going to have to endear himself to people like Bill Cunningham and his fans- while worrying every step of the way that a conservative pundit or official that just endorsed him or appeared with him is going to let slip a racist or xenophobic remark. Without these sorts of conservatives, McCain has no hope of mobilizing the Republican base for the general election. With them, he’s going to have to spend time and energy running damage control to keep moderates and independents from fleeing from the bigotry- overt and covert- that Obama’s candidacy draws out.
McCain may be in for a rough ride in the general election, if friends like Bill Cunningham keep lending their support.