Here's a refresher course: Barack Obama mocked John McCain's message of change by saying, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." It's a fairly common phrase, but coming on the heels of Sarah Palin calling herself a "pit bull" with "lipstick," the McCain camp cried sexism. They demanded an apology, leveraging the controversy into a negative ad.
Now it's possible the umbrage was real -- that the McCain camp, brimming with genius political operatives, wasn't aware of a common idiom that's been in use in widespread use in politics since 1985. And it's possible that McCain, the man who withstood the worst torture the Viet Cong could offer, is thin-skinned enough to go all queasy and knock-kneed after thinking his vice-presidential had been called porcine.
But more likely, it's something entirely more cynical and calculated: Indignation wielded as a big, nasty hammer.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n this supposedly rough-and-tumble political world, our politicians love to pretend to be daintily fragile -- they're like the basketball player who flops to the ground whenever bumped, hoping the refs will call a foul.
To be clear: There's a crucial distinction between indignation and anger. Anger -- when your brow furrows, your eye twitches and your clenched fist meets the drywall -- is a human emotion. Indignation, however, is a political emotion. Anger sounds like "Hulk smash!" Indignation, on the other hand, sounds like "Hulk disappointed and saddened by the way Hulk's opponent coarsens the national dialogue by implying Hulk unfit for presidency because of Hulk's green skin."
Politically, it's genius. Indignation allows candidates simultaneously to play both victim and assailant -- I'm hurt that my opponent is such an idiotic elitist sexist bigot.
A good round of indignation zeroes in on each of their opponent's gaffes, drawing out their media lifespans. After all, saying something politically foolish isn't just imprudent, it's sinful -- a crime worthy of death by a thousand press releases.
Sure, McCain could have parried mockery of his reform message by listing off his reform credentials. But then he'd be on the defensive, and frankly, it'd be boring. Talking about McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform isn't nearly sexy as talking about sexism. McCain would prefer voters spend their water cooler time debating whether Obama is an elitist or hates women -- not whether McCain is as much of a maverick as he claims to be.
Obama saw it for the ploy it was.
"I don't care what they say about me," Obama responded, "but I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and swift boat politics...."
That was Obama, using phony outrage to decry phony outrage. McCain, sadly, does not own the patent on unrighteous indignation.
Consider the a recent Obama Spanish language ad, "Dos Caras," which links wildly-out-of-context anti-immigrant quotes from Rush Limbaugh to McCain. One of the quotes was a blatant parody of the Mexican government's anti-immigrant policy.
Similarly, when The New Yorker mocked far-right wing stereotypes of Obama by illustrating him as a Muslim and his wife as a black militant, his campaign decried it as "tasteless and offensive.'
It's possible the Obama camp -- masters of rhetorical flourish, the very best wordsmiths the party of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report can offer -- suddenly became bewildered by this curious thing called "saaa-tire."
But otherwise, it's just one more casualty of indignation: jokes and satire. Whatever hasn't had its edge sanded off by focus groups has become a liability. An indignant opponent can take a satirical comment, strip it of context, and create a killer attack ad. Imagine if Jonathan Swift had run for political office.
"Senator Swift says he has a modest plan for modest change, but what does his record say? The Washington Post says Swift once proposed to solve the Irish famine by encouraging peasants to devour their infants. Can we really trust a man who once advocated cannibalism to lead this country?
"Jonathan Swift. Bad for our children. Bad for America."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he catalyst for indignation doesn't even have to be the candidate himself. He can wax indignant about the words or actions of his opponent's associates, friends, advisors or pregnant teenage daughters.
Just as Obama has been indignant about McCain because of something Limbaugh said, the Grand Old Party threw a Grand Old Fit over "anti-American" comments made by Obama's wife and pastor. (Someday we'll have a test that turns red, white and blue when you can pee on it, putting this "patriotism" question behind us forever.)
The candidates have been indignant when their opponent says something unpatriotic, but indignant when their own patriotism is questioned. They get indignant about "racism" or "sexism" and then turn right around to get indignant about the "race card" or the "gender card."
And that's the biggest problem with indignation: It's too widely used, and it's too easy too effective. It makes gaffes too deadly. In the end, we have an election where knotty issues have been upgraded to taboo. Speak about race, make a mistake, and get accused of "playing 52 pickup with an unshuffled deck full of Race Cards."
The current economic distress won't make it any less common. The faux outrage will simply be themed around economics. When McCain advisor Phil Gramm said that America was in a "mental recession" from a "nation of whiners," the comment became instant umbrage-fodder.
"A nation of whiners?!" Obama said during his convention speech, a month and a half after Gramm had been fired. "Tell that to [Hardworking Swing State Voter #343]!"
We may not be a nation of whiners, but two of them have gotten a lot of news coverage lately.