The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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McCain vs. Obama: Still fighting the '60s culture wars?

July 9, 2008 |  7:00 am

If you ever want to know whether someone is really a Democrat or a Republican at heart, just ask them what they think about the '60s. As Bill Clinton, the shrewdest of all judges when it came to divining voters' subconscious political loyalties, memorably put it: "If you look back on the '60s and think there was more good than harm, you're probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you're probably a Republican."

I was reminded of Clinton's axiom watching a new John McCain political ad--see below--that seems to foreshadow a renewed GOP effort to pin the excesses of the '60s on Barack Obama, even though he was just a tyke when the Yippies were battling Chicago police at the Democratic Convention and unwashed hippies were making the mythic trek to Woodstock. Obama is a fan of mellow funk and hip-hop, not Sly Stone or Jimi Hendrix.

Still, the ad's coded language is a dead giveaway. It opens with grainy newsreel footage of long-haired '60s protesters, with the narration: "It was a time of uncertainty, hope and change. The summer of love. Half a world away, another kind of love. [Cue photos of a dashing war hero] John McCain. Shot down, bayoneted. Tortured. Offered early release. He said no. He'd sworn an oath...."

Geez, hope and change--whose issue is that? Are people who believe in hope really soft-headed acid heads? Is that what people will get by voting for Obama--a return to psychedelia and "Helter Skelter"? For a far more in-depth analysis, see Michael Scherer's smart take on the subject at Time's Swampland political blog, where he notes that the Republicans have had great luck pinning the excesses of the '60s on Democratic candidates:

"Every presidential election since Vietnam has, in some ways, been a retread of the '60s culture war. Bill Clinton smoked pot, remember. Gary Hart internalized the free love thing. Michael Dukakis was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Republicans like this theme because it unites the nation's hinterlands against the cultural elite, the liberals of New York and California. But ... does the theme still work with a post-baby boom candidate? Or for post-baby boom voters?"

It would be easy to dismiss this as a desperate attempt to turn Barack Obama into Abbie Hoffman. But hey--take a look for yourself: