Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The perils of Palin

The challenge of being Sarah Palin just got more challenging. Among the conservatives who championed her, there is throughout the land great lamentation regarding the Alaska governor and cyberspace Photoshop punching bag who squares off against Sen. Joe Biden in the first and only vice-presidential debate on Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal today reported that Palin was underwhelming in two mock debates conducted this week. And CBS is reportedly planning to air another Palin interview with Katie Couric, one in which Palin responded to a question seeking one decision by the United States Supreme Court with complete and utter silence.

It’s full-time battle stations on the dreadnought McCain; the rudder is missing and the captain’s idea of magnetic north changes from day to day.

Palin is huddling with McCain for three days of debate preparation at one of McCain’s thirty-seven homes in Arizona. There’s already a call from some old hands in both the GOP and the Bush administration who are calling for a new strategy: Let Sarah Be Sarah. William Kristol, writing in The New York Times, said she’d been overprepared before her disastrous first interview with Katie Couric of CBS News.

“Thanks to the mainstream media, quite a low expectation has been created for her performance,” Ron Carey, chairman of Minnesota’s Republican Party, told Adam Nagourney of The New York Times “The style of Sarah Palin is going to amaze people. She is going to be able to amaze people with the substance she is going to deliver.”

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For reasons the media has nothing to do with, the expectations for Palin right now are so low, she could stand at the podium drooling and speaking in Aramaic and be declared a nominal success. The McCain campaign has been soldiering on regardless, combining debate prep and carefully doled-out interviews and photo ops in the hopes of building affinity with low- and no-information voters for whom intellect is something not to be trusted — the same anti-intellectual cohort of the American people that got George Bush elected twice.

But it can’t be misunderstood: No matter how much debate prep Sarah Palin successfully completes between now and Thursday —— the fact remains that the McCain campaign is attempting to impart years of wisdom, or at least knowledge, to a candidate in literally days and weeks. Maybe Team McCain hopes to do with Palin what Morpheus did with Neo, the central character in “The Matrix,” who actually gets lifetimes of knowledge of the martial arts uploaded directly into his cerebellum.

They’re gonna need it: Chris Hayes of The Nation said Monday on “Countdown” that Palin’s pre-debate briefing book is 600 pages long.

There’s a rising tide of opposition to Palin from unlikely places. Conservative columnists have turned on her, including such right-wing stalwarts as George Will, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker, who pilloried Palin in a National Review Online column titled “She’s Out of Her League.” For them and for others, Palin’s shortcomings herald a grim scenario for events on Thursday night.

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The contrarian aspect of the ‘Vox would beg to differ. Purely for the sake of argument, the ‘Vox makes a forecast right now: Against all odds, Sarah Palin won’t tank on Thursday. She will turn in a workwomanlike performance that will neither enlighten nor embarrass. It won’t be a home run but it will be perceived as a respectable slide into second base (a decent showing from someone who shouldn’t be in the batter’s box in the first place).

The press will call her “charming,” “disarming,” “loose,” “affable.” Some will say she “more than held her own.” Some in the conservative press will go so far as to say Palin has “turned the corner.” Count on Fox News to call it the biggest comeback since Lazarus.

The basic problem is that it will change no game.

Her lack of foreign policy bona fides will still be there, her lack of command about the specifics of domestic affairs, the economy and the positions of her own running mate will still be there. If Sarah Palin suddenly morphs into Stephen Douglas on Thursday, it won’t fundamentally alter the narrative building around her, that of a refreshingly plain-spoken but intellectually one-dimensional nominee for the vice presidency — someone the Republicans would skewer relentlessly for lack of experience if Sarah Palin were the Democratic choice for vice president.

Something else complicates the situation. If Palin turns in a strong performance on Thursday, it will raise the expectations game considerably. If Palin Holds Her Own in the debate, one of those justifiable expectations will come from the press corps. If she can stand toe to toe with Joe Biden, the press’ reasoning will go, she can go one-on-one with pundits, journalists and the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti of the blogosphere. No more joint interviews with McCain as mouthpiece. No more First Dude whispering sweet advisories in her ear. Pressure on her to perform will increase once she’s shown she’s able to perform.

Ironically, and given the McCain campaign’s penchant for control, a strong outing by Palin on Thursday may be more of a problem than a poor one.

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The phenomenon of political meteorics is a fleeting thing. Sometimes seemingly incandescent talents make a big bright splash into the culture, but they’re not so strong on follow-through in the intensity of a national campaign. It happened to Michael Dukakis and Dan Quayle and even Howard Dean, and it’s happening now to Sarah Palin. Only worse.

Those candidates had the benefit of experience and perspective. In Palin’s case, the outsized personality and novel personal story that fascinated the nation in the short term have given way to a political persona with the depth of a roadside billboard.

Sarah Palin may just pull a Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart rabbit out of her hat. She may bring ‘em to their feet at Washington University in St. Louis. But the candidate with a love of the call of the wild, the avid hunter of moose and caribou faces the real possibility Thursday of hearing another wild species: the sound of crickets in the room.
Image credit: Palin: Official Alaska portrait. The Matrix poster: © 1999 Warner Bros. Palin Nowhere: Bob Weinstein, Mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license 2.0

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"These are the stakes ..."

The patchwork of voter registration deadlines throughout the United States reflects the diversity of the country, its resistance to uniformity, its tolerance for distinction. In some states, you can register to vote the day of the election; for others, any time in the weeks or days before the vote.

But for many states, the voter registration deadline is this Saturday, Oct. 4, one month before the general election that will decide the next president and, certainly, the arc of the national future. The advocacy group Vote for Change had this in mind Saturday when it released a new video meant to get out the vote in as frighteningly dramatic a fashion as you can imagine.

The video — a mock broadcast of an NBC News "Breaking News" report announcing the winner of the 2008 election — shows John McCain winning the election, 51 percent to 49 percent. A smiling McCain stands amid tumultuous applause.

The captions under him read: “"'JOHN MCCAIN ELECTED 44TH PRESIDENT” …


The image goes to black, and a new caption emerges:

“It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Vote for Change goes on to call on Americans to register to vote, request absentee ballots, and to find their polling locations.

The video would be comical if it weren’t so graphically believable — and given Vote for Change’s scenario of a McCain victory by 3 percentage points, so utterly possible. Turnout has long been thought to be the key in who wins this election; the Vote for Change video brings that home in a way that’s unmistakable. This may be the most compelling, dramatic campaign ad since the “Daisy” spot broke new political ground during the 1964 campaign, and helped Lyndon Johnson seal Barry Goldwater’s electoral fate.

“These are the stakes,” Johnson intoned in the ad as a mushroom cloud darkly ascended on the screen.

Once again, we’re presented with a stark, defining choice of directions for this nation. Thank Vote for Change for a video that distills what’s at stake — and what it’ll take to keep this video firmly in the realm of fiction, rather than prophecy.

Forward or backward. These are the stakes. Again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Obama-McCain I: Day of the fight metaphors

For weeks now the first presidential debate between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain has been promoted by the mainstream media with a barrage of pugilistic metaphors. CNN announced its coverage with graphics meant to recall those classic fight-night posters, all stars and swollen red & blue typography. We were put in mind of the classic fisticuffs of the past: Louis-Schmeling. Ali-Frazier. Kennedy-Nixon.

What finally happened last night at the Gertrude C. Ford Center, on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., was something both more and less titanic than any of those classic contests. True enough, the stakes are insanely high; there’s no bigger purse than the presidency of the United States, especially this campaign year, and both Obama and McCain brought their respective A games to the challenge.

But this was no Thrilla in Manila. In some ways it wasn’t even a Thrilla in Oxford. What unfolded on a Friday night was a contest that, in the narrow hermetic context of a 90-minute debate, pitted two seemingly evenly matched fighters in a battle for the biggest prize there is. But there were telling elements of surprise. The presumably wily old veteran, McCain, gained instruction — a polite way of saying he got schooled — by his younger, gamer, hungrier challenger. The veteran threw a multitude of punches, and some of them registered.

But Barack Obama won this first debate on at least a TKO, and possibly a flat-out KO. That’s not just a partisan reflex, it’s also the consensus of a raft of post-debate snapshot polls conducted among independent voters and on-the-fence Democrats, surveys that showed Obama won by double-digit margins.

McCain made a comment about the current financial crisis that could just as well serve as the epitaph for his floundering presidential campaign: “A lot of us saw this train wreck coming.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s clear win had two components. First: Obama came, well, ready to rumble. The Democratic nominee was cool, sharp and generally unflappable, and stood toe to toe with McCain on matters of foreign policy and national security, capitalizing on the growing consensus that his has been a campaign grounded in policies, not personalities, and consistent in its message. Obama won because he won.

Second: Obama also won because McCain took an active role in his own defeat. McCain made numerous gaffes, throwing rhetorical punches that had nothing behind them. And McCain lost on style points, never really looking like the champion — or the Maverick® —he’s made himself out to be.

Since this fight was McCain’s to lose, let’s look at how he lost it:

McCain made the error of reminding viewers and voters of the character issue that’s dogged him throughout his 25 years in the Senate. “I didn’t win Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate,” McCain said twice, thus reminding people of his fundamental character flaw: a volatile, impetuous personality that’s been his interpersonal hallmark on Capitol Hill, a style that’s yielded more downside than upside throughout the primary campaign.

McCain left another flank exposed — in a vulnerable place Obama never exploited — when the Arizona senator went off on his role as the sheriff of the Senate, stamping out earmarks and other wasteful pork-barrel spending. He loudly expressed his opposition to such earmarks as the state of Montana receiving $3 million in taxpayer money for the study of bear DNA, obviously never mentioning the $256 million in earmarks that his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, sought for a variety of reasons, including studies of the mating rituals of crabs and the DNA of harbor seals.

◊ ◊ ◊

On the issue of the Iraq war, McCain had what may have been his best moment when he said that it does no good for Obama to go on recounting his initial opposition to the war. By effectively saying “we are where we are,” McCain attempted to make a virtue of pragmatism. This kind of expedient practicality, a common sense McCain uses when it’s convenient, is of course in the service of a war that wouldn’t have been waged had the Republican administration McCain has championed been more pragmatic in the first place. This is a matter of judgment McCain failed at — a shortcoming reflected in the first-blush polls.

McCain apparently doesn’t even know his trainers that well. On the delicate matter of dealing with Iran in its drive toward nuclear capability, McCain retreated to his tough-guy stance on absolutely not meeting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Obama tagged him soundly last night when he said that, in fact, Dr. Henry Kissinger, one of McCain’s senior advisers, supports meeting Ahmadinejad without preconditions. This policy-by-autopilot suggests that McCain’s foreign policy, such as it is, is more at the mercy of political reflex than geopolitical reality. Hardly a nuanced position.

And on the elements of style, McCain was an utter disaster. Throughout the debate McCain looked pained, evasive, petulant, peevish, even downright contemptuous of his challenger. He didn’t even look Obama in the eye. Not once. Standing at the podium, McCain grimaced and twisted, squinted and squirmed like a man in need of going to the can. He looked tough, even angry at times, but he didn’t look presidential — a stark contrast with the genial, gracious Obama. It was a performance that surely registered subconsciously with voters, at a purely emotional level, and it didn’t suggest confidence or capability. He might as well have been Bush #41 looking at his watch in the 1992 debate with Bill Clinton.

There was another cosmetic issue, an omission that you can bet your mortgage won’t happen again: John McCain wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin last night. Barack Obama was. Make of that what you will.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain undercut his own efforts before the debate even happened. Never mind the screaming hubris of posting the announcement that MCCAIN WINS DEBATE on the McCain Web site hours before the debate. McCain’s pre-debate gambit of arriving in Washington to participate in the Wall Street bailout negotiations — parachuting in to break the impasse between lawmakers — was largely a waste of time, since McCain didn’t discuss the financial crisis in any meaningful terms beyond calling it “the greatest fiscal crisis probably — certainly — in our time.” Which doesn’t square with his calling the U.S. economy fundamentally strong just days earlier.

Robert Shrum, longtime Democratic op, offered an assessment in The Huffington Post right after it was over: “The debate was a crossroads. For two weeks, John McCain has lurched down a dead-end road on the economy, from happy talk about "sound fundamentals" to gloom about economic crisis; alternately out of touch, confused and self-contradictory; then desperately reaching for another stunt with his blundering, transparently opportunistic intrusion into the financial rescue negotiations which crimped his debate prep. He clearly could have used more.

“Barack Obama was crisp, reassuring and strong — in short, presidential, as he has been throughout the financial storm of the past two weeks," Shrum observed. "McCain was not as bad as he has been recently; but much of this debate was fought on what was supposed to be his high ground. As the encounter ended, Obama not only controlled the commanding heights of the economic issue — and he not only held his own on national security — but clearly passed the threshold as a credible commander-in-chief. McCain kept repeating that Obama doesn't 'understand.' But he clearly did.”

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, writing for HuffPost, saw it much the same way: “Tonight was a breakthrough for Senator Obama, who showed himself truly ready to be president. He responded knowledgeably, thoughtfully and confidently to the toughest questions on the economy, Iraq, and terror. Meanwhile, Senator McCain spent so much time attacking his opponent, he neglected to show how a McCain-Palin administration would differ from Bush-Cheney. As a result, Obama answered the threshold question about his candidacy; McCain did not.”

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The outcome of this debate, the first of a scheduled three fights, is likely to reinforce perceptions that people already have. There were no outright game changers last night.

As such, it’s a resounding defeat for Team McCain. They needed to shift the building narrative from one of McCain at the mercy of his own inconsistencies to one of McCain as the sober, sure-footed steward of the national security and the national economy. That didn’t happen.

Last night we finally got the necessary distillation of contrasts of not just two candidates but also two distinct world views, two distinctly different political personas. Tough vs. smart. Gambler vs. thinker. Brawler vs. statesman. The ringside judges — those same-night poll respondents — made it pretty clear who won last night. We’ll see whether the experienced fighter's learned anything the next time he answers the bell on Oct. 7, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Late No-Show

The landscape of late-night television is a wild place to be. Sometimes unpredictable, sometimes unwatchable, late-night TV offers a cavalcade of content for millions of Americans, some of it serious, much of it utterly frivolous. But the carnival barkers that are the hosts of the late-night programs understand something about the after-hours personality of their medium: In many ways, theirs is an intimate relationship with America, they reliably have the captive conversation with the country that political candidates would kill for.

So it makes sense: When politicians have a chance to be part of that conversation, they damn well better show up.

Sen. John McCain violated that cardinal rule of modern American politics on Wednesday, stiffing David Letterman for a scheduled appearance on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” as bully a pulpit as a failing presidential contender could hope for. That was bad enough. But the details of McCain’s no-show on Letterman made a bad situation even worse.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain apparently called Letterman personally early on Wednesday to beg off from appearing on the show, claiming that his work in Washington on the bailout package would prevent him from taping the program. It all sounded principled enough: The Maverick® of the Senate couldn’t take time out to sit and chat with Dave — he had Work to Do on behalf of the nation. Duty called.

It might have worked if not for someone at CBS who alerted Letterman to an internal news feed that revealed McCain had actually done an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric at about the time he was scheduled to tape the Letterman show. McCain wasn’t going to Washington to Do the People’s Business; he was actually nearby at the CBS Studios on West 57th Street, doing a sitdown with Couric, as an internal CBS news feed showed.

There's particular salt in the wound for Letterman. It was on the "Late Show" that McCain announced his candidacy for the presidency on Feb. 28, 2007.

◊ ◊ ◊

At least six million people watched Letterman on Wednesday as the veteran TV host, more emotional that usual, tore into the Arizona senator. More than once. More than twice.

"This is not the John McCain I know, by God," Letterman said. "It makes me believe something is going haywire with the campaign."

"I'm more than a little disappointed by this behavior," Letterman said. "This doesn't smell right. This is not the way a tested hero behaves. Somebody's putting something in his Metamucil."

Letterman made the internal feed of the Couric interview part of the show. "Doesn't seem to be racing to the airport, does he?" Letterman said as he watched. “This just gets uglier and uglier.”

He later said: “We’re told now that the senator has concluded his interview with Katie Couric and he's now on Rachael Ray's show making veal piccata. ... What are you going to do?"

Letterman kept it up on Thursday night’s program. “Good news: Paris Hilton is on the program tonight … unless she needs to rush to Washington to fix the economy.” We can expect this to be a running gag for Letterman — and a continuing populist complication for McCain — until the end of the campaign.

For all the experience John McCain would have the country believe he has, His Maverickness has overlooked a number of basic rules of politics and modern life in a 24/7 era — one in particular on Wednesday.

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” Woody Allen once famously observed.

Someone should tell the senator.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sarah Palin's credibility tour

Maybe it’s a more or less logical result of living in the Instapundit age, a time when you can know a lot about a little or a little about a lot, depending on your mood and your aptitude for processing information: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain, arrived in New York City today for a crash course in nothing less than international credibility.

The McCain campaign has announced that Palin would meet nine! world! leaders and global players! over three days at the United Nations General Assembly. In just thirty hours Palin will encounter a star-studded cavalcade of international decision makers. Karzai! Kissinger! Yuschenko! Saakashvili! Bono! It's a collection of the world's greatest hits (or hitters) and Sarah Palin gets to play in their sandbox. For a moment.

The McCain campaign is making this move to defuse critics who say that Palin, the governor of Alaska for two months short of two years, someone who got her first passport last year, has no foreign policy experience. The hope, the Republican thinking goes, that this will “burnish” her foreign policy cred. It’s an ambitious strategy that, nonetheless, overlooks the fact that you can’t burnish what doesn’t exist in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

It would be funny if it weren’t so transparently desperate. Faced with their presidential nominee’s choice of a brash, fairly talented but utterly relentless amateur to be his running mate, Team McCain has accepted the challenge of creating Sarah Palin’s global bona fides literally overnight.

They’re attempting to compress the aura of experience on the world stage into not weeks or days, but literally hours. It’s not speed-dating, it’s speed-greeting, hello goodbye at the geopolitical level. This is a strategy pulled from the instruction manual of the Evelyn Wood School of International Relations.

Ironically, Palin’s credibility tour is philosophically compromised already, no matter how this turns out, because it contradicts the thrust of one of McCain’s prime attacks on Obama late this summer. Remember? Barack Obama spoke in Berlin, as part of his tour of Europe and the Middle East, a tour that was an organic demonstration of global interest in an American politician who’d refined his message and his oratory over years in elective politics and community relations.

Obama was being castigated by McCain for pursuing the status of a global celebrity. Now, apparently, it’s Sarah Palin’s turn for a closeup.

What’s sadder still is the fact that the McCain campaign and its advisers still believe the American people — or at least the low- or no-information voters Team McCain is counting on — are as shallow and one-dimensional as this strategy is, shallow enough to buy into this photo-op orgy and equate it with real qualification. This whirlwind courtship already looks exactly like what it is.

Team McCain also misinterprets what matters to people, despite such brazen PR manipulations: those global players and the American people are looking for a vice president who can stand in the fire, handle the unpredictable, think on her feet and answer the tough questions herself. No handlers, no BlackBerry-dependent mouthpieces, no First Dude at her elbow. They’re looking for the plain-spoken Original that she’s manufactured herself to be. It’s hard for that to happen when everything is safely arranged.

But then again, everything might not be safely arranged. The Republicans are apparently downplaying the potential for surprise. But there’s no guarantee that Colombian president Alvaro Uribe won't press her on that long-sought trade agreement. Or that Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, won’t ask Palin for her position on the airstrikes that have indiscriminately killed Afghan women and children. There’s no guarantee, for that matter, that Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, won’t pigeonhole her to get her stance on the need to withdraw American troops from that country, and refining a timetable for doing so.

And there’s shouldn’t be any such guarantees. They know what’s at stake, and they’ve got a right to ask those questions, and more besides. Much of their futures and their nations’ futures hang in the balance.

What the Republicans and Team McCain see as a glittery People magazine spread (and you can count on seeing the two-shot with Bono in People’s pages) is already something more substantive. This will be more than a coming-out party for a debutante; the fact that the McCain campaign believes that photo-ops with world leaders impart instant credibility is sadly dispiriting in itself.

What Andy Warhol once famously observed about the ephemeral nature of the cult of personality may be true; maybe we all do get to be famous for fifteen minutes. Whether we get to be experienced in fifteen minutes is another matter entirely.
Image credits: Palin: Airman 1st Class Kenny Holston (public domain). Karzai: Public domain. Talabani: Public domain. Bono: © 2008 World Economic Forum.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XVII

On Sept. 2, the hubristic brinkmanship of the campaign of Sen. John McCain acquired what may be its final defining catchphrase — the phrase that will, if Sen. Barack Obama prevails in November, be etched in the gravestone of a tragically flawed presidential bid.

“This campaign is not about issues,” said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, in a moment of profound overconfidence in the wake of the ascendancy of McCain running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

This, of course, was before the events of this week, when the market tanked, Wall Street titans were dissolved or bought on the cheap, and the United States effectively socialized the market economy with a bailout package whose total cost to taxpayers may reach one, trillion, dollars.

This was before it came painfully clear to a candidate who admits to knowing nothing about the economy that the economy is The Issue of this campaign.

Therein lies the hollowness at the center of McCain’s increasingly disastrous bid for the presidency: In a world where national economies are more and more interwoven on a global basis, in a nation where home values have eroded steadily and the consumer (the engine of the U.S. economy) is under increasing pressure to make ends come close to meeting, the Republican candidate for the American presidency has admitted he doesn’t know what to do.

This is why, on the Friday after the most turbulent financial period since the onset of the Great Depression, McCain thundered on the campaign trail about Obama’s lack of judgment, alleging corruption, and announcing his plan for a “Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust” to take bad mortgages off the hands of wounded financial firms.

This is why on Friday, McCain said he would propose the firing of Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox, despite the fact that the president cannot fire the SEC chairman, the head of an independent regulatory agency not subject to dismissals by a sitting administration. ABC News reported that one such firing of the director of an independent agency (FDR tried to dismiss a member of the Federal Trade Commission in 1935) was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

◊ ◊ ◊

The current malaise about the McCain campaign extends beyond this sad snapshot of fiscal incompetence. Rick Davis said the campaign wasn’t about issues, but was really a referendum of personalities and personal attributes. If that’s the case, McCain is in just as much trouble.

At a recent town-hall meeting, McCain lauded Palin’s bona fides vis-à-vis national security this way:

"She has been commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard. Fact. On September 11 a contingent of the Guard deployed to Iraq and her son happened to be one of them, so I think she understands national security challenges."

Never mind the fact that the governor of a state doesn’t command the National Guard. Never mind the fact that Palin’s son, Track, was in the Army, not the National Guard.

It’s not the first example of McCain’s improvisational approach to reality. This week, in response to questions about his willingness to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, McCain confused or ignored the distinctions between Spain, a component of Europe, and Latin America — switching the location of a major European power and placing it in a completely different hemisphere.

Earlier in the campaign season, we discovered more evidence of McCain effectively creating his own new world atlas, a breathtaking reordering of geography and world government. In the McCain world view, Czechoslovakia still exists, Iraq and Pakistan share a common border, Shiites and Sunnis are interchangeable blocs of the Iraqi people, Somalia and Sudan have traded places, and Vladimir Putin is the president of Germany.

“Not about issues”? About personality? Consider what what was found in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: More Americans found Obama “personally likable” and that he “connects well with people” by margins of between 2:1 and 3:1. “McCain's greatest advantage is on being perceived as ‘personally qualified to be president.’ By a two-to-one margin McCain (55%) is seen as more personally qualified than Obama (27%).” But this was before the wave of McCain personal gaffes and blunders. This was before The Issue exploded on the national scene.

Team McCain has jettisoned more than a few of his presumably senior advisers from the Straight Talk Express for various missteps (McCain economic hand puppet Carly Fiorina was the most recent.) McCain should consider extending the same courtesy of dismissal to Rick Davis, his campaign manager.

“This election is not about issues,” Davis said on Sept. 2.

McCain has again frantically waved the banner of jingoist attack-dog populism, apparently secure in the delusion that issues don’t matter, that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" — something he said on the campaign trail at least 22 times this year, borrowing the same phrase uttered by President Herbert Hoover in the runup to the Great Depression.

On Friday, Barack Obama huddled in a Miami strategy session with former Federal Reserve head Paul Volcker, and former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers — old hands at the rudder of the national economy, during the Clinton administration.

All were presumably secure in the knowledge that this presidential election is about nothing but issues.
Image credits: Hoover, National Archives and Records Administration. McCain: Public domain.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The real Original Maverick

"Enough!" Barack Obama's cri de coeur at the Democratic convention three weeks back still rings in the ears, but today for a different reason. We have had enough of John McCain's distortions of the truth, his blatant falsehoods about his opponent's record and his integrity, even exoticizing his birthplace.

But of all the half-truths and outright lies by the candidate and his lieutenants and numerous handlers, it is time for Team McCain to finally end one of the foundational lies about his own campaign and the brand he has foisted on the American people for far too long.

Enough. It must be said: Contrary to the sloganeering in a new series of television ads, contrary to his own long and carefully constructed narrative ... John McCain is not the Original Maverick. That honor belongs to another man, another champion of the West with an iconoclastic, typically American streak, another man of another time.

Fifty-one years ago next week — on Sept. 22, 1957 — James Garner made the first of 52 appearances as inveterate Old West gambler and ladies' man Bret Maverick on the ABC series "Maverick," beginning a five-season courtship of the American public, which embraced Garner as a figure on the national stage while John McCain was still shining his shoes at Annapolis.

Garner would soon have company. The "Maverick" series was really a family story. Garner had the first several episodes to himself, but over time, his three brothers — Beau, Brent and Bart (played by Roger Moore, Robert Colbert and Jack Kelly, respectively) — would become part of the show, which continued the adventures of the brothers Maverick with various cast changes and shifts until 1962.

◊ ◊ ◊

They, Senator McCain, were the Original Mavericks, and no one else. You, sir, are — at best — fifth in the line of succession.

And maybe further back than that. A made-for-TV movie, "The New Maverick" was broadcast in 1981, with Garner and Kelly returning to their original roles, while their brash young cousin, Ben Maverick, was portrayed by Charles Frank, who went on to play astronaut Scott Carpenter in "The Right Stuff."

We won't even get into the Maverick call-sign for Tom Cruise's character in "Top Gun" or Mel Gibson's portrayal of Bret Maverick in the 1994 movie.

Bottom line, Sen. McCain: Your inability or unwillingness to square with the American people about the Iraq war and its enduring damage to the nation; about the economy and your plans to repair it; about your apparent eagerness to distort even your own record for the sake of political expediency — these are bad enough.

But to claim you are the Original Maverick when there is ample evidence to the contrary — this, Senator, is too much. At long last, sir, have you no sense of pop-culture history?
Image credit: James Garner, the Original Maverick: Photo by Alan Light. Maverick movie poster: © 1994 Warner Bros.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XVI

On the same day that the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 504 points, cratering in the worst single-day loss of American equity value since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the same day that Wall Street witnessed both the implosion of the Lehman Brothers investment bank and the shotgun marriage of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain stood before the American people and said the American economy was just fine.

"There's been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets on Wall Street. And there is — people are frightened by these events," McCain said Monday. "Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he said at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., speaking with the flat, almost rote sincerity of a used-car salesman working to move a car he didn’t want on the lot in the first place.

He followed up fast; realizing the faux pas in the making, he added “but these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street." But oratorically, it didn’t register; it had the weight of an offhand ad-lib.

McCain proceeded to retreat to a favorite redoubt in the face of an issue bigger than his field of knowledge: He proposed to form a 9/11-style commission to study the corporate abuses on Wall Street.

"People have a right to know when their jobs, pensions, investments, and our whole economy are being put at risked by the recklessness of Wall Street," he said. "I can assure you that if I am president, we're not going to tolerate that anymore. In my administration, we're going to hold people on Wall Street responsible."

◊ ◊ ◊

Beyond that there was more of what’s mostly become a catechism of talking points and barely suppressed outrage. But those seven “fundamental” words, in the wake of the events that preceded them earlier the same day, may be the single more clarifying and damaging sign of the disconnect between John McCain and the American people. If there was ever a moment that seemed to validate the criticism of McCain as out of touch with the realities of working Americans, this was it.

Sen. Barack Obama, McCain’s challenger for the presidency, seized the moment, finally coming up with a phrase memorable enough to stick with voters. “I just think he doesn't know," Obama said in Grand Junction, Colo. "He doesn't get what's happening between the mountain in Sedona where he lives and the corridors of power where he works. ... Why else would he say, today, of all days — just a few hours ago — that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong?

“Senator McCain, what economy are you talking about?"

◊ ◊ ◊

The sense of McCain’s disconnect has been getting worse. First, he was seriously flummoxed when asked for a threshold of “rich.” Then he forgot how many homes he and wife/stage prop Cindy McCain own. Then Mrs. McCain really connected with ordinary people by wearing a $300,000 wardrobe at the Republican convention.

His statements on Monday, and his seeming inability to GET IT — to grasp the gravity of the financial tsunami that enveloped Wall Street and started the swamping of the same Main Streets he’s campaigning on — are finally beginning to boil down into something people can get their minds, and their lives, around.

It was no help, of course, that former Federal Reserve sage Alan Greenspan said, on ABC’s “This Week,” that the current economy was the worst he’d encountered in his long career. “Oh, by far,” Greenspan said. “There's no question that this is in the process of outstripping anything I've seen and it still is not resolved and still has a way to go and, indeed, it will continue to be a corrosive force until the price of homes in the United States stabilizes.”

It didn’t help, either, that Greenspan, interviewed on Bloomberg Television, said the country couldn't afford the proposed McCain tax cuts without an equally large reduction in spending.

“I'm not in favor of financing tax cuts with borrowed money,” he said.

◊ ◊ ◊

But these latest miscues, bad as they are, were merely signs of something that’s been … deflating in the McCain campaign persona for weeks. There’s a slow winding down that’s underway, a kind of auguring in. Such political events are often described as a “train wreck,” but frankly that metaphor conveys too much speed to describe what feels — at a purely gut level, without polls or position papers or fundraising stats — like the beginning of the grindingly slow decline of the McCain campaign.

Consider: On Sept. 10, McCain spoke at a rally in Fairfax City, Va., an event that McCain campaign spokesman said was attended by 23,000 people. In fact, the number was apparently closer to 8,000. Crowd estimations are an always inexact practice, but MSNBC aired video showing a multitude of empty seats throughout the arena.

And unkindest cut: Karl Rove, the Republican Prince of Darkness Himself, said on Fox News that the McCain campaign had gone too far with a new series of TV ads that were blatantly ridiculous in their distortions of the record and character of Sen. Barack Obama. Rove, a guy who knows his way around a smear campaign, said McCain had gone “one step too far in, sort of, attributing things to Obama that are, you know, beyond, beyond the, the 100 percent truth test.”

Ya think?

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s a lot of momentum moving the McCain Straight Talk Express. Various people thought to have been kicked under the bus are still hanging around, Charlie Black and Phil Gramm, in particular. He’s definitely got cash in the tank. But there’s a steep uphill grade approaching. The borrowed energy of momentum and money alone will not carry it over the top. It's message time, and people are seriously asking themselves whether he's got one.

The much-ballyhooed Sarah Palin bounce is pretty much history. The Palin move was politically brilliant for about twelve minutes, but politics is one thing; governance is another. By any reasonable yardstick — certainly the same yardstick the Republicans would use as a bludgeon if she were the Democratic nominee for vice president — Sarah Palin is woefully unprepared for the office she seeks.

The old axiom of American politics couldn’t be denied forever: The ticket draws its energy, its attraction, from the top — not the bottom. And when the man at the top of the ticket can’t seem to grasp the enormity of perhaps the gravest financial meltdown since the Great Depression; when some in his own party say he’s gone beyond the bounds of common sense; when he has to resort to revisionist math to punch up his crowd count less than two weeks after the convention … there’s that winding-down feeling again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The empress's new old clothes

Tonight, the alleged post-convention bounce for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin began to decay. The mainstream press, still fawning and swooning over her dazzling vault into the national political culture, may take a while to pick up on it, but Sarah Palin has become just another politician whose name attaches itself to the words “under investigation.”

In these high-scrutiny days and weeks after her coronation in St. Paul, it’s clear that the clothes are slipping from the shoulders of the Republican empress of the moment. As her scrappy, acerbic, Annie Oakley-in-mukluks mien has settled into the public consciousness, there’s a fresh narrative of Sarah Palin starting to emerge: one that reveals a tenacious, vindictive, secretive small-town politician whose take-no-prisoners style dovetails with the needs of a Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, badly in need of energy and novelty.

A story tonight by Gene Johnson of The Associated Press says Palin “is unlikely to speak with an independent counsel hired by Alaska lawmakers to review the firing of her public safety commissioner.”

Ed O'Callaghan, a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate John McCain told The AP that, while he hadn’t spoken with Palin, she was "unlikely to cooperate" with the inquiry "as long as it remains tainted."

McCain's campaign has claimed that the inquiry into Palin’s firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan is nothing more a witch hunt, despite claims by Moneghan that he was dismissed because he refused to fire a state trooper who went through an acrimonious divorce from Palin's sister.

But politically “tainted”? It was a bipartisan panel of the Legislature (including three Republicans) that voted unanimously to authorize an investigation into the way Monegan was fired.

Palin had said she welcomed the investigation; that was until Aug. 29, when she became McCain's running mate. That was when her lawyer tried to have the state Personnel Board take over the investigation, alleging that statements made by Sen. Hollis French, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a Democrat, indicated a politically-motivated inquiry was coming.

"The partisan presidential campaign of McCain/Palin has interfered and is picking partisan targets to smear in order to make this investigation look like something it isn't," Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party, told AP.

Tonight’s revelation comes after a story in the Saturday New York Times that found the Palin administration in Juneau has been steeped in cronyism, hirings and firings based on flimsy qualifications, and a penchant for control and limitation to access that rivals that of the administration in Washington she’s hoping to replace.

“The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government,” The Times reported in a piece that peeled back another layer of the carefully constructed political artichoke known as Sarah Palin.

“Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials,” The Times reported.

◊ ◊ ◊

We’ve seen her before: the diminutive, willfully abrasive middle manager out to make headway in the workplace, regardless of the bones and bodies and values trampled underfoot.

And let’s be clear: It won’t do to make too much of the pronoun “her.” There’s no ammunition for anyone to cry “Sexism!” Why? Because we’ve seen these relentless, passive-aggressive traits in men as well. Given the disparity of men and women at higher levels of corporate and political management, they're more often found in men than in women.

Which takes the issue of gender off the table. Sarah Palin might as well be Stanley Palin or Steven Palin or Sherman or Sid. For all the renegade political branding created by her and on her behalf, Sarah Palin is revealing herself to be a blazingly conventional politician regardless of gender.

“She may think of herself as a maverick, and she may be one, but the way she’s operated is in the best tradition of old, big-city politics,” Howard Fineman observed tonight on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

Which, at the end of the day, is why she’s on the Republican ticket. There’s nothing wrong or problematic with her that the GOP hasn’t had to deal with before. Despite her iconoclastic tendencies, despite her hoist of the “reformist” flag, they know: With Sarah Palin, they won’t encounter anything they can’t control.

◊ ◊ ◊

And now there’s less and less about her that we can’t see. The Spaceship Sarah that lifted off the national stage in St. Paul is coming back to earth, and that means enduring the heat of re-entry — the increase in scrutiny, the greater white-hot glare of the 24/7 media. More revelations like those of The Times and The AP.

The empress of the north who wowed the convention less than two weeks ago may be riding in the parade wearing a lot less than we first thought.

As the focus on Palin intensifies, in the wake of her own “Dynasty”-cum-train wreck of political leadership style, we can expect to hear more shouts from the crowd on the parade’s sidelines: “There’s nothing new here! Maverick? She's nothing of the kind!"
Image credit: Palin: Ttoes, repubilshed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Friday, September 12, 2008

9/11 @ 7

NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME, the Philadelphia City Paper shouted on the day after. That expression of fatalism, that statement of reality and unreality has come to be a foundational truth for this country, in everything from its government to its economy, from its politics to its media rhetoric to the shoes you have to remove at the airport before you board a plane.

When the two jets knifed into American certainty on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, followed by an attack on the Pentagon and an almost-certain attack on the U.S. Capitol, the acts orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants staggered the imagination. For some time, we were bereft at the daring of the plot, its agonizing simplicity.

Even the date itself in shorthand — 9/11 — seemed like some vast, cruel joke: Using the numerals the nation had known for years as the phone number to call to report emergencies was, by intention or accident, a deeply poisonous way of imprinting the events of that day in the national consciousness forever.

◊ ◊ ◊

The events of 9/11 were first and foremost a failure of our national leadership. The pre-attack intelligence that was ignored, the action items that couldn’t be read on the golf course — these represent a collapse in the attention span of the administration, the obvious first responders to an emergency, but also the presumed anticipators of an emergency. It would be easy to say the Bush administration took its eye off the ball; there’s every reason to believe, with benefit of seven years of hindsight, that its eye was never on the ball to begin with.

The events of 9/11 and those that followed were to become a failure of our national politics. Sept. 11 would become another kind of malign shorthand — used particularly by the Bush administration and the Republican Party generally as a populist dogwhistle in the service of domestic politics. In a special comment on MSNBC’s “Countdown” last night Keith Olbermann pretty much nailed it, observing the administration’s use of Sept. 11 as “Nine-eleven TM,” a geopolitical branding device, a shibboleth against opponents, real or perceived, national or international, in a war of convenience.

But 9/11 and what’s happened since then are also a failure of our national outreach. Our sense of me-first insularity had already been increasing since the end of the Cold War, the rise of the domestic economy, and the stabilization of relations with Russia in its reach toward Western-style capitalism, and a smugness about Moscow’s embrace of consumerism. The election of George W. Bush, an incurious man whose experience or knowledge of life overseas almost didn’t exist before he took office, was merely symbolic of our willingness to look inwards, to look tolerantly (if not approvingly) on the idea that, globally speaking, there was America and there was everywhere else.

The events of 9/11 pierced that sense of relative invulnerability Americans have had for generations, a sense of invulnerability that should never have been there in the first place.

There’s no concrete wall, no physical barrier big enough to wall off this nation from the world this nation purports to lead, and there shouldn’t be. For generations now, the immigrants that make America what it is have come to these shores. They bought into that fragment of an Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. They remember it, they live it today, even if some in the nation seek to reinforce the things that separate America from the rest of the world, rather than eliminating them.

◊ ◊ ◊

To the degree that the United States should presume to lead the world, it must accept the need to be a part of it — not on the basis of convenience, picking and choosing which treaties of global impact (from various environmental standards to the use of mines in warfare) it will honor and which it will ignore, but on the basis of a shared experience and a realization that, in a world shrunk to almost insignificant periods of time between one nation and the next, what touches one country eventually touches every other country.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were horrific in scope, fiendishly brilliant in their execution, grievously wounding in the way they have resonated in the national psyche in the seven years since.

In slightly more than six weeks, the nation will elect a new leader. Whoever it is, he will turn a page in the national experience vis-à-vis 9/11. The decision to begin a new chapter in a disastrous geopolitical playbook or to close that book altogether will be a defining one, not only for this country but also for the mirror, the kaleidoscope, the looking glass this nation holds up to the 192 United Nations member-states that comprise this fragile, fractious world. We hold the key to what they will see. Come Nov. 4, we hold the key to what we will be.
Image credit: World Trade Center: Jeffmock, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush: Public domain. Crash sequence: © 2001 CNN. Skyline lights: © 2004 Genesun Han, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Campaign Jukebox III

The musical choices for McCain campaign rallies keep coming under fire. Just when the old, white-haired guy (thank you Paris Hilton) makes a play for a younger demographic, it all gets ... complicated.

Van Halen recently slapped Team McCain with a rock & roll cease & desist order, demanding that the group’s hit song “Right Now” stop being used at McCain campaign events.

The TMZ attack-dog Web site reported Aug. 29: “After John McCain used a Van Halen song during his big speech earlier today, the band wants to make to make one thing clear—they're not running with McCain.

Van Halen management tells us the band had no idea McCain was planning on using ‘Right Now’ during his big entrance in Ohio telling us, ‘Permission was not sought or granted nor would it have been given.’”

Can’t get any more emphatic than that.

◊ ◊ ◊

This isn’t the first time McCain or the Republican Party generally have been in trouble for borrowing music without permission.

Sam Stein of The Huffington Post reported this on Aug. 14: “Singer, songwriter, liberal activist and now John McCain scourge Jackson Browne filed a lawsuit today against the presumptive GOP nominee and the Republican Party for failing to obtain a license to use one of his songs in a television commercial.

“The song, ‘Running on Empty,’ has been used by the Ohio Republican Party (not the McCain campaign) apparently against Browne's approval. The music icon also claims that in doing so, the false perception is created that he is endorsing McCain's candidacy.”

Now with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin aboard, the musicologists at Team McCain have let fly with “Barracuda,” Heart’s 1977 hit, in a slavish capitalization of Palin’s nickname when she played basketball in high school. The song was played after Palin's speech at the Republican convention last week.

Ann and Nancy Wilson, the nucleus of the band, have since expressed their displeasure in a statement: "“Sarah Palin's views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song 'Barracuda' no longer be used to promote her image,” the Seattle-based band said Thursday, after the song was used to end John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s few attempts to musically make the pivot to hip have been painfully transparent. Maybe that’s why only the consistent signature sound of Chuck Berry’s immortal rocker “Johnny B. Goode” has been heard after some recent McCain campaign events. The track was an audio staple of the McCain primary season too.

We really shouldn’t be surprised why they went back to the Chuck Berry default. A quick survey of the people at the Xcel Energy Center — older, established, veterans, grandmothers, almost certainly no fans of most of what rock music is today — tells the story: These are people “Johnny B. Goode” resonates with.

You can tell a lot about a campaign by the musical company it keeps. Despite half-hearted attempts at creating a campaign musical signature that nods in any real way to what’s on and what’s next, John McCain, candidate of the American future, has a campaign soundtrack that’s living in the past. And the convention crowd wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a lesson there.
Image credits: Van Halen logo © Forever Van Halen, in this and all worlds. Jackson Browne: John Edwards, republished under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license 2.0. Chuck Berry: Unknown.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

RNC Day 4: The McCain scrutiny XV

A tale of two fireworks displays: The fireworks that ended the Democratic nomination speech of Sen. Barack Obama last week were a dazzling display of live pyrotechnics ringing the thousands at Invesco Field.

When Sen. John McCain ended his speech Thursday accepting the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency, the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center whooped and danced to a fireworks display on a monster-oversize flat-screen TV.

It’s of course an unfair comparison: the GOP played a indoor facility; the Democrats threw down at an open-air arena. But the difference is important in ways beyond stagecraft.

Xcel’s fireworks, of course, were a not-quite amazing simulation of the real thing. McCain’s acceptance speech had all the gaudy fraudulence of the View-Master scoreboard show behind him. Given the less than effusive support he's encountered from many of his fellow Republicans in the past, those in the hall may have seen the fireworks movie as more real than the man on the stage.

◊ ◊ ◊

More than anything, McCain’s speech bore evidence of a kind of Republican mea culpa, a true confession of the transgressions of his party over the last eight years. It was clearly the subtext of McCain’s 40-minute address: We screwed up, we’re sorry, give us another chance.

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” he said to a strangely quiet house. “We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger. We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Sen. Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies. We lost their trust, when we valued our power over our principles.”

McCain’s self-fitting for a rhetorical hair shirt was followed by a thorough and moving exposition of his exploits a a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, an autobiography rendered in greater detail than McCain has volunteered in the past — rendered with details into McCain’s character that McCain himself couldn’t see.

“On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Confession cleanses the soul, calls on the penitent to an act of contrition in a bid to absolve oneself of the onus of past behavior. But it does no good if the confessor keeps on doing what made confession necessary — or expedient — in the first place.

To the degree that John McCain would continue the Iraq war — at odds with the desires of a majority of the American people — his admission of the failures of his party (among them the rationalizing, starting and fighting that war) is reason enough not to elect him president. Owning up to endorsement of the paramount failure of the Bush administration, and then doggedly pledging to continue that failure, amounts to a philosophy at odds with itself. What’s the point of confession if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?

Despite the thunder and hoopla of a relatively successful nominating convention, McCain still faces an existential dilemma. Now, six months after effectively securing the nomination, McCain faces the need to define himself to the American people all over again. The personal military narrative, as profound an example of the tenacity of the human spirit as you could ask for, is no longer enough.

Post-convention bounces notwithstanding, people are beginning to ask: What is there beyond the heroic military experience that works today? Why does John McCain have a lock on personal Character? What isolate of Character can only be found in his personal experience, and nowhere else? And what does his long-ago manifestation of heroism do for helping me with a crippling mortgage and the price of food on the table today and tomorrow while his wife wows the convention in a $300,000 wardrobe?

◊ ◊ ◊

John McCain has trafficked heavily in being the Republican agent of change, but he’s lashed body and soul to the mast of the administration that precedes him. And there’s the nut of his existential dilemma: If McCain proposes to shed any relationship with George Bush and the GOP’s eight-year legacy of debacle … what’s John McCain stand for? A rebel has to be for something as much as against something. You don’t get to pick and choose the parts of history you don’t like. If you renounce the actions of your party … what do you stand on?

In his speech on Thursday, John McCain called on America to make a change from the past, but despite the flag-draped rhetoric and flashes of the moving personal expose, the speech finally didn’t work. It didn’t work because we can’t trust him to make the advertised clean break from the last eight years of American despond. Why? Because McCain, his votes and his rhetoric are a big part of what’s been responsible for the last eight years.

He’s condemned the impact of lobbyists on Washington politics while his campaign staff is crowded with them.

He presents himself as a champion of those who’ve borne the battle despite having voted repeatedly against the best interests of the veterans he claims to support.

He rails against earmarks, those much-maligned congressional pet projects, while his anointed running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, made use of them earlier in her brief political career.

◊ ◊ ◊

That may be why something in the speech on Thursday rang hollow at the center to at least one of the presumably faithful of the party, and almost certainly more.

“It set out the right theme — reform — but the policy was the problem,” said Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter, on the convention floor in an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry. “The policy in the speech was rather typical for a Republican —pretty disappointing. It didn’t do a lot of outreach to moderates and independents on issues that they care about … Many Americans needed to hear from this speech something they’ve never heard from Republicans before …

“Tonight was not particularly innovative, interesting or promising,” Gerson said.

McCain’s speech was weak tea. Worse yet, it was old weak tea — not chronologically, physically old, but old in the philosophical sense, old in taking the country nowhere it hasn’t already been.

“There was a lot more spontaneous enthusiasm for Sarah Palin last night than there was for John McCain tonight,” Gerson said.

◊ ◊ ◊

The vacancy at the heart of McCain’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night was inescapable. Even before Frank Rich broke it down in an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times, the willful duality of McCain’s political nature was obvious. Rich just explained it so well, in the context of the biggest night of McCain’s political life:

“… [T]he speech’s central argument, that the 72-year-old McCain will magically morph into a powerful change agent as president, is a non sequitur. In his 26 years in Washington, most of it with a Republican in the White House and roughly half of it with Republicans in charge of Congress, he was better at lecturing his party about reform than leading a reform movement. G.O.P. corruption and governmental dysfunction only grew. So did his cynical flip-flops on the most destructive policies of the president who remained nameless Thursday night. …

“His speed-dating of Palin reaffirmed a more dangerous personality tic that has dogged his entire career. His decision-making process is impetuous and, in its Bush-like preference for gut instinct over facts, potentially reckless.”

“We’ve already seen where such visceral decision-making by McCain can lead. In October 2001, he speculated that Saddam Hussein might have been behind the anthrax attacks in America. That same month he out-Cheneyed Cheney in his repeated public insistence that Iraq had a role in 9/11 — even after both American and foreign intelligence services found that unlikely. He was similarly rash in his reading of the supposed evidence of Saddam’s W.M.D. and in his estimate of the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq. (McCain told MSNBC in late 2001 that we could do with fewer than 100,000.) …

“[T]he Palin choice was brilliant politics — not because it rallied the G.O.P.’s shrinking religious-right base. America loves nothing more than a new celebrity face, and the talking heads marched in lock step last week to proclaim her a star. Palin is a high-energy distraction from the top of the ticket, even if the provenance of her stardom is in itself a reflection of exactly what’s frightening about the top of the ticket.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This is the danger of the Maverick brand. For John McCain, the penitent in imperfect contrition, it points as much to history as to inclination. The candidate makes the frank admission of going a little too far, exceeding mission parameters on a hunch, pushing the envelope, picking a few fights for the fun of it. These have parallels in a style of leadership, with more lives on the line than his own.

This is the problem with being a rebel, whether flying a mission or acting as commander-in-chief of a noble but brutalized armed forces. McCain’s maverick aspect may have as many downsides as dividends. For that reason, the American people will be just as disposed in November to look at McCain as risky as Obama. With the weight of past evidence, maybe more risky than Obama.

On the glaring pivotal international issue the nation will vote on in November, the Iraq war, John McCain may be the kind of rebel America can’t afford: a change agent dangerously daring enough to be content with things pretty much the way they are.
Image credit: Bush and McCains: White House (public domain)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

RNC Day 3: The gloves come off

People who bought those Intrade political futures contracts, placing bets on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin making a swift exit from the political scene, may be having buyers’ remorse right about now.

On Wednesday, like we said she probably would, Palin pulled off a stunning acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, the self-described pit bull with lipstick ripping into Sen. Barack Obama, using either a needle or a bludgeon to belittle the Democratic presidential contender.

For Palin, the day the gloves came off was also a day to make history as the first female contender on a Republican presidential ticket, and only the second such contender in American history.

Palin walked out on the stage of the Xcel Energy Center amid waves of applause, long, loud, up-from-the-abdomen enthusiastic, apparently for real. Apparently. But the longer it went on, the more a suspicion crept in. At first there was only a whiff on it … and then, a real sense of this thunderous ovation being just a little over the top for someone that most of the people in that hall had probably never heard of three or four months ago. The applause for President Bush didn’t last as long as run as deep.

If applause meters count, and they do, the Republicans anointed Sarah Palin as the next heir apparent. Palin, for her part, didn’t disappoint.

“Mr. Chairman, delegates, and fellow citizens: I am honored to be considered for the nomination for vice president of the United States.

“I accept the call to help our nominee for president to serve and defend America.

“I accept the challenge of a tough fight in this election against confident opponents at a crucial hour for our country.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Giving props to the one who brought her to the party — “Our nominee for president is a true profile in courage, and people like that are hard to come by,” she said of McCain — she then started in on the opposition.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities," she said of Obama, buying into the pamphleteer-and-storefronts stereotype of a community organizer — tidily overlooking Obama’s role in 1992 as the director of Project Vote!, which registered 150,000 new voters in Chicago, or his role (from 1985 to 1988) as a director of a faith-based Chicago organization whose accomplishments under Obama’s watch included a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization.

“We've all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers,” she said. “And there is much to like and admire about our opponent. But listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state Senate.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin dutifully outlined her own public service resume, with all the right populist touches. “I came to office promising major ethics reform, to end the culture of self-dealing. And today, that ethics reform is the law.

“While I was at it, I got rid of a few things in the governor's office that I didn't believe our citizens should have to pay for. That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay.

“I also drive myself to work. And I thought we could muddle through without the governor's personal chef — although I've got to admit that sometimes my kids sure miss her.”

Ironically enough, some of Palin’s hugely partisan address played into the hands of Team Obama. “Politics isn't just a game of clashing parties and competing interests,” she said. “The right reason is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it,” she said, in a statement that could have come — and probably did — from the Obama philosophical playbook.

Palin repeated the bedrock personal narrative of McCain, doing it with conviction, but still reinforcing the mythos we’ve known for years. The Maverick thing.

“Sen. McCain's record of actual achievement and reform helps explain why so many special interests, lobbyists and comfortable committee chairmen in Congress have fought the prospect of a McCain presidency — from the primary election of 2000 to this very day. Our nominee doesn't run with the Washington herd,” she said of McCain, now serving his 21st year in the United States Senate.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,” she said, and she’s damn well right about that. That’s why she’s on the ticket in the first place. “Permanent political establishment”? That’s the job for the man at the top of the ticket. They can’t both be change agents. And in spite of the hearty reception for Palin by the conservative base represented at the convention — the true believers — the historically more tepid reception for McCain by the same true believers suggests that Palin would be the nominee if do-overs were an option in presidential politics.

Trouble is, for the McCain campaign, the people still don’t know enough about her to know if she’s really a change agent, or just a continuation of the Republican social and political hardline we’ve known for years. And the general election is just two months away.

Sarah Palin is said to have energized the conservative base, but that’s not where the votes are. The voters, the passion, the turnout comes after a dialogue with the whole nation, not just the faithful in the hall. And Palin will hit the road to find them. She’s about to start political boot camp, and now the gloves come off for her as well. There’s the so-called Troopergate scandal. And reports of her enthusiastic embrace of earmarks when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The emerging drama of a challenging family life.

◊ ◊ ◊

And now it’s come to light that Sarah Palin may have her own problem with being in the wrong place and the wrong time, because of words spoken at her fundamentalist church on Aug. 17. Michael Fox, blogging at Open Salon, reported that David Brickner, the leader of Jews for Jesus, spoke at the Wasilla Bible Church, Sarah Palin's fundamentalist congregation.

With Palin sitting in the congregation, Brickner called terrorist attacks on Israelis as God's "judgment of unbelief" on Jews who have not converted to Christianity. 
"Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television," Brickner said. "It's very real.

Brickner also told the congregation that "Israel is an example of what all humanity has been saying to God since the beginning of time, shaking its fists at the heavens and saying 'You'll not rule over us'."

A spokesman for the McCain campaign, Michael Goldfarb, told Jewish groups that Palin didn’t know Brickner would speak that day and didn’t share his views in any case. “Governor Palin does not share the views he expressed, and she and her family would not have been sitting in the pews of this church for the last seven years if his remarks were even remotely typical,” Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail published by Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com.

An unfair attempt at guilt by association? Almost certainly. Barack Obama knows a thing or two about that, courtesy of the attention paid to two or three minutes of improvident speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — comments that Obama apparently didn’t even witness firsthand.

But that’s the new league that Sarah Palin is playing in, one in which facts are often at the mercy of public perception. As she assumes her historic role in American politics, she is about to discover a new intensity of exposure, a renewed scrutiny of her past and her positions, and a harder evaluation of how they dovetail, or don’t dovetail, with the American people she would help to lead in the most challenging, difficult time in this nation’s history.

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the writer Finley Peter Dunne once wrote. It ain’t shooting moose in Alaska, either.
Image credit: T toes, republished under Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RNC Day 2: Waiting for Sarah

“He is ready to lead this nation,” said President Bush tonight, speaking to thunderous applause before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in support of Sen. John McCain, speaking to the audience by video hookup from nine hundred thirty miles away.

The president and other speakers, from Laura Bush to Sen. Joe Lieberman, championed the presumptive Republican nominee with a nightlong recitation of the public record: McCain the legitimate Vietnam War hero.

“We live in a dangerous world, and we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001,” Bush said from the White House, where he was said to be busy with matters related to Hurricane Gustav. "That to protect America, we must stay on offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain."

Tuesday was really the first full day of the convention, since Monday was given over to procedural matters and the obvious distraction of Hurricane Gustav's landfall. Nothing much happened Monday. Today and tonight the mood was different: the gathering was part pep rally, part VFW meeting, part not-quite-big-tent revival, but it was all a ceremony deeply committed to the stalwarts of a political party under siege. And it all reinforced what we already know about McCain, and not much more.

◊ ◊ ◊

There was definitely drama enough. Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and presidential candidate, stood on the stage of the Xcel Energy Center and dished huge slabs of oratorical red meat to the crowd. The crowd ate every scrap.

With a McCain history slide show smartly dissolving images behind him, Thompson praised McCain’s war record and sacrifices in uniform in times that were deeply moving. Then Thompson — part standup comic, part fire-and-brimstone preacher — made the pivot to a full-throated attack on the Obama campaign, coming down on his youth, his voting record and his comparative inexperience on Capitol Hill.

"Democrats present a history-making nominee for president. History making in that he is the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee ever to run for president," Thompson said.

"We need a president who doesn't think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade," he said.

You had to wonder, where the hell was this fire, this almost volcanic passion on the campaign trail? More than once in the early going this year, Thompson oratorically underwhelmed several audiences. In St. Paul, with the pressure off, he was clearly in his element.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the unspoken issue — the 800-lb. moose in the room, if you will — is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s epiphanistic choice for his running mate. In five days Palin has put new controversial energy into a campaign that’s had plenty of it already. But there’s been uneasiness about her selection, its seeming suddenness, its overlooking of several other worthies for the vice presidency.

Some in the punditburo (including MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Keith Olbermann, both of whom oughta know better) have said that as of now, it’s essentially Sarah Palin’s convention, but that’s looking at it through too narrow a lens.

When Palin accepts the vice-presidential nomination on Wednesday, it’ll be nothing less than a John McCain moment. Sarah Palin wouldn’t be there without McCain having made this choice. What hairs stood up on the back of his neck when he decided on Palin? Was this a choice conjured from a Magic 8-Ball? What did he see in her, what did he sense in her without having seen her at all, that made him commit to the idea of making her a vice-presidential nominee?

The convention, and the nation, better get more than a glimpse of that on Wednesday night. Like it or not, Palin’s speech will be a snapshot referendum on John McCain’s judgment, his sense of who has the intellect, the wisdom and the inner fire to assume the office he seeks, if necessary, in the obligatory heartbeat. When she speaks, Sarah Palin needs to deliver John McCain — and needs to do it better than John McCain can deliver John McCain.

◊ ◊ ◊

We can see what’s probably coming right now: In prime-time on Wednesday, Gov. Sarah Palin will step in with an 0-2 count and knock it out of the park, or get close enough to an oratorical home run to satisfy the convention crowd … maybe enough to get independent votes pulling their chins again … maybe enough to get Team Obama brewing that extra pot of late-night coffee.

But that’s in the short term. The repercussions of McCain’s choice haven’t really appeared yet, for his campaign or his party. That news is just now, literally, breaking: The Washington Post is reporting that Palin was approved for the veep spot after undergoing the full in-depth background interview by campaign officials only the day before McCain offered her a spot on the ticket. The day before. You get more vetting than that applying for a job working the counter at Dairy Queen.

A proper vetting by Team McCain would have revealed that a special investigation is now underway into Palin's decision to fire the state Public Safety Commissioner; that Palin’s daughter has been pregnant since at least April; that her husband has reportedly been active in an Alaska secession movement; that Palin helped run Ted Stevens’ 527 political group —McCain’s opposition to such organizations has been a cornerstone of his campaign.

Oh, wait a minute — the McCain campaign knew all of this beforehand! None of this came as a surprise; none of it registered a moment's hesitation in the McCain brain trust.

The relative rashness of McCain’s decision, made apparently with only the lightest application of the vetting process, sears the Maverick brand into John McCain’s political persona in a way that’s actually counterproductive.

It arouses again the idea of McCain as impetuous, emotionally driven, less an agent of deliberation than of political volatility. It underscores for the American people the risks not of electing a maverick but of maybe electing the wrong kind of maverick — a new version of the tragic political iconoclast McCain seeks to replace.
Image credit: Magic 8-Ball: public domain.
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