Saturday, September 13, 2008

2008 Presidential Campaign Progress Report

1. The crucial event of the campaign, so far, was Obama's serious blunder in choosing Biden rather than Clinton as his VP. This gave McCain an opportunity he has capitalized on very well. Sarah Palin has given Republicans something to cheer about. 2. Obama's campaign lost its momentum as soon as McCain announced Palin as his running mate. But it had a serious problem even before that. The Democrats should have been polling very far ahead of the Republicans. They weren't. Somehow, they were failing to connect. McCain seems to be adept at sensing that and responding to it. 3. Without momentum, Obama suddenly ceased to look godlike. The Olympian stage set at the convention became a joke. I think Obama chose Biden because he assumed he was going to win, and he wanted the ideal candidate for governing. This is a plan for a superior administration. It is better than what I expect from McCain, which is that he will use Palin to win votes and appeal to people but will ignore her views on issues. But when Biden generated a yawn and the aura of invincibility faded, even some Obama supporters became concerned about his Jimmy Carter-like earnestness. His tremendous calmness suddenly began to look like weakness. Nothing succeeds like success, and suddenly Obama's campaign lost that prop. 4. Obama is losing because of the experience argument. Having Biden on the ticket just underscores the upside-down fact that the sage hand -- be it Biden, Clinton, or anyone else -- is playing second fiddle to someone who has little major-league leadership experience. I, myself, am not convinced that Obama would be a superior leader, though I do think he would be a visionary and intelligent chooser of wise policies. Palin is right: she does have more executive experience than Obama. It shows in their bearing. He is great at speeches, but he remains boyish, in a way that does not inspire confidence. 5. McCain appears to be turning talk about the economy, his weak point, into talk about oil drilling, where he has an advantage among voters who seek a simplistic solution. In this sense, Obama is playing with one hand tied behind his back, and he is almost strong enough to do it. Almost. But through the pollsters, the American people are telling him that, in politics, bullshit can grow legs and walk upon the earth. Nobody cares if McCain is grossly distorting things left and right. We already learned this from Reagan. What matters, it seems, is that McCain can keep it coming. You cannot debunk nonsense as quickly as the other side can churn it out. McCain could conceivably go too far, to the point of becoming a laughingstock. But the American people have a demonstrated tolerance for very high levels of nonsense. 6. Obama has tried, but has not been entirely able, to create a sense that he is running a class act, a campaign based upon the kinds of principles that America needs. He seems sincere in that effort, and it does resonate with many people. But as McCain's campaign keeps the punches coming, Obama seems to be getting dragged down to McCain's level. It is a common experience: someone wants to play fair, but then gets punished by an unfair blow, and suddenly it becomes important to just stay alive. Nobody can be perfect, and to the extent Obama espouses a principled approach that he, himself, cannot deliver to the satisfaction of all observers, he risks seeming pretentious and phony. National emergencies and international crises -- hurricanes, Russian invasions of Georgia, and the like -- seem to burnish McCain's standing. Just as in Russia, such events remind voters that they want a strong hand at the tiller, even if it happens to be a dangerous one. McCain is no more invincible than Obama. He seems especially vulnerable in the upcoming debates; he could come away from them looking very bad. But if McCain can survive the debates, he seems likely otherwise to deny Obama a chance to connect with voters on the level of thoughtful, long-term planning for the nation's best interests. At present, it seems that the debates offer Obama a last opportunity to avoid losing in November.