Thursday, September 4, 2008

In Admiration of John McCain

Last year, John McCain's campaign was dying. He looked like he was out of the race. He dumped much of his campaign staff and virtually started over. And you know what? Now he's the Republican candidate for president. He may not have much executive experience, but that's the kind of performance you'd expect to see from a CEO who comes in and turns around a failing corporation. I don't know if McCain will be able to stick around and manage the outcome very well afterwards, but he's a Comeback Kid, and there's a place for that kind of ability in the White House these days. This summer, Obama was soaring. He kept making those fantastic speeches. He kept talking about America's dreams and its best side. He appealed to the young. He beat Hillary in a way that left them both able to work together. He was uniting Democrats, he was uniting black and white, he was uniting young and old. While he was touring the world, John McCain was getting ridiculed for touring grocery stores. But McCain kept banging on the drum of experience, even though his experience is not ideally suited for the job. He caught Obama's attention, and eventually he spooked him. Obama chose an elder white male as vice president, thereby simultaneously alienating many of Hillary's followers and sending the signal that he needed support and guidance. Once Obama made that move, McCain was positioned to take the offensive in their chess game. He nominated Sarah Palin. Somehow, he appears to have survived the first potentially disastrous news about her pregnant daughter, her pork barrel spending, her ethics investigation. It seems he may not even have known about all those things. Apparently his gut told him not to care. He went with the big picture and, judging from the reaction to her speech at the Republican National Convention last night, it paid off. Call it luck, call it instinct. Maybe it makes no difference. The net result is, he is still very much in the game. In an election season when the Democrats should be utterly trouncing the Republicans, McCain manages to be very close to Obama in the polls -- especially when you consider the possibility, voiced by one recent commentator, that people do not always tell pollsters the truth in black-white election contests. There is a possibility that breaking even in the polls means that Obama is losing. John McCain has put up a very good fight. It is possibly the best fight that any Republican candidate could have put up. He should take pride in that. I do not think that McCain believes in all of the positions he has embraced this year. I think he has had to play a lot of games to keep alive his maverick image while simultaneously kissing up to the myriad Republicans he has offended. To take one example, I suspect that he was presenting his true views of evangelicals when he made those disparaging comments in previous years. To win, however, he has felt compelled to give them something to be excited about, and Sarah Palin has been just the person for the job. He will pay some attention to evangelicals if he is elected, but my guess is that he will be more interested in putting them back in the box after November 4. Obama is not the only one who wants to be a great president for all Americans. This past week, I came close to backing away from my previous bet that Obama would win. His vice presidential choice seriously diminished my confidence in him, both because I felt it was ill-advised and because I picked up on the lack of confidence that it represented. I leaned back the other way when I saw the initial difficulties Palin was having. Those may still haunt her. People are still sorting out all this stuff. It has been too much, too soon. I decided to stick with my original bet because I still think the economy will be the deciding factor, and I think Obama has the edge there. Seeing what a tremendous campaign McCain is running, however, I am not in a rush to label Obama the winner on the economic issues. McCain beat Obama at Rick Warren's church, by hook or by crook, and he really changed the game with Palin. He is a cunning old S.O.B., and he could do the same thing again, on economic matters. The fun part would be to try to figure out how -- to anticipate how he will make Obama look, once again, like he's standing still. John McCain is not waging an especially clean or admirable campaign. That early aspiration went out the window. Obama is by far the class act in this election. I hope he can stay that way. In the long term, it may be to Obama's advantage, or at least to America's, if he should prove to be the beautiful loser. Al Gore gave us some precedent for that. Of course, it would be even better if Obama became the beautiful winner, or if McCain would at least clean up his act. This post is not praising John McCain's views or behavior along those lines. But for purposes of fighting to win, he is doing a very impressive job, and I wanted to say so.