Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
I confess when I first heard that Obama was buying thirty minutes of prime time, I assumed it was for a traditional, thirty-minute closing campaign address. I was excited in that evoked the mid-twentieth century campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. I was curious to see how Obama – with his extraordinary oratorical skill -- would pull it off.
Of course, the campaign producers needed to produce a more varied, even herky-jerky, thirty minutes to keep the modern viewer engaged. And most of the half hour was compelling, although it was surprisingly sobering. The Obama campaign responded to the criticism that his earlier speeches were too lyrical and vague by setting their man in a mock Oval Office and having him talk substantively and directly into the television cameras, with a far more subdued tone. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him not speak in his trademark singsong.
The message also was a bit of a downer. The background music tended to be slow not stirring. And, following the recent economic meltdown, Obama chose to go with the more unnerving message that the nation is in crisis which upstaged his usual uplifting message that we can solve all the world’s problems by working together.
The infomercial was less effective, however, when Obama started narrating the stories of regular Americans in distress. This was what we might call the Joe-the-plumberization of American campaigning taken to yet another extreme. It started, in many ways, with Ronald Reagan’s ritual of pointing to one or two representative Americans during his State of the Union addresses. It led many candidates, especially this year, to insert moments of faux intimacy into their speeches and debate appearances wherein they told the story of one voter by name, whom they had met and supposedly bonded with on the campaign trail. In the third presidential debate – and subsequently – John McCain took this technique even farther with his deification of Joe the plumber. (Of course, following the natural course of American celebrity, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, now has a Wikipedia entry, and a manager).
In the Obama infomercial, these vignettes, while poignant, were just too stagey and too cheesy. They relied on a false intimacy between the candidate and the real life voters. There is an element of condescension and objectification here too which is unfortunate. But above all, it just seemed undignified to have the potential President of the United States reduced to the role of voice-over narrator. It reminded me of what Dwight Eisenhower muttered after cutting dozens of quickie campaign commercials during the 1952 campaign: “To think that an old soldier should come to this.”
The Obama infomercial had more than enough rich material to be absolutely entrancing and convincing without reducing some voters to props and the candidate to a Hallmark card chronicler. Yes, politics is showmanship and a campaign is an elaborate exercise in story-telling. But even in the heat of a campaign, it is good to remember that the candidate – especially this one this week – is a potential president. And a little distance from the cheesiest of techniques would do a lot to maintaining the dignity of a potential leader of the free world.
Speaking to Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday morning, John McCain seemed to be channeling Dukakis and Kerry. He was not as petulant as Walter Mondale appeared when he lost in 1984. He was not as resigned as Bob Dole was as the 1996 campaign ended. Instead, McCain was confident and ready to fight. Characteristically, his campaign of many strategies introduced yet another approach in the penultimate weekend of the campaign, arguing about the danger of having Democrats dominating both Capitol Hill and the White House. On the campaign trail, McCain has been delighting in the prospect of defying the pundits by winning.
McCain’s confidence is not completely delusional. He knows that Ronald Reagan gained as many as ten points in most polls during the last days of the 1980 campaign, ultimately defeating Jimmy Carter. McCain knows that he has been counted out before, even during the 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination. And McCain sees that, for all the hoopla surrounding Barack Obama, Obama has not quite closed the sale with millions of Americans.
If there is any narrowing in the race between McCain and Obama in these last days or on Election Day, analysts will be quick to cry racism. Pundits will continue the incessant chatter about the “Bradley Effect,” recalling the African-American Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley, who failed to be elected Governor of California despite a lead in the polls. The conventional wisdom attributed the drop to the racism of the voting booths, the fact that many voters told pollsters they would vote for a black but ultimately could not pull the lever for Bradley.
McCain, who has been careful to avoid playing the race card, is banking on other, more benign, factors. The truth is that Barack Obama has not closed the sale because his campaign has been so cautious. Since the convention, Obama has followed a conservative strategy that avoided mistakes but minimized the sparks he generated last spring. Especially since the economic meltdown, Obama has let McCain stumble. During the debates, most people were impressed by Obama’s cool. Still, displaying maturity is not the same thing as convincing the American people. If Obama loses in an upset, the Monday morning quarterbacking should lament his passive, seemingly defensive, campaign rather than Americans’ racism.
If – as the polls seem to suggest – Obama wins, he will have to recall what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. That year, Reagan basically won the election by default – it was an ABC vote, “Anybody But Carter,” the incumbent president. But from the moment Reagan won, he and his aides began speaking about Reagan’s Mandate. By the time Reagan was inaugurated, talk about Reagan’s Mandate had caught on, and Reagan entered office with more power than he deserved based on his Election Day performance.
Barack Obama and his advisers understand the need for his own final surge – and the need to start thinking about an Obama mandate. As the campaign winds down, Obama seems to be returning to the “Yes We Can” spirit of last spring. He has spoken to adoring crowds of as many as 100,000 voters. His campaign spent four million dollars purchasing 30 minutes on CBS, NBC and Fox Wednesday night, for the first prime time candidate’s extended infomercial since Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. And with an eye on healing the day after, Obama has returned to the unity rhetoric that first catapulted him into the American political stratosphere with his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. “In one week, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election, that tries to pit region against region, city against town and Republican against Democrat, that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope.,” Obama recently proclaimed. “In one week’s time, at this defining moment in history, you can give this country the change we need.”
Some applaud this final week because this seemingly endless campaign is almost over. But the last week of a campaign is often the best week of a campaign. As both candidates make their best efforts to win, we can remember what a privilege it is for citizens in a democracy to choose their leaders freely. Campaigns get passionate, messy, even ugly – as we have seen this fall in the United States and Canada. But the one prediction we can make with assurance – and with a sense of tremendous satisfaction – is that on Election Day we will hear the sounds of democracy in action – reporters chattering, voters shuffling in line, the click and whir of voting machines. And we should all celebrate that the sounds are in contrast to the sounds of regime change in other parts of the world, which usually include the rumble of tanks and the rat-tat-tat of bullets.
The Washington Post contradicted itself dramatically today, in a way that will feed every Republican and conservative claim about the mainstream media’s liberal bias. The Post’s editorial about the “$150 Million Man,” in reference to Barack Obama’s spectacular September fundraising results, treated Barack Obama as the people’s tribune, floating toward his record-breaking $600 million total on a sea of small contributions. “Much of Mr. Obama's money has arrived in small donations,” the editorial said…. Mr. Obama's haul reflects the enormous enthusiasm his campaign has generated.” Yet, on the front page of the same edition of the same newspaper, readers discovered that “Big Donors Drive Obama’s Money Edge.” The Post’s analysis of the Obama’s campaign fundraising records showed that “it was far more than just a surge of Internet donors that fueled a coordinated Democratic effort to try to swamp McCain.” Even so, while reporting on the “ultra-rich Democratic donors,” the paper emphasized Obama’s broad base of support and claimed that the money was mostly to advance the cause of grassroots politics, saying it “will support ground operations in 18 states, including all the key battlegrounds.”
By contrast, consider the reporting four years ago about President George W. Bush’s prodigious fundraising efforts. “Pioneers Fill War Chest, then Capitalize,” a typical headline claimed. This money was raised by an “elite cadre” of supporters, readers learned, with far more nefarious motives than their Democratic successors. The Republican efforts were “fueled by the desire of corporate CEOs, Wall Street financial leaders, Washington lobbyists and Republican officials to outdo each other in demonstrating their support for Bush and his administration's pro-business policies.”
The message here seems clear. Obama’s fundraising is part of a romantic, heroic effort representing the people’s will; Bush’s fundraising was part of a manipulative, underhanded attempt subverting the people’s will. This distinction paralleled Hillary Clinton’s defense in the 1990s, when she was charged with profiteering on the commodities market – she did it for her daughter Chelsea’s college tuition. There, the parallel message was that Democrats speculate for their children’s education, Republicans do it for greed.
These caricatures work because they resonate, reinforcing other story lines. For months reporters have celebrated Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign as a people’s crusade. And for decades now reporters have been lambasting the Republican Party as the party of the plutocrats. Moreover, these story lines are rooted in truth. Even if mega-donors have fueled much of the fundraising, Obama has attracted a record number of smaller donors, on-line and off, many of them first-time givers. And claiming that the Republican Party is extremely pro-business is no more controversial than noting that Hollywood is extremely pro-liberal.
The resonance of these stereotypes is what I call the O-Ring factor, recalling the first Space Shuttle Explosion. After the Challenger exploded in 1986, the brilliant scientist Richard Feynman proved that an unseasonal Florida frost hit the shuttle’s connecting rubber O-Rings in such a way as to make the entire spaceship vulnerable. Certain candidacies are more susceptible to certain attacks than others. Storylines resonate based on different candidate’s weakness. The story that the New York Times ran this spring about John McCain’s friendship with a woman lobbyist had little traction. Had a similar story run about Bill Clinton in his heyday, it would have resonated more broadly, because of Bill Clinton’s reputation as a ladies man.
The story of Barack Obama’s record-breaking fundraising has been played as one more chapter in the legend of his rise, rather than an indicator of anyone owning him or expecting payback. But as the Washington Post editorial suggested, Obama’s haul – and his renunciation of federal financing – highlight the problems of the current campaign finance system. Politicians spend too much time and make too many promises fundraising. But it is unrealistic to expect that money would not be a major player in our system. Money is power, and the marriage between business people and politicians is too compelling. Limits will not work; full disclosure might. Let us trust the maturity of the people and the effectiveness of the internet. Keeping the process clean entails keeping it open. Beyond that, as so many election lawyers like to say, keeping money out of the campaign is like keeping water out of your basement. Whatever defenses we build, we cannot fight the inevitable. Better to accept it and work with the reality than to resist it and lose.
P.S. The revelations about Sarah Palin's $150,000 wardrobe come from campaign finance disclosures -- proof that having everything open to the public can serve as a valuable check on the follies and excesses of our politicians.
When Barack Obama first emerged as a serious presidential contender, his wife Michelle had an important, if reluctant, role in the narrative. For a politician who was triggering near messianic fervor, she was the reality check, proof that he put his socks on one foot at a time, like the rest of us mortals. It was a role she seemed to relish – and took a little too far. Her comments about her “stinky, snorey” husband in the marital bed triggered collective shouts of “TMI” – too much information. They were far too reminiscent of both Clintons at their worst, combining Hillary Clinton’s occasional flashes of anger about her husband’s tomcatting with Bill Clinton’s willingness to answer the undignified question posed to him as president, “Do you wear boxers or briefs?” Still, Mrs. Obama did what candidate spouses have done for decades. She helped humanize her husband. Michelle Obama filled out the profile of Barack Obama as a regular guy with two adorable children and a smart, capable, if occasionally neglected wife.
As the primary campaign heated up and became a two-person struggle pitting Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s role expanded. Bill Clinton’s controversial involvement in his wife’s race helped shine the spotlight on Barack Obama’s spouse. Michelle Obama’s now infamous comment that her husband’s rise made her proud to be an American for the first time in her life hurt the Obama effort. Although Mrs. Obama’s gaffe was less destructive than Mr. Clinton’s egocentric, race-baiting antics, the comment played into the Clinton narrative that the Obamas were unpatriotic, supercilious, elitists, privileged Ivy League types bashing America while enjoying her bounty. Well aware of how much Hillary Clinton’s frankness detracted from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, the Obama campaign sought to reposition and then silence Mrs. Obama.
The effort has largely succeeded. In her convention tour de force, Michelle Obama used her life story to normalize her husband’s biography. Her stories of local Chicago girl made good helped tailor Barack Obama’s less conventional biography to fit the more classic contours of the American dream. Her delivery was as good as her content, and she came across as warm, supportive, accomplished but not threatening – not an easy task given the many racist and sexist stereotypes she must overcome.
Since then, it has been relatively quiet on the Obama home front. Barack Obama did one round of interviews with his daughters, which he immediately regretted. Michelle Obama has dutifully accompanied her husband when necessary, but even Cindy McCain has generated more national attention. More broadly, the Sarah Palin phenomenon has been the distaff story of this campaign. It seems that Americans – or journalists – have a limited quota of attention they will pay to women during a campaign, and both potential First Ladies seem to have had less scrutiny than usual, partially because of all the Palin controversies.
Michelle Obama’s passivity is also a reflection of the relatively subdued campaign Barack Obama has run -- to his great benefit. In many ways, since the convention, he has shifted gears. The flamboyant, exciting, “yes we can” candidate of last spring has become the calm, unruffled, cool customer of today. Since the financial meltdown, Obama has – publicly – taken the lead by default. He has let John McCain stumble more than anything else. At the same, Obama has run a brilliant ground game, raising money prodigiously, and organizing his ground troops. The upside is that it just may win him the presidency, as people’s perceptions of his maturity and readiness to be chief executive have grown. The downside is that he is smoothly gliding his way toward the White House rather than taking it by storm. If he wins, he will need to work harder during the transition to shape – or even retroactively create – a mandate.
House, but most voters don’t seem to mind. In fact, the candidate who has been repeatedly denounced as inexperienced and unqualified to be president is the only national candidate with actual executive experience in the race, the former mayor and current governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.
All this goes to show that a resume only tells part of the story. Any fair observer who has watched Palin’s interview with Katie Couric should admit to some reservations about Sarah Palin’s readiness to lead. Couric asked fair questions in a straightforward manner, and Palin often responded like an unprepared undergraduate who tries to reframe a question or sling broad generalizations about America to substitute for specific answers. Similarly, in her debate with Joe Biden, Palin came on strong but by mid-debate was sidestepping too much and repeatedly invoking her McCain-and-me-are-Mavericks mantra.
Most disturbing of all, Sarah Palin seems singularly unqualified in the field of foreign affairs, even though John McCain’s candidacy rode – and seems to be falling – on the argument of its primacy during these touchy times. I have no problem with Republicans who say “yes, she’s unqualified but I’m still voting for president and McCain is my choice.” I can even accept Republicans who argue that the media has been particularly tough on Palin and soft on Joe Biden, who has made a number of unacceptable factual errors on the campaign trail in addition to his role as gaffe-master general. But I have a hard time accepting those who claim that they have no concerns about Palin’s limited national experience and superficial understanding of foreign affairs.
At the same time, it is extremely disturbing that most polls suggest that Al Franken is about to be elected Senator from Minnesota. Franken is not only unqualified, he has been a destructive force in American politics for years. That Minnesota, a state once known for its calm, constructive, progressive politics, could take this aggressive, mean-spirited, Democratic clown at all seriously shows how far American politics have fallen. We all know that we live in an age of celebrity and that stardom in one field transfers over to another arena far too easily. Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been equally unqualified when they won their respective gubernatorial seats, but at least they had not been harming the system with harsh rhetoric and buffoonery for years. Al Franken is no better than Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, who also should – by now -- have talked their way out of being taken seriously by voters.
It is fashionable to lament that partisanship is blind. Actually, partisanship is myopic. Partisans have a distorted view of the world, wherein they are able to see the flaws in a rival party’s candidate while overlooking similar flaws in a candidate from their own camp. So here is my test for 2008. How many people are willing to denounce both Sarah Palin and Al Franken as unqualified for the respective positions they seek? Even at this late date, it is important to test ourselves and each other for consistency, to see if we have any objective standards – or it is all a matter of partisan positioning.
Parties serve an important role in American democracy, as do hard fought campaigns. But politics is about governing not just winning. Occasionally acknowledging your own party’s missteps is an important step in building those bridges of civility and mutuality that are essential for going forward the day after Election Day, a day that is rapidly approaching.
As the CEO of the White House and the nation, being POTUS – insiders’ acronym for President of the United States – may be the toughest executive job in the world. The stakes are high, the scope is vast, the scrutiny intense, the criticism constant. As Dwight Eisenhower warned John Kennedy, only the impossible decisions end up on the president’s desk.
As an academic, with limited managerial experience, I am conscious of the executive skills I lack, but only have an inkling of all that I do not know. Those of us who have never budgeted, hired or fired, supervised multiple levels below us in a bureaucracy, are lucky. We can focus more directly on fulfilling our own tasks independently and (hopefully) responsibly. But a president not only has to manage the country, the president also has to run the ever-larger White House and the gargantuan federal bureaucracy.
Many talented politicians in the Oval Office have committed rookie mistakes most experienced CEOs would have avoided. Lyndon Johnson intimidated and humiliated staffers, discouraging them from delivering bad news, alternative perspectives, the essential reality-check leaders need. Rather than inspiring his aides, Richard Nixon shared and fed their fears, creating a White House of co-conspirators some of whom ultimately betrayed each other – and him. Jimmy Carter interrupted his presidency to consult experts about the country’s direction at Camp David, unaware that displaying such weakness undermined Americans’ faith in him. Ronald Reagan allowed staffers to run a rogue Iran-Contra operation, with his wink-wink, nudge-nudge consent but without his supervision. And George W. Bush proved that loyalty cannot be blind; it must be tempered by a focus on results. Had Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld earlier, the mess in Iraq might have been easier to clean up, and Bush might have had more Republican legislators supporting him in Congress.
Fortunately, there are inspiring models for the Senators to study too. America’s greatest chief executives were visionary executives who understood that the delicate dance of democracy usually requires a light but sure touch. Like a large, sprawling corporation, a country needs a leader to set a tone, chart a course, put out fires, and make the tough calls. A successful president, like a successful CEO, has to consider followers’ morale among the many other factors that shape decision-making. Center-seeking, consensus-building, help foster a sense of camaraderie and a commitment to a broader mission necessary for group success. And knowing what to avoid is often as important as knowing what to embrace. Just as Al Gore teaches about minimizing our carbon footprints, successful executives minimize their toxic footprints, leaving a legacy of good feeling not bad faith.
A center-seeking CEO and POTUS will remember George Washington’s lesson that civility is contagious, as the father of our country spent much of his tenure managing squabbling subordinates, trying to keep them focused on “our common cause” not their conflicting agendas. A moderate CEO and POTUS will mimic Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, noting that Lincoln positioned the country to abolish slavery eventually – after the Civil War -- by first keeping the union united and inviolable. Similarly, great leaders consolidate gains that are attainable while stubbornly seeking ever loftier goals. An effective CEO and POTUS will master Franklin Roosevelt’s skills, infusing a sense of mission throughout the bureaucracy, by articulating the vision and by occasionally leapfrogging down through the chain of command to quiz lower-level managers about the facts on the ground.
Moreover, as Barack Obama has argued, running a presidential campaign requires considerable executive skill. There are budgets to be drawn and approved, subordinates to be supervised, strategies to be set. Obama emphasizes this because even Republicans would acknowledge that Obama’s campaign has been far smoother, reflecting remarkable discipline in defeating the Clinton machine in the spring, and being so brilliant run this fall.
McCain’s people make a different argument, that legislative consensus-building and symbolic tone-setting are essential presidential skills. McCain honed these skills in the Senate. He and his supporters claim that he understands the challenge of leading a nation more than any governor or corporate CEO could.
Ultimately, great leadership in the White House and in corporate headquarters is not formulaic. There is no recipe for good judgment, for knowing when to hold and when to fold. But our leaders can learn from the past how others built cultures of cooperation and civility that flourished. And like it or not, come January 20, one of these Senators is slated to be sworn in as President. The gray hairs that emerged on the heads of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter suggest that nothing quite prepares anyone for the considerable tensions and challenges of this high stakes office.
Although conflict fuels political campaigns, election contests also illuminate the political consensus. It is as important to understand where candidates agree as to see where they disagree. In the second, foreign-policy-oriented debate between the two presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama demonstrated that they both agree that Iran threatens America and the world.
“And our challenge right now is the Iranians continue on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, and it's a great threat,” one of the nominees said. “It's not just a threat -- threat to the state of Israel. It's a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.” His rival proclaimed: “We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” Only the most devoted partisans could identify which nominee made which statement – and only the most devoted partisans could find a basis anywhere in those statements for them to clash. Obama’s earlier stated willingness to negotiate without preconditions haunts him. But this question of preconditions is a skirmish about tactics not a war about fundamentals.
Tragically, this broad American consensus against Iran’s going nuclear is undermined by European ambivalence – and cravenness. The latest reminder came from Germany’s Ambassador to Iran who allowed his military attache to attend an Iranian military parade in Tehran last month. The parade featured the usual calls to destroy Israel – and America.
Anticipating November 5, the day AFTER the election, Americans must start emphasizing these points of bipartisan agreement, to accelerate what will be a necessary healing process. Anticipating January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, Americans must start thinking about the consensus the new president can count on – along with the strategic threats he will face.
The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. just released a noteworthy report offering a blueprint for the next president to follow in approaching Iran. (Full disclosure – I am a Visiting Scholar at the Center but did not work on the report). The report is essential reading for the two candidates, their advisors, and every concerned Westerner. Deeming a nuclear weapons-capable Iran “strategically untenable,” the report says that, whoever wins the presidential election will have the “formidable task” of forging an effective bipartisan policy within the United States – along with a muscular multilateral policy abroad.
Balancing adeptly between scholarship and strategy, the report analyzes Iran’s past and present while presenting a thoughtful, integrated approach to nudge that country toward a more peaceful future. Reflecting the sensibilities of the project director, Dr. Michael Makovsky, a distinguished diplomatic historian, the report includes historical analysis showing that the media caricature of Iran as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s duchy is simplistic. There are complex historical, political and economic forces that can be channeled to America’s advantage. The new president will have to mix diplomatic, informational, and economic strategies, reinforced by possible military options. The task force, headed by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats, advocates European cooperation, predetermined timetables for negotiation, and formidable, effective sanctions.
Oil remains at the heart of the issue. America will have to consider blockading first Iran’s gasoline imports, then its oil exports, if negotiations fail. Calling for a “comprehensive strategy” and “vigorous execution” – both of which have been sorely lacking – these experts deem the military option “feasible” but a “last resort.” The authors detail just how problematic – and destabilizing – resorting to violence would be. But here is the great conundrum. To be strong enough to avoid going military, and ready to launch if necessary, America has to build better alliances and pre-position military assets in the region immediately.
The scariest conclusion estimates that once Iran had an “adequate supply of low-enriched uranium” --- which it might acquire within a year or possibly sooner -- Iran could then enrich 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in “four weeks or less,” thus becoming “nuclear-weapons capable.” The most reassuring call is for “leverage building,” the process whereby America and her allies find just the right pressure points to avert this potential strategic disaster. The examples of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and George H.W. Bush during the crisis prompted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are more instructive – and inspirational – than George W. Bush’s overreach in Iraq. “[I]t is not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work,” the authors insist. “Despite near record oil prices, Iran’s economy remains weak. While the United States, its European allies, and the United Nations have imposed some sanctions on Tehran, each has a range of more biting economic tools at their disposal.”
Although the authors pull their political punches in true bipartisan spirit, the current administration’s failures haunt the report. The initial mishandling of the Iraq war emboldened Iran and undermined confidence in a military option, if it becomes necessary. Moreover, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that underestimated Iran’s commitment to going nuclear lessened pressure on this rogue regime. Still, charting a bipartisan and multidimensional approach for the next president is the best way to progress, without bogging down in partisan recriminations.
Bipartisanship is easily hailed and just as easily ignored, especially during an increasingly ugly election campaign. This report reminds us that the most serious challenges any nation faces transcend party. All Americans suffer from the stock market woes just as they are equally threatened by a nuclear Iran. Without ignoring partisan differences, without reducing complex issues to apple-pie generalities, America’s leaders have to lead away from partisan recrimination and toward national action. These kinds of bipartisan reports on these kinds of transcendent, existential national issues are helpful reminders of all that unites Americans – and useful roadmaps toward the kinds of strategies needed during this precarious time.
What seems so memorable about these three presidential debates in 2008 is that they were simply not memorable, neither grandiose nor cutting. It is hard to identify one central idea, one dramatic moment, one defining soundbite that will be replayed repeatedly – or even remembered. Moreover – and more disturbing for both candidates – the debates seemed to banish both candidates’ better selves. In four-and-a-half hours of debates, it was hard to detect many traces of Barack Obama the dreamer or John McCain the war hero.
By contrast, the national conventions – although often dismissed as anachronistic – allowed the two candidates to present themselves as they hope to be known, and remembered. John McCain ended his rather pedestrian Republican National Convention address with a moving memoir about how his years as a prisoner-of-war helped him discover community, nationalism, the reliance of one individual on another. It was hard to walk away from watching the speech without appreciating McCain’s heroism, humility, and humanity, whether or not you agreed with his policies.
Alas, during the debates, the heroism has been on hold. McCain has been – as he was most notably in this third debate – more prickly than patriotic, more choppy than smooth, more of a worried candidate in search of a persona and a strategy than a centered demigod who knows who he is and what he represents. In his opening remarks tonight, he chose yet again to bash Wall Street and Washington – without at all suggesting that Main Street Americans had also joined in the profligacy. Again and again, his remarks seemed more calculated for political advantage than motivated by a constructive patriotism.
Similarly, despite encouragement to be more down-to-earth and less lofty, Barack Obama delivered an acceptance address at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver that was dramatic enough to remind supporters of his extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention debut. The grand stadium setting, and the historic nature of his ascension as the first black major party nominee, created another “Yes We Can” moment in a near-miraculous and quite meteoric rise to the top of American society.
Unfortunately, the Barack Obama on display in the debates frequently seemed too sober to dream, too cool to be a poet, too programmed to inspire. To Obama’s good fortune, his calm served his cause – it made him look unruffled, reliable, presidential. But it suggested that if Obama wins, it will feel more like a victory by default than a clear, personal triumph or a mandate for much of anything. He has kept his more electrifying, inspirational self carefully bottled, preferring to let McCain – and the Republicans – stumble. His great achievement in the fall campaign has been his buoyancy, his professionalism, his steadiness. Americans are yearning, however, for some inspiration, some encouragement, some ebullience.
While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls. But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero. This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically.
The overwrought warnings of mudslinging made the actual event appear all the more subdued. Unwilling to ignore the undecided voters’ earnest questions as the stock market imploded, both Obama and McCain answered the questions carefully, soberly, respectfully. Most of the tension centered around the moderator Tom Brokaw’s timekeeping frustrations, as he repeatedly chided the candidates about keeping to their agreement. Brokaw seemed to forget that a moderator’s job is to go with the flow, that the American people tuned in to hear the presidential rivals not monitor their ability to follow some artificial rules which, Brokaw repeatedly reminded the candidates, they had “signed off on.”
So the good news for moderates and people who seek political civility was that, for a change, the gravitational forces that usually polarize American politics were checked Tuesday night. The dire, breathless predictions were, of course, thinly disguised encouragements for McCain to come out swinging, given that they were linked to claims that this was his last chance to shake up the campaign. Usually these are self-fulfilling forecasts, creating expectations and then facts in the guise of guessing.
But the bad news was that the debate was boring and pedestrian. Once again, both candidates offered up warmed over – but subdued – denunciations of the economic bogeymen of this current crisis – the Bushian deregulators, the greedy Wall Streeters, the corrupt Washingtonians. But both of them described the bad guys in such vague terms as stock stick figures that it seemed to be more ritualistic than analytical. When asked “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got -- got us into this global economic crisis,” McCain missed an easy opportunity to bash the Democratic Congress. Here was his chance to change the narrative a bit, to point out how Democrats like Charles Schumer, Chris Dodd, and Barney Frank took big bucks from Wall Street lobbyists to indulge the frenzy. Instead, McCain kept it vague and generic.
The scariest thing about hearing both candidates sling clichés about the financial crisis is to realize how clueless they are – and will remain on January 20. If two smart, talented politicians, with such a clear incentive to give a thoughtful, reassuring analysis and plan can sound so lost, it is hard to know just who will magically appear on the scene to navigate the crisis.
For me, the highlight of the night came before the debate began. One TV news commentator reported that six million people submitted questions for the two candidates over the internet. One could easily spin this as proof of just how many people are so confused about the last few weeks. I prefer to see if as powerful testament to the vitality of democracy and the intensity of citizen engagement as we count down to November 4.
Joe Biden was also being set up for a fall. Various newspapers had run stories about Biden the bloviator, Washington’s gaffe-master general. Biden, we were told, was practicing debating with female stand-ins for Palin to help avoid appearing condescending. Still, the real threat to Biden was some ramble, some embarrassing mangle of something very simple, or some Freudian slip wherein what he said was the opposite of what he intended – or should have intended – to say.
With the bar set so low, both candidates performed admirably. Palin was coherent throughout. As in her Republican National Convention speech, she showed an impressive ability to appeal directly to voters, to keep the common touch. She used her smile to great effect, sometimes to endear, sometimes to blunt the dagger she was thrusting toward Biden’s heart. Perhaps most surprisingly, she gave a remarkably nuanced answer to a question about gay marriage, saying she welcomed diversity of lifestyles in her own family and among her fellow citizens, but still defined marriage as between a man and woman.
Biden was disciplined throughout, on message and aggressive, but not bullying. Palin was probably stronger the first half, with Biden occasionally flashing a forced, seemingly haughty smile and looking too much the senatorial peacock. In the second half, Biden let loose a series of smooth, hard-hitting riffs against McCain that tagged the Republican candidate as George W. Bush the second and wrong on the war, the economy, the environment and energy. By then, also, Palin was beginning to sound like a broken record, and her smiles were wearing thin.
In fact, if reporters did not have us conditioned to approach this debate like drama critics, or horse handicappers, we all would agree that both candidates disappointed. Neither one had a compelling, creative, or even interesting diagnosis or prescription regarding the financial crisis. Both major party presidential tickets continue to miss the leadership opportunity to address the Wall Street crisis thoughtfully, creatively, substantively. Instead we see finger-pointing at the other party, and predictable attacks on the greed and corruption of Wall Street.
While Biden did not break new ground intellectually in defending his running mate Barack Obama and attacking John McCain, Palin in particular demonstrated the exhaustion of Republican ideology. Twice she sounded like a kinder, gentler, version of Ronald Reagan, echoing his lines that government cannot be the solution to every problem, and saluting the United States as a shining city upon the hill. But 28 years after Reagan won the presidency, Republicans themselves need to push the analysis beyond viewing tax cuts as the answer to every economic challenge and defense build ups as the answer to every foreign policy threat. Palin’s limited and repetitive riffs reinforce the need for the Republicans to redefine and reinvigorate their vision, whether they win or lose.
Both candidates also failed to answer important questions. The moderator Gwen Ifill asked an excellent question about what expenditure the nominee intended to cut out now that the bailout was proving so expensive. When both candidates sidestepped the question, one of the McGill students watching the debate with me sighed. “This is why my generation is so turned off to politics,” she explained. “Politicians don’t answer direct questions, so we get cynical about the game and lose interest.”
My student was correct. While both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin demonstrated considerable talent, they both failed to articulate a compelling new vision that fits these difficult times. That their performances are nevertheless attracting such praise reveals how low our expectations have become for all our politicians, whether they are rookies on the national stage or 35-year Senate veterans.