Archive for October 27th, 2008

‘Why Elect John McCain?’

Monday, October 27th, 2008

I’ve been hearing about it for four days — the NY Times magazine cover story, which deconstructs the woeful campaign of John McCain.

I think we can all agree that no matter what happens in these last eight days, McCain’s presidential campaigns has been god-awful. The magazine article (“The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate”) explains why.

Centrally, the article makes the case that while Obama settled on and stuck to one narrative (“Bush is the problem. I’m not going to be Bush, and McCain will be”), McCain shifted with the wind, never deciding on a single story-line.

It’s a long, powerful article, but here’s the nut:

The campaign was in the throes of an identity crisis by June 24, when a number of senior strategists gathered at 9:30 a.m. in a conference room of McCain’s campaign headquarters in Arlington. As one participant said later, the meeting was convened “because we still couldn’t answer the question, ‘Why elect John McCain?’ ” Considering that the election was less than five months away, this was not a good sign.

Draper identifies six narratives that McCain used over the course of the campaign, storylines for the public that were often in flux, and almost always reactive.

1. The Heroic Fighter vs. the Quitter. (McCain, through the Surge, was going to deliver victory in Iraq; Obama was waving the white flag of surrender.)

2. Country-First Deal Maker vs. Nonpartisan Pretender. (McCain’s taken on his own party; Obama has no record doing same.)

3. Leader vs. Celebrity. (McCain came out with a hardline when Russia invaded Georgia, and launched the Paris Hilton ad — implicitly mocking Obama’s European trip.)

4. Team of Mavericks vs. Old-Style Washington. (McCain taps Palin as VP. There are some incredible new details here, about just how little McCain knew Palin when he picked her. Also, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among the finalists that McCain opted against. Just imagine how this election would have played out with Bloomberg, an economic guru, at McCain’s side during the economic meltdown.)

5. John McCain vs. John McCain. (McCain, in launching the attack ads, was running against an earlier version of himself, who had pledged — in 2000 — to unilaterally take down attack ads.)

6. The Fighter (Again) vs. the Tax-and-Spend Liberal. (After the last debate: all Joe the plumber, all the time.)

It’s a terrific article, in part, I think, because Draper seems empathetic toward McCain. You sort of sense, reading between the lines, a kind of respect he has for the candidate. I do think, however, that in a few important places, Draper leads us to the wrong conclusions.

For example, Draper writes:

The McCain campaign maintained that in contrast to Obama, their candidate had taken on his own party while working with Democrats on such issues as immigration and campaign-finance reform. “Obama pays no price from his party — never has,” Salter told me. “My guy has made a career out of it. So, how can you get people to believe that if you can’t get the press to make an honest assessment of it?

Reading that, I think, you might be tempted to cede the point. McCain has taken considerable heat for standing up to his own party — on campaign finance reform, immigration, and tax cuts during time of war, for example.

What Draper doesn’t say is that part of the reason the press didn’t “make an honest assessment,” as he puts it, is precisely because, as a presidential candidate, McCain has embraced his party on so many of the issues where he once stood apart. He once favored immigration reform; now he wants to build a wall along the Texas border first. (I can’t imagine John McCain 2000 advocating that the solution to the problem of illegal immigration begins with the U.S. spending millions to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans.) He once decried tax cuts in war time as irresponsible, he now wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. The man who supposedly stood up to his party on global warming picks a running mate who is completely in bed with the oil and gas industries, and doesn’t believe global warming is caused by humans.

McCain advisor Mark Salter misses the forest for the trees here. McCain made a career of bucking his party, yes, but he then abandoned the most significant of those stances as a presidential candidate. To the degree that the media has held McCain accountable (see, for example, The Daily Show), it has in fact been making a brutally honest assessment.

Obama may not have made a career of bucking his own party, but neither did he embrace its most radical elements the minute he launched his presidential bid. (You could argue he did the opposite. See, for example, his embrace of immunity for telecommunications companies, and his support of the Supreme Court ruling that struck down DC’s ban on handguns.)

There’s a terrific anecdote, toward the end of Draper’s piece, intended, I think, to explain why McCain feels animosity toward Obama:

Authenticity means everything to a man like McCain who, says Salter, “has an affinity for heroes, for men of honor.” Conversely, he reserves special contempt for those he regards as arrogant phonies. A year after Barack Obama was sworn into the Senate, Salter recalls McCain saying, “He’s got a future, I’ll reach out to him” — as McCain had to Russ Feingold and John Edwards, and as the liberal Arizona congressman Mo Udall had reached out to McCain as a freshman. McCain invited Obama to attend a bipartisan meeting on ethics reform. Obama gratefully accepted —but then wrote McCain a letter urging him to instead follow a legislative path recommended by Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Feeling double-crossed, McCain ordered Salter to “send him a letter, brush him back a little.” Since that experience, says a Republican who has known McCain for a long time, “there was certainly disdain and dislike of Obama.”

Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that McCain is running one of the least “authentic” campaigns I can remember. (The man who was sunk by nefarious robocalls in 2000 is now sending them out in waves; the guy who said, before tens of millions, that he doesn’t care about a “washed up terrorist” has made that terrorist the center of his campaign.) When you read this paragraph, you feel some measure of understanding — even empathy — toward McCain. He reached out, and was spurned by the cocky newcomer.

That is, until you take a step back and think about it. Who knows why Obama adopted Harry Reid’s approach. Maybe — horror of horrors — the young cocky senator wanted to show some respect to the leadership in his own party, first. Maybe he legitimately liked Reid’s approach better, and his letter back to McCain was a principled stand. There’s a lot left out here.

But one point is clear. Even if you felt spurned, there are a number of ways you could respond. You could, for example — if you wanted to give the benefit of the doubt — take the high road, and leave the invitation open for the future. In the spirit of bipartisanship, you could chose to look beyond the petty and the personal, and decide not to hold a grudge.

McCain, though, felt double-crossed, and he made a different choice. He took it personally: me vs. him. Note the military, tactical overtones in his response: “Send him a letter, brush him back a little.”

Would Lincoln have responded that way? Would Truman, or Kennedy, or Reagan?

I am reminded of an anecdote in Doris Kearns Goodwins’ history, “Team of Rivals.” In it, she recounts how Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, was retained on a patent-infringement case in Chicago. The case was moved to Cincinnati, though, and the defense retained Edwin Stanton instead — without bothering to tell Lincoln.

“When [Lincoln] arrived in Cincinnati after careful preparation,” notes the NY Times review of the book:

Stanton and his colleagues ignored him; Stanton was even heard to speak contemptuously of Lincoln as a backwoods bumpkin. Lincoln was hurt by the snub but stayed to watch the trial and was impressed by Stanton’s courtroom brilliance. Six years later Stanton, a Democrat, was practicing in Washington during the [civil] war’s first year and referred disdainfully to Lincoln in conversations with friends. Lincoln was aware of Stanton’s opinions, but when he decided to get rid of the incompetent Cameron, who had made a hash of military mobilization, he appointed none other than Stanton as secretary of war.

Stanton soon justified the appointment. He worked 15-hour days at his stand-up desk and proved to be one of the best war secretaries the country has ever had. 

Point is, Draper’s anecdote wants to suggest that McCain has valid reasons for feeling and acting disdainful toward Obama.

In fact, it highlights — in just a few, short sentences — why John McCain is thoroughly ill-suited to serve as commander in chief.