1. The Importance of Being Earnest
As February turns to March, Barack Obama and John McCain stand as the two frontrunners in the 2008 presidential campaign. On matters of age, race, and many policy issues, the two figures are vastly different. Yet both possess a certain aura, one based on his past, the other based on his future. The reason that both trumped their opponents is because both campaigns are inseparable from the basic storylines that each campaign has told. Cynics may scoff, but Obama clearly represents hope and change—either listen to or look at him and there’s simply no denying it. McCain presents himself as a heroic individual, and though his unwavering attachment to the Iraq War may prove his tragic flaw, his essential reputation will be intact, win or lose in November. Consider these stories in relation to those of the other leading candidates.
Hillary’s main storyline shifted throughout the campaign. First, she presented herself simply as entitled to the office, then, after the Obama surge, she stressed her credentials an “experienced politician,” “ready on day one,” and so on. (After losing eleven primary contests in a row, Hillary desperately tried to turn her bureaucratic know-how into a weapon—a line of attack that reached its absurdity in the Ohio debate, when she accused Obama of not calling any oversight hearings of a Senate subcommittee he chaired.) In general, Hillary’s basic argument—“I’m more experienced and qualified”—required a clear track record of her own accomplishments, which she does not to date possess. She didn’t succeed on health care the first time around, and she’s never been convincing in her explanations of why she supported the Bush administration’s Iraq war. Moreover, unlike McCain, Hillary did not enter the campaign with any notable pieces of legislation attached to her name. Running as a Washington insider is a difficult task, one requiring many good deeds to back it up.
As for McCain’s leading opponents, Rudy and Romney, the problem was that their positions moved all over the map. Neither the media nor the voters bought their new sales pitches. When Rudy and especially Romney pandered to the far right, it was seen as emblematic of their willingness to say anything to get elected. When McCain pandered—e.g., his embrace of making Bush’s tax cuts permanent—it was seen as a legitimate change of heart by a maverick, a freethinker who changes his mind. Being from the West has also bolstered McCain’s “independent” reputation, whereas Rudy and Romney come from a region of the U.S. that hasn’t produced a Republican nominee for president in over a half-century. The attacks on McCain from far-right media figures (including Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, and Drudge) only serve to bolster his reputation as uniquely his own man.
Obama’s blend of hope and change tap into the deep resentment many Democrats, independents, and even Republicans hold towards Bush. His calls for “reaching across the aisle,” or ending the era of partisanship, on one level sound needlessly conciliatory to the Bush-era GOP; but such a position implicitly critiques the weakness of the Democrats, who’ve done almost nothing meaningful since retaking Congress in 2006. Detaching himself from a weak party, while still holding many of the Democrats’ core positions (on Iraq, health care, etc.), is a smart move. Obama is also running “against Washington” in a way that no Democrat since Jimmy Carter has done; Carter, like Obama, said he would clean-up Washington, whereas Bill Clinton vowed to shakeup his own party. Even though Obama has been a senator, he hasn’t been in office long enough to be tainted by his votes or a scandal (which McCain, one of the Keating Five, certainly cannot say about his early years in DC). Even if the specifics of his positions are not always clear, there is no doubting Obama’s commitment to the overriding themes of his campaign. And so, unlike in 2004, many voters actually believe that “hope is on the way.”
2. In Between the Lines at the Times
On two occasions over the first two months of this year, the New York Times tried to loudly exert its influence over the 2008 campaign. In late January, the paper announced its endorsement of Hillary. Though generally favorable to Obama, the editorial board sided with Clinton’s main argument: “The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work. Mrs. Clinton is more qualified, right now, to be president.” The timing of the endorsement, one day before the fateful South Carolina primary, when the Clintons’ race card backfired (see Peniel E. Joseph, “Black Power and Barack Obama” in the February issue of the Rail), certainly seemed like a favor to Hillary. But it didn’t help, as Obama’s landslide win in South Carolina completely altered the direction of the campaign.
In late February, a front-page story in the Times then tried to run McCain’s Straight Talk Express off the road to the Republican nomination. The effort was oddly timed, in that McCain (whom the paper had also endorsed) was well on his way to being termed his party’s “presumptive nominee.” The hit piece proved to be even more unsuccessful than the paper’s attempt to bolster Clinton. While it showed that the still quite-corruptible McCain had done plenty of favors for a female lobbyist in the late ’90s, the story couldn’t establish the romantic relationship it strongly implied. Along with the candidate himself, the McCain haters in the right-wing media then rallied the troops against the New York Times, an easy target for the frothing set. Still, even though these two major gambits failed, the paper is still exerting plenty of influence over the campaign. Witness the jockeying for position among its leading columnists.
On the liberal side, Maureen Dowd made a big splash in the early stages of the campaign, when she conveyed David Geffen’s slams against Hillary. Explaining his preference for the “inspirational” Obama, Geffen famously said that “Everybody in politics lies,” but the Clintons “do it with such ease, it’s troubling.” Though she let Geffen do most the talking (much of which centered on Iraq), Dowd clearly concurred with the criticisms, at one point introducing his comments with the statement that Hillary “is overproduced and overscripted.” Of late, Dowd has continued this line of attack on what she sees as Hillary’s phoniness, to the point where her columns reflect simply a personal, instead of political, distaste for Clinton. Frank Rich, meanwhile, has been the paper’s most trenchant analyst of Obama’s actual rise. In a recent comparison of Hillary’s campaign to the Iraq debacle, Rich explained that “It’s not just that her candidacy’s central premise—the priceless value of ‘experience’—was fatally poisoned from the start by her still ill-explained vote to authorize the fiasco.” It’s also that what she thought would be a “cakewalk,” or her path to the nomination, was “routed by an insurgency.” Rich’s carefully documented columns have stood in sharp contrast to Paul Krugman’s overheated efforts to boost Clinton once John Edwards dropped out of the race. In one notable entry, Krugman, offering zero evidence, accused the Obama camp of being responsible for the divisiveness in the campaign. It was enough to make a regular reader of his say “Shame on you, Paul Krugman.”
On the right, the war-mongering neo-con William Kristol’s debut as a columnist met with plenty of well-earned outrage from many critics (including the Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt). Surprisingly little of the criticism of the paper’s choice as its new right-wing voice focused on the fact that Kristol has been a longtime advisor to McCain. Sure enough, as the McCain camp tried to bolster Huckabee in order to undercut Romney, Kristol served up a column titled “President Mike Huckabee?” that helped inflate the longshot Arkansas populist-fundamentalist’s chances. After another column in which he boosted Obama, Kristol soon previewed one of McCain’s certain lines of attack on the Illinois senator—the old warhorse will go after the young war opponent’s “patriotism” (yawn). If you’re looking for McCain’s playbook, read Kristol’s column. David Brooks has also moved into McCain’s camp, yet along the way he has provided some insightful comments about Obama (e.g., “Like a community organizer on a national scale, he is trying to move people beyond their cynicism, make them believe in themselves, mobilize their common energies.”) After boosting the insurgent Democrat, Brooks later claimed that he had spotted “the first hints of a national phenomenon: Obama Comedown Syndrome.” To date, such a malady has not surfaced. But rest assured that if it does, Kristol and Brooks will do their best to spread it.
3. Marching On
At the end of January, I for one would not have bet that Obama would win every contest held in February after Super Tuesday. At the end of February, I’m still not certain that he will be the nominee, although that’s looking pretty likely. After the March 4 contests in Ohio, Texas and elsewhere, only Mississippi and Wyoming vote before Pennsylvania’s turn comes in late April. In other words, soon there will be time to think about things other than presidential politics. Good luck dealing with “Election News Slowdown Syndrome.”