I haven't adjusted to the 21st century yet, so I still approach blog posts like Ralph Ellison working on novel #2. Which is to say: it takes me forever to write them. I thought the Biden-Palin face-off tonight would be an opportunity to get in touch with my inner Joyce Carol Oates and start writing faster. But I couldn't bring myself to watch the bloody thing, much less to do so in the spirit needed to write about it. So instead I thought I'd live-blog about why I didn't watch the debate. Here goes.... 1. I couldn't bear the anxiety. Someone, I forget who, recently wrote that watching Palin lately has been like watching a drunk relative give a toast at a wedding reception - you're pretty sure it's going to go badly, but you don't know when, or just how embarrassing it will be. This is nerve-wracking, even if you don't care for the woman or her politics. 2. I couldn't bear the anxiety, part 2: Joe Biden's foot hasn't hung out with his mouth in a while, and they're due for a reunion. 3. I wouldn't be able to concentrate, as one question would trump all others in my mind: is it me, or has Biden's forehead undergone a Kerry-like transformation, and become as tight as the head of a snare drum? Or was I just not paying attention before? 4. I can't get over the fact that the polls are still close. I mean, it sometimes seems that the GOP isn't even trying this time (and with W's messes to clean up, why would they?). But public opinion is still pretty evenly split. Which makes me alternately irritated, annoyed, and depressed. None of these emotional states, it turns out, is particularly conducive to registering and reflecting on a live debate. Having appealed to the polls, though... 5. ...I resent being seduced into thinking about serious politics in horse race terms. Or into thinking about horse races instead of serious politics and policy. As I've said here before, polls have their place, and if they work for you then God bless. But the media conversations around the debates tend to focus obsessively on how the candidates
Presidential candidates, for good or ill, are crucially defined by war. Perceptions of the candidate and, less obviously, perceptions by the candidate are influenced by their experiences of war. In recent elections, the images of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole were shaped by their relationship to World War II. Similarly, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John Kerry found themselves defined by the Vietnam War. And it is not just any war that does the defining. Instead, it is the generational war, the dominant war of a particular era: Vietnam, for example, rather than Panama. What wars define the candidates of 2008? For Senator John McCain, the answer is easy: Vietnam. His years as a POW are foundational to him, and the McCain campaign and McCain himself highlight those experiences as much as possible. Senator Barack Obama, by contrast, came of age in a military era that, as much as anything, was about recovering from Vietnam. The two candidates
None of the three main Democrats in the primary campaign had any substantial military knowledge. Rather than attempt to run another war hero, the Democrat voters decided that Iraq would neutralize the national security issue. But that required a candidate who was not tainted by Iraq. Hillary Clinton voted for Iraq war in 2003 in order to shore up her credentials on the military/foreign policy side, but in 2008 that vote haunted her during her primary campaign, especially as her main rival, Barack Obama, had voted against it. But the same problems remain: the most important name on Obama
(continued from last week.) The Republicans The Republicans, by contrast with the Democrats, settled on fantasy in their response to Vietnam. The party fought successfully to use patriotism as an electoral wedge, especially critical in the 1960s to appeal to a newly susceptible South. That use of patriotism was overtly connected to the virtue of the American military and American soldiers and sailors. The image was a black and white one of good against evil. The enemies of American valor and might were always painted in the darkest shades possible, without any acknowledgment of complexity or nuance. Thus, America fought an
The political dialogue surrounding matters military is fundamentally skewed by the fixations of both political parties. The Democrats and the Republicans, largely because of the corrosive domestic effects of Vietnam, have adopted delusional or ineffective methods of dealing with the Pentagon, with Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the larger issues of America
Sarah Palin was John McCain's Vice-Presidential pick because polls in July and August showed Barack Obama winning in Montana, close in North Dakota, and within striking distance in Indiana. All of those states had gone for George W. Bush in 2004 by 10 percentages points or higher. That Obama was anywhere close in any of them, let alone winning in two out of three, was disastrous news for McCain. It meant that the Arizona Senator was not bringing the Republican base to his side. Evangelicals were skeptical of a man whose attitude towards religion seemed agnostic at best, and conservatives were disheartened by the catastrophes of the Bush administration. If McCain had to spend the rest of the campaign trying to energize the Republican base, he would have no opportunity to tack to the middle of the political spectrum and pull in the independent voters and conservative Democrats. He would have no chance, in other words, to win. But the McCain campaign had one major chip left to play: the Vice-Presidential selection. That selection could be thought of as the only presidential decision a candidate makes before the election. McCain himself wanted to ask Joe Lieberman, the rogue Democratic Senator from Connecticut, to be his VP. That would have been an aggressive way to claim the middle, for Lieberman, despite supporting the Iraq War, was fairly moderate on social issues. Most critically, he was pro-choice. But, given the situation, Lieberman was an impossible selection. He might bring in some moderates, but he would further dispirit much of the GOP base, who would regard a pro-choice VP with horror. As a result, the campaign started looking for someone who could rev up Republicans. Mike Huckabee was a possibility and would surely bring the evangelicals back into the fold. Huckabee, however, while he might consolidate the base, would be seen as a relatively safe, obvious, and above all dull choice. For a campaign already suffering from the perception that its candidate's most energetic moments were forty years in the past, that was a problem. When Sarah Palin became a serious candidate is not clear. It seems to have been extremely late in the process, as she was not well-vetted by McCain's people. McCain himself seems to have found out that Palin's daughter was pregnant only the day before he announced her as his pick. But at whatever time her name came up, the McCain people quickly realized that she offered an interesting, if risky, solution to their problems. Palin was on the far right of the Republican party on social and domestic issues and was an evangelical. She was also, because of her inexperience, the same kind of blank slate that George Bush had been in 2000, without the time to get too deeply enmeshed in the compromises of everyday political life. Finally, she had a useful biography. As a woman and mother, Palin offered the perception of American normality, a perception deeply at odds with her actual political convictions. She would seem, McCain reckoned, part of the mainstream, even if she held positions way outside it. On the other side of the coin, the risks were substantial. Palin is deeply unknowledgeable about the outside world, and seemingly incurious about it in the same way that Bush is. She has been outside of the United States only once in her life, and her inexperience essentially neutered a similar argument against Obama. She had been a champion gatherer of federal earmarks for Wasilla and then Alaska itself, and she had a brewing political scandal back home. It seems, however, that McCain was willing to take the risk that the benefits would outweigh the negatives. Part of the campaign's calculation was the short time frame, with only two months between her pick and the election. It would be difficult for the public fully to vet Palin, even as it had been difficult for McCain to do so. But even more so was a two-pronged attack to wrong-foot anyone skeptical of the pick. First, the McCain campaign preemptively criticized the media for attacking Palin's family life, invoking media-wide sexism as explanation. They did the same thing to the Obama campaign, waiting for any statement which could be misconstrued as sexism, and then pouncing on it. Second, the campaign decided simply to be lie straightforwardly about Palin's record. They exaggerated her trip outside the United States, they reversed her role in the 'Bridge to Nowhere' scandal, and worked to deep-six the 'Troopergate' scandal. Finally, realizing the extremity of Palin's politics, they worked to move away from the issues. The campaign was not to be about policy, or process, or solving America's problems, it was to be about biography and image. McCain and Palin were rebranded as 'original mavericks,' a narrative well-suited for this electoral cycle. In a particularly brash move, the GOP lifted the Obama campaign's theme of 'change' wholesale and started pushing it themselves, while quietly stashing the skeletons of the last eight years in the nearest closet. It has worked reasonably well so far. Palin's pick brought home the Republican base exactly as intended. Evangelicals have flocked back to the McCain ticket, and the states in which Obama was threatening in August have shifted firmly back into the GOP column. Her youth and energy have contrasted well with McCain, and the Obama campaign found it difficult to figure out an approach to her immediately. Palin, in fact, has become the de-facto top of the ticket, filling halls while McCain struggles to stay on stage by himself. She has essentially helped put McCain back into the election and the outcome is more in doubt than it has been for a long time. But the second part of the plan has proven more difficult. The media, though less aggressive than it should be, has not proven quite the lapdog to Republican pronouncements that it was in 2002-2004. And Palin has not performed well when put to the test of knowledge. Even in an interview with someone hand-selected--Charlie Gibson of ABC News--Palin exposed her abysmal lack of knowledge of the world outside the United States. The narrative beginning to develop is of deception and mendacity, a particularly toxic brew in the aftermath of the Bush Administration's continuing inability to tell the truth. Whether the GOP's preemptive strike against the media will make undecided voters tone out any criticism from that direction remains to be seen. What next? In a sense, the Obama campaign got what it wanted. They forced McCain to use his last major decision to shore up the base with someone radically to the right of the American people, someone with the potential to alienate moderates. But now Obama has to realize that potential and make McCain pay for his choice. The Illinois Senator has to act to shape the election back in his direction, in a way that shatters the vision of 'original mavericks' and puts both McCain and Palin firmly with the party that produced them, with George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.
Shortly before the 2006 midterm elections, I heard a prominent political scientist argue, in public, that the Dems had no shot at taking back Congress. He was led to this view by his reading of the relevant statistical and historical patterns. In the manner of many political scientists these days, he sought in these patterns the real logic of electoral politics, the driving force beneath all the superficialities of public debate and deliberation (such as they both are). The political scientist was wrong, of course, though you
Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the American military to begin to think about 21st century warfare in a realistic way. Post-cold-war, the military gave lip service to the idea of reforming and rewriting how it fought wars, but actually continued down the same conventional path it had before. The Pentagon talked about new Cold War? In a word, no. The Cold War was between two superpowers, who rivaled each other in economic size, military power, and ideological zeal. Russia is no longer that superpower. The ideology that presented the USSR as an alternative to western capitalism is long gone, replaced by a robber baron free market that enriches billionaires. Russia