October 16, 2008

Adieu to John McCain

We heard nothing new last night in the final presidential debate and, indeed, were treated to all those familiar refrains we?ve got down by heart: ?fundamental change,? ?energy independence,? ?maverick? etc. etc. etc. In this way, the debate became defined by interpersonal dynamics, and on this score, Obama won pretty handily.

McCain was on the attack all night, and in a way that often made him seem resentful and bitter. The moment that sticks out in my mind are his demands for Obama to repudiate the words of Rep. John Lewis (whom McCain also called a ?great American hero?) for insinuating that he and Palin were ?sowing the seeds of hatred.? McCain also took umbrage at all of Obama?s negative ads, which made him seem ridiculous in light of ?The One,? ?Is He Ready to Lead?? ?Bill Ayer, Terrorist,? and all the rest of the spots he?s been running. (I have no problem with negative campaigning, to the contrary, but McCain?s just simply got to be willing to play hardball and stop demanding apologies like some kind of sissy!)   

In the face of all this, Obama seemed calm and collected, and was easily able to neutralize McCain unfocused assault. Put simply, He won. 

But then this debate didn?t really change much in itself, and throughout most of last night, I was thinking about a larger issue:   

Has McCain?s campaign actually been as poorly managed and ?dysfunctional? as everyone says it is, including formerly rabid McCainiacs like Bill Kristol? 

On one level, the critics are obviously right: Suspending (and then un-suspending) the campaign due to the financial crisis was bizarre and McCain has often been incoherent? one day insinuating that Obama is unfit to be president, the next announcing that he wants to work along side him to solve America?s problems. And there have been more mistakes.

Still, at the end of the day, McCain?s problems are structural?and thus unfixable?and I don?t think his managers and advisors should take the blame for the senator?s upcoming loss. 

First, there?s the obvious case of McCain’s GWOT hawkishness. Americans like to hear that ?the surge is working,? as this allows them to stop thinking about Iraq. But outside a few GOP diehards, they?re sick of hearing about ?the transcendent challenge of our time.? And yet McCain had to emphasize all this stuff, as this is the basis of his political identity.     

Moreover, on the economy, McCain?s Maverickness simply sounded like Change Lite?if you really think Bush caused all our economic problems (not true) and that a new regime in Washington can solve them (not true), then why not go with someone who?s much, much more different than Bush, not just a little different. The most consistent argument will win. If Ron Paul had been in these debates, we could have actually had a ? what?s the word? ? debate between two candidates with fundamentally different economic philosophies. As it was, McCain appeared to be practicing me-too-ism.     

The fact that neocons like Kristol and Brooks and others are going after McCain, or at least his campaign staff, reminds me a lot of 1992. When Pat Buchanan made his insurgent run in the GOP primaries, not only were there all the catcalls of ?anti-Semite? and ?fascist,? but many scolded Bush for betraying the GOP and weakening its chances. Well, after Pat didn?t overtake George H. W. Bush, he did the honorable thing and united with him to defeat the greater evil of Bill Clinton. But then once Bush the Elder?s campaign started to sputter in September and October, all those Republicans who talked about ?loyalty? during the primaries were stabbing Bush in the back, distancing themselves from the GOP, and calling for Bush and/or Dan Quayle to resign. Some lefty neocons even endorsed Slick Willy.

I think similar things are starting to happen here. All those people attacking McCain’s campaign don?t want to admit that it?s the war, stupid, and the GOP?s massive, clueless spending habits?put simply, ?The Bush years,? of which McCain was an integral part?that have ruined the GOP?s chances in ?08. McCain never could have won unless Obama were proved to be completely unacceptable, which hasn?t happened.

For Republicans, and especially the neocons, it?s much easier to blame the incompetence of McCain?s staff, or worry about dangerous populist rhetoric, then look too closely at the real problems.

Maybe also both the neocons and the ?big government conservatives? are starting to recognize Obama as a man they can work with?

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