'Yes we can'? Make that: 'Oops, we may not'
Barack Obama suddenly looks vulnerable. And the more the focus is on him, the less likely he is to become president
There's trouble in paradise. Cancel the coronation. Send back the commemorative medals. Put those "Yes We Can" T-shirts up on eBay. Keep the Change. Barack Obama's historic procession to the American presidency has been rudely interrupted. The global healing he promised is in jeopardy. If you're prone to emotional breakdown, you might want to take a seat before I say this. He might not win.
How can it be, you ask? Didn't we see him just last month speaking to 200,000 adoring Germans in Berlin? Didn't he get the red carpet treatment in France - France of all places? Doesn't every British politician want to be seen clutching the hem of his garment? All true. But as cruel geography and the selfish designs of the American Founding Fathers would have it, Europeans don't get to choose the US president. Somewhere along the way to the Obama presidency, somebody forgot to ask the American people.
And wouldn't you know it, they insist on looking this gift thoroughbred in the mouth. Who'd have thought it? You present them with the man who deigns to deliver them from their plight and they want to sit around and ask hard questions about who he is and what he believes and where he might actually take the country. The ingrates!
So we arrive this weekend at the true starting line of the US presidential race and the rituals that begin the real election campaign: the selection of the vice-presidential running-mates, and the back-to-back party nominating conventions. A year and a half after the warm-ups began, the two remaining candidates are more or less tied. Senator Obama's summer lead in the opinion polls has evaporated. John McCain, that grumpy, grisly, gnarled old Republican, that Gollum to Senator Obama's Bilbo Baggins, might, just might, actually win this thing.
What happened? Of course, the conventional view is that it's all the work of that most terrifyingly effective piece of artillery since the invention of the howitzer, the Republican Attack Machine. The credulous American voter, we're told, has been subjected in the last month to a televised blitzkrieg of right-wing lies about the hapless Democrat. He's not patriotic. He might be a Muslim. He might not even be American. He probably is a Muslim. There's no evidence he's ever said anything nice about Michael Phelps. He goes to the mosque on Fridays. If Obama's the leader of the free world, it won't be the Caucasian Georgia the Russians invade but the one sandwiched between Florida and South Carolina. Gullible Americans are going to fall for it, just as they fell for Stupid George W over Brilliant Al Gore and Brave John Kerry.
Forgive me for interrupting this reverie but in the real world something else is going on. In the reality-based community the rest of us inhabit, the first thing to be said about the current state of the race is that the actual shift in the campaign's dynamics is not quite as dramatic as the pundit class would have you believe. A month ago, according to an average of polls for Real ClearPolitics.com, Senator Obama had about a four-point lead over Senator McCain. This week the tally suggests the lead is about one percentage point.
The bigger change has occurred in perceptions about the race. A month ago the prevailing view among the wise was that Senator Obama would steadily increase his lead and by the time his convention concluded next week, it would be insurmountable. But instead, it looks as though, even if he has a really good convention in Denver next week, and Hillary and Bill Clinton play the unlikely role of loyal followers, the race will still be close when the Republicans start their gathering in a week's time. Whatever happens, in other words. it looks like yet another close election.
Why is this? Why has the Democrat failed to capitalise on the mood of deep discontent within the country? First, it's true that the negative campaigning by John McCain has hurt him somewhat. But there's nothing wrong with that. The 2008 presidential election has so far been a referendum on Senator Obama. it's perfectly reasonable for the Republicans to make the case against him, and the attacks have been fair. My account of the McCain campaign above was a caricature, of course. There's been no mention of Senator Obama's race or the silly fiction that he might be a Muslim.
The fact is that the 47-year-old Democrat, less than four years in the Senate, is still largely a blank page for American voters: a great orator and an attractive figure, but unknown and untested. The Republicans have been filling in some of the gaps and pointing out how thin his real biography is.
The second problem is that Senator Obama is having difficulty - curiously enough - with Democratic voters. Polls indicate that while Senator McCain has just about locked up the votes of those who supported other Republicans in the primary election, Senator Obama is still regarded with mistrust and dislike by large numbers of Hillary Clinton's former supporters. For many of these working-class types, he's just a bit too cerebral, a little vague. His campaign lacks both substance and passion. While unemployment is rising, incomes are slipping fqarther behind rising inflation and house prices are falling, Senator Obama keeps talking about hope and change, keeps promising a new type of politics. These benighted Democratic voters don't really want a new type of politics. They want to know what exactly he's going to do to raise their living standards.
The irony for Senator Obama is that he has built a campaign on a pledge to put an end to cynicism in the political system, but the more he offers only vague promises of hope, the greater the danger that he increases voter cynicism about politicians in general and him in particular.
The third problem is that events have not helped the Democrats. The war in Georgia has emphasised that the world is a dangerous place, and that simply being willing to talk to your enemies, as Senator Obama sometimes seems to suggest, isn't going to keep your people safe.
The key to understanding the presidential campaign as it enters its phase of maximum intensity is this. The more the campaign is about the concerns of the American voter, especially the state of the economy but also the general anxiety about the direction of the country, the more likely they are to throw the Republicans out. But the uncomfortable truth for the many devoted fans of Senator Obama is that the more the race is about him, the less likely he is to win it.
They're Paying Attention Now
Why is it a real race now, with John McCain rising in the polls and Barack Obama falling? There are many answers, but here I think is an essential one: The American people have begun paying attention.
It's hard for our political class to remember that Mr. Obama has been famous in America only since the winter of '08. America met him barely six months ago! The political class first interviewed him, or read the interview, in 2003 or '04, when he was a rising star. They know him. Everyone else is still absorbing. This is what they see:
An attractive, intelligent man, interesting, but-he's hard to categorize. Is he Gen. Obama? No, no military background. Brilliant Businessman Obama? No, he never worked in business. Famous Name Obama? No, it's a new name, an unusual one. Longtime Southern Governor Obama? No. He's a community organizer (what's that?), then a lawyer (boo), then a state legislator (so what, so's my cousin), then U.S. senator (less than four years!). There is no pre-existing category for him.
Add to that the wear and tear of Jeremiah Wright, secret Muslim rumors, media darling and, this week, abortion. It took a toll, which led to a readjustment. His uniqueness, once his great power, is now his great problem. And over there is Mr. McCain, and-well, we know him. He's POW/senator/prickly, irritating John McCain.
The Rick Warren debate mattered. Why? It took place at exactly the moment America was starting to pay attention. This is what it looked like by the end of the night: Mr. McCain, normal. Mr. Obama, not normal. You've seen this discussed elsewhere. Mr. McCain was direct and clear, Mr. Obama both more careful and more scattered. But on abortion in particular, Mr. McCain seemed old-time conservative, which is something we all understand, whether we like such a stance or not, and Mr. Obama seemed either radical or dodgy. He wouldn't vote to ban partial-birth abortions because we must contemplate a rigorous legal parsing of any and all possible implications regarding emanations and of the viability of Roe v. Wade? As I watched I thought: How about "Let the baby live"? Don't parse it. Just "Let the baby live."
As to the question when human life begins, the answer to which is above Mr. Obama's pay grade, let's go on a little tear. You know why they call it birth control? Because it's meant to stop a birth from happening nine months later. We know when life begins. Everyone who ever bought a pack of condom knows when life begins. To put it another way, with conception something begins. What do you think it is? A car? A 1948 Buick? If you want to argue whether legal abortion is morally defensible, have at it and go to it, but Mr. Obama's answers here seemed to me strange and disturbing.
Mr. Obama's upcoming convention speech will be good. All Obama speeches are good. Not as interesting as he is-he is more compelling as a person than his words tend to be in text. But the speech will be good, and just in case it isn't good, people will still come away with an impression that it must have been, because the media is going to say it was, because they expect it to be, and what they expect is what of them will see.
Will Mr. Obama dig deep as to meaning? As to political predicates? During the primary campaigns Republicans were always saying, "This is what I'll do." Mr. Obama has a greater tendency to say, "This is how we'll feel." Republicans talk to their base with, "If we pass this bill, which the Democrats irresponsibly oppose, we'll solve this problem." Democrats are more inclined toward, "If we bring a new attitude of hopefulness and respect for the world, we'll make the seas higher and the fish more numerous." Will Mr. Obama be, in terms of programs and plans, specific? And will his specifics be grounded in something that appears to amount to a political philosophy?
I suspect everyone has the convention speeches wrong. Everyone expects Mr. Obama to rouse, but the speech I'd watch is Mr. McCain's. He's the one with the real opportunity, because no one expects anything. He's never been especially good at making speeches. (The number of men who've made it to the top of the GOP who don't particularly like making speeches, both Bushes and Mr. McCain, is astonishing, and at odds with the presumed requirements of the media age. The first Bush saw speeches as show biz, part of the weary requirement of leadership, and the second's approach reflects a sense that words, though interesting, were not his friend.)
But Mr. McCain provided, in 2004, one of the most exciting and certainly the most charged moment of the Republican Convention, when he looked up at Michael Moore in the press stands and said, "Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war, it was between war and a greater threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. . . . And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace." It blew the roof off. And the smile he gave Mr. Moore was one of pure, delighted malice. When Mr. McCain comes to play, he comes to play.
Look for a certain populist stance. He signaled it this week in Politico. He called lobbyists "birds of prey" in pursuit of "their share of the spoils." Great stuff. (Boy, will he have trouble staffing his White House.)
I still think a one-term pledge could win it for him, because it would allow America to punt. It would make the 2008 choice seem less fateful. People don't mind the chance to defer a choice when they're not at all sure about the product. It would give bitter Democrats a chance to regroup, and it would give those who like Obama but consider him a little half-baked to vote against him guiltlessly while he becomes fully baked. (Imagine the Q&A when Sen. Obama announces his second presidential run in 2011: "Well, Brian, I think, looking back, there is something to be said for the idea that I will be a better president now than frankly I would have been four years ago. Experience, if you allow it, is still the best of all teachers.") More, it would allow Mr. McCain to say he means to face the tough problems ahead with a uniquely bipartisan attitude and without having to care a fig for re-election. That itself would give him a new power, one that would make up for the lost juice of lame duckdom. It would also serve to separate him from the hyperpolitical operating styles of the Clinton-Bush years, from the constant campaign.
And Mr. McCain would still have what he always wanted, the presidency, perhaps a serious and respectable one that accrued special respect because it involved some sacrifice on his part. A move that would help him win doubtful voters, win disaffected Democrats, allow some Republicans to not have to get drunk to vote for him, and that could possibly yield real results for his country. This seems to me such a potentially electrifying idea that he'd likely walk out of his convention as the future president.
Mr. McCain told Politico on Wednesday that he's not considering a one-term pledge. Why would he not? Such modesty of intent is at odds with the political personality. The thing that makes them want to rule America is the thing that stops them from thinking of prudent limits. This mindset crosses all political categories.
Wealthy elitist Snobama attacks wealthy elitist McCain
We're trapped in the Obama campaign's Cone of Stupidity and we can't get out. The latest Obama ad razzes McCain for not remembering how many houses he has. (But at least he knows how many states there are.) Wealthy elitist Senator mauls wealthy elitist Senator. Snooze.
Yahoo! News is featuring the moronic gotcha story from Politico. And VP hopeful Tim Kaine is dutifully attacking McCain's mental competence. You want gaffes that call into question mental competence, Gov. Kaine? Hello, Sunshine. Thank you, Sioux City. I see dead people. Iran poses no serious threat. 57 states. 10,000 killed. Etc, etc. etc.
From the McCain camp:
"Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses? Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people "cling" to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who's in touch with regular Americans?
"The reality is that Barack Obama's plans to raise taxes and opposition to producing more energy here at home as gas prices skyrocket show he's completely out of touch with the concerns of average Americans." -McCain spokesman Brian Rogers
Source (See the original for links)
Crisis of Faith
Are liberals beginning to sour on Barack Obama? Just last month, we noted that no one was daring to make jokes at his expense. Even The New Yorker explained that its cover depicting him as a terrorist was actually meant to make fun of Republicans. But that may be changing. Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly notes this quote from Obama in 1995, "telling a story about the first time his grandmother came to Chicago to meet his in-laws":
My grandmother walks in, it's all black people in the room, she's the only white person there except for my mother, and she's feeling a little nervous and a little out of place. And she suddenly sees this table set with fried chicken, and succotash, and a jello mold, and suddenly she realizes that she has a culture that she's sharing with all these people.
Quips Drum: "Ah, the healing balm of Jell-OT. It really does bring us all together." Bah-dum-bum! OK, Drum should keep his day job. (Actually, he's moving to Mother Jones, where his comedy stylings are at risk of being overshadowed by David Corn's.) But this does show that the reverence for Obama is fading.
Meanwhile, one Joel Hirschhorn of DissidentVoice.com seems to have thrown in the towel on the Obama campaign, writing a column in which he imagines a McCain victory:
The final results are in on this historic November day. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars he raised, Barack Obama has lost the 2008 presidential election. American voters have boldly spoken truth to arrogance. Turned out that all those pre-election opinion polls that showed Obama's inability to get over 50 percent support were prescient. Much of the public was never comfortable with Obama, though he clearly was so comfortable acting like he already was president. . . .
Jon Stewart and other late-night comics will feast on these election results, as they should. I can't wait to hear jokes about Obama's wife becoming a more vocal and militant critic of the good old USA, now that she has proof positive that so many Americans are stupid white racists.
Ok, Hirschhorn isn't exactly Henny Youngman either, but he does begin one paragraph with what may be the funniest four words in the English language: "Cynthia McKinney wisely noted . . ."
Over at Time, Joe Klein criticizes Obama for being too cool:
When [Rick] Warren braced him on abortion, Obama fumbled around, attempting to sound reasonable. He should have said straight out, "We're gonna disagree on this one. I respect your view on abortion, but I'm pro-choice . . . And you know, Pastor Rick, Jesus never mentions abortion in the Bible. He did say, though, that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. Now, that's a metaphor--but it's also good tax policy. Unlike John McCain, I want to make it easier for rich people to go to heaven." . . .
The last question at the North Carolina town meeting came from a homeless veteran who said more than half of the 200 people living in his shelter were veterans too. Obama gave a solid, substantive answer. What he should have said was, "That's outrageous! Why don't we go over there right now--I'd like to thank them for their service and see what we can do to help." That sort of spontaneity--that sort of real passion--is what's missing from this candidacy. I suspect Obama will have a hard time winning unless he finds some of it.
Well, technically Obama isn't yet the nominee. Maybe next week enough superdelegates will withhold their support to force a second ballot. Obama's people are never going to back Hillary Clinton, but maybe there's room for a compromise candidate. We have someone in mind--a guy who knows exactly what to say to win over skeptical voters. Joe Klein for president!
Source (See the original for links)
Dubya Made Obama Possible: No climate of fear
People in America feel safe, and President Bush - thanks to his advocacy of tough FISA laws, winning in Iraq, taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc. - deserves the credit. Therefore, Bush also deserves the credit for making the Obama candidacy palatable
Why? Because Americans simply will not elect a liberal when they feel fear. Without Bush's success against terror, a leftist newcomer with little experience - like Barack Obama - would never be considered for the presidency.
Similarly, Americans could only elect Jimmy Carter because they felt safe. The chill between America and the former Soviet Union had thawed considerably by 1976. The countries collaborated on the immensely successful Apollo-Soyuz space missions, signed a nuclear agreement (the SALT Treaty), and entered a period of d‚tente.
Yes, there were international incidents that threatened to derail this precarious understanding. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war, for one, certainly heightened tensions. But by and large the late '60s through the early '80s was a time of significantly less anxiety. The architects of D‚tente were Republican President Nixon and his Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They made Carter possible.
(Of course, a safe-feeling citizenry doesn't guarantee a Democratic win, as Reagan took over in 1980.)
It's the same story with another liberal, Bill Clinton. If the Soviet Union hadn't come apart, no one would have considered the young, unknown governor of Arkansas for the top job in 1992. It's only because Ronald Reagan brilliantly managed the end of the Cold War, and George H. W. Bush defanged (at the time) Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I, that our country would even contemplate such a thing.
Democratic presidents with neither foreign policy experience nor impressive legislative accomplishments - charismatic, good-looking, and well-spoken agents of "change" - seem to come along in 16 year intervals: JFK in 1960, Carter in 1976, and Clinton in 1992.
Now here we are, 16 years after Clinton, and Barack Obama is another young, unknown liberal. Does anyone really believe, if we had been attacked a number of times over these past seven years, the empty bromides of "Yes We Can" from a former "community organizer" would have registered in Iowa?
Of course, the Left insists that we're no safer than we were before 9/11. But, until they come up with a number lower than zero, as in the number of attacks against us since then, that argument remains silly.
If the atmosphere remains as calm through November as it is today - and Senator Obama is elected - his first "thank you" note should be addressed to his predecessor. But if Russia continues to rear its head (by continuing provocations in the Ukraine, for instance), or if a confrontation with Iran unfolds, Americans are unlikely to elect a liberal.
Did McCain lift his cross-in-the-sand anecdote from Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago"?
John McCain told a story about a Vietnamese guard who made a sign of the cross in the dirt while he was a POW. The story is very similar to a story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn from his times in the Soviet Gulags. Did John McCain steal this story?
There's no such story in "Archipelago." There is a somewhat similar story attributed to Solzhenitsyn, which we've traced back to Rev. Billy Graham by way of former Richard Nixon aide Charles Colson. But that's not proof that McCain's story isn't true.
The stories aren't exactly the same. In McCain's telling, a Vietnamese prison guard shows him kindness one night by secretly loosening his cruelly tight bonds, then draws a cross in the sand with his foot to indicate that he is a fellow Christian. In the various versions attributed to Solzhenitsyn, the cross is drawn by a fellow prisoner, not a guard, and with a stick, not his foot. The story certainly does not appear in the place that some of McCain's detractors are suggesting that he got it.
The Internet controversy was touched off when McCain repeated his often-told story during an August 16 question and answer session at Saddleback Church in California:
McCain: Because it was Christmas day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes. In those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other, although we certainly did. And I was standing outside, for my few minutes outside at my cell. He came walking up. He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there. And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away. For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshipping together. I'll never forget that moment.
Within hours the Internet was littered with blog entries hinting at the possibility Sen. McCain had lifted the anecdote from Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" and lied about it.
Solzhenitsyn's "Archipelago" was originally published in 1973 - the same year McCain returned from Vietnam. But "The Gulag Archipelago" contains no such story. We searched all three volumes of the work through an online version for several key words, and we found nothing remotely similar. It's just not there.
Just to be safe, we also checked the author's novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch." It's not there, either.
Tracing a Story
Many earlier blog entires don't quote Solzhenitsyn's "Archipelago" directly. Instead they quote a story told about Solzhenitsyn in a 1997 sermon from Fr. Luke Veronis, a Greek Orthodox priest:
Veronis: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who spent many years in the gulag of Siberia, bears witness to the power of the cross. . Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude work-site bench and sat down. ...
Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn's feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed. He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. ... Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Nothing outward had changed, but inside, he received hope.
So we asked Veronis where he had acquired the anecdote. At first he said he had gotten it from Solzhenitsyn's "Archipelago," but later corrected himself. "I know I've read that story before. But I thought I had read it from Solzhenitsyn directly." Eventually, Veronis told us, "I don't know where I got it from." .....
But we see no evidence that McCain pilfered the quote. The two stories are markedly different, for one thing. In one version, it's a fellow prisoner drawing with a stick; in the other, it's a kindly guard drawing a cross with his foot. Furthermore, in Graham's version, Solzhenitsyn was contemplating suicide at the time. McCain says in his book that he did consider suicide while a prisoner, but that was on an entirely different occasion when he had been beaten for days and was about to sign a false confession to end his torture. It had nothing to do with the cross-in-the-sand story.
We asked the McCain campaign about the accusation, and a spokesman pointed us to a campaign blog entry with quotes attributed to Bud Day, a close friend of McCain. Day said that McCain told him the story prior to the publication of "Faith of My Fathers":
McCain Report: ...[Day] did confirm that "not long after we all got back together [in the camp]," McCain told him the story of the prison guard who drew a cross in the dirt one Christmas.
Another blog entry from the McCain camp says that Solzhenitsyn did tell the story but goes on to say: "The only similarity between the two stories is a cross in the dirt, but it is hardly an unlikely coincidence that there were practicing Christians in both Russia and Vietnam, or that in the prisons of those two Communist countries the only crosses to be found were etched in the dirt, as easily disappeared as the Christians who drew them." That entry quotes another former POW, who told the campaign that McCain told him the story sometime around the summer of 1971.
Ultimately, it's far easier for McCain's detractors to question his story than it is for McCain to prove it's true. Only McCain and the long-ago prison guard, if he exists and is still alive, know for sure. But in a world where there are hundreds of millions of Christians, we see no reason to believe that both the McCain story and the one attributed to Solzhenitsyn can't both be true.
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