I can tell you at least one difference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Had a left-wing Unitarian minister in San Francisco invited McCain to attend a nationally televised interview from her Tenderloin mega-church, the senior senator from Arizona would have had the sense to say "no". Senator Obama, on the other hand, inexplicably accepted an offer from evangelical heavyweight Rick Warren to come to the heart of Republican Orange County, California, to be interviewed by a man whose affection for GOP politicians and their causes is rarely far from the surface. Worse yet, the agenda called for Obama to play warm-up for McCain, whose own conversation with the rotund reverend would immediately follow.
The result, of course, was preordained. Obama faced a barrage of questions on morality and social issues to which his answers were, to anyone who has watched him in this sort of format, predictably pedantic. McCain, obviously the crowd's darling, then proceded to knock nearly every softball query out of the park, his prefab responses punctuated by often-thunderous applause. Warren gave the soon-to-be Republican nominee endless opportunities to recount his Vietnam POW experience and well as numerous chances to reassure right-wing Christians that his election-year conversion to radical social conservatism is complete.
And this, my friends, is why Barack Obama will probably lose the 2008 presidential election. First, the eloquence and inspiration that characterize his speechmaking fail him entirely in more intimate settings. Hillary Clinton beat him in almost every one of their primary season debates, and McCain may well do so in the fall. Without a prepared text and an audience of hundreds, Obama becomes not just a law professor, but a practicing attorney, weighing each thought carefully, as though afraid of being called out in cross-examination. The hemming and hawing often strike the audience not as thoughtful, but evasive.
Second, Obama may lose because he seems truly to believe in his transformative power as a politician. It is that self-confidence--or self-delusion--that motivated him to travel to Southern California on Friday night regardless of any sensible cost-benefit analysis. For some reason, he still seems to believe that white evangelical voters are in play. Well, they aren't, and that's hardly likely to change in the wake of Obama's leaden attempts to parse such deal-breaking issues as abortion and gay marriage.
Finally, futile efforts to court "values voters" (and has a more offensive term ever been invented?) will only further delay the necessary decision to back away from his pledge to apply the Marquis of Queensbury rules to American national elections. The McCain campaign and its surrogates have wisely decided to make this election about Barack Obama. Unless Obama finally decides to turn the tables, the assaults will eventually wear down and defeat the Democratic nominee just as they did Michael Dukakis and John Kerry before him.
John McCain is competitive in the national polls despite the overwhelming unpopularity of his party and the popular rejection of most of his positions on key issues. He remains essentially tied with Obama even though he is a wooden on-stage performer with a tenuous grip on most major issues, foreign and domestic, and a disturbing penchant for embarrassing gaffes. He is Bob Dole without the depth and compassion (and yes, that's damning with nearly invisible praise).
The ONLY thing John McCain has going for him is his personal image. His experience in Vietnam has allowed him to claim the mantle of "character". His highly visible, but relatively rare, breaks with Republican orthodoxy have resulted in an unearned reputation as a maverick. His relentless self-promotion is celebrated by the media as straight talk.
If Barack Obama wants to be President of the United States, he simply must tear down John McCain's personal image. Attacking his policies is not enough. Moderate and independent voters who support McCain do so in spite of his positions on the issues. Rather, they thirst for an authentic hero who will put principle over party and tell the truth regardless of the consequences.
As anyone who has studied his record and his post-war history well knows, John McCain is not that man. He was not only at the center of one of the most costly corruption scandals of the 1980s (the Keating Five affair), he remains even to this day a tool of lobbyists and business interests. Despite a few high-profile splits with his party, he has been a remarkably consistent right-wing enabler of nearly all of the Bush administration's excesses. His vaunted straight talk is little more than media manipulation; the man has flip-flopped more often than a land-bound minnow.
Obama himself doesn't have to go negative, but he simply must allow his campaign and his surrogates to do so. At the very least, he should make Charles Keating the Willie Horton of 2008. He should allow the story of the real McCain to be told, the unappealing tale of a rage-fueled, reflexively sexist hypocrite whose belligerence extends from personal relationships to senatorial duties to America's relationship with its allies and adversaries. He must, in short, make McCain the risky choice.
Or he can be one of those honorable Democrats who always seem to lose in November.