Friday, August 22, 2008

It's Keating Time

With the faultless logic of a third grader, John McCain's campaign now argues that Barack Obama's comments about the number of houses McCain owns has opened up the floodgates to all manner of personal attacks. Evidently, the presumptive GOP nominee has been holding back, though one would think that charging an opponent with putting his own electoral ambitions ahead of the security of the nation, as McCain did, would represent a more serious charge than anything Obama has concocted to date. Regardless, the Republicans are now promising to go nuclear, linking Obama to some guy named Rezko, an allegedly corrupt Chicagoan who once had close ties to the Illinois senator.

Corruption? Did someone mention corruption? If that's the route John McCain wants to travel, then it's time for Obama to make McCain answer for Charles Keating and the Lincoln Savings scandal of the late 1980s. Sure it was a long time ago, but I bet there are still a few people around whose life savings were wiped out by Keating's chicanery and have not forgiven McCain for his role in the affair. This seems like as good a time as any to demonstrate that, sadly enough, the experience of torture in a Vietnamese prison does not guarantee the development of an unassailable character.

It's Keating Time! (And it's about time.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why Obama Needs Biden

The last vice presidential nominee to make a positive difference in a U.S. election was probably Lyndon Johnson in 1960. But that was another time, another world. To be sure, the vice presidency itself has become more important over time. Walter Mondale and Al Gore were key players in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and entire books will someday be written about Dick Cheney's central role in defiling nearly everything admirable and decent about the United States of America during the early years of the 21st century. Nevertheless, little evidence exists suggesting that vice presidential nominations move the electorate in any meaningful way.

That said, Barack Obama's candidacy has consistently defied conventional wisdom , and Obama has the opportunity to do so yet again in his selection of a running mate. It is critical, however, that he move past traditional notions of balancing a ticket, either by geography, experience, or ideology. Those white voters in Appalachia and elsewhere who reject Obama because of some combination of fear and bigotry will not be assuaged by the addition of Evan Bayh or Tom Kaine to the Democratic ticket. Nor would the resurrection of that crotchety old gay-baiter, Sam Nunn, reassure those who consider the presidential nominee too green and timid to be trusted with defending the nation. In the end, Barack Obama will win or lose based on his own ability to persuade voters that he is up to the job.

Regardless, at the moment, Obama's biggest problem remains the aura of heroism and rugged authenticity that surrounds his opponent. If voters go into November still believing that John McCain is a man of proven and unassailable character, a bipartisan maverick who puts country ahead of party and personal ambition, Obama will lose the 2008 presidential election. It is as simple as that. Either the Democrats find some way to raise doubts about McCain's character or they will fail to capture the White House during the worst Republican year since 1974. Since Obama seems unwilling to do the gut fighting necessary to save his faltering candidacy, he needs to find someone who is up to the job.

Enter Joe Biden. Sure, Biden has impressive foreign policy chops, but that's not really the point. Rather, the veteran Delaware senator possesses the ability to make the necessary attacks, and to do so in a style that suggests that he's really just joshing. It was Joe Biden who delived the coup de grace against another supposedly untouchable hero, Rudy Giuliani, hitting the smarmy New Yorker where it hurt the most. Every one of Giuliani's sentences, Biden joked, contains a noun, a verb, and 9/11. Clearly, Rudy created many of his own problems, and his presidential ambitions would have petered out with or without anyone else's help, but Biden's jab nevertheless drew blood.

It is this ability and willingness to wield the shiv--and to do it with a wink and a smile--that would make Biden invaluable to a presidential nominee who needs to even the playing field on the character issue. Evan Bayh can't do this. Nor can Tom Kaine or Kathleen Sebelius. Hillary Clinton probably can, but her own persistent ambitions would likely make her unwilling to play bad cop for a former rival whose success would defer her dreams for eight long years.

Barack Obama needs Joe Biden.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama's Unwise Visit to the OC

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.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alanis Morrissette Watch

Here's an occasional feature of this occasional blog: Alanis Morissette Watch. It is, of course, named after the Canadian singer/songwriter whose song "Isn't It Ironic?" presents a number of situations (e.g., rain on your wedding day), none of which is actually ironic. In Alanis's honor, we will feature examples of writing that misunderstands the concept of irony (hint: it is not the same thing as coincidence).

Today's spotlight is on's "Political Ticker", which writes about John McCain's decision to cancel a scheduled appearance in Miami due to concerns over Tropical Storm Fay:

"Ironically, McCain had his plans changed by Hurricane Dolly last month. He was supposed to go by helicopter to an oil rig off the Louisiana coast for a high-profile drilling event at the same time Obama was in Europe. But the effects of Dolly in the Gulf caused that trip to be canceled."

So Senator McCain had to change his plans twice because of weather disturbances in the Southeastern United States. That is probably frustrating. It is certainly coincidental. It is not, however, ironic.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Panty Raid!

So let me make sure I have this straight. John Edwards, neither serving in office nor currently running for anything, admits to having an affair with a campaign film producer. This is not only the biggest story on the weekend that Russia and Georgia go to war, it is also generally understood to have extinguished whatever future political plans Edwards may have had.

John McCain, sitting senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee, not only admits to having an affair during his first marriage but actually left his wife and children and married the rich young heiress with whom he was dallying. This is understood to be old news which has no bearing whatsoever on McCain's presidential ambitions.

As I've noted below, I have no interest in what politicians do once they flip the deadbolt on their hotel room doors. Good people do bad things; bad people do good things. I have no idea where Edwards or McCain fits along that continuum. Indeed, the best presidents of the 20th Century have generally been proven philanderers (FDR, LBJ, JFK, Clinton) while the worst (Nixon, Ford, Carter, W.) have generally been considered faithful to their wives, if not (in some cases) to their solemn oath of office.* I'm not saying we should elect tomcats; I'm simply saying that we shouldn't care one way or the other.

But if we're going to make sheet-sniffing a regular feature of our political process, then the same rules ought to apply regardless of how much journalists like or dislike the politician in question.

*Yes, I left out Reagan. I have no idea what his personal history was back in his Hollywood days and I don't think he was an especially good president, a view that was shared by roughly half of all Americans at the time of his presidency.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Note to Sports Journalists

The U.S. is composed of fifty states. Forty-nine of them couldn't care less what Brett Favre is doing this very moment, what he will be doing at this time tomorrow, or what he plans to do next month. If we want to follow the adventures of some narcissistic has-been, we'll flip over to C-Span and watch John McCain on the campaign trail.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Georgie Mac, Michael, and John

Has anybody here seen my old friend Georgie Mac?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He was smeared by Nixon's liars
But he never would fight back
I just turned around and he's gone

Has anybody here seen my old friend Michael?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
They called him unpatriotic
But he never would fight back
I just turned around and he's gone

Has anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
The Swiftboat veterans slimed him
But he never would fight back
I just turned around and he's gone

Didn't you like the things that they promised?
Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?
But it was not to be
You gotta knock down every bully

Has anybody here seen my old friend Barack?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' the road to defeat
With Georgie Mac, Michael, and John