Friday, August 29, 2008

A Cipher Speaks and McCain’s Running Mate

I just couldn’t bring myself to watch Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech last night. Instead, I did what I will probably do with McCain’s speech: I read it. That takes away the theatricals, the Greek temple, the voice, the man, the cheering, applauding crowds, and leaves you with just the words on the page. Still, you can learn a lot by reading; it’s a shame more people don’t do it.

Yesterday was Obama’s big interview with the country, as I’m sure he knows. Now here’s the thing about interviews: you don’t just want to know what this presidential candidate will do for you, though that’s the most obvious thing. You also want to know what he has done. A little background is nice—he’s got a wife and kids—but what you really want to know is what he’s done with his experience. What has he learned from it? What has he done in the last four years? We know he gave a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. We know he has been a senator. He states that has voted against the war in Iraq, but the war began two years before he assumed office. Before he was a U.S. Senator, he was a state senator. What did he do there? What did he learn? Silence. He has been a lawyer and a community organizer. Doing what? How? With what sort(s) of people or organization? Unknown. He was a near-top-of-his-class student at arguably America’s most prestigious university. That’s a lot of hard work; certainly he can speak to that, no? I hear crickets chirping.

Who the hell is this guy? If you expected to find out during this speech, you were likely to be disappointed. And, again, as an interviewer, you’d have to be asking yourself, “This guy’s had an interesting past—why doesn’t he talk about any of it?”

So what did we get with this speech—five pages long at about an 8-point font? Three themes dominated:

  • Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. This is hardly surprising, but one must consider that Mr. Bush is no longer up for election, and McCain is hardly his surrogate.
  • America is suffering. He sprinkles the speech with a lot of little anecdotes that demonstrate his compassion, his superior understanding of what ails the country, and his willingness to fix it. Never mind that we’re still the richest nation on Earth, as he admits—people are suffering and it will be the sole job of his government to fix it.
  • Barack will do a lot of things. This is the standard laundry list of political promises. Some of them are economically questionable, such as lowering taxes on the middle class when the rich pay the bulk of taxes and the poor pay none at all; others are grandiose and unrealistic without serious government micromanaging of the economy, such as getting America off of petroleum products in ten years. There's an awful lot of personal ownership going on--"I will..."

Going back to the interview, it is interesting to note the few places where he does talk about himself:

  • “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” You forgot experience, laddie. But I suspect you already know that. Of course experience is what gives us temperament and judgment.
  • “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.” Not precisely. The more specific action you take is to stand back, and wait awhile longer until the candidate develops the record so you can have a better sense of who he is and what he has accomplished. That’s another thing missing from this speech: Obama’s accomplishments. What has the man done? Ted Kennedy, much as I dislike his politics, has a solid record of achievement there. I can probably name at least three laws he’s pushed through and several issues on which he is known to be an expert and ardent supporter. I cannot say the same about Obama.
  • “I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office.” Wow. Then why should I hire you? This would be an excellent opportunity to explain that, Barack, but you didn’t do it. Your policies are what they are, and Joe Biden could sell them as easily as you could. We’re not just hiring the policies, we’re hiring the man, the mensch, and we know diddly-squat about him. Admitting that you’re not the likeliest candidate might be self-deprecating, but it might also be the truth. We just don’t know, and Obama does not follow up by explaining why the presumption of his unlikeliness is false.
  • “I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington.” Let’s start with the word pedigree, which is little more than another way of saying that he’s African-American. I find this notion offensive. Imagine an interviewee saying, “I realize you don’t usually hire blacks.” He’s insinuating that a) you’ve been a racist in the past or b) you are a racist if you don’t hire him now. That’s insulting, it’s blackmail, and quite frankly it’s rude.
    Earlier in this campaign (a year or two ago), I might have even considered, briefly, voting for this guy. And were I still a mushy moderate, I probably would. But in fact I don’t like his policies. I think they’re bad for the country. I don’t like the fact that he’s cagey and evasive about his past. I don’t think he’s got the experience—yet—to be president. That is not questioning the color of his skin, but
    the content of his character.
    Then there’s the matter of where he spent his career. As some folks like to remind us, Obama has had 143 days of experience in the U.S. Senate. His experience before that I’ve already mentioned above—but again, what has he done???
  • “But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me. It’s about you. It’s about you. For 18 long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us—that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.” I’m sorry, but the last 18 months have been all about Obama—whether he has the charisma and political personality people are willing to buy to vote for president. The lie is so emphatic, he has to repeat it twice to make sure people get the point. After all, if it was all about “you,” why is he asking “you” to vote for him?
    And I’ve said this before, but it still bears repeating: we’re going to get change no matter who is elected because Bush’s term ends in January. The question is, what types of change are the American public prepared to accept? Change will happen even if you don’t vote in November. And while we would also face unknowns with John McCain, we have a better clue into his character. “McCain-Feingold,” for instance, is practically part of the everyday vocabulary. We know more about him, from his pre-congressional life as a fighter pilot and prisoner in Vietnam to his previous runs for president and his willingness to battle his own party to get his way. I might not agree with him, but I feel that I at least understand him.
    Also, Obama’s ideas are not new; they are the Democratic Party’s standard talking points for the last 20+ years: soak the rich to subsidize the poor, regulate industry to protect the environment, reduce the military to encourage peace. The only things new about Obama’s candidacy are his age and his race. And when this speech was over, we still had no solid clue about the man wearing this age and race. Caveat emptor.

I did like a few lines from this speech, and they’re toward the end:

“You know, this country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. Instead, it is that American spirit—that American promise—that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.”

That section is almost Reaganesque. However, lofty words are not enough by themselves to get me to vote for Barack Obama, nor would his policies be, were I to favor them. He’s proven that he can give a good speech, but not that he can govern well or that he can lead. In short, while impressive in bearing and political presence, Barack Obama did not pass this interview with me to become President. I wonder what effect his speech will have on the rest of the public.
And speaking of the public, the McCain campaign did a masterful job of sucking up the oxygen Obama hoped to gain from his speech last night. I had to chuckle a bit when a couple of friends told me that selecting Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was an attempt to pander to or take the votes of Hillary Clinton voters. That might be the case, if there are a lot of people who would vote for Hillary solely because she’s a woman. However, from a policy perspective, Palin is not there to wow liberal feminists. She won't. She is there for one reason, and it’s a good one: to wow the conservative Republican base. It's a smart move. Brilliant, in fact. Surprisingly brilliant, considering some of McCain’s calls. Of course the MSNBC types now think McCain is no longer a "maverick" because he didn't pick a liberal (a maverick, after all, is a term of affection when it's a Republic going against his own party). He's being a maverick toward the media. He's smarter than some conservatives--including me--thought he was.

I first heard about Sarah Palin from one of my favorite conservative ladies, who’s actually from Wasilla, Alaska. She told me that Palin would make a good future president. She described Palin as much like herself: a gun-toting, environmentalist, God-fearing, pro-life conservative. So my friend sold me a few years ago. Now we’ll see how she wins over the country. Way to go, John. You just might pull this one out.

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