It’s been a bumpy ride, 2008 has. This election should have been an earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami – pick your natural disaster metaphor (or combine them for exciting new variations!) – just waiting for the calendar to run out and make it official.
In the end, it looks like that’s how it will be after all. One gets the sense now that the laws of physics are finally reasserting themselves, and modest measures of sanity are stubbornly reclaiming their inevitable places. This is true both in the proximate sense, as Election 2008 now appears to be coming in for a landing, but also more broadly, as the last year or two perhaps mark the end of an era in American politics.
Nevertheless, there have been some weird and therefore scary moments along the way, and those regular readers of this column have been forced to share my personal roller-coaster ride, twisting from highs of modest and tentative hopefulness, sinking to lows of outraged despondency, and back again. And back again, again.
That should never have happened. It has often and accurately been remarked that no Republican should have had the remotest prayer of winning the presidency against any Democrat this year. That idea made a ton of sense a year ago, and fantastically more so a month ago. And yet, miraculously, it was in fact just a month ago that John McCain had recovered from a losing posture and was smiling his Cheshire grin as every significant indicator of the race’s trajectory turned favorable to his election.
He was winning, and, he was doing it the old-fashioned way: through the Grand Old Party’s good old pattern of filthy, cheap politics. Moreover, Barack Obama seemed to be keeping his appointment with destiny by fulfilling the equally time-honored Democratic nominee’s role of watching as his summer lead dissipated, bending over for the full Rovian proctological treatment. Indeed, so anxious was Obama to accommodate Republican needs that he even went the extra step of generously agreeing to be a black man running for president in a still very racist country.
Could this really have been happening yet again? Could Democrats really fall for the same bag of tricks, yet again? Does it really require more than a half-century to figure out how a McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Atwater, Rove or Schmidt defeats you? And could it really happen in 2008, of all years, when the public is screaming out for change? Or is it that Democratic presidential candidates are just getting bought off, one by one, taking a payment every four years to go down in the twelfth?
Republicans are also, of course, generally pretty lucky. Reagan was famous for it, and admitted as much. John McCain, another Irishman, has a glass of luck that is both half empty and half full. By rights he should never have had a shot at this, at least since winning the nomination, so even being in contention these last weeks has been a major piece of good fortune. (McCain’s capture of his party’s nomination was itself another piece of major good luck for him, but that’s a different story). On the other hand, the systemic meltdown of the very infrastructure of the American economy could not possibly have been more poorly timed for McCain. This is a hundred year storm we’re talking about, and it picked probably the absolutely most damaging possible month – out of 1200 choices – to hit, from the perspective of the McCain campaign. There is no reason this couldn’t have come in November or December, conveniently after the election. Or a year ago. Even October would have been much better. But by crashing in September, the meltdown has ratcheted up the public’s anxiety and desire for change exponentially, and done so at precisely the moment when the effect is both fresh in voters minds but not so near in time as to get lost in the chaotic swirl of events.
The gods are cruel, aren’t they? McCain never should have had a prayer at all. But they gave him the lead eight years ago, then let a stupid punk with a vicious campaign strategist take it away from him. For two terms since, McCain has crawled into bed with Bush and the entire panoply of right-wing creepery, and the gods rewarded him with the lead for his party’s nomination 18 months ago, then took it away again last summer. Then they gave it back to him yet again, and even allowed him to surpass Obama by a nose in the polls a month ago. Now here they come once more to steal from this 72 year-old Sisyphus his lifetime’s obsession, just as he nears the very crest of the mountain for the very last time.
And well they should, too. One of the most nefarious tactics of the Rove/Schmidt machine is to accuse the other guy of being/doing precisely what you’re being/doing, so that if the Democrat speaks the truth about you, it will all seem like a confusing wash of he-said-she-said to hapless voters. Dig? This explains the newest low in Republican presidential campaign techniques, the "country first" mantra describing McCain (as opposed to the other, non-patriotic, fellow, of course), and McCain’s vile assertion that Obama would rather lose a war for America than lose an election for himself. This regarding the guy who came out against the war back when doing so was possible political suicide, mind you. But the deal is that McCain, and especially his president and party, have in fact themselves politicized the snot out of this war, from the very beginning. Bush and Cheney are actually on record in 1999 talking about the nice benefits to a president’s power and domestic agenda that would accrue from finding a some punky country to invade and kicking ass in a cheap blowout of a splendid little war. Factor in the 2002 war resolution vote held right before the election, the plastic turkey PR campaign, the aircraft carrier stunt and the zillions of photo ops with troops as set pieces, and it only got worse from there over the years. That’s one of the reasons why McCain had to lie about Obama being a traitor to his country. In case Obama ever had the sand to tell the truth about the truly traitorous GOP and the war, McCain’s prior lie would help confuse the issue.
McCain’s tactic is just one of a multitude of desperation plays from a sinking campaign. If it’s true that there are no athiests in foxholes, perhaps it’s also true that there are ethicists in a tanking GOP campaign. Having changed his position on virtually every key political issue of the day in order to win the nomination of a party controlled by lunatics he obviously once despised, having run a series of patently false advertisements that made even his groupies in the mainstream media want to hurl, having hired the very same thugs who had destroyed him in 2000, there’s a very real question as to whether there’s quite anything that McCain wouldn’t do at this point to realize the holy grail of satisfying his personal boyhood career ambition to be president.
And, of course, no truer marker of that exists than the pick of Sarah Palin as running mate. This was an act of extreme and callous destruction, once again purely in service to McCain’s personal ambition. Indeed, I would call it flat-out treason. McCain himself has called the bullshit war on terrorism the ‘transcendental struggle of our time’. He has said that Iraq is the central front in that war. He has said that the chief responsibility of a vice president is to be immediately ready to assume the responsibilities of the presidency. Then he picks someone who, before she was on the ticket – and thus completely bottled up – recently admitted that she doesn’t really know much about Iraq. But she does help him win the presidency. Yeah, treason. I rest my case.
The Palin pick was surely the best marker of McCain’s willingness to mortgage everything imaginable to become president. Unless, that is, one counts the jaw-droppingly cynical roll-out of Palin that’s been used to insulate the campaign from the consequences of their own choice. What is clear is that they knew that she could never be trusted anywhere near a microphone in any sort of spontaneous give-and-take. So they manufactured great umbrage at the investigations and inquiries which naturally followed this choice of an unknown individual to be placed a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency, then cited this outrage as an excuse for keeping her away from the ‘biased’ and ‘hostile’ press. Big, bad, tough, Sarah Barracuda – the same person who might be called upon to deal with the evil North Koreans, Iranians or Russians – has yet to stand up for a single press conference before the American media since being picked for the GOP ticket. As some have noted, that’s actually less than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has done during the same period.
And she undoubtedly won’t be adding to her zero count between now and November 4th. That absurd notion just became easier to sell – precisely per plan – to Fox-watching imbecilic Americans because of the vice-presidential ‘debate’ this last week. Now, after Palin turned in a performance which any semi-literate third grader would find credible, the McCain campaign will declare her lack of press availability to be irrelevant, since she ‘proved’ how knowledgeable she is at the debate.
Still, there are a few loose ends and, indeed, one might ask what’s up with Sarah Palin, anyhow? One minute she’s giving a fiery speech to the Republican convention that – despite the obligatory regressive inanities as content – projects competence and confidence, and the next she is clueless about what the Bush Doctrine is. Then she is wall-to-wall words during the debate, but days before that can’t name a single newspaper that she reads or a single Supreme Court case she objects to beyond Roe versus Wade. What’s the deal? Who is the real Sarah Palin?
The answer is obvious. This is a person with some political skills, a lot of ambition, and almost no knowledge whatsoever of the national and international policy questions which have defined the era of her lifetime. Zip. So, ask her a question for which she has not been pre-scripted, and you will get that excruciating blank face. Ask her a question which involves any sort of intelligent synthesis, independent thinking, personal analysis, and you’ll get just the same. Or, alternatively, you might get some non-answer that either sounds like someone took a paragraph and tossed it into a freakin’ blender, or else has only some remote, tangential connection to one of the words in the query, even if it’s just ‘the’. On the other hand, put her in a scenario where she can practice and memorize and read a script from a teleprompter, or where she can reel out 90 second pre-memorized mini-scripts, and she’s golden, at least for those predisposed to like her.
There were two key moments in the debate which tip off the package-and-bury strategy of the McCain campaign to hide their little family embarrassment. The first was where she ‘boldly’ claimed that she might not answer the questions of the moderator or her opponent, but, doggonit, she was going to have some straight talk with the American people. If you’re stupid or conservative (or more likely both), you could allow yourself to believe that, golly, that gal’s just got a whole lotta spunk! I mean, isn’t it cool how you want to know her position on healthcare and she comes back at you with 90 seconds of recycled Reaganisms on taxes instead! Isn’t she tough! (And let’s not interrupt your fantasy by reminding you how the McCain camp insisted on changing the debate format to one in which there could be no give-and-take or follow-up, or how they managed to cow into submission the already plenty cowed milquetoast Gwen Ifill, by alleging in advance that she was biased because her book has the name ‘Obama’ in the title.)