Sunday, August 03, 2008

Of resumes and senior moments...

David Brooks, conservative NYTimes columnist, has stopped praising Barack Obama’s intellect, speaking abilities and policy proposals, and has started showing his true colors. In complaining about Obama’s lack of experience, he suggested you would have to go back maybe two hundred years before finding a presidential candidate with less experience. Like most people, I don’t know much about the experience of Presidents or candidates before 1950, with one significant exception. In fact, Obama might have himself mentioned that exception in the past, although in any event I know about it from having read a book about the exception. As I considered that exception, I also remembered reading some of the late night talk show host monologues, and the following hypothetical sequence came out of those musings:

Obama, answering charges related to his lack of experience, pointed out that Lincoln was only a one term Representative from Illinois. McCain responded that it is the height of arrogance for Obama to compare himself to Lincoln, and anyway McCain had been in the Navy during Lincoln’s term, serving our country. Aides later commented that it was a natural mistake for Senator McCain to make. After all, Lincoln and Ford are the same car company.


Well, so I shouldn’t quit my day job, but there are some points worth considering, sort of in there. For example, on the surge Obama is starting to look like the Fonz, who never seemed to be able to even utter the “wrong”, let alone admit a mistake. It would be a relief for Obama to say he was wrong … except for the follow up question. About the only thing Obama could do would be to blame faulty intelligence. Otherwise, he would have to blame his inexperience or that he was standing with the crowd of Democrats in mechanically denouncing everything about the war/occupation. The second choice would not be good for the “change” candidate. Obama had better get used to the question, because he is going to hear it in every interview until his head explodes.

On the McCain side, it is clear that someone McCain trusts read “The Political Brain” by Drew Westen (yes, I am bringing that up again). In McCain’s Paris Hilton/Britney Spears ad, a narrator calls Obama the biggest celebrity in the world as Hilton and Spears images appear before Mr. Obama, and then the voice asks if he is ready to lead. The ad didn’t need the images of Spears or Hilton, it could have shown Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks and Celine Dion, or other celebrities. Obama’s response was equally subtle, and frankly restrained, talking about his “funny” name and how he doesn’t look like the Presidents on the dollar or five dollar bill. And that’s when the McCain camp made its next move, saying Obama was tarring McCain as a racist.

There is an elaborate dance being choreographed here. Each side wants to portray the other side as either racist or playing the race card, without appearing to. So the McCain ad, by using the word “celebrity”, justifies its use of the image of young white women with known bad reputations and loose morals. Obama’s response was the sort of subtly he has used before, that his story is unusual and that he knows he is not what people are used to in a Presidential candidate. Of course, part of that is that he is black, but he didn’t say that. And the McCain campaign’s response was to say that the didn’t appreciate the insinuation of racism.

These are subtle attacks, pretty much like the Willie Horton ad was a (sort of) subtle attack on Dukakis. Each side is raising the specter of race, but waits to accuse racism until there is sufficient provocation. David Brooks (again), on “Face the Nation”, said that this is not the campaign McCain wanted to run, the McCain campaign must be delighted with the results. They have successfully introduced the idea of racism in the campaign by claiming they were accused of it, that they are the victims. Obama will have trouble diffusing this. He will have to give another epic speech where he convinces people not to give into their fear. That will be a really tough needle to thread, because a mis-step anywhere and Obama will offend white voters who do not thing that they themselves are racists, they just cross the street when an African American youth approaches.

It will be an interesting fall. I just wish Obama wouldn’t vacation in Hawaii, even if he did spend part of his childhood there. Branson, Mississippi would be a much better choice (even if Michele would never forgive him). Just don’t wear a cowboy hat, Barack.


Schultz said...

Ed - the best study I have seen on the issue of experience for Presidential candidates is this one titled How Good are Experienced Presidents?.

With a few exceptions you will find that most of the Presidents with the most experience ended up being lousy or at best, mediocre.

EdHeath said...

Chris, it is certainly worth reminding people of that. It won't switch anyone committed to either candidate, but it might help sway some uncommitted voters.

The other thing worries me more, though. If McCain can introduce race into this campaign without seeming to, he gets an advantage. Obama needs to give a speech in which he lets the listener off the hook while making it clear how McCain is trying to take advantage of them. In other words, Obama needs to remind America that abolitionists were all pretty much white.

I thought the blog "I Luv Luke" had an absolutely brilliant take on this subject.