BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RISING OF THE WATERS?

Last night we learned from Mitt Romney that John McCain is going to make the sun stop rising in the east and start rising in the west. Good thing he’s not a messianic elitist like Barack Obama.

To be fair, God does make the sun stop so Joshua can beat up the Ammonites, so why shouldn’t John McCain expect the same assistance in taking out those dread journalists and community organizers?

SUMMER NON-READING

Whatever Fred Thompson’s been doing since he finished pretending to run against John McCain for President, it’s sure kept him busy. Otherwise he surely would have read in the newspaper that John McCain doesn’t like too much talk about his POW service. And you’d think Fred would have been more careful than to say that being a POW doesn’t qualify you to be President – must have missed it when Wesley Clark got savaged by Republicans and the media for saying the same thing.

I guess if Fred managed to miss all that, we shouldn’t be surprised that he hasn’t yet gotten around to reading the Obama speech Fred claims was “designed to appeal to American critics abroad” in Berlin (“…just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe”).

Seems Fred’s sure been busy. Guess it really wasn’t fair for anyone to call him lazy after all.

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

PARTISAN AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Tuned in to Sean Hannity’s convention coverage on the radio as he was complaining about the convention’s failure to address the “real issues” of the campaign, which apparently are whether America is mean (or just whiny?) and whether Michelle Obama loves America sufficiently. It was just in time to hear him defending John McCain’s participation in the Keating Five scandal that ended most participants’ careers. The defense? McCain wasn’t seen to have broken laws by “partisan Democrat” Bob Bennett. Yes, that’s the same Bob Bennett who John McCain recently hired to try to kill a New York Times story suggesting more recent impropriety with a lobbyist.

ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE

Reviewing Entertainment Weekly interviews with the candidates, Marc Ambinder expresses surprise that

In some ways, Obama has the tastes of a 72 year old man; McCain has the tastes of a 47 year old whippersnapper. Who knew?

At risk of sounding cynical, why should we be surprised when Obama associates himself with Dick Van Dyke and McCain associates himself with Usher? Isn’t this what candidates often do in interviews – try to address potential vulnerabilities and convince more people that they’re more like them than they realized (that is, when they’re not focused on doubling-down on their perceived strengths)? That the guy smeared as a secretly foreign terrorist fist jabber touts an old white guy and the really old white guy who can’t use a computer touts a young R & B artist seems to make a lot of sense. Same reason around election time we often hear more from Democrats about their love of guns and Jesus and from Republicans about their love of Black people and the environment.

Updated (8/25/08) to correctly identify Usher’s musical genre, though not in time to avoid looking to Alek like an elderly white guy.

IN GOOD COMPANY

McCain’s new strategist draws on Barack Obama’s supposed smear of Bill Clinton as a racist to attack Barack Obama’s supposed smear of John McCain (The Original Maverick!) as a racist (seeing as it’s not as though the McCain campaign actually created an ad warning that Barack Obama would put a scary picture of himself on the dollar bill or anything):

“Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton,” Schmidt said, “but it’s deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based. President Clinton was a force for unity in this country on this subject. Every American should be proud of his record as both a governor and president. But we knew it was coming in our direction because they did it against a President of the United State of their own party.”

This reminds me of one of the fun angles of a McCain-Romney ticket: The chance to make John McCain eat his words about Mitt Romney being a feckless French surrender monkey for using the word “timetable” once regarding Iraq.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that attacks candidate lodge against each other in the primaries don’t (with “voodoo economics” as maybe an exception, maybe not) come back to sting them if they end up on a ticket together in the general because voters recognize that that was then and the attacks were just opportunistic. But that’s why resurrecting old attack lines could have more sting when targeted against the attacker than the attacked. In other words, voters probably won’t think less of Mitt Romney when reminded that John McCain attacked him for harboring plans that “would have led to a victory by Al Qaeda.” But that reminder might affect how seriously they take McCain’s equally spurious attack on Barack Obama, at least if John McCain turns around and decides to puitch the man he once opportunistically attacked that way to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

BREAKING: BARACK TRIES TO RECONCILE HOPE, POLICY DIFFERENCES WITH OPPONENT

This article from the Paper of Record is just silly:

As Mr. Obama stands poised to claim the crown of presumptive Democratic nominee, he is, gingerly, fitting himself with the cloth of a partisan Democrat despite having long proclaimed himself above such politics. That his shift in tone was inevitable and necessary, particularly as Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, slashes at Mr. Obama as weak on Iran and terrorism, does not entirely diminish the cognitive dissonance.

As is unfortunately common with denunciations of partisanship in Washington, you get the sense reading Michael Powell’s Times news piece that not only does he see no need to tell you what he means by partisanship, he may not be so sure of it himself. Powell offers not one example of Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric against which we might judge his current stump speech (which is not to say there’s nothing in that rhetoric some of us – as ideologues more than as partisans – might take issue with). Instead, he just asserts that Obama promised to be a different kind of politician from the partisans we’re used to, and now he’s criticizing his opponent (without even giving him the benefit of the doubt!).

In other words, Obama promised to play nice, and now he’s being mean! And how:

“This is a guy who said I have no knowledge of foreign affairs,” Senator Barack Obama says, his voice hitting a high C on the incredulity scale, before he adds: “Well, John McCain was arguing for a war that had nothing to do with 9/11. He was wrong, and he was wrong on the most important subject that confronted our nation.” The crowd rises, clapping and cheering at this pleasing whiff of partisan buckshot.

Judging from the sternly disapproving tone the Times takes, you’d think Obama had said McCain’s daughter was ugly because she was the love child of his wife and his (female) Attorney General. But all the guy said was that his opponent had criticized him, his opponent was on the wrong side of an issue, and that issue was really important.

What does it even mean to say that this is partisan? Obama criticized co-partisan Hillary Clinton for backing the War in Iraq, so there’s nothing about Obama’s criticism that depends on party. Is Powell criticizing Obama for being overly issue-oriented? Or just for being overly critical of the man that everyone knows is the Most Principled Man in Washington?

But the article wouldn’t be complete without some criticism of the Obama campaign for disagreeing with the author’s criticism:

Mr. Obama’s advisers argue, gamely if implausibly, that he has not dipped his cup into a partisan well. “I don’t look at it as partisanship,” said Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s communications director. “I look at it as a difference of philosophy.”

We expect this kind of silliness when it’s David Broder filling the editorial page with requiems for an imagined non-partisan past, or Unity08-backing celebrities sharing their heartfelt yearnings for politics without politics, or Howard Wolfson asking how Barack Obama can claim to support hope while opposing Hillary Clinton’s run for president. But on the news page we should really expect better.

THE TIMES GIVETH, AND THE TIMES TAKETH AWAY

Reading the latest New York Times John McCain puff piece makes you wonder whether the Times and company only started pulling the guy down with McCain deathwatch stories so that they could have the pleasure of building him up all over again:

Between jokes, he is steadfast in his support for the present course in Iraq, his voice hushing to a near-whisper during paeans to the United States military. He is also prone to solemn monologues against the evils of torturing prisoners and the atrocities committed by “those thugs in Burma” against pro-democracy demonstrators, neither of which are top-of-the-agenda issues for most Republican voters. But they are important to John McCain, never mind the polls and focus groups, which are too expensive anyway.

Groan. Mark Leibovich also refers to “his campaign bus, christened the Straight Talk Express during his insurgent presidential campaign of 2000,” a weird use of the passive voice that could leave us with the idea that it was so christened by David Broder or Saint Peter and not by John McCain. I guess the myth of McCain is just more fun when he’s the underdog.

INSERT SARCASTIC COMMENT ABOUT COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM HERE

John McCain says he’s against our government spending money on making condoms available in Africa – he thinks:

Q: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Keep this one in mind next time someone tells you that Democrats lose elections because they’re simply outside of the mainstream on “social issues.”

THE MCCAIN STRATEGY

A couple weeks ago, the Hotline started trumpeting polling showing that 5% more Americans support a surge in Iraq when it’s described as the “McCain strategy” than as the “Bush strategy.” Like most political polls, it shows that people think differently than they think that they think – that is, few people like to think that they would come down differently on otherwise identically described plans based on who they were named after. But as a demonstration of the power of the McCain brand, I’d have to say it’s underwhelming.

John McCain, bearer of the faith of our fathers, guide to a braver life, darling of ostensibly liberal journalists and avowedly partisan Democrats, can only lift the surge from 32% to 37%? Five percent? And that’s only three percent over the support it garners with nobody’s name stamped on it.

Clearly McCain’s plan to defend his hawkish stance on the grounds that Bush failed by being insufficiently hawkish is taking a beating as Bush takes a page from his book. Now McCain is left hoping that voters give him points for the courage of his convictions, that they believe that McCain would have done the surge way better than Bush, or that the surge will have Iraqis belatedly throwing rose petals at the feet of American soldiers. Of those possibilities, none is super promising. The first is maybe the most interesting, because it provides an interesting test case on the question of how voters weigh what your issue positions say about you versus how much they agree with yours.

Paul Waldman makes a strong case that McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance reform shows that, in Mark Schmitt’s words, “It’s not what you say about the issues – it’s what the issues say about you” – that is, that McCain’s advocacy of reform is a winner not because people care about the issue one way or the other but because it casts him as a man of integrity. It’s an important point that many Democrats with a congenital need to split the difference on issues of the day would do well to remember. On the other hand, the difference between campaign finance reform and escalation in Iraq is that most Americans aren’t hell-bent against campaign finance reform – that just don’t care that much about it.

As for what this means about John McCain’s general election chances, I still think he’s a formidable opponent, certainly more so than Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback. But as a raft of polls the past few days have confirmed, he can be beaten. Which is all the more reason for progressives to seek out a candidate who would do a great job governing the country.