More Channel 17 action: this time I sat down for a legislative update with Burlington Super-Rep, Jason Lorber. A good twenty minutes of policy chat, seasoned with the occasional one-liner (Lorber is a killer stand-up comic as well as 2008 Legislator of the Year), and a look ahead to the coming legislative session. For what it’s worth, people.
We wrote a long post a few days back, trying to put the rest a perennial misperception: that Obama lacks the ability to be aggressive, when aggression is called for. But for those who absolutely must have some punch with their political cookies, you’ll savor CQ’s portrait of the Senate during last night’s bailout vote. Obama and McCain were both on hand, which, given that McCain hasn’t made a vote in over four months, was intriguing in and of itself.
And Obama did what he tends to do on the floor of the Senate: he walks over to the last person to diss him on the campaign trail, and he stretches out his hand.
Sure, it’s a social nicety; sure, it’s designed to show the C-Span camera that he can rise above any personal bickering.
But it’s also very in your face. Or in McCain’s face, rather.
And in this case, McCain responded as we’ve come to expect: no eye contact, clenched jaw, instinctively reaching for the pepper spray in the pocket of his blazer.
We’ll post the video later in the day, once it becomes available, but almost certainly the nuance will be lost. Added bonus to David Nather’s blog account: McCain was chatting with Mel Martinez and guess who on the GOP side?
That’s right: Big Joe Lieberman.
You’ll remember that Obama worked this same handshake/buttkick routine on Lieberman a few months back, after the Senator from Connecticut auditioned as attack dog for McCain. In that little confrontation, Obama walked Lieberman to the back of the chamber for their private chat. (Brilliant video here.)
Now here’s the thing: grown men, Senators who want to be President, should be able to exchange a smile and a handshake with an opponent in a formal setting like the Senate. Those who can’t (google Cheney, Dick, F-Bomb, for instance) shouldn’t be trusted with the office.
And clearly Obama is staging this particular social test to demonstrate that he can pass it.
But there’s a little more to it. The Senate is one of the most tradition-bound systems in America; it’s also run entirely on the seniority system. For those who thought that Bernie Sanders would run amok once he moved up from the House, there’s been a few years of realization: even Bernie is stymied by a set of rules always favoring years in office.
You can’t get a muffin in the Senate cafeteria until you’ve been there a decade.
John McCain did his apprenticeship under those rules. Now, after a quarter century in the institution, he’s a Senior Senator. It’s All Him. And then he looks up, and here comes the Junior Senator from Illinois, with all of four years under his belt, making a casual social power play on the floor of the Senate itself. The handshake must seem like an open insult.
And this audacity, on top of polls showing Palin a drag on the ticket, on top of a first debate that ended somehow with Obama winning on foreign policy, is slowly driving McCain insane.
If you missed McCain’s interview yesterday with the Des Moines Register, you won’t understand exactly what we mean. Take a look. This is a man who feels that now, after a lifetime of reaching for it, a career of being told that his story uniquely qualifies him to hold the Oval Office, the Presidency is not slipping from his grasp but being stolen from him.
By Obama, by the media, by Liberals, by guys at cheese-steak stands who shout out trapdoor questions about Pakistan.
And he’s really angry about it. That’s what happens to Republican hopefuls when they go down, because it happens so rarely that they take it personally: they blow their stacks, publicly.
Think George H. W. Bush in the final days, ranting about “Ozone Man,” calling Clinton a “Bozo.” Think Bob Dole, who simply couldn’t understand why Bob Dole couldn’t be President, why Americans wouldn’t vote for Bob Dole (”Where’s the outrage?”).
And you have to believe that whoever’s standing next to McCain when he finally blows is going to take one hell of a roundhouse to the jaw.
You almost begin to suspect that the McCain camp is composed of hardcore masochists, the sort who take a certain perverse delight in their own pain and humiliation. Palin’s interview was bad enough along these lines, you’d think, given that it resulted in bipartisan calls for the Alaska Governor to exit the GOP ticket. (”Cringe-worthy,” of course, being the adjective of choice for editorial writers.) But no. Johnny Mac and his handlers wanted more. That’s right.
So in order to clean up a small gaffe Palin made campaigning at a cheese-steak stand, McCain accompanies his self-declared soul-mate back to Couric’s studio, and sits like a grumpy grampa as she repeats her safety-security mantra.
Now, we know there are folks out there who think that Palin is qualified to be Vice President, so let’s put that burning question to one side, and ask another directly related to it: Can anyone imagine Obama doing this odd visit-to-the-Principal routine with Biden? Holding his hand during a Katie Couric interview like this, while he’s asked if he’s sorry for what he said?
Or Reagan with Bush the Elder? Or Clinton with Gore?
Anyone who thinks that McCain and his handlers are pioneers for the rights of Woman might want to think again. They’re treating her like a seventeen-year-old Princess who happens, through a run of bad luck, to have inherited one of two keys to the Throne.
The interview footage is here, and it’s painful stuff, truly. Palin recants her agreement with Obama on Pakistan policy, and there’s a rote quality to the lines that seems to indicate she spent the previous night under house arrest, drilling the answers.
Don’t forget to watch McCain’s reactions: the twitchy jaw, the eye pops, the strained body language. This guy is in purgatory, my friends.
Common wisdom is usually an oxymoron: if it’s common, it’s usually scratch-’n-dent wisdom, at the best. And no wisdom is more common, and less wise, than the idea that Barack Obama would do himself a world of good if he would only dial up the aggression. In short: no, he wouldn’t, and pundits who continue to harp on this idea only reveal their own mainstream cultural insularity. And lack of imagination.
Let’s begin at the end. Obama faced off against John McCain on Friday night, the culmination of a long week of erratic mood swings by the Arizona Senator. The upshot of that head-to-head meeting was crystal clear, far clearer than these post mortems usually manage: every poll taken showed that Obama had helped himself significantly, with nearly every demographic.
Obama’s tracking numbers doubled. Prominent Conservatives, folks like George Will and Dick Morris and Charles Krauthammer, grudgingly gave the win to Obama.
Now, it may seem like pointing out the obvious, but in order to put the Obama-lacks-punch meme to rest, it’s unfortunately necessary: when you debate, or campaign, you want your numbers to go up, not down.
Just so we’re clear on that. Obama did what one wants a candidate to do Friday night. He made himself the preferable choice.
So anyone who says that Obama could have “closed the deal” or “knocked McCain out” by upping his level of aggression is mad. And not just mad, but blind to the history of this campaign: at every single stage of the long, two-year game, Obama has been criticized for lacking aggression.
And yet he has advanced at each stage, made voters like him, settled any lingering uneasiness, moved forward smoothly and without great fanfare.
When he was part of a three-candidate field, and neck and neck with Edwards behind Hillary, the conventional wisdom was that he needed to punch his way clear of them.
Maureen Dowd captured this meme in her mocking nickname, “Obambi.”
And that image has delighted Conservatives, for whom it extends to a general critique of supposed Democratic softness on security issues.
Then it was Obama versus Hillary, and everyone exhorted Obama to hit harder, to pound her into withdrawing from the race.
Then, after he’d secured the Democratic nomination, Obama faced attacks from John McCain on his so-called celebrity status, and ads that linked Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
Get mad, James Carville said. Use the meat-cleaver that Bill Clinton liked to talk about back in the day.
And here we are in October. Obama is up by 6-9 points in the daily tracking polls; he’s breaking open the electoral map.
Can someone, somewhere, some time or other, please consider the possibility that an African American man growing up in America might have some small idea about how hard he can hit without actually hurting himself?
Take a look at the photo at the top of this post again. Barack Obama has spent his life negotiating not just predominantly White American culture, but predominantly Asian cultures, and predominantly Black American cultures.
His success and his identity are inseparable from his ability to guage how hard he can push, without provoking backlash, without accentuating his own difference, without bringing out the worst in those around him.
He has not succeeded brilliantly thus far in spite of his “Think Thrice Before Striking” attitude, but because of it. Anyone who thinks it an accident that Obama has gone where no other African American man has gone before simply isn’t thinking.
It’s not that Obama has adopted passivity as a political or social stance. Far from it. His campaign has counter-attacked, and their attacks have had real bite. But when Obama does hit back, it is almost always after a consensus has developed that he’s justified in doing so. Hillary’s campaign came off looking mean and occasionally thuggish as a result; McCain’s campaign has gone even further down the same road.
Obama has developed an almost preternaturally accurate sense of how to avoid the stereotypes that continue to dog African American men in the twenty-first century, and it is typified in his strategy.
So again, if anyone in America is qualified to say precisely how hard Barack Obama can hit without hurting himself, that man is Barack Obama.
When his numbers slide dramatically, and his prospects for the White House go dim, then we’ll be willing to listen to armchair quarterbacking from white suburban pundits and politicians, those who’d like to see a little more blood sport and who can’t be troubled to do their homework.
I’ve been having some nice back-and-forth this morning with a couple of Republican VDB-readers, who’ve been gamely arguing that Sarah Palin really is sort of qualified for the job of Vice President. And the argument is fun to have: it isn’t every subject in this election where you feel like you’re tossing your rocks downhill, while your opponents are having to heave theirs up as best they can.
But a couple of things bear mentioning. First, the mere fact that the debate about experience persists, and looks to persist until Election Day, and continues to draw in Conservatives who finally can’t sign off on the Palin pick, that fact alone demonstrates the diminishing returns on McCain’s investment.
After a flurry of interest, and a quick flare of pride that the GOP had finally managed to put a woman on a national ticket, Sarah Palin has boiled down to an earnest discussion about sheer basic competence, not exactly a fight Republicans need to be having post-Bush.
But something else struck me, as I went over the various arguments and counter-arguments in my mind: the only two McCain or Bush surrogates to address Palin’s lack of experience head-on, without any desperate spin or delusional fabrication, have been women.
Two, to be exact. Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Laura Bush, former librarian and wife of George W. Bush.
Famously, Fiorina was asked point blank whether Sarah Palin was capable of running a major company like Hewlett-Packard. It’s striking to listen to the tape of the radio exchange. There’s an instant in which Fiorina considers the question, considers a dodge, and then simply states the truth, point blank:
“No, I don’t,” responded Fiorina. “But you know what? That’s not what she’s running for.”
Sure, Fiorina tries to walk it back just a bit, but the implications there are even worse: that something complex and important Palin couldn’t run, but she’ll do just fine with something simple and risk-free like the Vice Presidency.
But what’s worth focusing on is the way that Fiorina considers spinning, temporizing, hedging, and then simply can’t. Because she knows how hard she, Fiorina, had to work at Hewlett-Packard, and she wouldn’t let Palin within a mile of a CEO’s chair.
Take another look at that photo at the top of this post. Fiorina was given to understand that she was on the short list for the Vice Presidency herself; she was flying around on McCain’s jet, speaking as his surrogate, and was no doubt encouraged to think she might be the out of the box pick this time out.
She wasn’t, of course, and that may have something to do with her notable directness when asked about Palin’s qualifications. But one thing is certain: Fiorina was hustled off the stage very quickly after that response, very quickly indeed.
The second highly-placed Bush/McCain woman to speak truth, simply and without fanfare, was Laura Bush.
Asked by CNN’s Zain Verjee if she thought Palin’s resume included sufficient foreign policy experience, Bush said, “Of course she doesn’t have that.”
“You know, that’s not been her role,” she continued, “But I think she is a very quick study, and fortunately John McCain does have that sort of experience.”
How refreshing: no furious up-is-downism, no references to islands off the coast of Alaska, just a straight-up acknowledgment of the obvious, with a nicely executed pivot to make the exchange a wash, which is, of course, the best the McCain folk can hope for on the Palin experience question.
But again, why is it the women in this equation who are simply not going to gussy up Palin’s CV? In this case, no doubt Laura Bush believes, with good cause, that she, Laura Bush, is more qualified than Sarah Palin when it comes to foreign policy experience.
In that sense, it’s the same as the Fiorina questioning. In both cases, a highly placed and highly acclaimed woman is asked whether Palin is qualified, not to be Vice President in the abstract, but specifically to do what they themselves do. Laura Bush visits other countries all the time, works with various world leaders and their staffs, and has at various points tried gingerly to nudge her husband on certain foreign policy issues, most notably the situation in Burma.
So when she’s asked point blank, Do you think Palin could do what you do, right now, with no further training, Laura Bush says not just no, but “of course not.”
And of course not is, of course, the correct answer.
The First Lady and the ex-CEO are willing to spin, in other words, unless it’s about what’s closest their own hearts: their work, their achievements, their own merit.
Do I expect this post to change the minds of my Republican friends on the question of Palin’s fitness? Not for an instant. Do I expect them to email me twice as many times tomorrow? I most certainly do.
Is that a problem? Not in the least. If only everyone, of every party, would spend tomorrow emailing about it.
Don’t want to belabor this, especially as we agreed to rise above politics and suspend irony until the bailout goes through, or at least until dinner time, but it’s really too good to pass up. Katie Couric bores in on Sarah Palin’s much-mocked claim to foreign policy experience via proximity with Russia, which she’s never visited:
COURIC: Explain to me why that enhances your foreign policy credentials.
PALIN: Well, it certainly does because our– our next door neighbors are foreign countries. They’re in the state that I am the executive of. And there in Russia–
COURIC: Have you ever been involved with any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?
PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth. We– we do– it’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is– from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to– to our state.