Why American Presidents Must Pander To Crazy People
Short answer: there are crazy people here in abundance. In fact, they've become our #1 export. They're homicidally ignorant and will stay that way. The funny thing is, the crazier and more abundant they are, the more motivated they are to vote. If, as I assume, you are mostly sane and really, really don't like this fact, you might consider working in Switzerland, which is always looking for good contractors, is beautiful, peaceful, pays top Euro, and has an awesome state-run pension plan. Oh, and everybody who's Swiss is rich. I tried working a spell there and wholeheartedly recommend it. As a bonus, the politics in Switzerland are so boring they don't elect Prime Ministers, they just pass the office along round-robin style. You can ask a Swiss who their next PM will be and they'll purse their lips, scowl at you for asking an impudent question, and after an embarrassing pause say, "These things do not concern you. But I think perhaps Appenzell is next. They haven't had it for a while."
Between July 4th and November 4th, the Obama campaign will move uncomfortably right in order to cramp McCain's political space. Obama has already branded himself in the archetypal mold of JFK, as a fresh, genuine leader unsullied by palace life. He risks diluting a successful brand and dissatisfying Democrats enough so they'll vote for Nader. His potential reward is winning the Independent voters who usually decide elections, and perhaps more critically, reducing Republican motivation to vote at all. While I don't quite expect Team Obama to start singing country songs ("By golly gosh darn damn, my fellow Americains. Pick up the truck and fry the bacon, we got a hoe-down in the makin!") or riding in an M1Abrams tank, it's not a hard calculation to see they'll be going center-right. Into the Landslide Territory.
Voters in democracies long for authenticity from candidates and leaders, making it paradoxically easier to exploit that longing. My main criticism of Obama's pandering speech to the Merchants of Mid-East Death, the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), was that he forgot to wear a yarmulke. Israelis have a big vote, and maybe more consequently, it would be child's play for them to set up a massive car bomb at a Detroit campaign stop and hang blame on the 250,000 Arabs who live there. During an election, the only reasonable question to ask AIPAC is,"How can we make you happier?" The competing candidates have to read the desires in America's cultural landscape like a General's staff surveys the battlescape of a military campaign. Their positioning, or manufactured authenticity, will have much more to do with the voting blocks than with themselves, or about any fundamental policies, and both McCain and Obama are prepared to imitate Silly Putty.
Obama will be taking his daughters wild boar hunting, doing 200 sit-ups per day and getting a tattoo that says, "Freedom Isn't Free" across his newly ripped abdominals. These details will be leaked to the press at the appropriate time. McCain will donate to sperm banks to demonstrate his virility and tap out press conference answers with a chunk of concrete in Morse code, just like he did in the Hanoi Hilton. Those are the kind of stunts it takes to get the Marginal Middle vote in this country, and if you don't believe me, picture Hillary Clinton downing shots of uncut Jim Beam whiskey. She did it without throwing up, it was pandering at its most transparent. It worked, and that was with Democrats. Obama is going to piss sane people off because he has no choice.
To wit, the progressive blogsphere is seething with disappointment over his vote supporting FISA immunity, i.e., that telecom providers cannot be prosecuted for spying on citizens for Bush-Cheney in the name of national insecurity, and by extension that the Two-Headed Dicks will never be punished for their crimes. This betrayal came after he had stoked progressive hopes by making "restoration of the Constitution" promises in his earlier campaign. Well...it's no longer the same campaign. Now he's running against a Republican, and he doesn't want to repeat the horrible, suicidal strategic mistakes of Gore and Kerry, who thought they could run as slightly different versions of the Bobbsy Twins but lost to the Lowest Common Dubnominator. As Obama put it to his staff after wrapping up his party's nomination, he will "have to be a better candidate" to win the general election. Voting for FISA immunity was clearly the right thing to do as a candidate because he took a sure angle of attack completely away from McCain.
This is the brutality. This is how the brutality works: at minimum, Obama must be proud that Jesus was an American. If he isn't, then he doesn't want to run this asylum. Policies can always be fixed if you're President, especially now, when a President can legally have people buried alive. But we'll discuss Congress at another time. Obama, explaining his FISA vote, said he'll go back and change immunity after he seizes power and runs the country on Black Panther Party principles. Whether he ultimately does so or not, campaigns are about winning elections, winning requires maneuvering, and maneuvering means carefully changing positions to maximum advantage so you choke off your opponent's windpipe.
It's all about claiming ground, seizing resources, and blunting the enemy's advances--just like war, as de Toqueville remarked about our two-party democratic system, the elections are typically winner-take-all. The American way of choosing Presidents has many egregious flaws, but it's somewhat like an institutional revolution--the people who bet on the wrong horse get to eat the winner's manure for at least 4 years, and the people who won get to feed it to them. God knows I'm sick of what Republican shit tastes like, so please bear that in mind when I'm dismissive about casting votes for shining knights in principled armor who ride around trailing Sancho Panza. No, this is my country: remember how Dubya said he was the most bipartisan candidate since Errol Flynn, a Uniter not a Divider? Hahahaha! Yeah. That was sincere, all right. And yet, Independents bought it.
It's understandable for our politicians to be inauthentic, to hide un-folksy things about themselves. It's also no coincidence that most of them are lawyers who were trained to use the camouflage of sincerity like ninjas are trained to use night. Besides, falsely posturing for gain is a human repertoire. My son, a.k.a. Lord Running Boy, has been known to test various crying expressions out in front of mirrors, most recently in the passenger-side rear-view mirror of our car before an outing, like he was doing a quick rehearsal for later use: "OK. If they say no to ice cream, I'll hit 'em with this, a variation of You Stepped on My Hand." Politicians are like that, only they're seasoned professionals who have competed in front of audiences for money. Is it any wonder their addresses are outcome-oriented?
Obama writes most of his own speeches and actually understands what he's saying. In itself, this is odd, and is in no way necessary to win an election. For example, even before he had Alzheimer's, Ronald Reagan never had a full grasp over his speeches; he was a Hollywood studio actor who had specialized in emoting sincerity, concentrating conviction, good cheer, and in not blowing his lines. Every speech was posturing, with precisely the same earnestness as when he did cigarette ads, which you'd think would've been worth remembering.
We fall for this because we want to. Ronald Reagan was only halfway decent at the act, yet he's revered as Morning in America, the best politician of our lifetime, The Gipper, destroyer of communism, Mr. Genuine, consummate orator, Mr. Likeable, Uncle Ronnie. Yet he was the same neurotic actor freak with Miss Anorexia Nervosa for a wife, whose children all hated him and who gave previous speeches like these:
This Christmas, I'm sending Chesterfields to all my friends. That's the merriest Christmas any smoker can have--Chesterfield mildness plus no unpleasant after-taste!Unpleasant after-taste? As Hunter S. Thompson said in the opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "You poor bastard. Wait'll you start seeing the bats." Obama needed soaring rhetoric to win Democratic voters over and displace the entrenched proprietorship of an ineffective, highly corrupt party. Check, done. He doesn't need much of the same to beat a dogged, ill-tempered Pug Party which can't move or think very well and, at this point, just charges forward to kill. The last thing he needs is to play up his progressive authenticity, which he possesses, but which is now far more of a liability than a strength. He has to "pass."
His overall election strategy will be to deride McCain as "predictable," and to associate him tightly, inescapably with the sordid deeds of the Republican party, a body arguably responsible for the all-encompassing mess we're in. Even if you and I know the reality is far more complex than that, it will negate whatever advantages McCain has. Shorthand: Republicans Are F***ers. McCain Is A Republican. Dumb War. Bad Economy. High Gas Prices. Bad Ju-Ju. Change!
Blaming an entire party and welding your opponent to it is straight out of Reagan's famous "There you go again!" debate playbook vs. Carter, made into a theme. McCain's only unassailable differentiation lies in repeating, "When I was a prisoner of war..." If he does that much more, even the denizens of the Reich Wing will want to gag, and it plays right into the Predictable Brand. As it is branded as Just Another Republican, it's very likely the McCain campaign will be forced into wild errors. (Probably their best play is to brand Obama as a radical socialist who is hiding his real agenda, since there's much in his past to validate that view. Going there was a mixed bag for the Hillary campaign, so they didn't.) In any case, the Pugs will have to make an early, emphatic retreat behind the Ugly Fear Line which, once again, plays into the Obama campaign's strategy. They're running a different race, one stressing generational politics. They actually want the opposition to run commercials with black look-alikes posing as muggers and carjackers: "Go ahead, bring on Willie Horton. It'll mean you're screwed."
Obama doesn't need to abandon his JFK approach, his positive campaigning or Brand of Change. He can introduce new issues under that umbrella and maintain its overall tone. His message, sense of timing and tactics seem similar to FDR's, who also realized when an estate-wide political transformation was required and was able to craft and execute a successful bipartisan message. What Obama must do is augment his progressive themes with pragmatism so he "becomes" more like the country he's asking to elect him. Doing so will box McCain in and blunt his strong suits: security, bipartisanship, and knowing how to bomb civilians.
You can bet the Obama staffers keenly recall how Hillary took votes away when she started morphing into John Wayne and making off-hand remarks like "Dust my britches and call me a tumbleweed." The tough posturing gets results because it assuages the massive insecurity of the American psyche. It's also practical. Independents are often swayed by tough talk because it saves them time, and they devote about two minutes per month to thinking about politics to being with. Republicans are swayed by it because they spend all their time debating which gun oil is best at protecting rifling grooves from the corrosive effects of black powder. And it makes them feel like home.
I'm sure politicians enjoy it when they get to be honest, as habitually lying or withholding real belief tires out most souls, but it's a dangerous luxury in an election. Honesty is beside the point. The point is to get votes and take power. I love Dennis Kucinich for his bravery and getting impeachment on the table. As President, they'd love him in Switzerland a lot better. He'd be perfect for Appenzell, a region there famous for its short people. I am very fond of Ralph Nader, but must admit to mixed feelings about how he happened to personally screw me and my family, not to mention 20 million Iraqis. Bemoan their fates, and ours, rage against the machine, sure, but please--we live in America. This place is bonkers, and still in massive, murderous denial. We must accept that the core issues, such as the fact that we've already pissed away an empire, are well into the process of killing the earth, and are the most naively, sociopathically cruel nation in the world--won't be directly discussed during the election. Even if we, the candidates, and their staffs all know damned well it's there and think about it every day.
Bill Clinton once scornfully described Obama as "a roll of the dice," and it was the nicest thing I've ever heard about a Presidential candidate. It meant there was a chance for some change. There still is. Right now, however, there's a deal to seal. There is plenty of room for the OB campaign to move "Right" and capture voters concerned with toughness precisely because of his early, outspoken anti-war position. That was a great position. To the Independent and undecided voters, it's also ancient history. How, they ask, is he going to get us out of Iraq? "Cautiously, manfully, steadily," will be the answer. (In truth it's going to be next to impossible for him or anyone else to completely get the US out of Iraq because oil is so militarily and economically important.) His campaign will adapt the rhetoric of Republican toughness and spin it into something else, maybe something like this: "They were Dumb-Tough. We are Smart-Tough." I'll hate it as much as you will, but to use an appropriately American metaphor, it'll win the election just like Grant took Richmond.