Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why Isn't Obama Soaring?


I don't ordinarily pay much attention to Maureen Dowd, but she raises an issue today that should be addressed, and is in fact addressed in part by her column. Why hasn't Obama been able to deliver an early knock-out punch to McCain?

When I say it's addressed in part in Dowd's column, I don't mean directly. I mean through her trademark clever rhetoric, backhanded compliments, and standard depiction of Democrats as effete. When she turns her sights on Obama, commenting on his recent international tour, she states,
Some news analyses of his trip wondered “Where’s the Bounce?” The old Hillary refrain - why can’t he close the deal against a supposedly flawed opponent - echoes.
Why would that refrain echo? It was only a few months ago that the Clinton campaign was arguing that Obama was the flawed candidate. Are we to forget who closed that deal?

Here we have Dowd personifying two of the problems Obama faces:
  • Reporters and commentators who are more interested in the campaign itself than they are in the substantive issues underlying the race - the candidate's platforms, ideas, and proposals; and

  • Reporters and commentators who want to make this a personality contest, but based upon their own prejudices and preconceptions as opposed to the actual personalities of the candidates. McCain's incredible gaffes on foreign policy issues are ignored, but the slightest misstep by Obama during his travels would have been seized upon as "proof" that he's unfit for the Presidency.

Yesterday's column by Richard Cohen also exemplifies these flaws in the coverage of the campaign. Cohen praises McCain for taking actions that typically helped him politically and were at worst neutral, while attacking Obama for having the happy coincidence that his braver political stances (like McCain's) happened to coincide with the views of his constituency. He's so wedded to the notion of McCain the "maverick" and "straight talker" that he implies McCain was pained by his need to flip-flop and pander. He accuses Obama of a lack of loyalty when a "position or person becomes a political liability. (Names available upon request.)" - this is supposed to be taken seriously? Of course we want the names. If there's any substance to this accusation, why is his column nothing but fluff?

Cohen's worst sin is the same as Dowd's - he won't look past the latest campaign ads or his own preconceptions of the candidates to state why one is better than the other. Is there some reason Cohen needs people to spoon feed him a list of Obama's accomplishments? If he wants to know what Obama stands for, is there some reason that he can't simply go to Obama's website and read his platform? Is that too much work? Is it not worth their time to be substantive? Is it that much more fun to be derisive? (Yes ,it's a two-way street; it just happens that McCain is getting the benefit of this right now - the "come from behind maverick" versus "the guy who can't close the deal.")

Another problem frequently gets raised by others. Hillary Clinton got some negative attention for it. Chris Matthews can't stop talking about it. Obama's "problem with white people". This can be taken in one of two ways - as a suggestion that, unlike others, white people are particularly perceptive, attuned to the issues, and able to see through the dross. This special awareness makes them better able to perceive the real differences between the candidates, and they aren't sold on Obama. The other way to look at it is that white people have a problem voting for a candidate who isn't white. If that's the case, Obama's going to have a tough time getting the "bounce" he needs because he isn't able to change his skin color.

If we are to be honest about this, we can concede that there is a block of voters that will not vote for Obama because of his race, period, end of story. There's also a block of voters predisposed against Obama because of his race, but that could be inspired to support him anyway based upon the issues. It would be nice if the media would start focusing on the issues that distinguish McCain from Obama, so voters are better able to pick a candidate based on those issues. But instead we get silly columns that ignore Obama's accomplishments in favor of the "we're gambling on the unknown" narrative, or ask why he can't "close the deal" with that group of undecided voters who don't even know what the deal involves. Oh, it's not that there isn't some truth to that narrative - if there weren't it wouldn't stick - but Cohen parrots it and twists the few facts he knows to fit his thesis, rather than making even a slight effort to uncover facts that might paint a different picture.

In a sense, this is the same thing we saw eight years ago, with the media selling us the nonsensical notion that there was no real difference between Bush and Gore, save perhaps that you would rather "have a beer with" Bush. Why not a column taking a hard look at the candidate's respective health policies? Their economic policies, and how they would deal with the massive (in my book inexcusable) fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration? At energy policy? Jobs, education, or immigration? The nation's crumbling infrastructure?

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