Monday, October 20, 2008

Waiting for the Second Coming... of Reagan?

Michael Gerson laments the collapse of John McCain's campaign, in a piece that is 80% of the way to reading like a parody.
For all their talk about respecting the constraints of reality, conservatives generally hold to the great man theory of history. It is leftists who embrace economic determinism. Conservatives read biographies of Winston Churchill and wait in constant expectation for the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Charisma and truth, in this view, can always overwhelm material conditions.

And this often leads to the small man theory of electoral setbacks. A losing Republican is not merely unfortunate; he must be incompetent, politically blind, and betrayed by his bumbling underlings. If he is not a winner, he is a fool.
This reminds me a bit of the evolution I've seen in a lot of idealistic people who become fascinated with politics at too young an age. The first time he votes, he's backing the great leader of the best party - the man who is going to save the country. A few elections later he's voting for "the lesser of two evils" and hoping that a great man emerges for the next election. A few elections after that, and he's realized that you have only two choices - picking "the lesser of two evils" or not voting. The candidates are human, and humans are flawed. The parties are flawed. The system is flawed. And you gotta live with it.

I think both parties try to present their presidential candidates as a "great man", and many voters happily oblige them by buying into a mindset that their candidate is going to fix the world, while the opposing candidate is going to destroy it (metaphorically, and sometimes perhaps literally, speaking). More sophisticated voters are apt to recognize that while great leaders can transform a nation, no matter what the political parties say, it's unlikely that they're voting for a great leader. They're also apt to note, perhaps particularly if they're conservative, that a great leader out to transform a country can take things in the wrong direction. The opposing party is often happy to emphasize that point - vote for Barry Goldwater and... boom!

Meanwhile, how many attacks have been launched on Obama's supporters for being a "cult of personality", entranced by the man but ignorant of his policies? For goodness sake, McCain even had a "second coming" ad about Obama's rise. Now we're to believe that this conduct, attributed to Obama's supporters, represents their acting like conservatives?

As for "leftists" embracing "economic determinism", it's almost as if Gerson is trying to pick marxist terms out of Wikipedia to create... I'm not sure what. Which "leftists" believe that economics are at the root of all political issues or problems? You point out, "It's the economy, stupid", and suddenly you're a marxist? Then what of Gerson's own argument:
The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide.
Clearly, then, you can be something other than a "leftist" and recognize the role - at times the central role - of economic factors in political events and world history. You might even enjoy talking about this - for example, crediting Reagan with winning the cold war by bankrupting the USSR. And what does Gerson believe that "Club for Growth"-type tax policies are about, but the idea that you can create an economic circumstance that forces a political outcome. What of the cult of privatization, ignoring the contexts that markets create efficiencies in favor of a delusional mantra that private entities will always perform better than public entities?

No, really, not all conservatives believe in "the great man theory of history", let alone see it as desirable. There are almost no actual marxists in the United States, and none that I'm aware of with any political influence. And both parties correctly see that economics play a role, often a significant role, in politics - while simultaneously avoiding any endorsement of Marxist theory. Go figure.

Why did Gerson attempt to frame the election as a competition between hero-worshiping "conservatives" and marxist "leftists"? Because:
While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.
Earth to Gerson: Marxists don't play any discernible role in American politics, and neither they nor their theories win elections in center-right countries.

I was amused by Gerson's reaction to other pundits, as he complains about their advice to McCain:
If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-11s, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent's ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family -- or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity -- the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must be himself.
I'm not sure who the first target is, but the "buy airtime" comment seems to be about Kristol, and the "smear, baby smear" comment seems to be about Krauthammer. (When even Michael Gerson recognizes your advice as bad....)

Gerson is also much to quick to blame the economy for McCain's problems at the poll. It's been very important, certainly, but there's a lot more to McCain's problem.
In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points.
I think McCain's problems started with his leading campaign tactic - one Gerson continues to endorse:
But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.
Political junkies forget that, although political buzz and ads can have a significant impression on the voting public, for many people the election doesn't begin until after the political conventions. McCain ran a pre-debate campaign that was largely premised on the notion that, "I'm so much better than him, all I should have to do to win is list my name on the ballot." Then he picked Gov. Palin as his running mate and enjoyed a brief surge in the polls. Then she was interviewed by Charlie Gibson, and independent voters started to shift in large numbers from McCain to Obama. By September 17, he had lost his lead. A couple of days later, we met Henry Paulson's $750 billion bailout plan. McCain was down in the polls, but only by a couple of points - within the margin of error.
Following the onset of the crisis, McCain was left with flawed options. He reasonably chose to work for a responsible bailout while hoping the markets would stabilize quickly.
McCain's slide in the polls was continuing. As the nation was introduced to the financial crisis, McCain engaged in some obvious grandstanding, noisily "suspending" his campaign to feign taking leadership of negotiations for a bail-out package. Except he didn't really suspend his campaign, didn't really contribute to the debate over the first bail-out proposal, and came across as trying to grab headlines to obscure his diminishing poll numbers.

Then, on September 26, Obama stood on the same stage as McCain and managed to not only hold his own, but in many ways to appear more presidential than McCain. McCain's "lightweight celebrity" theme crashed and burned and his campaign seemed to lose focus. Recall at this moment that Gerson's complaint is not that McCain's standing in the polls slipped, but that his favorables slipped. The performance of the markets played a part in the erosion of his support, but I suspect that the slide in his favorables had much more to do with his grandstanding on the fiscal crisis, his debate performance as contrasted with Obama's, and the fact that attacks that may well have been fair if raised at a different time or in a different manner seemed small, mean-spirited and misplaced within the context of a major financial crisis - they seemed timed and constructed to try to overcome a slide in the polls. How much of that is perception and how much is reality? It doesn't matter - that perception caused McCain's favorables to slide.
(Can anyone doubt that the past political association of McCain with a right-wing terrorist would attract some attention?)
Letterman had fun with that one.

Gerson's column seems to have three goals: Reinvigorate the failed "Obama's a lightweight celebrity" theme;1 reinvent McCain as something "close enough" to a great man and second coming of Reagan; and to try to remove the economy and the financial crisis as bona fide election issues. Is it just me, or did he fail on all counts?
1. Gerson attacks Obama, claiming,
His only recent accomplishment has been to say questionable things in the debates - attacking Republicans and capitalism for a credit meltdown congressional Democrats helped to cause, blaming America for Iran's nuclear ambitions, talking piously about genocide prevention when his own early Iraq policies might have resulted in genocide - all while sounding supremely reassuring and presidential.
The first? That's what passes, in this nation, as "good politics". As Gerson concedes, the government's contribution to the meltdown was bipartisan in nature, but this is the season for finger-pointing. The second, a silly exaggeration by Gerson. The third? What's Gerson smoking?

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