The Republicans are in a real pickle.
First, the candidate they’re facing in November is the perfect antithesis of their unpopular incumbent, President Bush. Second, the man they’ve chosen to face Obama — John McCainn — is more like the diplomatic H.W. Bush than the reliably conservative George W. Third, Obama effectively blunted the best weapon they had against him — his inexperience in foreign policy — by picking the wise and well-regarded Joe Biden as his running mate, a guy who’s as big an authority on world affairs as Al Gore is on greenhouse gases.
This is the landscape in which McCain had to pick a running mate to give his campaign a new lease on life.
Despite close poll numbers now, the political winds in November will blow hard against the G.O.P. Their leader of eight years has reminded the country that the Republican trademark — low taxes and a strong military — really stand for high public debt and a more dangerous world.
What’s more, people want big change but McCain is all about continuity — he’s signaled he wouldn’t change much about Republican policy beyond staying the course in Iraq even more than before.
“In reality, so few [Hillary fans] would vote Republican just to see a Vice President in a pantsuit that Karl Rove could drive them all to the polls himself.”
Lastly, people feel the economy is in the outhouse. All of this means the Presidency is changing parties next year unless the Republicans can pull an elephant out of a hat.
Picking Sarah Palin is the first move in this new campaign. While McCain is pretending she has experience — 13 years — only two of these years were as Governor, and her entire state of Alaska has just 7% of the population of the Chicago metro area. It’s more likely he’s dropping the experience strategy and appealing to another audience.
Some commentators think McCain is going after Hillary Clinton fans. As if women are so tickled by the thought of a Vice President who can conceive a child that they’d vote for one no matter what she believed.
No way. Cable news pundits have burned lots of airtime chattering about these disaffected Hillary boosters, but less because of their numbers than the fact that the news director knows it makes for good TV. In reality, so few would vote Republican just to see a Vice President in a pantsuit that Karl Rove could drive them all to the polls himself.
More likely, McCain’s team has decided not to waste their time trying to chase the “middle” — you know, those uncommitted voters who somehow never know which party they’ll support till they’re alone in the booth. The fact is, many of them like Obama and believe all his change and hope rhetoric isn’t just hot air. In contrast, the 72-year-old Iraq war booster with too many homes to count simply doesn’t inspire that kind of optimism.
Karl Rove showed that the way to beat Democrats when most Americans prefer Democratic policies is to whip up the conservative base over “cultural” issues like God, gays, and guns. George W. Bush won in 2004 largely by convincing people that the Left would take away their guns, ban the word “God” in public, and hold gay marriage ceremonies in the White House Rose Garden. With this election’s top issues shaping up to be the economy and foreign policy — not handguns and hand-holding — McCain is clearly worried the base might stay home this November.
Enter Sarah Palin. She’s got no real foreign policy or military experience, and few people south of Juneau even knew of her until last week. But the Right’s inner circle knows her as a strong evangelical and lifelong member of the NRA — in short, a dependable ideologue.
What’s more, she has a non-threatening demeanor, unlike the strained, shifty smile of Dick Cheney. This is important, because Republican policies and free-market faith often treat those seeking hurricane relief as wanting a government “nanny,” and those hurting from the government’s economic policies as just a bunch of “whiners.” So the G.O.P. is always in search of someone who can put a human face on it all. Sarah Palin’s politics say “Dick Cheney” but her TV presence says “hockey mom.”
And this is the real reason McCain chose Governor Palin – to get the Right engaged in his candidacy. A President McCain would be a President Palin in waiting.
She could never win the Presidency today, given her inexperience and relatively extreme positions, but she could get there through succession — i.e., the passing of a President while in office. It’s this scenario — not so unlikely, given McCain’s age — which the party hopes will excite the base enough to get them to the polls. Even if she remains Vice President, she could constantly pull McCain to the right when reason gets the better of him.
Before McCain chose Palin, conservatives had little to excite them about November. A President Obama, on the one hand, might remind the country that government can work if someone competent is in charge. And a President McCain, who only recently fully endorsed the failed ideas of President Bush, is simply unreliable to the Right. But now, another conservative evangelical in the mold of President Bush could ascend to the Oval Office (and sooner than eight years from now) – with John McCain serving as the bridge.
Building that bridge — to another another era of Christianizing and bankrupting the American government — will take a lot of spin, more culture battles, and a lot more cynical mockery of any hope and optimism coming from the mouth of a Democrat.
Picking Sarah Palin is a Hail Mary pass, a low-probability gamble with a big potential payout. And if the G.O.P. faithful are looking for a sign from above, they’ve probably noticed that Hurricane Gustav is due to land tomorrow in New Orleans, exactly three years after Hurricane Katrina, and on the same day as the start of the Republican National Convention.
What a pickle.
The top two presidential candidates appeared Sunday in a forum at the Saddleback Church in southern California, where one religious figure – megachurch pastor and best-selling bookwriter, Rick Warren – controlled the questioning.
Why, in a country rooted in escape from religious persecution, should the presidential hopefuls appear before a religious, sectarian crowd to justify their candidacies? While not explicitly asking McCain and Obama to pay tribute to his God, Pastor Warren inevitably encouraged religious pandering. And McCain, who has been finding religion just as the election draws closer, was more than happy to bow down. (McCain, after one of many anecdotes: “Could I finally say, it took a lot of prayer? It took a lot of prayer.”)
The next President is likely to face a host of issues requiring an appreciation of science – clean energy, biomedical ethics issues, etc. Neither candidate accepted an invitation to Science Debate 2008, but they both jumped at the chance to widen their slice of the evangelical pie. Sure, many science issues have an ethical component, but which would you rather know about a candidate – that he understands the nuclear component of the fragile standoff between India and Pakistan, or that Jesus Christ died for his sins?
(He did, claimed Obama, and he added, “I am redeemed through Him.”)
Much of the mainstream coverage concerned the fact that McCain wasn’t sealed in a “cone of silence,” as the pastor claimed he was, while Warren was questioning Barack Obama. McCain was in his motorcade for the first half of Obama’s interrogation – was he listening in on the radio, hearing in advance the questions he’d be asked?
“Choosing a CEO to advise McCain on international trade and macroeconomics is a bit like picking the head of Smith & Wesson to advise him on nuclear policy.”
All that’s moot, because Warren himself admitted he fed many of the questions to the two of them in advance.
No, the real story was in the candidates answers, but the media focused on the “cone of silence” kerfuffle and which one “appeared more at ease” in the house of the faithful.
To sum up each candidate’s responses, from my perspective, McCain tried to claim the mantle of Reagan, five times by my count, (“Our best days are ahead of us,”) yet ended up channeling the current President in his cocky self-certainty (Life simply begins “at the moment of conception.” “If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that.”)
Obama was thoughtful and admitted the complexities of the world and the limits of human power. (“Solving big problems, like for example energy, is not going to be easy . . . and there’s going to be a price to pay.” “… Anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention.” And, “Answering that question [when life begins] with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”)
Rather than thinking about the questions and answering them, McCain merely told the largely conservative choir what they wanted to hear.
One of the oddest of these answers, though, came in response to the very first question, “Who are the three wisest people that you know that you would rely on heavily in an administration?”
With his admitted knowledge gap on “the economy,” McCain had to name someone who could help him on that front. The one he chose as his wisest would-be adviser was Meg Whitman, the recent CEO of eBay.
Whoa, there! I’m sure Whitman is a bright woman; it takes a lot of management skill and industry knowledge to lead a tech company through turbulent times. But choosing a CEO to advise McCain on international trade and macroeconomics is a bit like picking the head of Smith & Wesson to advise him on nuclear policy.
Ms. Whitman might consult any Fortune 500 company well, but the similarities between industry and government are small. Sure, many glibly say that if the government were run like a corporation, it would be much more efficient, but the current President’s marriage of the public and private has led to rampant overcharging and less oversight, and hurt programs that already worked well.
In economic matters, shouldn’t the President look to an economist for advice? (Economist, noun: an expert in the social science of economics). One of the top two candidates for President confuses business with economics, and the media don’t blink.
But McCain’s answer of an eBay CEO as one of his three wisest advisers was less of a frank answer and more of a message to the Right – a culturally loaded statement suggesting that in the White House he’ll favor business over all, continuing the policies of the current President.
Just as society worships celebrities (not because they’re the best singers or actors, but for what they represent – beauty, wealth, fame), many on the Right worship corporate leaders. Not because their business is so important – after all, eBay doesn’t make anything, it merely makes online selling more efficient – but because of what the CEO represents to them: private enterprise and the right to achieve unlimited wealth (even if that wealth is subsidized and insured by the public).
It was billed as a way to learn the moral foundations of the top candidates. But the Saddleback Forum was really a rhetorical contest, held against a creepy backdrop of religious conformity.
McCain won, according to the media. And their score key, we now see, favored posturing over sincerity, cockiness over honesty, and simplicity over thought.
McCain’s poll numbers rose, as did Pastor Warren’s level of influence. But the other 304,935,655 of us aren’t any better for it.
The world expects the odd invasion of one country by another from time to time. But only by “rogue” states with unaccountable leaders more concerned with power than international law: Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990, Uganda invading Rwanda in the same year.
But the large Democracy of Russia is now taking a breather, it says, after five days of pummeling its tiny neighbor to the south, Georgia. A member of the G8 and the UN Security Council, and a recognized nuclear power, invaded a sovereign nation.
Unprecedented? No. But it should have been.
Civilized people never thought this kind of military adventurism was exactly kosher, but President Bush was right to say that Russia’s attack is “unacceptable in the 21st century.” That big organization with all the flags out front was designed to try to make obsolete the kind of international aggression which leads to children getting killed on their way to school, refugee crises, and larger wars.
“These would-be thugs should make their case on the world stage first, and if they can’t persuade the other democracies of their ‘need’ for war, there’s a good chance they should be pre-empted.”
But he had a good reason to invade his neighbor, President Medvedev proclaimed. He’s just ensuring the security of Russian peacekeepers and civilians inside Georgia.
(“Security” is a magical word which allows leaders in suits to order up any amount of violence.)
To be fair, the disputed regions are largely pro-Russian, and last week Georgia attacked them to re-assert its control. But Russia’s invasion across the internationally recognized border was grossly disproportionate, by most accounts.
After five days of bombings – “pre-planned, cold-blooded,” according to Georgia’s president – Medvedev announced the end. “The goal of the operation has been achieved.”
(“Mission accomplished,” he might say.)
While it’s a tragedy for Georgia’s people, it’s a lesson for the Bush administration and for misguided pride in unilateralism. Like Medvedev, Bush ordered the invasion of a sovereign nation. Like Medvedev, Bush didn’t feel he needed “international permission.” Like Medvedev, Bush claimed to be justified in the killings that would follow.
Obviously worried about the similarities to the invasion of Iraq, Bush carefully qualified Georgia as a “democratic government elected by its people” – as if it’s always been fine to take over any country that’s not a democracy.
Even if Bush’s excuses for “pre-emptive” invasion had turned out to be real – if, for instance, they had found a real bioweapons lab or Al Qaeda link in Iraq – breaking international law without winning over the international community was a giant step backwards in the effort to convince countries to act civilized in an increasingly dangerous world.
But time has shown those pre-invasion excuses to be bogus. Not only was the U.S. under Bush acting like a rogue nation, but it was also shown to have acted disingenuously. Remember the phrase, “Together, if possible; alone, if necessary”? What the conservatives proudly and solemnly hailed at the time as a necessary war has been exposed for what it was from the start, an unnecessary military adventure, paid for in blood by the people of Iraq and America.
The point of international law is that you can’t trust a single leader – whether a Medvedev or a Bush – to grant himself a “just” exception to civilized behavior. These would-be thugs should make their case on the world stage first, and if they can’t persuade most of the rest of the world of their “need” for war, there’s a good chance they should be pre-empted.
No doubt Russian President Medvedev (and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Bush believed was a stand-up guy) was emboldened by the experience of President Bush, who broke international law and paid no price for it. If the U.S. won’t be bound by common-sense rules of foreign policy, why should anyone else?
Sure enough, rather than unambiguous condemnation of Russia, we’re seeing support for the way of the rogue nation. Germany, France, and Britain, while calling for a ceasefire, have “avoided directly condemning Russia.” And rather than saying that Russia is isolating itself from the international community, Italy’s foreign minister said, “This war has pushed Georgia further away . . . from Europe” [my italics]. Russia, it seems, is just too important of a rogue state to offend by insisting on a principle that even the U.S. has abandoned.
And how seriously are Putin and Medvedev taking President Bush’s condemnation when the elephant in the room is Bush’s invasion, also illegal, and also fought in the name of security?
However things turn out in Iraq – whether it staggers on for years in violence and dysfunction, or develops into a functional, reasonably stable Democracy – the legacy of George W. Bush’s invasion will be the same: foreign policy waged through violent unilateralism; more war, not less.
A President’s legacy is not supposed to materialize for years after he leaves Washington. President Bush’s is emerging already.