Monday, June 09, 2008

I'll put my political analysis up against his any day

Now that Jesse's back at Pandagon the rest of us are going to have to pull up our socks and get in early with our political analysis or we are going to be reduced to putting up little signs that say "yeah, what he said." I have been meaning to write something about this since a discussion over at Balloon Juice about whether McCain will be able to Straight Talk his way to the White House. After reading Free Ride: John McCain and the Media I can unequivocally state: no, he can't. McCain's political life has been lived on two tracks--national and local, and in two different kinds of media events--speeches and off the cuff bull sessions. These two things don't exist in the same ratio in a national campaign as they do in McCain's former life as a Senator.
As Brock and Waldman point out in excruciating detail after some false starts McCain perfected the "act which isn't an act" of always being off the record and laid back and chatty and charming with his (national) press crew even as he perfected the art of stonewalling, hectoring, and threatening the local press. The national press corps which tended to interact with him in Washington about international or national level policy issues, or around the campaign, prided itself on its close ties with McCain which it mistook for journalism. Personal contact, ability to call him "John," his willingness to call you up and shoot the shit with you all substituted for an actual interest in his actual policies and pals. At the local level where journalists were covering local corruption and local economic issues and where they might accidentally or purposefully interview a variety of McCain's political friends and self made enemies the same message control could not be exerted. McCain's tactics with the local press ranged from intimacy and friendship to hectoring, screaming, and threats.

During the 2000 campaign he warned national press corps figures not to bother with local press and political people and he literally ordered the Arizona press corps off the bus and forced them to follow along behind on their own dime (I wish someone would write a book on this called "No Barbecue for Me). This almost schizophrenic split in treatment was inevitable because any journalist who was covering actual issues and corruption locally simply had too many other sources of information and too many other stakeholders to fall completely under McCain's charm offensive. While the national and international press corps, as we see in the book and on the campaign trail, are satisfied once they decide whether a candidate is "authentic" and "good for the country" or "inauthentic" and "bad for the press corps" to simply tell and retell the same romantic narrative to the gullible public. Brock and Waldman show how the neo Homeric epithet "didyaknowhewasavietnamwarvetfiveyearsinaprisoncamp" was the "rosy fingered dawn" of McCain's campaign coverage. And that his actual policy prescriptions, the number of his friends who went to jail while he was in congress, and his willingness to be bought and stay bought by lobbyists were all ignored in favor of this larger heroic narrative. (Over at Tapped Mark Schmitt had a great catch when he noted that two papers had reported McCain as having "thrown lobbyists" over some matter when a closer acquaintance with the actual facts would reveal that he had thrown some lobbyists out because he had already been bought and paid for by the other guy's lobbyists. Sea Green incorruptible its not, but it works for the national press.)

But one reason why this division War Hero McCain vs. Lobbyist McCain works for the national press corps and for campaign coverage generally is that the Press can keep the shoot shittin' John McCain of their fly boy fantasies separate from the real McCain who is a corrupt and angry conservative tool of right wing corporate interests. They do that by letting the "McCain they know" stand in for the McCain who actually makes speeches on policy topics. They know that most readers and tv viewers don't get the chance, even if they wanted to, to just sit down and read a policy paper or a speech. That's generally the case and I'm sure that McCain has not given a well vetted, long, detailed, policy speech in a Senatorial race for years. But is this really possible in retail Presidential politics today, especially at the level of the two Nominees? Obama has people standing in line to hear him give a speech and they get what they came for. They don't rush home to read the press accounts of the speech they are turning out in droves to get some of that numinous charisma all for themselves. In Hindu terms they are out for some "Darshan"--the auspicious glance of the god's eyes. If McCain is going to get over on this electorate this year he is going to have to compete head to head with Obama's barn storming ways. We know he can't do it financially and may not be able to do it physically or mentally, but the truth is he can't even do it rhetorically. Its not his style.

He has a style which, from all reports, works very well with individuals and small groups and over a long period of time. But he has never put himself out to learn how to make a great speech and his cozening ways don't scale up. Brock and Waldman have some funny examples of what happens every time a new reporter gets on the bus and needs to be seduced, pronto, before they ask uncomfortable questions. But at the level of the voter the retail value of "Thanks for asking, you little jerk?" is rather limited. I'd be the last to deny that American mobs, like any other mob, love to turn on a weaker individual or group but McCain's history of invective shows that although he's not a reliably "kiss up, kick down" kind of guy he is also not at all careful to figure out which target victim can be sacrificed to the mob long term. Because the mob, by definition, keeps changing its composition and its mind. A safe victim, like that lone Indian kid in Allen's "macaca" gibe suddenly becomes an utterly dangerous choice when the video goes viral and the "in group" of guffawing white guys becomes a fringe group within a larger multiracial and multiclass society.

So far McCain's press buddies have been able to explain a lot away for him. But they can't explain away the sheer awfulness of his speeches and his delivery and his ideas once they are presented to actual voters. At this point the only thing McCain can do is hide from the voters as much as possible, speak in to small groups, and hope to get free good press from his friends. That worked pretty well as he failed upwards in the Republican Primary. Essentially, all he did was keep showing up until the others had knocked themselves out or run into debt. But against Obama can this strategy work? I doubt it. Even the national press doesn't love this guy enough to follow him around the country making speeches like the most recent one. And I don't think think he's going to be lucky enough to have some budding Karl Rove tell him to announce that he's "giving up speeches" until our troops are home from Iraq. That act that isn't an act actually writes itself as a campaign strategy. It plays into the Republican as Chuck Norris fantasy that the right wing circulates endlessly in those emails. You know: McCain's such a great campaigner he doesn't need to campaign! McCain's defence policies are so strong that he will simply refuse to defend himself! McCain's the "strong silent type" and doesn't need to explain himself to the American people.

But if McCain were lucky enough to have Karl Rove or any other junior league Lee Atwater at his side he never would have given the lime jello speech. As my mother pointed out the Republican money guys haven't gone away, even if their voters are hiding under the blankets. They could have bought a village and bussed it in for that speech if they'd wanted to. They could have paid starving migrant workers to come in and embroider dehydrated babies into an American Flag if they didn't want to pay full freight for American workers, I mean voters. But at the very least they could have used a victrola and a bicycle parade to whip up crowd fervor. If they didn't do that, I don't think they are going to bother to give McCain the backing he needs to get the speechwriters to lie for him on the campaign trail. They are saving their money for the more pliable, reliable, and still childishly oppositional Republicans left in office after the coming massacre. Better return on the conservative dollar, no doubt.

This would be wishful thinking on my part but I actually want McCain to fight the best conservative fight he can, and waste as much conservative money as he can in high conservative style because only in that way can Obama and whatever his new progressive coalition is coalesce around real progressive ideas. And only in that way can a stake be driven through the heart of McCain's actual policies and that of his corporate masters. If McCain falls out for lack of money, or for sheer spite (and I personally think he's going to quit in a rage sometime before the actual November election) the voters won't have a real chance to reject bush/mccain-ism. And that would be a pity. Maybe I'll send the guy five bucks and a pitiful letter expressing my undying devotion to the cause of endless war, no health care, potholes in public works, and poor public education. Or better yet, lets start a "McCain-needs-to-speak-in-my-town" movement with letters to the editor demanding that Senator McCain speak all over the country as frequently and as visibly as possible. This zombie conservativism can only be killed when we cut its head off so it needs a very visible head at least until the voters start paying attention.