Sorry for the sporadic blogging lately. I have a really good excuse though: haven’t felt like blogging.
But this article got me thinking. It seems that Christopher Buckley, son of William F., is voting for Obama:
John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, “We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.” This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget “by the end of my first term.” Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?
This is a common theme. McCain used to be a good and decent man, but then he changed during this campaign. I tend to think that story line is exaggerated. Compared to the usual run of brain-dead, plutocratic, religious fanatics so typical of Washington Republicans, McCain distinguished himself by occasionally showing signs of having a conscience. But that is not evidence of the man’s great character. It is evidence of how low our standards have become.
But I’ll accept the basic premise that the McCain of this election year has certain personality traits that were, at least, well hidden in his previous career. And that got me thinking. Both Al Gore and John McCain suffered huge personal disappointments in the 2000 election. But compare the way the two have dealt with that reality.
By all rights 2000 should have been Al Gore’s year. Unlike Clinton and Obama, Gore had little in the way of charisma or oratorical skill, but he was a solid, serious public servant who had amassed an impressive record of being right on key issue after key issue. Clinton stood vindicated on virtually every major policy front, leaving Gore with a strong legacy on which to run. For him to lose the election required a malicious press corps eager to parrot Republican talking points at every turn, the candidacy of Ralph Nader siphoning off 95,000 votes in Florida, a corrupt Supreme Court stepping in to stop a state-mandated recount that subsequent research has shown would have led to a Gore victory, and a Byzantine electoral system in which you can win the popular vote by 500,000 and still not win the election. Truly a perfect storm of injustice.
How did Gore handle this? First he gave an impressive concession speech completely devoid of bitterness or anger. He did his patriotic duty in that situation, giving the new President a chance (quickly squandered) to begin his administration with an air of healing. It is virtually unthinkable that any major Republican candidate wold have done likewise had the situation been reversed.
In the years that followed Gore largely moved away from politics, beyond giving everyone a reminder of what we lost in electing Bush by being prescient and courageous in his early condemnation of the Iraq war. Then he moved on to new issues, returning to the environmental causes he had championed earlier in his career. He wrote two bestselling books (not ghost-written, mind you) and was featured in an Academy Award winning documentary. He even won a Nobel Prize.
When 2008 rolled around he could easily have been a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination. Many were exhorting him to run. He was riding a wave of popularity and rejuvenation that could have been the foundation of a formidable campaign. In many corners of the punditocracy there were vague signs of a desire for redemption, and it is near certain the press would not have savaged him in 2008 the way they did in 2000.
Obama emerged victorious largely because there was a need for an anti-Hillary candidate, and because he had the backing of many power brokers in the DNC. Gore could easily have filled that role. His resume, after all, is considerably more impressive than Obama’s.
But Gore declined the offer. He had moved on with his life.
Now compare that to McCain. By all rights he should have been the Republican nominee. 2000 was his year. He was a serious candidate with a strong conservative voting record on the one hand, but also with a record of pragmatism and of occasionally crossing party lines. The sort of Republican who could easily appeal to independents and swing voters. His main rival was a feckless and ignorant symbol of Republican decadence, the scion of a disgraced political family who had done nothing with the advantages granted to him by the accident of his birth. A draft dodger constantly being bailed out from one failure after another by his father’s wealth and connections. A man profoundly ignorant of every major policy issue, completely unable to speak coherently on any issue of importance.
McCain was the front-runner after the early primaries and seemed well on his way to securing the nomination. And that was when the conscience-free Bush campaign launched a series of attacks on McCain that were of such unmitigated sleaziness, even a lot of Republicans blanched. But no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence and savvy of the Republican base. The attacks proved effective, and Bush won the nomination.
A bitter disappointment for McCain. How would he deal with it? Not well, alas. He stuck his thumb in the eye of the Bush administration whenever possible, such as by opposing the Bush tax cuts and by forming his various gangs of 14. All the while he was biding his time, desperate for a second chance at the prize that cruelly eluded him in 2000.
On the way to earning that second chance he proved himself willing to flip-flop on virtually every major issue. Criticizing Bush’s economic policies or the religious right? A thing of the past. The straight-talk express? Shamelessly replaced with standard Washingtonian double-speak and pandering. And after a long and difficult primary campaign in which his epitaph had been written many times, he got the nomination.
And that was when his mindless zeal for power really took over. Had he really been a maverick he would have defied his base to go elsewhere and would have chosen either Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge for VP, either of whom would have been recognized as a serious candidate. Instead he kowtowed to the worst elements of the Republican base and made the embarrassing choice of Sarah Palin (who now stands exposed as a corrupt, empty-headed, dishonest, buffoon to everyone outside the darkest and most vapid corners of the American electorate).
His campaign has been characterized by some of the darkest and most scurrilous attacks in the history of Presidential politics The press has finally taken notice, and have done a reasonable job of calling him on it. (Of course, these were the same folks who gleefully participated in the destruction of Al Gore, and who did everything in their power to make sure the lying Swift-Boat vets were given continuous and neutral coverage. But that’s a separate post).
While Obama ran a mostly positive campaign devoted to issues, McCain was accusing Obama of wanting to teach comprehensive sex-ed to five-year olds and of referring to Sarah Palin as a pig. When the financial crisis came on McCain frantically moved from one publicity stunt to another, but proved jnambiguously that he was in way over his head. Now that people are focused on issues, he is desperate to change the subject by convincing people that Obama is sympathetic to terrorists. He is perfectly happy to foment the worst emotions in his supporters, who routinely say of Obama that he is a traitor who should be killed.
(I give him a thimble-full of credit for finally confronting a few of his more rabid supporters at a few recent rallies (for which he was solidly booed in one of them). His new found concern about excessive rhetoric would be more impressive if he weren’t simultaneously running ads fomenting precisely those attitudes, and if Palin weren’t repeating the standard smears at all of her rallies.)
Who knows? McCain may yet pull it out. But it now seems likely that McCain will end his career in much deserved disgrace.
I believe the differences between the ways Gore and McCain handled their disappointments in 2000 are symbolic of the differences between Republicans and Democrats generally, at least at the national level. The post-Presidencies of Clinton and Carter have been devoted almost entirely to public service. In this they differ from Bush and Reagan. Over and over again over the last twenty years, the leaders in the Republican Party have shown that they crave power solely for the benefits it can bestow on them and their supporters. The Democrats, vastly imperfect though they are, have consistently shown there are lines they will not cross, and take seriously the tasks of governing the country.
It is why I continue to be a partisan Democrat, despite the frequent disappointments to which that leads.