They're Paying Attention Now
August 22, 2008; Page A11
Why is it a real race now, with John McCain rising in the polls and Barack Obama falling? There are many answers, but here I think is an essential one: The American people have begun paying attention.
It's hard for our political class to remember that Mr. Obama has been famous in America only since the winter of '08. America met him barely six months ago! The political class first interviewed him, or read the interview, in 2003 or '04, when he was a rising star. They know him. Everyone else is still absorbing.
This is what they see:
An attractive, intelligent man, interesting, but—he's hard to categorize. Is he Gen. Obama? No, no military background. Brilliant Businessman Obama? No, he never worked in business. Famous Name Obama? No, it's a new name, an unusual one. Longtime Southern Governor Obama? No. He's a community organizer (what's that?), then a lawyer (boo), then a state legislator (so what, so's my cousin), then U.S. senator (less than four years!).
There is no pre-existing category for him.
Add to that the wear and tear of Jeremiah Wright, secret Muslim rumors, media darling and, this week, abortion.
It took a toll, which led to a readjustment. His uniqueness, once his great power, is now his great problem.
And over there is Mr. McCain, and—well, we know him. He's POW/senator/prickly, irritating John McCain.
The Rick Warren debate mattered. Why? It took place at exactly the moment America was starting to pay attention. This is what it looked like by the end of the night: Mr. McCain, normal. Mr. Obama, not normal. You've seen this discussed elsewhere. Mr. McCain was direct and clear, Mr. Obama both more careful and more scattered. But on abortion in particular, Mr. McCain seemed old-time conservative, which is something we all understand, whether we like such a stance or not, and Mr. Obama seemed either radical or dodgy. He is "in favor . . . of limits" on late-term abortions, though some would consider those limits "inadequate." (In the past week much legal parsing on emanations of penumbras as to the viability of Roe v. Wade followed.)
As I watched I thought: How about "Let the baby live"? Don't parse it. Just "Let the baby live."
As to the question when human life begins, the answer to which is above Mr. Obama's pay grade, oh, let's go on a little tear. You know why they call it birth control? Because it's meant to stop a birth from happening nine months later. We know when life begins. Everyone who ever bought a pack of condoms knows when life begins.
To put it another way, with conception something begins. What do you think it is? A car? A 1948 Buick?
If you want to argue whether legal abortion is morally defensible, have at it and go to it, but Mr. Obama's answers here seemed to me strange and disturbing.
Mr. Obama's upcoming convention speech will be good. All Obama speeches are good. Not as interesting as he is—he is more compelling as a person than his words tend to be in text. But the speech will be good, and just in case it isn't good, people will still come away with an impression that it must have been, because the media is going to say it was, because they expect it to be, and what they expect is what most of them will see.
Will Mr. Obama dig deep as to meaning? As to political predicates? During the primary campaigns Republicans were always saying, "This is what I'll do." Mr. Obama has a greater tendency to say, "This is how we'll feel." Republicans talk to their base with, "If we pass this bill, which the Democrats irresponsibly oppose, we'll solve this problem." Democrats are more inclined toward, "If we bring a new attitude of hopefulness and respect for the world, we'll make the seas higher and the fish more numerous." Will Mr. Obama be, in terms of programs and plans, specific? And will his specifics be grounded in something that appears to amount to a political philosophy?
I suspect everyone has the convention speeches wrong. Everyone expects Mr. Obama to rouse, but the speech I'd watch is Mr. McCain's.
He's the one with the real opportunity, because no one expects anything. He's never been especially good at making speeches. (The number of men who've made it to the top of the GOP who don't particularly like making speeches, both Bushes and Mr. McCain, is astonishing, and at odds with the presumed requirements of the media age. The first Bush saw speeches as show biz, part of the weary requirement of leadership, and the second's approach reflects a sense that words, though interesting, were not his friend.)
But Mr. McCain provided, in 2004, one of the most exciting and certainly the most charged moment of the Republican Convention, when he looked up at Michael Moore in the press stands and said, "Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war, it was between war and a greater threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. . . . And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace." It blew the roof off. And the smile he gave Mr. Moore was one of pure, delighted malice. When Mr. McCain comes to play, he comes to play.
Look for a certain populist stance. He signaled it this week in Politico. He called lobbyists "birds of prey" in pursuit of "their share of the spoils." Great stuff. (Boy, will he have trouble staffing his White House.)
* * *
I still think a one-term pledge could win it for him, because it would allow America to punt. It would make the 2008 choice seem less fateful. People don't mind the chance to defer a choice when they're not at all sure about the product. It would give bitter Democrats a chance to regroup, and it would give those who like Obama but consider him a little half-baked to vote against him guiltlessly while he becomes fully baked. (Imagine the Q&A when Sen. Obama announces his second presidential run in 2011: "Well, Brian, I think, looking back, there is something to be said for the idea that I will be a better president now than frankly I would have been four years ago. Experience, if you allow it, is still the best of all teachers.") More, it would allow Mr. McCain to say he means to face the tough problems ahead with a uniquely bipartisan attitude and without having to care a fig for re-election. That itself would give him a new power, one that would make up for the lost juice of lame duckdom. It would also serve to separate him from the hyperpolitical operating styles of the Clinton-Bush years, from the constant campaign.
And Mr. McCain would still have what he always wanted, the presidency, perhaps a serious and respectable one that accrued special respect because it involved some sacrifice on his part.
A move that would help him win doubtful voters, win disaffected Democrats, allow some Republicans to not have to get drunk to vote for him, and that could possibly yield real results for his country. This seems to me such a potentially electrifying idea that he'd likely walk out of his convention as the future president.
Mr. McCain told Politico on Wednesday that he's not considering a one-term pledge.
Why would he not? Such modesty of intent is at odds with the political personality. The thing that makes them want to rule America is the thing that stops them from thinking of prudent limits. This mindset crosses all political categories.
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