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A word about style: Obama and McCain, a study in contrasts

August 30th, 2008 - 5:48 am

Many observers have commented on the high style of Obama’s campaign. The logo, the kiddie Latin slogan (“amo, amas, amat, vero possumus”), the be-columned stage set, etc., etc. It’s all very well, or at least very thoroughly orchestrated, but the more I think about it the less appropriate the word “style” seems. Really, it is a matter of political theater.

Not, I hasten to add, that the Obama campaign does not have a style. It does, as of course does the McCain campaign. How do they differ? Well, the day of Obama’s big speech, McCain himself takes to the airwaves to congratulate the Senator. Tomorrow, he said, we’ll get back to campaigning, but today he wanted to take a moment to praise his opponent for a job well done.

Yesterday, when McCain annoucned that his running mate would be Sarah Palin, the Obama campaign instantly issued a response:

“Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

Bad move, boys! First, it was ungentlemanly–not because Palin is a woman, but because etiquette demands a civil expression of congratulations on such occasions. Second, raising the question of experience naturally leads to the question: “OK, the pick for VP doesn’t have much executive experience, but how much experience does the Democratic nominee for president have?” There is the further issue that the less Obama says about foreign policy the better. Just uttering the phrase might sow a seed of doubt in people’s minds: they might put down yesterday’s paper, the one describing what the Russians are doing to Georgia, the one with the pictures of US and Russian warships in the Black Sea, and they might say, “Gosh, how would Obama deal with a fellow like Vladimir Putin?” In an earlier time, President Bush said that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul; more recently, John McCain looked at the same spot and said he saw three things: “K, G, and B.” In the case of Georgia, Obama’s first response was to say there was fault on both sides and then to suggest that we refer the conflict to the U.N. McCain forthrightly condemned the aggression and supported the declaration issued by the Presidents of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that “aggression against a small country in Europe will not be passed over in silence or with meaningless statements equating the victims with the victimizers.”

But back to the question of style. Sarah Palin, in her brief speech accepting McCain’s offer to join the ticket, paid homage to Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro, two Democrats, for leading the way past glass ceiling for women in American politics. A handsome gesture, no? Within hours of her speech, team Obama must have realized that their sour-grapes response wasn’t playing well, so Senator Biden issued a congratulatory statement and Obama himself, asked about the discrepancy between the initial statement issued by his campaign and Biden’s more temperate response, hemmed and hawed about campaigns being, um, on a hair trigger, uh, and, um, yes he, um, agreed, uh, with um, Senator Biden’s sentiments.

Gee, thanks! (Mr. Eloquence was without his teleprompter, you see.)

There is a big difference in style between the McCain and Obama campaigns. If you go to Obama’s web site, you’ll find lots of complaints about the “smears,” “outrageous lies,” etc. supposedly perpetrated by the other side. An example? The most recent is the hysterical attack on the journalist Stanley Kurtz who has been looking into Obama’s early political career, not least his association with the terrorist Bill Ayers. In fact, Stanley Kurtz is simply doing what political journalists do: filling out the historical record and illuminating the origins, associates, and early career of a man who has put himself forward to be President of the United States.

On the McCain web site, by contrast, there is no whining about how unfair the other side treats him. Obama asks us to “believe in” him; McCain asks us to consider what is best for the country. For him, action, not belief is the issue. (A lot could be written, in fact, about Obama’s quasi-religious rhetoric: it’s one thing to ask people to believe that one candidate has the better vision for the country; it is quite another for a candidate to ask us to believe in him and his vision.)

Watching Sarah Palin’s speech yesterday I found myself almost feeling sorry for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Almost. Here they are campaigning on “change” and optimism and the common man and transcending politics as usual. And their campaign is the same old business and usual, Chicago-style swamp politics. If it were an athletic contest, McCain/Palin would probably have to play with some sort of handicap. But it wouldn’t matter. Even with a steep handcap they would eat Obama and Biden for lunch. The carnage will not be pretty. But perhaps it will finally get the message through to the DNC: you don’t win elections by vapid talk about change. You win them by sound policies that offer change where change is needed and continuity where change would be irresponsible.

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