Election analysis-6: McCain’s last ditch attempts

The next attempt was to try and portray Obama as the dangerous and unknown ‘other’, the man with the mysterious past, who consorted with ‘terrorists’, had a strange and Muslim name, unusual and partly foreign family history, who had associated with a pastor who had called upon god to damn America, and so on. The McCain campaign did not identify Obama as the anti-Christ, but one can be sure that some of their fervid religious supporters were doing so. All these were attempts to portray him as someone ‘not like us’, “who does not see America as we do” (to use Sarah Palin’s words), whose loyalties were suspect.

While this was a totally despicable tactic, another problem is that it was hard at this late stage to make the charge stick that Obama was a dangerous, wild-eyed, Marxist, Islamic, terrorist. After all, the country had seen him for almost two years and over twenty debates looking calm and self-assured and surrounded by establishment figures like Warren Buffett, responding with a steady hand to the financial crises and other issues as they came up.

Even strong McCain supporter Charles Krauthammer had to concede that Obama seems so unflappable that even if a grenade went off in the room he would still manage to complete his thoughts in a coherent way. Such coolness does not jibe with the idea of a wild-eyed radical.

The next-to-latest message, when it seemed almost certain that McCain was going to lose, was to argue that a divided government is good for America and since the Congress is assuredly going to be in Democratic hands, people should vote in a Republican president to thwart any action. ‘Vote for a stalemated government’ is not an inspiring message, to put it mildly. Furthermore, while it may have some appeal in good times when people don’t want the government to mess things up, when times are seen as tough as they are now, people want things to happen and to have decisive action. They want things to change and stalemate and gridlock is the last thing on their wish list.

The very last message was a weird one that emerged at the end of the campaign. It was alleged by McCain and Palin that Obama was going to bankrupt the coal industry. Even I, who have the luxury of being able to follow politics fairly closely, was baffled by what they were getting at and had to do some digging to find out what was going on. It turns out that this is a piece of esoteric politics, involving some consequences of cap-and-trade greenhouse gas environmental policies. Furthermore, Obama’s policies on this issue are similar to ones that McCain has supported in the past and for which he was also accused of bankrupting the coal industry.

Did the McCain camp really think that the state of the coal industry was an attention grabber in the last few days before the election? How many people would know or care about the workings of the coal industry? It was quite surreal. The only reason I could think of for bringing this up at this late stage was that he hoped it would get some votes in the coal mining Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states on which the McCain-Palin camp was pinning its hopes.

The problem for the McCain camp has been that each of these alternative messages seem to have been developed on the fly, not thought through, and not given much chance to take hold. If a new message did not produce quick results, it was summarily abandoned and a new message promoted. This rapid fire switching gave the impression of a campaign lurching from issue to issue and gave the Obama camp the opportunity to hammer home the message that McCain is erratic and impulsive.

Also, some of the messages contradicted each other and led to confusion, not a good thing when you are trying to define your opponent negatively. After all, how can you say that Obama is an arugula eating, country club, Hollywood-style, elitist celebrity, while at the same time that that he is a Marxist terrorist sympathizer? How can he be the faithful follower of a ‘dangerous’ Christian minister Jeremiah Wright while also being a Muslim? To successfully pull off such successful double lives would require Obama to have the skills of The Scarlet Pimpernel or Raffles.

It was not surprising that none of these scattershot attacks on Obama worked. If you seek to define someone negatively, it has to be done early in the campaign and have at least some basis in reality while your opponent is still a blank slate in the minds of voters. Once people have formed their own impressions, it is hard to change them.

It is telling that even at the end, the lack of experience issue was still the major concern that some people had about Obama, suggesting that it had always been the McCain’s strongest argument. This charge had some factual basis and was introduced early enough to be a defining issue for many voters. But now those concerns were superceded by even greater concerns about Palin’s lack experience.

McCain had problems from the start. Bush and the Republicans were deeply unpopular. The drop in violence in Iraq, rather than benefiting him as someone who had strongly supported the surge, had the effect of taking Iraq out of the news and becoming a non-issue. The economic crisis arrived at a bad time, focusing attention on his own admitted weak spot.

But when the history of this campaign is written, I suspect that the direct and indirect fallout from the Palin selection will loom large as the one single event that caused his campaign to lose focus and stumble.

POST SCRIPT: Palin and Africa – Getting even weirder

Remember the Fox News report quoting an anonymous aide to McCain who said that Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent? Palin’s followers were outraged by this leak and demanded the leaker be identified and punished.

Well, a McCain aide “Martin Eisenstadt” did admit to the leak but it turns out that his whole character is a hoax. He was also responsible for the false story that Joe the Plumber was related to Charles Keating, which I mentioned on my blog.

A knowledgeable commenter Samantha, who says she is a freelance reporter for the BBC and seems to know a lot about “Eisenstadt’s” history, mentioned this hoaxer in a comment on this post. She has been following “Eisenstadt” and if you click on her name it will take you to some really interesting stuff where she interviews him.

What is still not clear from this latest story from the New York Times is what is the hoax: the actual story that Palin did not know that Africa was a country, or the claim that “Eisenstadt” is the leaker. The article is not precise on this.

Election analysis-5: The Obama as Marxist-Socialist gambit

The next lurch in the McCain campaign message came with Joe the plumber and the ‘spreading the wealth’ issue. The progressive tax code advocated by Obama has been long standing policy in the US, but abruptly became transformed into a symbol of socialism. Suddenly Obama became a Marxist, the one who wanted take money away from hard-working people and give it to shiftless loafers.

To work, this message depends on hiding the history of tax policy in the US and fostering the false assumption that the amount of one’s income directly correlates with the amount of work one does, so that taxing rich people more and poor people less can be equated with taking money from hard working people and giving it to other people. It also has racial undertones since ‘hardworking Americans’ in this context is often code for white working class people, and ‘other people’ is code for people not willing to work as hard, which is code for welfare recipients, which is code for ‘black’.

It was at this point that the McCain campaign descended into farce. I have seen campaigns in which ordinary people became symbols for points that the candidates wanted to make. But I have never seen a campaign where such people are plucked from obscurity and become transformed into actual spokespersons for the campaign, traveling along with the candidate to various events, appearing at rallies, and on TV to speak as surrogates on behalf of the campaign, as Joe the plumber and later Tito the builder did.

It was quite an amazing thing to see McCain and Palin depend so heavily on Joe the Plumber and the crowds chanting his name. Joe and Tito played the lead roles in a huge cast of characters characterized by first names and occupations. It became yet another joke with references sprouting to George the president, Dick the hunter, Ben the banker, and so on.

McCain again went overboard in his praise, describing Joe as “an American hero, a great citizen of Ohio and my role model.” Someone he met for the first time a few weeks ago and whom he barely knows is now a ‘hero’ and his role model on the basis of a single question he asked Obama?

But apart from the absurdity of promoting people you have plucked out of the crowd into speaking for you, it also carries a risk. Like with Sarah Palin, there may be lots of things in such people’s lives that may be embarrassing but you don’t know about, and such political novices are also likely to commit huge gaffes. It did not help when Joe made the preposterous claim without a shred of evidence that Obama’s election would bring ‘death to Israel’.

It was also later revealed that Joe’s family had to go on welfare on two occasions and he had to concede that the welfare system was what enabled them survive temporary adversity and raise themselves into the middle class. So he had personally benefited from the very policies that he now condemned as Marxism.

The attempt by the McCain camp to take Obama’s ‘spreading the wealth’ response to Joe the Plumber and make into a major campaign weapon against Obama proved to be a total bust. The Joe the Plumber gambit seemed to indicate that there were no limits to McCain’s willingness to debase himself. In its desperation to find a winning message, the campaign was becoming a joke.

The problem with this strategy is that McCain seemed to think that the views of the people in the immensely wealthy circle he moves in represent the views of most people. It turns out that most people are not as horrified at the idea of ‘spreading the wealth’ as McCain and Palin seem to think they are. This question has been repeatedly polled and the results are fairly consistent.

Across the nine times the question has been asked, a majority of Americans have agreed with the thought that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. The current 58% who agree is one of the two lowest percentages Gallup has measured (along with a 56% reading in September 2000). Sixty-eight percent agreed in April of this year and 66% in April 2007.

In fact, one of the biggest champions of the progressive tax code is one of the conservative heroes, someone McCain likes to quote a lot, that well-known Communist president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt also strongly supported the estate tax on inheritances, which the very rich in this country have been strongly campaigning to kill by calling it a ‘death tax’.

The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

The progressive income tax is as American as apple pie.

POST SCRIPT: Campaign withdrawal pains

The Onion News Network reports on the disturbing phenomenon of Obama campaign workers struggling to find new meaning for their lives.

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Election analysis-4: McCain-Palin as the agents of change?

The initial shock and euphoria that accompanied the Palin choice was followed by intense curiosity about this new star that had suddenly burst onto the political scene. But this was not all for the good. The focus abruptly shifted from Obama’a experience (or lack of it) to Palin’s lack of experience. The concerns about Palin’s readiness to be president also brought to the surface the latent worries about McCain’s age and health. And the answers people were receiving were not reassuring.

Starting about a week after the Palin selection, McCain’s poll numbers started to fall steeply and on September 17, Obama took the lead again and never relinquished it, steadily gaining with time.

Palin did not help matters by her own overreaching, especially her claims that she had said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the infamous ‘bridge to nowhere’ and that the proximity of her state to Russia gave her some foreign policy credentials. The first claim was shown to be false and the second was widely ridiculed, always a bad sign. Her inability to speak and think coherently, or even in complete sentences without a script, and the campaign’s careful shielding of her from the press resulted in her early luster rapidly becoming tarnished. Amazingly, she went through the entire campaign without giving a press conference.

Furthermore, McCain, as is his wont when defending his decisions, tended to go overboard in his praise, making absurd claims and opening himself up for ridicule as well. For example, he recently said of Palin in an interview with Don Imus that “she’s the most qualified of any that [sic] who has run recently for vice president.” Really? More so that Dick Cheney? Or Al Gore? Or George H. W. Bush? Or even his best buddy Joe Lieberman, who was reportedly his own first choice before he was nixed by McCain’s advisors?

Another example of going overboard was when McCain said that Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America” even as she babbles incoherently on that very topic.

Once the experience argument was seen to be not working anymore, the McCain camp struggled to find another winning message and it is their inability to stick with one new alternative message that has given the impression of them flailing around.

The first attempt was to try and co-opt Obama’s successful theme of change which took advantage of the fact that people are well and truly sick of president Bush and think the country is headed in the wrong direction. McCain’s careful cultivation of his own image as a maverick was hitched to Palin’s outsider status and rural outdoorsy persona to create the idea of a pair of reformers, willing to buck the political system to bring much-needed reform in government. But trying to portray McCain and Palin as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid agents of mavericky change was a hard sell when plenty of evidence existed of McCain warmly embracing Bush, both literally and in terms of policies.

Trying to co-opt the mantle of change was simply not working either.

Mr. McCain’s renewed efforts to cast himself as the candidate of change have apparently faltered. Sixty-four percent of voters polled said Mr. Obama would bring about real change if elected, while only 39 percent said Mr. McCain would. And despite Mr. McCain’s increased efforts to distance himself from President Bush, a majority still said he would generally continue Mr. Bush’s policies.

Given that Obama had for a year and a half been plugging away at the theme that he would bring about change and had been tying Bush around the neck of McCain, to try and reverse public perceptions at this late stage was an uphill task and the campaign looked around for some other message to try as well.

Next: Another new star is born: Joe the Plumber.
POST SCRIPT: The country music menace

In an article published in the journal Social Forces (Vol. 71, No. 1, September 1992, pp. 211-218), Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach report on a study on the effect of country music on suicide.

The abstract of the article concludes:

This article assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates. Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty, and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates.

So, country music lovers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Election analysis-3: The fallout from the Palin selection

Soon after the selection of Sarah Palin, it quickly became clear to almost everyone that McCain and his campaign team knew hardly anything about her and had not vetted her carefully before selecting her. This was extraordinary considering that McCain had sewn up the Republican nomination by early March, giving him about six months to carefully think about whom he wanted to be vice president. To wait until the last minute and impulsively do something so important seemed evidence of a lackadaisical approach to governing.

On election night, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the reported four finalists to be McCain’s running mate, was interviewed just after Obama had become elected. I knew the others in the running (Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) and I could see why the campaign might not be excited about them, since they both seemed kind of dull and stodgy, not adding much to McCain’s appeal. But I had never seen Pawlenty before and he seemed to me to have many of Palin’s positives (youth and energy and ideology) without all of her obvious negatives.

Pawlenty spoke fluently and well about the issues that drove the campaign, and graciously about Obama. Furthermore he is an evangelical Christian and is solidly in step with their anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, although in the early 1990s he was not quite as hard-line. As he spoke, I became increasingly mystified as to why McCain had overlooked him for Palin. Did McCain simply have one of those failures in logical thinking that often afflicts men when in the presence of an attractive woman?

I think that the Palin selection was the tipping point, the moment when news media and mainstream commentators began to question their earlier infatuation with McCain and started wondering about both his judgment and his temperament and his much vaunted experience. As doubts about Palin grew, sentiment shifted to viewing Obama, not McCain, as the reassuring person voters were seeking.

All told, 59 percent of voters surveyed said Ms. Palin was not prepared for the job, up nine percentage points since the beginning of the month. Nearly a third of voters polled said the vice-presidential selection would be a major factor influencing their vote for president, and those voters broadly favor Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee.

And in a possible indication that the choice of Ms. Palin has hurt Mr. McCain’s image, voters said they had much more confidence in Mr. Obama to pick qualified people for his administration than they did in Mr. McCain.

While a majority viewed Ms. Palin as unqualified for the vice presidency, roughly three-quarters of voters saw Mr. Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, as qualified for the job. The increase in the number of voters who said Ms. Palin was not prepared was driven almost entirely by Republicans and independents.

The campaign’s attempts to suggest that she actually was highly experienced and capable were also not selling well. Despite their earnest attempts, most voters were simply not buying the idea that being the mayor of a small town in Alaska and governor of that state for two years counted as serious experience. While it could be plausibly argued that Obama did not have much experience either, he had at least been campaigning and constantly in the public eye for almost two years, debating other candidates in the hard-fought primary elections about two dozen times, and fielding numerous press conferences and other encounters with the public.

Over time, this high level of extended exposure had given the public a sense of familiarity with him that enabled them to form their own judgments of him, and they seemed to be reassured by his knowledge of the issues and his calm temperament. He also had the time to recover from unfortunate off-hand comments, such as his statement that some ‘bitter’ voters cling to ‘guns and religion’.

One of the interesting lessons about the Obama candidacy is that it may actually be easier for another non-traditional candidate of the future (say a Hispanic or other ethnic minority or woman or gay or Muslim or atheist) to run for president than for vice president, because for the former you first have to spend a lot of time in the public eye during the primaries and people are able to size you up for themselves, while for the latter you are suddenly thrust onto the national stage and people do not have the time to become comfortable with the novelty features you bring. When running for president you have the time to try and overcome people’s first impressions of you. When 30,000 voters were polled back in 2006 as to whom they would vote for in a then-hypothetical McCain-Obama contest, the only contests Obama won were in Illinois, Hawaii, and Washington, DC giving him a grand total of 28 electoral votes compared to McCain’s 510, showing how much impressions of Obama have changed as a result of being constantly in the public eye.

So the electoral map went from this in 2006 to this on election day.

ecv-2006.png US_300.gif

The voters had no such alternative means of sizing up Palin and so her early missteps were image-defining events for her that seemed to indicate incompetence and ignorance, and she simply did not have time to repair the damage.

POST SCRIPT: Are people ready for the new sheriff?

Election analysis-2: The Palin mistake

I think it is true that vice presidents by themselves do not lose or win campaigns. It might be tempting for some McCain supporters to put all the blame for their loss on Palin, but that would not be fair. It is true that she did reveal herself to be out of her depth and made some serious missteps, but Dan Quayle faced similar doubts about his abilities and yet the Bush-Quayle ticket won quite handily in 1988, by a margin of close to 8 points, which these days would be considered a landslide.

But while Palin may not have directly been the main cause of the McCain loss, I think that she did contribute substantially in an indirect way, by derailing the McCain campaign theme of the importance of experience, and they never seemed to recover from that.

The process began with the Democratic convention August 25-28, with Obama’s speech to a huge crowd at the football stadium in Denver bringing the Democratic convention to a rousing finale. Obama’s poll numbers went up by five points and he had a 6 point lead by September 1, as he got the usual benefit of a week of highly choreographed convention puffery designed to put him in the best light.

For some reason, rather than viewing Obama’s rise to a six-point lead in the polls at the end of August as the usual temporary boost arising from a smooth party convention, and waiting to see if it would be eclipsed by their own convention and bounce the following week, the McCain camp seemed to panic and feel that the election was slipping out of their grasp. And this led to the first, and I believe ultimately fatal, mistake from which the McCain camp never recovered.

They seemed to want to, with one single move, grab the headlines, erase the lead, and wipe out all the positive images of the Democratic convention and so, on August 29, they made the surprising announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, announcing it the day after Obama’s speech.

This tactic undoubtedly worked in the short run. It created a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Republican convention held September 1-4, and overshadowed the positive coverage of Obama’s speech, just as they must have hoped it would do. During the week of the Republican convention and just after, McCain’s numbers shot up rapidly to 48% by September 8, giving him a 3-point lead over the rapidly falling Obama, and a 9-point overall swing towards McCain in just one week.

How much of this was due to Palin and how much McCain might have got anyway simply due to the nature of convention bounces is not clear. But Palin undoubtedly helped. She clearly ignited the passions of the party faithful. Suddenly the Republican party rallies, formerly lackluster affairs struggling to draw big crowds, became boisterous and enthusiastic, with packed audiences cheering loudly.

It looked like they had hit on a winning combination: McCain’s experience and Palin’s looks and crowd appeal, all mixed in with her down-home outsider status. The two of them were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, going to ride into Washington, clean up the mess, and solve all the country’s problems.

Looking back, this was the high point of the McCain campaign.

But as I wrote back on September 3 during the Republican convention, the Palin choice seemed to me like one of those ideas that seem brilliant at first and can be intoxicating but leave a long and deep hangover. It is one of the very few times when I have made a political prediction that turned out to be correct, so forgive me for quoting myself on it.

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

While the immediate aftermath of the choice and the McCain-Palin ticket’s rise in the polls seemed to prove me wrong, later events revealed that the choice was indeed a mistake. While the initial response to the choice of Palin was tremendously positive, it turned out that the price McCain paid for it was too high because, as I pointed out at the time, by selecting Palin, he had unilaterally disarmed himself of the main arrow in his quiver, that of the message of greater experience which, while not exciting, seemed to have been working for him. McCain could no longer plausibly argue that experience is the most important factor in selecting a president because he had clearly not thought it that important in selecting his own vice president.

The Palin selection started what turned out to be an irreversible decline in McCain’s fortunes because of the lack of a plausible alternative to the now abandoned message of experience.

Next: The Palin fallout

POST SCRIPT: Africa is a continent? Who knew?

Fox News tells us that Sarah Palin is planning to run for president in 2012. But more revealingly, it also reports on why the McCain camp did not want to have Sarah Palin give any press conferences and highly restricted her unscripted appearances.

So the McCain camp realized almost immediately that she could not handle the job but pretended she could. It makes a mockery of their campaign pitch that they were the ones who put country first.

This is going to get ugly. Palin supporters are taking names of those who are leaking damaging information about their idol, and vowing revenge.

Election analysis-1: Campaign fortunes and campaign coverage

Now that the voting is over, I want to compare the way that the two campaigns were run.

Some years ago, I read an analysis that looked at media coverage of political campaigns. The analysis found that when reporters covered candidates who were leading in the polls, they would say that the operation was going smoothly, staffers were cheerful, with all the elements working in concert to provide a winning message.

But the reports of losing campaigns invariably found lots of missteps, gaffes, disunity among staffers, money woes, and lack of a consistent and coherent message.

What was interesting was that these reporters’ perceptions were mainly correlated with the candidate’s standing in the polls, not any real differences in the facts of the campaigns. So when a losing candidate started to get ahead in the polls, suddenly his or her campaign became the smooth one and the previously smooth winning campaign became the target of innuendo about all kinds of internal problems.

Part of the problem is that a candidate who is behind almost always has to adapt by changing the tone or content of the message and/or reorganizing the campaign staff. While this is a practical need (since there is no point in continuing a losing strategy), such measures can be unfairly portrayed as implying that the campaign lacks direction or coherence or is disunited or as even panicking. A winning campaign, by contrast, does not need to make any major changes and can thus be seen as steady and assured and united.

I think this analysis largely holds up, which is why one should not take at face value all the reports that have emerged during the last weeks of the campaign about the disarray in the McCain-Palin campaign. They were trailing in the polls most of the time and thus received the usual pattern of treatment.

But while all these reports of infighting can be ignored, there is one objective fact that cannot be denied and that is that McCain has been guilty of not having a coherent message and being too willing to switch from one issue to another as the main theme of its campaign. Now that it is over, with hindsight, we can see more clearly the arc of the campaign that we could only dimly glimpse while it was still going on.

The campaign first seemed to think that experience was the winning issue for McCain. They hammered home the idea that McCain was the seasoned hand while Obama was the new kid, still wet behind the ears and not yet ready for the responsibility of being president in these supposedly dangerous times. This had the advantage of making what might have been a negative (McCain’s age) correlate with a positive (age=experience).

They attempted to portray Obama as a lightweight and even an airhead, an elitist celebrity not to be trusted with the nation’s highest elected position. Recall in the early days the relentless hammering of him as someone famous for just being famous, whose only ability was giving good speeches, and not having any real achievements to his name. This campaign reached its apex with the advertisement juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Even Karl Rove got into the act and contributed to this image, famously saying: “Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. . . . He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.”

Rove did not seem to realize (or care) that the picture he painted tended to remind people of his own former boss George W. Bush rather than Obama. Also it was rather strange to accuse Obama, someone who had to struggle up from a tough childhood, of being a country-club elitist when McCain is one of the wealthiest people in the country, owning multiple expensive homes and cars. Rove was overreaching and this must have been due to overconfidence in his ability to remake an opponent’s image. After all, he managed to make John Kerry seem like a liar and coward about his Vietnam service while his own team of George Bush and Dick Cheney did everything they could to successfully avoid going to Vietnam.

Although the experience argument was not persuasive to me personally, I thought that it could well turn out to be a winning message. Ever since 2001, there has been a deliberate campaign to make people fearful for their safety in order to push through policies that would have never had a chance otherwise, and many people are still looking for a protective father figure to be the president. McCain fitted that persona better than Obama, especially early in the campaign. Even at the end of the campaign, when voters spoke positively about why they prefer McCain, they often brought up the experience factor.

Although a campaign focused on experience was not an exciting message and McCain is by no means a charismatic person, by relentlessly drumming that message of experience versus celebrity lightness, he steadily kept closing the gap, from the lowest point in his polling on June 29 when he was at 40% and 7 points behind Obama, to within just one or two points by the end of August. Things seemed to be going well.

Then he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate

Next: The wheels come off the Straight Talk Express.

POST SCRIPT: Ballot issues

Sad to say, California’s proposition 8 denying gays the right to marry passed, as did other anti-gay measures in Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. Although I am confident that full and equal rights for gays are inevitable, these results will set the achievement of that goal back by a few years.

The good news is that young people rejected the ban by margins of 2-1. This makes me hopeful that in the future such measures will be supported only by die-hard religious people, and they will not command a majority.

On the abortion front, South Dakota defeated the attempt to ban all abortions except in the case of rape or incest and Colorado defeated their anti-abortion initiative that sought to define a person to “include any human being from the moment of fertilization.” California’s attempt to limit abortion also seems likely to be defeated.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington allowed physician assisted suicide and Michigan approved the medical use of marijuana, both of which are positive steps.

A new hopeful beginning

As someone who has been a keen observer of politics all my life, it is easy to become cynical at times. After all, I have seen in this country and others government after government, politician after politician, come into power on promises that they would create a more just and equitable society, and end up serving the interests of only the rich and powerful. It is easy to conclude that democracy has failed its promise and that the whole exercise is a waste of time.

But sometimes, very rarely, something happens that restores my sense of hope and inspires me to dream big again, to think that despite detours we are on the right road, that peace and equality and justice for all, everywhere in the world, may not be an impossible dream after all.

I have seen two things that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. The first was the peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa. I thought that would never happen, let alone the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election as President of that country. I never in my wildest dreams thought that the Afrikaaners who ruled that country with a vicious grip would give up power without a bloody revolution.

The second impossible thing has now come to pass. A black man has been elected as president of the US. And even more improbably, someone with a strange, Muslim-sounding name and a foreign father, just seven years after the attack on the World Trade Center created a virulent strain of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

And yet, here we are today, with Barack Hussein Obama poised to become the 44th president of the United States.

As I have said many times, I am not expecting too much from Barack Obama. He seems by nature to be a cautious, thoughtful, centrist, which makes all the allegations during the campaign that he was some kind of secret Islamic-Marxist-terrorist-Nazi all the more laughable. He does not strike me as having a radical agenda for change.

But my expectation of caution is not entirely due to his personality and temperament. People like him face the crushing burden of being a ‘first’ (the first minority or woman) to occupy a position, any position, previously only held by white men. Such people are hesitant to take risks because they have very little room for error. If they mess up, it will be portrayed by many as due to the inability of the entire group that they are taken to represent. George Bush is easily the worst president in US history, a colossal failure by any standards, but that is not taken as evidence of the incapacity of white males to do the job. But let Obama be even a modest failure, and he will set back the cause of black people for several generations. He knows this as well as any other minority or woman who breaks through a barrier, and this will make him hesitant to take bold steps.

What may yet make him a great transformational leader despite these constraints is not his own inclinations but the fact that he is inheriting a country and a world that is in a serious mess, driven into the ditch by the most incompetent American president in history. Obama’s essential pragmatism, exceptional organizational skills, and ability to select and keep competent people to be around him (well exemplified by the smooth professionalism of his campaign) may result in him being forced to take radical steps simply to solve the deep problems he inherits, especially those of two unwinnable wars, and a hollowed out economy that is incapable of supporting the imperial ambitions of its current leadership

In that he may be like Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected in 1932 just after the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and at the beginning of the Great Depression. He was by no means a radical either but set in motion sweeping changes largely because he had to, and he had the persuasive skills to convince people that these were things that absolutely had to be done.

Obama faces similar challenges. He also has impressive persuasive and inspirational skills, similar to Roosevelt. But will he rise to the challenge as Roosevelt did? Or will his cautious nature allow him to be swayed by all those political insiders who will try and immediately surround him and persuade him to continue roughly along the same road that we have been going on, tinkering only at the edges?

I hope that Obama will either seize the moment, or be seized by it, to rise to greatness.

But that question will be answered in the future.

Today, I just want to savor the moment.

POST SCRIPT: Ashali

On Monday night my daughter Ashali attended a Joe Biden rally in Philadelphia and ended up on the stage behind Biden. The event was broadcast on CNN and a video clip ended up on YouTube. You can see her below the letters ‘BA’ in Barack.

The internet election

Today the seemingly interminable campaign comes to an end. My feeling is that this was the first real internet election, where this medium dominated the process. The internet has been at the forefront of organizing, fundraising, news gathering and dissemination, and analysis. It has profoundly changed the dynamics of campaigning for good and bad, but mostly for the good.

The speed and unfiltered nature of the internet can lead to the propagation of wild stories about candidates that have no basis in fact, and this election had them in plenty. It had been both disturbing and amusing to read the wild stories that have circulated. But at the same time, the investigation of these stories and their debunking also took place rapidly.

In past elections, the last two weeks of a campaign were when all the really dirty tricks were pulled and laws bent or broken. Voters would get pamphlets and phone calls conveying scurrilous and false information about opposing candidates or there would be efforts at intimidating and otherwise suppressing the votes of supporters of opponents. Such things would start out largely local and small scale and by the time it became significant enough to reach the attention of the major media, it would be too late to investigate and debunk before the election, and after the election people were too tired and dispirited to care as much about things that were now moot.

But in the age of the internet, last minute smears are not as effective. Word quickly gets out as to what is happening locally and people can compare notes and do their own investigation and combat the smears almost in real time. So the window during which you can launch an unrebutted smear has become much smaller, down to just one or two days before the election.

To some extent, the major media has been complicit in its own demise by not realizing that they could still fill a vital niche by providing time for genuinely knowledgeable people to speak about topics. While the internet does allow for people to get direct unfiltered news, there is definitely a role for some filtering system that can bestow a seal of credibility to otherwise unknown people who have nevertheless important information to share. For example, when Terry Gross interviews people on her NPR radio show Fresh Air, I listen even if I don’t know the person simply because I assume that she would not put a total crackpot on the air. I have reasonable confidence that the interviewees have been screened and do have something useful to say, even if I disagree with them.

But much of the mainstream media has instead devoted far too much time to people and things that properly belong on the internet, namely trivial news and instant commentary and opinion by people who don’t know much more than you or me.

For example, in my hotel room when I was staying in Las Vegas, after being driven from the casinos by its noise and garishness, I decided to do what I only do when I am staying at a hotel, and turned on the cable TV news channels. I do this periodically to confirm to myself what a waste of time such programming is and it did not disappoint.

I watched CNN for about an hour or so. Both Anderson Cooper and Larry King spent an inordinate amount of time on the sad story of Ashley Todd, the young Republican campaign volunteer who made up a story about being assaulted by a black Obama supporter who carved the letter B on her cheek.

In that one hour of TV I must have seen her ‘perp walk’ (where an accused person is escorted by police from a building to a car with hands handcuffed behind her back) at least half a dozen times. What is the point? True, to make up a story of a black man assaulting a young white woman because of her politics during an election campaign in which race is bubbling to the surface was a terrible thing to do. But once it was clear that the whole thing was a hoax concocted by a seriously disturbed woman, the news element of the story was over. What remained was only of interest to psychologists. Why was it necessary to repeatedly humiliate her by showing the perp walk? Even though she did an awful thing, as a result of this repeated showing, my sympathies were with her. These perp walks are a form of voyeurism that we can do without.

The rest of the time on CNN was spent with a panel of four people (two Obama supporters and two McCain supporters) discussing (actually talking over and through each other) about the Todd case and its implications for the election, Joe Biden’s statement about the danger of a crisis and its implications for the election, the infighting in the McCain camp and its implications for the election, and Sarah Palin’s shopping spree and dismissal of fruit fly research and (you guessed it) its implications for the election.

In other words, it was a total waste of time. There was not a single substantive issue discussed in any way that would have enlightened the viewer or provided a deeper understanding of anything, not even historical context. Everything was discussed in terms of the political process here and now and what effect it would have on the voting. These ‘analysts’ love to pontificate on how ‘the voters’ would react to some trivial news when they have no better idea than you or me. The time would have been far better spent having someone knowledgeable talk about why people study fruit flies.

After watching for a little over an hour, I had had enough. What amazes me is that these talk shows continue to have an audience day after day! What do people watch them for? Any actual new information can be gleaned within the first few minutes introducing the topic. There seems to be hardly any time when a genuinely knowledgeable person on some issue is brought in and allowed to explain it in depth. And of course, one is forced to endure the repeated commercial breaks.

In the days before the internet I would be forced to watch such shows in the hope that between these gabfests they would have some actual news. But now I can find news about any topic with just a few clicks in a few minutes.

Which brings me back to the mystery of why people still watch these so-called ‘news’ shows now that the internet can satisfy their news needs. Is it for the gladiatorial nature of the verbal jousting, seeing it as an alternative form of competitive sports? Do people get pleasure in seeing ‘their’ team get the better of a verbal duel with the opposing team?

Is it to actually see what semi-famous people look like? I must admit that it is marginally interesting to see and hear people whose names were familiar to me only from reading things by them or about them. For example, I now know what Bay Buchanan looks like, for whatever that is worth. But that has only a fleeting novelty value.

There must be something about these shows that I am missing, that keeps viewers returning. But what is it? I am truly baffled.

POST SCRIPT: Christianity as crazy as Scientology?

Bill Maher discusses politics and religion with Jon Stewart.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sarah Palin’s ‘Checkers’ speech

Most people have probably heard a reference to Richard Nixon’s ‘Checkers’ speech.

Just a few days after he had been selected by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to be the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, the New York Post ran a sensational article with the headline “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” This allegation of having a lavish personal lifestyle paid for by others outraged many Republicans, and leaders in the party called for his removal and replacement with someone not tainted by gifts from influence peddlers.

Faced with his imminent ouster, Nixon made a bold gamble, going on nationwide TV (not so common in those days) on September 23 with a speech defending himself. With his wife Pat by his side, he said that he had accepted $18,000 from this group but that it had been used to defray political expenses and that none of the money had gone for his personal use nor had he done any favors for the people who had given the money.

He then explained that he was not a rich man, came from a poor family, and described how he and Pat had struggled all their lives. He then went through his family finances in extraordinary detail to show that they were just regular folk, barely making ends meet.

What I am going to do — and incidentally this is unprecedented in the history of American politics — I am going at this time to give to this television and radio audio — audience, a complete financial history, everything I’ve earned, everything I’ve spent, everything I own. And I want you to know the facts.

First of all, we’ve got a house in Washington, which cost $41,000 and on which we owe $20,000. We have a house in Whittier, California which cost $13,000 and on which we owe $3,000. My folks are living there at the present time.

I have just $4,000 in life insurance, plus my GI policy which I have never been able to convert, and which will run out in two years.

I have no life insurance whatever on Pat. I have no life insurance on our two youngsters, Patricia and Julie.

I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car. We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type. We have no interest, direct or indirect, in any business. Now that is what we have. What do we owe?

Well, in addition to the mortgages, the $20,000 mortgage on the house in Washington and the $10,000 mortgage on the house in Whittier, I owe $4,000 to the Riggs Bank in Washington D.C. with an interest at 4 percent.

I owe $3,500 to my parents, and the interest on that loan, which I pay regularly, because it is a part of the savings they made through the years they were working so hard–I pay regularly 4 percent interest. And then I have a $500 loan, which I have on my life insurance. Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have. And that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much.

And then came the famous part that is still remembered and gave the speech its name:

I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

That speech, though widely mocked now for its bathos, proved to be a political masterstroke and saved Nixon’s career. Eisenhower was impressed and decided to keep him on and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket went on to win in a landslide. You can see the video of the speech.

I was reminded of the Checkers speech when Sarah Palin spoke recently in response to the news that the Republican party had spent $150,000 to purchase clothes for her and her family from high-end stores like Nieman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. This charge of living a lavish life funded by others was seen as seriously damaging to the image that was being created of her as being a simple hockey mom.

In trying to defuse the issue and regain her ‘just regular folks’ image, Palin gave a watered down version of Nixon’s speech in which she said:

Those clothes, they are not my property. Just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased, I’m not taking them with me. I am back to wearing my own clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska.

Let me tell you a little bit about a couple of accessories, didn’t think that we would be talking about it, but my earrings — I see a Native Americans for Palin poster… These are beaded earrings from Todd’s mom who is a Yupik Eskimo up in Alaska, Native American, Native Alaskan.

And my wedding ring, it’s in Todd’s pocket, ’cause it hurts sometimes when I shake hands and it gets squished…A $35 wedding ring from Hawaii that I bought myself and ’cause I always thought with my ring it’s not what it’s made of, it’s what it represents, and 20 years later, happy to wear it.

The speech was not as well crafted as Nixon’s because Palin does not have the gift for maudlin self-pity that he had. It also did not have the same level of detail, but otherwise was true to the spirit of Checkers. All that was missing was the mention of a puppy.

POST SCRIPT: Palin falls for a prank call

A pair of well-known Canadian pranksters call in to a radio show on which Sarah Palin was featured and, talking in an exaggerated Inspector Clousseau-like French accent, pretend to be the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She fell for it and hilarity ensues. You can listen to the conversation here.

The Candian Press describes the call in detail in which ‘Sarkozy’

identifies French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday as his special adviser to the U.S., singer Stef Carse as Canada’s prime minister and Quebec comedian and radio host Richard Z. Sirois as the provincial premier. . . . Finally, he mentions a notorious Hustler video titled “Nailin’ Paylin,” describing it as “the documentary they made on your life.”

The mind boggles. How could Palin possibly have thought that the French president would violate all protocol and interfere in the elections of another country and contact an American candidate for the vice-presidency via a radio talk show? Surely it should have been clear to her midway through the interview that the guy was pulling her leg?

At the very end, the caller tells her she has been pranked. One can’t help but feel sorry for her.