The Blog

Required Reading: Obama's Predicament

12:26 PM, Aug 21, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

From Reason.com, "The Loser Now is Later to Win" by David Weigel

In this odd yet thoughtful (although sometimes incomprehensible) essay, Weigel diagnoses and seemingly laments Barack Obama's latest predicament:

The dynamic of the race now is summed up by the usual batch of oddly sexual verbs: McCain is "pounding" or "hammering" or "drilling down" on Obama, while Obama is flustered and defensive. But I try to pay more attention to the ads and messaging in swing states than the groaning of cable news, and there, Obama has been running negative ads on McCain. Here's one. Here's another. Hey, here's another. If you live in, say, Ohio, you're seeing this stuff as often as you see McCain's latest claim that Obama's a celebrity who wants to send tax collectors to put a ball gag in your mouth and lock you in the basement.

But that's just it! Not only are McCain's attacks all about character and weakness; Obama's responses basically validate them. That guy says I've got ladyparts and I hate America and want to raise taxes: In fact, I want to cut some taxes and raise others! Obama, accused of being a wimp, waves his calculator.

What could Obama do, though? There's a character case to make against McCain, whose shifting issue positions and bloated sense of self-importance are almost Obama-like. But every attack on McCain's character comes up against the iron wall of his POW days. This is the irony of that weird meme of a few weeks back that Obama "couldn't take a joke" (after that New Yorker cartoon portraying him as a terrorist): It's McCain who can't be mocked without holy hell unleashing. When the host of one of the Sunday shows accusing a guest of "questioning McCain's integrity" for pointing out that he's changed positions, you've got a problem.

As I intimated up top, I'm not sure whether Weigel is lamenting the "iron wall" of McCain's POW days or just being descriptive. Regardless, he's on to something, albeit something so obvious that other people got it years ago.

In politics, character matters. People like to feel they're voting for a good person. Even Democrats know character matters. That's why they spent the entire 2004 DNC talking about John Kerry's short time in Vietnam. They figured this brief but glorious chapter in Kerry's life would serve as prima facie evidence that Kerry was a good, noble courageous man. Given the short duration of Kerry's time in Vietnam, the controversy that surrounded his service and the hatred many of his brothers-in-arms felt for him, this was an obvious miscalculation. But still, the point holds - everyone in politics knows character matters, and evidence of your candidate's good character is a swell thing to have.

Perhaps Weigel would consider it indicative of the sadly boobish nature of the American bourgeoisie, but most Americans feel that spending five and a half years of hell at the Hanoi Hilton while turning down early release provides indisputable evidence of a man's character. So it's true - there is an "iron wall" of McCain's POW days, but the vast majority of Americans feel that iron wall belongs there.

It's a shame that Weigel didn't follow his argument to its logical conclusion. While it's true that McCain is unassailable on character, he like all politicians is very much assailable on the basis of his politics. I should know - I spent the better part of 2007 assailing McCain's political positions that I found particularly disagreeable.

But here's the kicker - Barack Obama, because of the kind of campaign he has run, can't attack McCain on the issues either. By design, the Obama campaign has had a meringue like substance since its inception. It's been all about hope, change, a new style of politics and bringing people together. Part of bringing people together was avoiding substantive positions that would offend any of the people you were trying to bring together. But as Hugh Hewitt pointed out in a cogent essay last night, there are many issues that defy a bipartisan approach. Indeed, on virtually all the important issues, a veritable gulf separates the two parties.

By tenaciously avoiding substance, the Obama campaign implicitly made everything about character. The central theme of the Obama juggernaut always has been that Barack Obama possesses unique qualities that demand he be awarded the presidency. That's why we've had to endure all this gobbledygook about "judgment" regarding a 47 year-old who hasn't held a position of authority that required the application of judicious judgment since he ran the Harvard Law Review. The Obama campaign had to say something that supported the notion of his purported special nature.