Saturday, September 27, 2008


I desperately want to write about Paul Newman because he was the coolest movie star when I was a kid and maybe until today, but I hope to do so soon when I have my thoughts collected. But have to note his sad passing -- a great life, but one of the guys you always want around, and it sucks a little more to live in a world without him.

But, Presidential politics junkie that I've been ever since 1968 when my buddy from next door and I argued Humphrey vs. Nixon at the morning bus stop, I can't help but note the watershed it appears (and I believe will be proven on Election Day) happened last night, when John McCain was forced to be on a stage with Barack Obama and, in McCain's own terms for why he never wants to meet with an enemy like Iran, de facto legitimized him.

To put a scalpel to it, McCain created the opening for Obama to legitimize himself to maybe 30 million Americans who may have seen him rarely or never before and had all those lingering preconceptions about him being weightless, elitist, implicitly dangerous. Because if Obama hadn't performed as cleanly as he did, addressing the needs of the American Middle Class while seeming toe-to-toe knowledgeable about foreign affairs, it wouldn't have worked. If he had landed the so-called "knockout blow" to McCain, he would have been seen as an aggressor, opening the "angry black man" meme again.

Instead, when he landed a blow, it was a counterpunch -- most effectively in the bracelet exchange. And, as the theme of this debate was who does or doesn't understand the difference between strategy and tactics, Obama's strategy was fine, mainly because by attacking Obama with lies and aggressive condescension, McCain provided Barack with a target rich environment where he could effective use a scalpel, not a hatchet.

What makes this debate so much more of an epic showdown than most folks I've read or spoken with is that this was quite possibly the most extraordinary weeks you'll ever witness in Presidential politics. You had the collapse of the American investment banking system providing both backdrop and catalyst for the crumbling of the McCain Presidential campaign. Read Frank Rich for a tremendously valuable and searingly entertaining documentation of this past Wednesday, September 24th, the first act in a three-day drama that climaxed Friday night.

Essentially what happened is that the disastrous backstory choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, once the initial flush of gambler's high dissipated into negative approval ratings of the Alaska Governor, has congealed into a failed product, her inability to appear on national television in front of any but the most in-the-bag journalist (Hannity) without bleeding credibility like a hemophiliac in a knife fight.

This hits McCain like a ton of bricks so he goes all in. (This poker metaphor will work even better by Sunday night, as The New York Times article on McCain's gambling and relationship to the Indian and Vegas casinos gets finished being read.) He uses the bailout crisis as a way to grab the headlines away from her (Katie Couric interview) and, it appears, to pretend to suspend his campaign as a tactic to get the first debate suspended, with the dice roller's hope that he'll be able to get the VP debate scuttled and get her elected Vice President without once having to appear again outside of Dominionist fundraisers.

He goes to D.C. and -- this is the most interesting part of the Second Act -- gets humiliated by Obama (and his own lack of preparation) in front of the President, the leaders of the House and Senate, the House Republicans -- everyone in the conference room at the White House. He's supposed to stay for a photo op, but he leaves without speaking to anybody.

So on Friday night the ninety-minute climax turns on McCain's unwillingness to acknowledge his competitor, because he only thinks of him as a challenger and has been shamed by this challenger once this week already. In front of the biggest student council meeting of them all.

A reader identified as a "researcher on social cognition and behavior in primates" sent Josh Marshall the most telling analysis:
I think people really are missing the point about McCain's failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear--look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior--low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.
Pwned, to put it in videogamer terms.

So what next? Will Palin drop out and maybe Rudy step in? Is he the only guy with ego enough to think he would keep McCain from going down and get co-painted with loser colors? Is that why he and his wife just flew with the McCains?

Or is there going to be more tabloid-style distraction from Angry Johnny, i.e. the campaign paying godknowswhat money to Levi Johnston to force a Bristol Palin celebrity-style shotgun wedding before the election? Anything to capture as many news cycles as possible -- is that a strategy of flailing tactictry?

The polls on Monday morning will be telling, because if Obama did indeed turn the dial, adding maybe three more states as likely to vote for him, then McCain either knows he's lost and just lets it play out (which might be reflected by the GOP establishment not pressuring him to drop Palin from the ticket, just let her burn with him) or he makes another insane lurch.

I'd bet on the lurch.

Now, as to the next Obama/McCain debate, the Town Hall-style one that is again supposed to favor McCain, I'm betting you'll see Johnny forcing himself to make a lot of ungainly eye contact with Barack, maybe even use his name, maybe even seem natural or gracious for a moment. But I'm guessing it'll come across as a personality flip, which implies either inauthentic or crazy, while Obama will be the exact same person everybody met in the first debate. It'll be a bit like Al Gore too obviously shifting gears from one debate to another. And I expect Obama to pull some sort of ripcord in the final debate that calls back to some narrative he set up in the first debate.


The Obama campaign, to its great credit, takes nothing for granted even in apparent advance and unleashes a video ad that's strikes at the heart of the Obama supporters lead vocalized fear: what it like on November 5th we all wake up to John McCain as the President Elect?

I can't say with total certainty that Barack Obama will win this crucial election. It's often said that a week can be a lifetime in politics, and this past week surely proved it. But I am certain about one thing, that if Barack Obama wins outright on November 4th and John McCain loses, Sarah Palin and family will suddenly find themselves with a lot fewer friends when they get back home to Alaska, because all those GOP/McCain campaign operatives who are forcing her Attorney General appointee to sue to scuttle the Troopergate investigation, who are keeping a lid on her fiefdom-type acts as Governor, who are keeping Levi Johnston from getting caught with another girl in public and Todd & Sarah out of jail will suddenly evaporate into Alaska Air.

If they do lose, and the drama's finally over, will McCain ever even call her again?

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