Sunday, August 03, 2008

How Low Can Senator Small Go?

Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter. Among Beltway observers, Alter--who also appears on NBC/MSNBC and is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope--is considered especially authoritative and thoughtful, given neither to shrill broadsides nor (like Chris Matthews) to on-screen gushing. So when he thinks John “100 Years War” McCain has jumped the shark with his latest, desperate-sounding criticism of Barack Obama, there’s every reason to pay attention. Alter begins his latest column:
In the middle of John McCain’s dopey Britney & Paris attack ad, the announcer gravely asks of Barack Obama: “Is He Ready to Lead?” An equally good question is whether McCain is ready to lead. For a man who will turn 72 this month, he’s a surprisingly immature politician--erratic, impulsive and subject to peer pressure from the last knucklehead who offers him advice. The youthful insouciance that for many years has helped McCain charm reporters like me is now channeled into an ad that one GOP strategist labeled “juvenile,” another termed “childish” and McCain’s own mother called “stupid.” The Obama campaign’s new mantra is that McCain is “an honorable man running a dishonorable campaign.” Lame is more like it. And out of sync with the real guy.

Of course, it might work. Maybe depicting Obama as a presumptuous and vaguely foreign presence will resonate. (Why else would one of McCain’s slogans be “An American president for America”?) Maybe voters will agree with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who played the fussy card last week by arguing the central importance to the future of the republic of Obama’s taste for “MET-Rx chocolate roasted peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew called Black Forest Berry Honest Tea.” (Davis somehow forgot to mention McCain’s own preference for $520 Ferragamo shoes.) Maybe convincing nervous white voters that Obama is another Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in his use of racial grievance politics will carry McCain to the White House.

But this is not 1988, when Vice President George Bush turned Michael Dukakis into an unpatriotic coddler of criminals. (Bush that year had a popular president and a strong economy behind him.) And it’s not 2004, when his son Swift-Boated John Kerry. (The president would have likely won anyway by playing on post-9/11 fear.) This year, McCain is running under a tattered Republican banner, with more than 80 percent of the public thinking the country is on the wrong track. Without some compelling vision beyond support for offshore drilling, the negativity may well boomerang. “It’s hard to imagine America responding to ‘small ball’ when we have all these problems,” says John Weaver, McCain’s chief strategist in 2000 who was pushed out of the campaign last year.
Like other reporters who’ve spent some time covering McCain--or “Senator Small,” as he’s becoming known after so much whining about his opponent and so few new ideas of his own--Alter confesses to being disappointed in a senator he once thought wouldn’t engage in such low-road politics to win the White House:
The real question is what all of this might mean for a McCain presidency. The list of troubling portents is growing long: repeated campaign staff upheavals reflecting poor management skills; abrupt reversals on big issues like tax cuts and relations with Russia (where he was superhawk one day and superdove the next); shameless pandering on a gas-tax holiday that even his own economic advisers think is a joke; confused handling of Social Security that annoys all sides of the debate; bogus charges (e.g., Obama is causing high gas prices, Obama didn’t visit wounded soldiers because he couldn’t take the press) that undermine his integrity; and an angry, bunker mentality among aides that one GOP operative, fearing excommunication from Team McCain if identified, describes as “lacking only a Luger and a cyanide pill.”

Victory for McCain would hardly prove redemptive. “You can’t govern winning this way,” Weaver says. “We’ve seen that after the last two elections.” And defeat would leave John McCain feeling more than the usual depression, wondering why he mortgaged his precious personal honor just to trade up to the White House.
Alter’s full column can be found here.

UPDATE: I should also have referenced here Time magazine columnist Joe Klein’s similar recent regrets for once championing the senior senator from Arizona:
A few months ago, I wrote that John McCain was an honorable man and he would run an honorable campaign. I was wrong. I used to think, as David Ignatius does, that McCain’s true voice was humble and moderate, but now I’m beginning to think his Senate colleagues may be right about his temperament. ...

Courage is grace under pressure. McCain showed it when he was a prisoner of war, and on many issues--yes, even on his stubborn insistence that the surge would work--but he is not showing it now. He is showing flop sweat. It is not a quality usually associated with successful leadership.
READ MORE:Wanting the White House in the Worst Way,” by Joe Conason (Salon); “The Honorable Man,” by J.D. Rhoades (What Fresh Hell Is This?); “ Is McCain Fit to Be President?,” by Randy Johnson (Not the Baseball Pitcher); “ McCain Goes Negative, Worrying Some in GOP,” by Michael Cooper (The New York Times); “Wall Street Journal Again Slams McCain,” by John Aravosis (AMERICAblog); “ From ‘Straight Talk’ to Smear Campaign” (St. Petersburg Times); “McCain Charge Against Obama Lack Evidence,” by Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz (The Washington Post); “ McCain = Dole?,” by Chris Ryan (AMERICAblog); “CNN’s Cafferty: McCain Jealous That Everyone Likes Obama,” by John Aravosis (AMERICAblog); “The Trouble with John McCain,” by Garrison Keillor (Salon).

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