Sunday, August 31, 2008

Me and My Veeps

It’s interesting how the past two weeks have made the presidential race intriguing, especially in terms of who the candidates have tapped as running mates. This has got to be one of the most bizarre decisions one would ever make, as a candidate is choosing not only a good potential vice-president (and maybe even president, right?), but also someone who can help make a campaign successful. Traditionally regional implications came into play, but since Clinton/Gore in ’92, this seems to have gone by the wayside. But energizing the base or attracting swing voters or covering a weakness at the top of the ticket can be a big deal, and I think we’re seeing that this year.

So, here’s my take. In the lead-up to Obama naming his #2, I was afraid he would choose Biden, who always seemed a bit phony and stilted; maybe I just disapprove of old men with slicked-back hair. I hoped for Richardson, but the way he’s let himself go after dropping out of the presidential race (what a terrible beard!) probably did him in. Hillary seemed logical, but the baggage she would bring was too much of a risk. I kind of hoped for a black horse candidate, but I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be Biden.

I’ve since warmed up (a bit) to ole Joe, especially after hearing parts of his speech at the DNC. He’s more down-to-earth than I expected, and I like that he takes the train (I love trains…). But I’m still not crazy about how such a DC insider fits with the Change idea, and Biden may be too much of a Senate institution. (I’ve got a second theory about parties nominating the elder statesman from the Senate for President, ala Bob Dole and John Kerry; the short version is “bad news for McCain.”) Ultimately, he’s probably a safe pick, and I guess I was trained to think of Obama as eschewing the safe route.

Palin, on the other hand, is anything but safe. She may energize the evangelical base (but I still see a lot of those voters staying home because they don’t see McCain as one of them; this may not hurt him much on the red states, but it may make a difference in tight congressional races there), but I doubt how well she can attract the Hillary voters. I’ve read some stuff about Hillary supporters who wept for joy on Friday morning and will take any woman on the ticket, but I don’t see that being widespread enough to make a difference. Maybe I’m being na├»ve…

Here’s what I find interesting about the Palin choice. She seems to represent a new generation of conservative, religiously-oriented, post-feminist women politicians who skew right; think of W winning a majority of married women voters. I don’t know what this means, but Roe v. Wade seems to factor very little into these voters’ minds, and I think it’s fascinating.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

The word “convention” comes from Latin roots for “together” and “to come,” meaning that a convention is something—be it a gathering or a system of standards—that facilitates interaction and mingling. Wow, that was as boring as I thought it would be…

You see, I watched very little of the DNC last week, and I plan on watching very little of the RNC next week. I remember watching intently in ’88 and ’92, and even in ’00, but I can’t take it anymore.

Here’s my issue with conventions—the speeches. Despite my earlier praise for cool candidates’ ability to speak rousingly to people, I have come to despise political speeches. The main issue to me is applause. I know that to be in politics requires a certain level of self-importance, but I would much prefer a politician who said at the onset of a speech, “Okay, hold your applause until the end.” To me, that would be the ultimate in political cool.

Instead, what we get is a world in which every stump speech, acceptance speech, concession speech, State of the Union address, and county fair pie baking contest results announcement is punctuated by ridiculous amounts of wasted time. If you have something to say, in my mind, you don’t have time for sycophantic clapping. That’s why I prefer the post-State-of-the-Union rebuttal. One person, a camera, and no applause. For me, that is much more meaningful.

This brings us to the real issue I have with both political conventions specifically and contemporary politics generally, one that in some ways counters yesterday’s rant on coolness. Style over substance. To me this was epitomized in the primaries by Romney and Edwards, whom I find entirely devoid of substance, but who can talk slick and wear their hair even slicker. This is certainly not a new complaint; people have argued this angle for a long time. But in a postmodern world a sound bites, YouTube mash-ups, talk radio, 24-hour cable news, and, of course, insipid bloggers, we seem to expect this.

Here’s my hope. I see a lot of intelligent dialogue among all the inane drivel in new media, and as young people raised online come of age, they will expect not just slogans, but accomplishment, not just attacks, but action. I think you’re seeing a glimpse of this in the campaign, as both candidates have gone out of their way to say nice things about the other (McCain’s ad Thursday night was radically different than the GOP strategy of ’00 and ’04, and if I hear one more nice thing about McCain from Obama, I might adopt the AZ senator as my grandpa). I’m sure the gloves will come off soon, but for now, it’s been refreshing, and I think at least part of that is due to a changing electorate.

Friday, August 29, 2008

It Begins With Cool

I’ll start by easing into this blog. My background is not horribly important, but it may be worth a moment or two. I’m generally left of center, but less so than I was 10 (or even 5) years ago. I’m a bit disillusioned, but not completely cynical. I was against the impeachment of Bill Clinton on the grounds that perjury is not “high crimes and misdemeanors.” I’m (somewhat) pro-choice because I can’t accept the idea of politicians deciding over the consensus of medical professionals, and as a man I find telling a woman that her reproductive decisions will be made by (mostly) male politicians to be the epitome of crassness and pretension. I have been against the Iraq war since day 1 because I find wars of aggression to be indefensible.

At the same time, as I slide into my 30s (I’ve been at work on this for a few years now), I find my views on gun control, taxes, and health care sliding to the center (or, in some cases, the right—at times I think the 20-year-old version of me would not like the current me much…). Perhaps I’m slowly becoming a libertarian more than anything else.

So, with that out of the way, here’s my first rant. Most of what will appear here over the next few weeks will focus on electoral politics, particularly the presidential race. Here’s my new theory of presidential campaigns: coolest candidate wins. That’s it. At least since I was born, every presidential race has been won by the cooler candidate. (Admittedly there are some outliers, such as Carter in ’76 and HW in ’88, neither of whom was really “cool,” but both faced even less cool opponents, so the theory still holds, even at the low end of the spectrum.) Reagan, Clinton, and, to a lesser extent, W all won by being cooler than Carter and Mondale, HW and Dole, and Gore and Kerry, respectively. There’s a reason the cool ones have been two-termers.

Here’s why, I think, this theory holds. It’s one part high school politics—people like people who are cool and poised. As much as we bash celebrities and famous folk, we admire those who have “it.” Perhaps we hope to see ourselves in them, and perhaps we hope that they will fall once they ascend to such heights.

It’s also one part spin. Cool candidates overcome scandal; they’re called “Teflon” and “slick” for a reason. They spend less time on the defensive and more time framing their arguments for themselves. They don’t get ugly under pressure (think JFK vs. Nixon in the famous ’60 TV debate). And due to their coolness, when they speak to people, they inspire them; even if you don’t agree with the candidate’s platform, you find his words both moving and reassuring, ala “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or Clinton post-OK City, or W in NYC days after 9/11.

What does this say for this year? In some ways, it’s a bizarro 1976 or 1988, with a high cool quotient. Obama has been able to overcome Jeremiah Wright, the fist bump New Yorker cover, and the 3 am ad. None of it has stuck well. And his 2004 DNC keynote is one of the coolest political speeches of my lifetime.

On the other hand, McCain came back from a dead campaign a year ago, which is pretty cool. And his maverick shtick is certainly cool. His age works against his overall coolness, but the POW experience is cool in ways that other veterans-turned-politicans’ backgrounds typically aren’t.

Ultimately, however, I think that Obama wins a head-to-head cool duel, and here’s why. I saw a piece from his trip to Europe and the Middle East last month when, visiting troops at a military base, Obama drilled a three-pointer. With cameras rolling and (likely) dubious troops filling the gym, the kind of condition that rattles pros, he nailed the shot. Very cool. Maybe presidential contests would be best conducted as a game of horse or poker, to see who holds up under pressure and stays cool. It'd at least be better than the "debates."