After watching the presidential “debate” on Tuesday last, three things became glaringly apparent. First is that Senator Obama is a better speaker than Senator McCain. But we already knew that. Second, Senator McCain knows little about how one makes an effective attack against a political opponent. He left opportunity after opportunity on the board, and on those occasions when he went after Sen. Obama, the attacks were clearly scripted and had no follow up prepared. And, third, the national media is in the tank for Sen. Obama. Period.
And yet? Given all of that, as well as an election year that has been trending Democratic since 2006, presidential approval ratings that rival Nixon’s at the depths of Watergate, the worst financial meltdown since the mid 1930s, and virtually unlimited ability to raise and spend tens of millions of dollars, Senator Obama is: 1) still under 50% in ANY poll; 2) only two to nine percentage points ahead, depending on the poll; 3) still a month from the election against a candidate with a criminally dreadful political organization; and 4) clearly not finalizing the sale.
Why? On CNN that same night, David Gergen posited that the polls might be anywhere in the neighborhood of six percent inaccurate due to Senator Obama’s race. He speculated that while many people are attracted to the candidate and his manifest abilities and say so openly to pollsters and the like, when push comes to shove in the voting booth, they will decide against him for no other reason than pigmentation. Of course, this does not take into account the numbers of people who are planning to vote for him in large part because of his race…and what it says about the wonderfulness of those voters. No less than his running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, commented early on in the campaign to the New York Observer about Sen. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” But not a word…until he was chosen as a running mate…that there might be some substance to the story.
People compare Senator Obama with JFK, noting the shared youth, the theme of generational change, and the manifest ability to give speeches rife with eloquent and elegant language. But that analogy can be taken entirely too far. At a similar age, Jack Kennedy had commanded a PT boat in the Pacific Theatre in WWII with manifest heroism; had won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage; had served six years in the US House of Representatives and seven years in the United States Senate; and had been under serious consideration by Adlai Stevenson and the 1956 Democratic National Convention as a vice-presidential candidate. In the immortal words of Senator Lloyd Bentsen to the hapless Dan Quayle in their vice-presidential debate in 1988, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”
Then, too, Kennedy’s opponent in the 1960 election, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, was a far more focused, resolute, and able politician than Senator McCain has any dreams of being. Nixon was equally knowledgeable on either domestic issues or foreign policy, and was a capable debater. He was no pushover, and fundamentally was out to WIN…and very nearly pulled it off.
So there has been no sale yet. Both of these gentlemen are flawed candidates with flawed records and spotty accomplishments over the years. Senator McCain obviously has a more heroic biography, but what that says about his ability to lead as president is debatable. Similarly, Senator Obama has shown that he is a gifted politician, but whether he is sufficiently pragmatic to set aside his liberal predilections and look for reasonable solutions and compromises in the future is debatable as well.
The truly interesting thing about this election is that the only individual on either ticket with actual executive experience is Governor Palin (who the press has been working overtime to marginalize), while the person best qualified in terms of experience and breadth of knowledge is Senator Biden. As conservative as I am, I would be far more comfortable with Joe Biden in the Oval Office than either Barack Obama or the man whom John McCain has become. Is Biden liberal? Absolutely. Unabashedly. But he is also funny, smart, engaging, and definitely not a programmed candidate. He is always interesting to listen to on questions of policy, because even when I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions, I can always trace the thought trail that led to them. His personal story is extraordinary, and there is something to be said for a man who has not gotten rich in the service of his country.
But he ain’t running for the top job; the other two are. And I suspect that a fair amount of the country is going to wait this one out and decide very, very late. Possibly, they will make up their minds in the voting booth. And maybe they will go “Eenie, meeney, miney…” and vote for “Moe.”