Yesterday, I ran into my friend, the artist Don McGlaughlin, on the train into Manhattan. Don’s father was the great mayor of Wilmington, Deleware who passed not long ago and was remembered as one of the best mayors this country has ever seen.
He was an old style working-class Irish-American, who was urged to run for office because he was such a popular and honorable man.
He won office and kept it, through the “riots” of the 1960s when his city was burning and through the problems of the years that followed.
He left his city better than he found it, its people more harmonious and prosperous. He’s the kind of politician the Democrats are sorely in need of now.
Don and I talked politics on the half hour trip, and though I hadn’t been watching or reading the news in depth lately—due to my schedule and just taking a break from the disappointment of watching the Republicans successfully control the race once again—Don was still convinced that “Americans” weren’t dumb enough to elect McCain after what the Republicans have done to this country over the past two presidential terms as well as all the flip flopping and confusion and sheer stupidity of many of McCain’s positions.
I responded that, as my friend Terence says, “Humans are story-telling creatures” and the McCain camp is controlling the story, as well as telling a better one, in terms of relating to most people, and that I believe if the election were held today, McCain would win.
Don said that wasn’t what the polls were saying so far. But then I got home from the city and turned on the news to catch up and sure enough, yesterday’s polls show that if the election were held now, McCain would win.
Some in the Obama camp have been urging him to get more negative on McCain, and today the news is that there are ads beginning to run in swing states that do that.
I haven’t seen them, but there’s no need to “go negative,” and if they are, that’s a mistake, in my opinion. What the Obama camp should be doing is just telling the truth about McCain, stop handling him with kid gloves (even his fellow Republicans never did that).
But even more importantly, Obama has to tell the story of his life and his beliefs and ideals and goals for this country as story, not debating points or college lecture or reasoned thinking out loud.
At the beginning of the primaries, I predicted that in the end the Republicans would try to make this race a repeat of the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaigns of the 1950s. As I also predicted Hilary would try to do when it came down to her and Barack, paint him as the elitist, aloof, intellectual, and herself as the people’s hero.
Now the Republicans have done that perfectly. McCain is the likable, plain-spoken, military hero, the man to get the job done, ala Ike, and Obama is the elitist, egghead professor without a clue about real life ala Adlai S.
The reality of course was that Ike didn’t have a political record the Democrats could use against him, and he won (with a lot of help) WWII, the most serious conflagration the world has ever known, while McCain has been a politician for most of his life.
And as I’ve written before about McCain, being an officer in our armed services your whole life (or in McCain’s case being descended from a string of them) is like living in a socialist or Communist society (with a capital “c” since true “communism” has rarely been practiced outside of tiny utopian collectives here and there throughout human history, and possibly more extensively in prehistoric times, unable to be proven definitively).
Meaning, in the service you are guaranteed a job, healthcare, three square meals, shelter (and nowadays that means your own room often) etc. And if you are an officer, it’s like being a member of the politburo or the KGB, you not only get the basics, but you get extra privileges including a big house with servants, a car and driver, etc. and almost unlimited power.
Ike at least had an idea of what life is like for normal people in a capitalist society from when he was young, but McCain doesn’t. He never lived under any circumstances that weren’t privileged and weren’t basically “socialist.”
And, he has a track record of taking a strong stand no matter how unpopular, up until it gets in the way of his political ambitions, at which time he reverses himself without a qualm. That’s what the ads against him should be doing.
As for controlling the story, Obama’s camp hasn’t even been successful at telling one for a while now. Any story that needs to reach masses of people has to be clear and simple and have a story arc that is satisfying.
The most successful Democratic presidential campaigners understood that. Jimmy Carter’s first campaign was all about him being a humble but honest peanut farmer from Georgia. Which was basically true and what the country wanted after Watergate. His second campaign unfortunately was about the story the Republicans were telling, that Reagan represented “morning in America” and restoring “America’s greatness” while Carter was about reminding us how we needed to conserve oil and develop alternative energy or we would once again be held hostage to the middle East, etc.
Carter was telling the truth but in a way that was too complicated and was easy for the Republicans to characterize (with the help of the media as always and their trick of accusing the media of “liberal bias” whenever the media tell the truth) as elitist and negative (the whole “malaise” thing, a term Carter never used but Republicans were smart enough to tag him with making him not only negative but using a fancy French term to boot).
Then along came Bill, who not only knew how to control his story—“the man from Hope,” the Bubba who defended his mother against his alcoholic step-father and pulled himself up by his brains to overcome the financial and family disadvantages he’d been born into—he knew how to play hardball.
Obama has rarely seemed like he “felt our pain” the way Bill did, nor has he been consistent in portraying himself and his campaign as well as he did in the speech that got him where he is, at the last Democratic presidential convention.
That speech wasn’t nuanced and professorial, it was about how an American kid with a funny name could represent the end of ‘blue state red state” etc. He still refers to that now and then, but mostly he tries to look like a serious statesman with gravitas because he fell into the trap of letting the Republicans label him and wanting to counteract that with an image and approach rather than with a story.
I hope it’s not too late for him to recoup and convince most “Americans” that he’s more like them than McCain ever will be, but so far that isn’t happening.