From the LA Times:
It was almost nine years ago that John McCain’s quest for the White House began in the basement of Peterborough’s town hall. McCain had held a few scattered town hall meetings in New Hampshire before then, but his candidacy in the 2000 Republican presidential primary generated such little interest that fewer than 20 people showed for the Peterborough event, even though his campaign distributed 1,000 fliers advertising free ice cream. And, as the Arizona senator recalled Sunday, his campaign “ate ice cream for the next two weeks.”
McCain’s anecdote appropriately summarizes his whole campaign thus far – in desperately trying to woo a reluctant and unenthusiastic populous to give him a chance, he pulled out all the stops, offering free ice cream to anyone who would just show up and listen; the result is a pathetic image of McCain sitting alone, surrounded by the unopened gallons of melting dessert. Ever since Obama became the presumptive Democratic candidate, McCain has offered every possible incentive for voters – from base Republican conservatives to moderate undecideds – to give him a chance, to question his opponent’s appeal and hear him out. And now, at the end of the race, McCain is alone, surrounded by months of empty campaigning as his legacy.
Perhaps this is what makes McCain’s appearance on Saturday Night Live last week so uncannily appropriate. It’s not simply that he is being a ‘good sport’, showing off his sense of humor in the face of ridicule and nearly inevitable defeat. The uncanny comedic air comes from the kind of pathetic resignation that has been a latent destiny for his campaign, ever since he relinquished his famed high moral standards, his respect for opponents, his dignity. How can one help but get the sense that, standing next to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, McCain was receiving the message of his presidential bid back in its inverted (true) form – Palin was always a caricature, and so was the whole campaign.
We shouldn’t praise McCain for being ‘in on the joke’, as opposed to Palin, who, in her appearance on SNL a few weeks prior, seemed oblivious. The fact is that McCain can only maintain such a sense of humor because he is disconnected from his campaign on a level of principle, he fundamentally can’t identify with his candidate persona. Palin, on the other hand, may not understand (or even if she does get the joke, she certainly doesn’t seem to find the humor in it), but she did as she was told, she went along with it anyway. McCain’s disingenuous alienation and Palin’s naive humorlessness have gone hand in hand from the beginning, making the ticket intriguingly imbalanced.
The uncanniness, which builds to the point of an uncomfortable brush with the truth (to say the least), culminates in McCain’s segment on Weekend Update, in which he self-mockingly enumerates some ‘radical last minute strategies’:
Before the series spirals off into absurdities, he lists two ‘strategies’ that reveal nothing less than the not-so-secret logic of his campaign. First, there is the ‘reverse maverick’, where he would do whatever anyone tells him. “I don’t ask questions, I just go with the flow.” Yet isn’t this what he has been doing all along? Following the directions of his campaign organizers and the GOP, giving up on positions that had once defined his alleged ‘maverick’ status, doing what he is told…
Next, there is the ‘double maverick’: “That’s where I go totally berzerker and just freak everybody out.” Yet with the intense negativity that has characterized the late campaign, namely the allegations of Obama’s affiliation with terrorists and secret socialist agenda, McCain has indeed freaked a lot of people out. On top of that, his own supporters, in the insane fervor these allegations provoked, became increasingly out of control at rallies, to the point of concerning cries of ‘Terrorist!’, ‘Kill him!’, and the like, being raised at the very mention of his opponent. McCain struggled to keep these sentiments under control, as he became the ‘regular maverick’ who was spooked by the ‘double maverick’ he had unleashed in his supporters.
When McCain characterizes these strategies as bad, its hard not to hear a note of implicit self-criticism. This is only confirmed by the next ‘bad strategy’ he offers, one his campaign explicitly resorted to the week before: the ‘sad grandpa’, in which McCain would plead with voters that Obama, being young, would have plenty of chances to be president, and that they should give him his last chance. Isn’t this the not-so-subtle message of the recent McCain ad that claimed Obama ‘isn’t ready to be president…yet’? Or again: at the same rally in Peterborough, New Hampshire, that McCain told the ice cream anecdote, he said, “I come to the people of New Hampshire … and ask again to let me go on one more mission.” [reported by Reuters here] It seems plain that he is criticizing the very ‘bad strategies’ to which he has nonetheless resorted.
Here we should prefer Obama’s blatant pandering to undecided voters, exemplified in his infomercial, over McCain’s cynical reliance on fear and distrust. While Obama’s message of hope and change may be more talk than walk, hiding a more or less standard liberal-centrist program, he is at the very least offering people some kind of overarching moral framework, some standard to live up to, some goal to achieve. US Presidential elections, at least since Reagan, have basically been contested over which candidate’s platform will make us better off – no ideological obfuscation, let’s look at the facts: who will give me lower taxes, more security, et cetera (recall Reagan’s famous quip, “Ask yourselves, are you better off now than you were four years ago?”). Obama’s significant departure is to break with this logic (not always, but enough to matter), renewing the approach to politics in which what is at stake in an election is not simply a set of factual circumstances, wherein we are ‘better or worse off’, but the very standards by which we identify what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, what constitutes ‘better’ or ‘worse’.
Of course, this cynical politics of the facts has always relied on its own implicit moral standard, one in which it is immoral to decide what is good or bad for anyone but yourself, and in which you must focus solely on your own benefit. This is why the ‘culture wars’ elements of political platforms, issues like abortion and gay marriage, feel tacked on, and don’t amount to a consistent moral framework; they are only concessions, opportunistic compromises. Yet perhaps it is the insufficiency of these compromises that has, in part, given such a broad appeal to the Obama campaign.
We can recognize, in the series of attacks McCain supporters have leveled against Obama, evidence of a telling ideological shift on this level: from ‘secret Muslim’, to radical black militant, to domestic terrorist/anarchist, and finally to socialist or even Marxist. First he represents the particularist program of a theocratic proto-fascism; then, a separatist rejection of society in the name of, again, group-specific interests; then a complete rejection of society in the name of a global, even universal rejection of authority; finally, a universal and positive program for a new society, this time proto-communist. This chain of equivocations is striking, but understandable from the prerogative of conservative-liberal politics: they all share in common the imposition of an over-arching moral framework that breaks with rational self-interest. Yet from the communist perspective, this Obama-effigy has made a progression from the worst to the best of anti-liberal political positions.
What must truly frighten the McCain-loyal is not the prospect of an unprepared president, but rather, the stunning enthusiasm exhibited on behalf of a moral framework with the potential of breaking with that of the unholy neoliberal-social conservative alliance. This framework is based on notions of participation, faith in the people, service and sacrifice. And not sacrifice ‘for the greater good’, but more importantly, sacrifice so that there might be a ‘good’ at all, a good that is not the shallow copy thereof that is rational self-interest. What Obama is calling on people to do is to work, to participate, to join the Peace Corps or Americorps, to get involved with the new ‘green economy’, to organize, so that we can change the very meaning of what ‘good’ is. We must enact this good, and cannot wait for it to be handed to us in a press release. The republican criticism that Obama talks a lot about change, but doesn’t tell us what exactly this change is, is thus poorly aimed: it is by virtue of leaving the goal of this change open, by entrusting us with its realization, that Obama’s message is truly effective.
Ultimately, if Obama is elected, he will not live up to the hype, he will disappoint the enthusiastic to some extent at least. Yet a politician’s platform should not be measured by its effectiveness first and popularity second, but the reverse. If the cliche that electoral politics is theater teaches us anything, it is this. The effectiveness of a given political platform is only a secondary effect of its capacity to mobilize people, to really move its audience. If the slogan of ‘change’ is to mean anything, it won’t receive this meaning from policies, but from the people. As Obama said, in his speech at the DNC, “change doesn’t come from Washington, change comes to Washington.” And moreover, “This campaign was never about me. It was about you.”
So when we are disappointed, when the dream does collapse into the sobering morning after, the question is precisely in which direction the dominos will fall. Will the people be awoken to the cynical realization that great plans for change inevitably fail under their own weight, and that we should stick to modest, pragmatic reforms? Will the ideal die in favor of a cynical Realpolitik? Or will we see this disappointment as the failure of reality to live up to our ideal? In other words, will the slogan of change outlive the failure of Obama’s concrete platform? Will we accept the loss of the factual battle, so that we might win the war over morality? It is preserving and encouraging this latter sentiment, and drawing it out from the former wherever it arises, that will become our task after election day.