Weeks of erratic behavior by John McCain were sealed by Friday's turning-point debate during which Barack Obama succeeded in reassuring voters that he is presidential, just as doubts about McCain's ability to run the country were rapidly growing.
This is a sea change in an election in which it has been taken for granted by a complacent traditional media that McCain's experience qualifies him for the presidency. It now appears to be clear to a majority of the electorate, if not to a majority of the pundits, that the election is not simply a contest of ideas and political stances; it is one of character and judgment. And in that respect, McCain has recently shone a bright light on the fact that he has neither.
Were this election, or any election, about political philosophy, that still would not help McCain: at this point what he stands for is more obscure than ever, besides an absurdly belligerent international stance and a staunch opposition to choice in the matter of abortion. On the economy, about which he still has not learned a thing, it is impossible to know if he is for more or less regulation, and what kind of regulation. The same applies to issue after issue: he flip-flops, obfuscates and seems at times utterly clueless about the consequences of his positions. From energy to health care to tax policy to environmental issues, there is no consistency or substance. The resulting muddle is not the product of a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road mind such as Bill Clinton's, it is that of a confused, disoriented politician overly reliant on lobbyists/advisers whose conflicting financial interests outweigh all else.
Obama, by contrast, has developed political stances both foreign and domestic that are consistent and comprehensive, a mild American-style social-democratic philosophy in which market forces and diplomacy play an important role. He is not immune to the odd practical shift or compromise, especially on social issues (see gun regulation, death penalty, same-sex marriage), but it usually appears to be in a calculated, controlled and, well, pragmatic way.
This may displease many of us on the left, but that control and the temperament it evidences are exactly what McCain lacks, and that makes him utterly unfit for the presidency. The seeds of this lack of competence were sown long ago, but even in the current presidential election, it is easy to forget how woefully badly McCain managed his primary campaign, running out of resources long before the first contest took place. That he prevailed in the end is a testament to the weakness of the field, especially compared to the Democrats, and Republicans' propensity to pick the guy who is next in line. Competitors as severely flawed as Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson did not exactly test McCain's ability to make the right decisions at the right time.
It is in the past few weeks, though, that McCain's managerial ineptitude and lack of judgment have been exposed in most shockingly stark fashion. His choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate left the traditional media scratching their heads for a few days, perhaps in an attempt to be objective, but also because of that overwhelmingly male group's fear of appearing sexist. Nonetheless, it did not take much (a couple of media appearances, a couple of speeches) for the general public to realize that McCain's cave-in to the religious right was putting the country at grave risk of being lead by an incompetent, inarticulate, unknowledgeable, possibly unintelligent caricature of a small town mayor. The depth of Palin's inanity is so evident in the few interviews she has granted that one does not even feel sorry for her, but more terrorized at the idea that she may be in charge of anything, and angry at the arrogance that lead her to accept the role. Palin is now mostly in hiding, the McCain campaign so panicked about the upcoming VP debate that it tried everything to cancel it, using the current financial crisis as its ultimate (and failed) weapon. Palin is unable to utter even two dozen words without putting her foot in her mouth; McCain's exasperation was palpable after a 30-second appearance by Palin at a Philadelphia food joint where she casually agreed with Obama (of course without realizing she was doing so) on the issue of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Palin's popularity has crashed in unprecedented ways, justifiably dragging down McCain's in the process. What does it say about McCain that he chose to put this person in charge of the country in the (not unlikely) occurrence he is unable to serve? The answer is now clear to all, including some of the most conservative pundits.
Palin's downfall was not only prompted by her tragically uninformed interviews, but also by the scripted speeches in which she repeated lie after lie, especially the easily verifiable ones about the Bridge to Nowhere. By the time that particular line was expunged from her standard address, it was too late and the damage had been done. This has been especially harmful because McCain himself repeated that particular lie, along with many others, long after they were widely discredited. Voters of course expect politicians not to speak the truth, but there is a tipping point for the American electorate, and the McCain campaign has clearly reached it. Most voters ultimately see blatant lying as the deep character flaw that it is and McCain did himself far more damage than his campaign realizes in this respect, not an easy task for someone with a personal history once so compelling.
It may be that with the Rovian group now running his campaign, and traumatized by the attacks he suffered in his losing 2000 primary against George W. Bush, McCain feels that his operation should assault Obama indiscriminately. What is bizarre, though, is that rather than letting his surrogates or even supposedly unaffiliated groups do the bad guy stuff, he does it himself. While the Bush campaign was actively encouraging sleazy, racist attacks against McCain in 2000, Bush himself was still able to come off as a pretty jolly fellow, which seemed enough to voters at the time. Even in 2004, the Swift Boat slanders against John Kerry ostensibly came from outside the Bush campaign, and certainly not from Bush himself. Why McCain would risk tarnishing his character, heretofore his greatest asset, especially among unaffiliated voters, for a long shot at short-term political gain is unfathomable, but, again, it speaks to his lack of judgment. Another poor choice in this respect was his gnarling, patronizing, primeval bearing at the debate. He cannot help that he is a conservative old white man in a year when that is not necessarily an advantage, but he could keep the grumpiness and sinister "smile" in check. Perhaps he calculated that white voters would not find his condescension towards the smarter, younger, black man next to him unbearable. But somehow many did, women even more so than men, abruptly reminded of the belittling behavior of so many men not unlike McCain.
The absurd circus surrounding McCain and the financial bailout, the fake (or was it failed) suspension of his campaign, his rush to Washington for a photo op, his near-cancellation of the debate, all this was a harsh illustration of McCain's impulsive, random approach to challenges. Really, he was trying to double the stakes after his Palin losses, rolling the dice once again, losing once again. Nothing against gamblers, but McCain's inability to measure the odds is one thing in the Indian casinos whose hospitality he so enjoys, and another entirely for a man in charge of the full US nuclear power, and thus the fate of the world, in his hands. Last week's stunts seemed so purposeless that it is hard to judge them a complete failure. However, they did exemplify that McCain has the leadership skills of a canary: Democrats, starting with Obama, of course ignored his attempted politicization of the bailout, but much more strikingly, Congressional Republicans were equally as dismissive in their silence, making it clear that at best he was playing no role whatsoever (and at worst he was delaying a deal, which he did.) As for cancelling the debate, Obama's shoulder-brush was brutally elegant and effective: "The American people deserve to hear directly from myself and Senator McCain about how we intend to lead our country." An opportunity for Americans to understand where he stands on the issue is exactly what McCain wanted to avoid, especially as he still has not made up his mind about a national crisis he equates to 9/11.
When media figures of all stripes finally came around to realizing the extent of Obama's achievement at the debate (assisted by the Democrat's rapidly escalating poll numbers), they acknowledged that he "looked" more presidential than McCain. Of course he did, but most importantly he IS more presidential than McCain in every single respect. It is not a superficial act, it is who he is, and who McCain can never hope to be, having long ago reached the pinnacle of a career built entirely on the one defining event of his youth. Ultimately, if we agree, as most of us do outside of the far-right abortion-obsessed axis, that Palin is unfit to serve as president on January 20, then McCain, the man solely responsible for giving her that opportunity, is unfit too. It really is that simple, and nothing McCain can say or do will change that.