Thursday, July 31, 2008


To begin with, I'm not sold on Barack Obama. Now, I lived in Texas long enough, and had enough frothing at the mouth Republican friends whose world apparently was populated only by allies and nemeses, that I know some folks reading this will find that hard to believe. (Plenty of my Republican Texas friends didn't fall into that category at all, by the way, and more than a few were sharp and sophisticated enough that they could mix it up with me and leave me very hard pressed to defend what I thought. That was fun. But there was no shortage of the other kind of Republican as well. Plus, there are tons of lame-brained Democrats, and besides that, I'm the furthest thing from a party-identified Democrat. Is that enough disclaimers to soothe any stung feelings? I hope so, because this parenthetical already feels like the end of a pharmaceutical commercial; I should be reading it really quickly under my breath and saying "See your doctor at once.")

Okay. So I'm not sold on Barack Obama. A long time ago, I stopped voting for Democrats because they continued to support capital punishment, which is absolutely indefensible. That's an act of moral cowardice on their part for which I can't forgive them. I don't like the fact that Republican candidates tend not only to tolerate capital punishment, but to be downright gung-ho about it, but at least that's a logical output of their views on related subjects, so I won't call it moral cowardice. They aren't in a position that ought to lead them to the conclusion that it should be rejected, mistaken though their position is, so I'm not as down on them as I am on the Democrats. I'm still more likely to vote for a lump of goose poop than your typical Republican, but I'm not as griped at them.

Two paragraphs in a row have drifted off into fairly nonessential background. Let's see if I can keep this one on track. I'm not sold on Barack Obama. But, I must admit, I think a lot more highly of the arguments he's making for his candidacy these days than I do for McCain's arguments. It's a hazard of the trade: whenever I encounter arguments for or against any position, part of me makes like an Olympic judge and gives them a score, or, more accurately, like a restaurant critic, and gives them a thumbs up or a thumbs down based on their flavor.

McCain needs to exercise some quality control on his arguments, because, oh sweet mashed potatoes and gravy, they're getting downright awful.

"Obama looks too presumptuous. He thinks he's the president already. He's the messiah." There you go. A big segment of the electorate, quite possibly enough of a critical mass to swing it, will decide not based on their rational deliberations, but based on a gestalt, affective impression of the candidate. Plus, one curiously reliable explanation of voter behavior laid out by a German scholar named Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann says that voters don't fear a bad outcome to their decision; they only fear an unpopular commitment. They don't necessarily vote for the candidate they want, but rather for the candidate they think will win, because they don't want to cast their vote for the losing candidate and thus experience the wave of social isolation that comes from knowledge that the majority of one's neighbors disagree. That was a convoluted sentence, but a simpler way of putting is that people don't want to commit to a decision that the majority of people around them wouldn't agree with, and that desire to make popular decisions is more powerful than what we think of as an ideal voter's decisionmaking processes. You might wrinkle your nose and say "That can't be right," but Noelle-Neumann can cite some otherwise inexplicable election results to make a powerful case for her model.

So what? Well, so it's pretty danged dumb for McCain to pursue this line of argument about "He's too adored, the crowds are too big, anytime there's a swing of voter sentiment this large and this sudden, it has to be a fad," because every time he or one of his people or one of his commercials repeats it, the opening premise of that argument hammers home the fact that Obama is extraordinarily popular. "He's drawing too large of a crowd, which is bad because ... " is a doomed argument, because that opening observation does all the damage that's going to get done: not to Obama, but to McCain.

Two other McCain arguments make my head hurt. The first one is off-shore drilling. This beaut is as much of a winner as his gas tax holiday from a couple of months back. Yes, people are concerned about gas prices. Yes, it's a pocketbook issue that's on everyone's lips. But as we always told our novice debaters, you do not throw out a bad argument and hope people are too stupid to see through it. There's a fair debate to be had over whether offshore oil drilling is a good idea or not. I know what I think on the matter, but the technology does continue to improve, and I'd be willing to listen and hear that case made. But what's simply not open to question is that offshore oil drilling cannot, and I mean cannot, and let me emphasize cannot, do anything about oil prices in any time horizon that has anything to do with anyone's well-being. We're talking over a decade before that oil makes it to a customer, and that's the verdict of oil industry analysts, not those crazy kelp-hugging surfer hippies. And I'm quite confident, or perhaps I should say hopeful, that our petroleum-usage ten years from now won't look anything at all like it does today; if it does, that's a damning failure on our part. Taking a step to insure we'll have enough oil in 2020 is something like taking a step, back around 1970, to make sure we'd have enough asbestos for all our building needs: stupid, blind, irrational. But even if reasonable people can disagree on that, there's no room for reasonable disagreement on the fact, the fact, the fact, that a big spurt of petroleum that's over a decade away means zero to the problem of gas prices. Is anyone reading this enough of a clown to assert that you know today what the pricing situation will be with gasoline over ten years from now? No sane person thinks they can make any reliable prediction about what it'll be ten minutes from now. It's like taking one look at your newborn son, and sending off the measurements for his prom tuxedo. Dumb. And an argument can be both dumb and appealing, and dumb/appealing arguments can make a temporary difference, but the simple fact is that a whole lot more information circulates through the electorate than in years past, and that information wears down the dumb/appealing arguments, and leaves behind a sediment of distrust.

Speaking of a sediment of distrust, I'll keep what I have to say about the other bad McCain argument pretty brief. McCain says Obama canceled a visit to an American military base in Germany because he couldn't take cameras along. That is a damned lie. McCain's people publicly cite three sources for the claim, and all three say they never said anything of the kind. Lies are the worst arguments of all, because the truth is like the Furies; it's implacable, and it will eventually incinerate the lie that occluded it. And in this instance, it's more than halfway done with the job. And lies are like meth: a very brief boost, and a whole lot of collateral damage left behind.

For the past two presidential elections, I've voted Green: Nader/LaDuke, and then Cobb/LaMarche. I'd do so again, but they nominated Cynthia McKinney, who is, to put it mildly, a clown. I don't mind her race, I don't mind her gender, but I do mind the loose and jangly condition of her brain cells. She has a track record of blindingly dumb behavior. No way in the world I'll cast my precious endorsement for her to take on the authority of the Oval Office. I am not that reckless, and I do not hate my country enough to do that. I hope no one does. So does that mean I'm going to have to hold my nose and vote Obama, or else sit out? That's something I'm struggling over. I think McCain is taking wild hail-Mary shots, because he sees this election as a big ol' boat that can only turn slowly, with a lot of advance notice. I suspect McCain's arrangement of the tempo of this campaign includes a lot of outrageous charges right now, and a lot of offense and a lot of friction, and when he's opened up (he hopes) enough of a crack in Obama's strengths, then he can mellow out and devote more of his message to the kind of campaign he promised he'd run at the beginning. The problem is, his charges aren't just outrageous, but are actually clumsy. I've heard professional athletes in a dozen sports tell stories of playing against someone who has them hopelessly outclassed in strength, size, or any other important trait, and they say they've got nothing to lose, so they swing for the fences instead of playing it safe. That's all very fine and well, but swinging wildly, swinging with one's eyes shut, isn't an improvement over playing it safe. And if it gets too late in the campaign and this kind of thing continues, at a certain point it becomes earth-scorching; just a bitter, purposeless raging against the pain of losing. Hillary came perilously close to that, and I hope McCain's decency will assert itself in time to turn him aside from it. I don't see his arguments getting him where he wants to go. I haven't yet decided where my vote's going, but he's certainly not making any headway in winning it with his current message.

1 comment:

david said...

Thanks for you insight, scholarship and transperancy. I'm glad you blog.