This ain’t Athens

September 26, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Since so many ‘known unknowns’ have been created in the past two days, it’s difficult to determine precisely what’s happening in the race for the next American president. We know that John McCain is losing, that his choice of Sarah Palin has proved embarrassing, that his attempts to tear down Obama’s character have failed and that he’s now hinging his entire campaign on an audacious stunt to parachute himself into the middle of the banking crisis. Aside from that, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty.

To say his intervention has been unhelpful is putting it mildly. McCain’s aim wasn’t to humbly contribute any help he could towards cutting a deal on the Wall St bailout; he had to be seen – and by as many cameras as possible – to have been the one to broker that deal. The sole reason for the stunt was to cement his own narrative of being a maverick, bi-partisan reformer who’ll put his campaign to one side in the interests of his country. At the time of writing, there remains no way of knowing how or when this’ll be resolved, except to say that McCain has invested so much of his credibility in the past 48 hours that it’s unlikely he’ll want to begin tonight’s debate without having being able claim some kind of a personal victory. If he does achieve that, then all bets are off.

And so the race has yet again become consumed with talk about process, maneuverings, tactics, and has very little to do with directly addressing the issues. I can’t help but sympathise with this lament by conservative writer Ross Douthat on how excruciating the past few months have been to watch:

McCain’s gamble may be politically smart, or it may be politically stupid, but like almost everything that’s happened in this campaign since the two candidates locked up their respective nominations, it’s primarily interesting on a tactical level; its substantive import is close to nil. Both McCain and Obama are almost certain, at this point, to end up supporting whatever bailout compromise is hashed out in Congress, which means that we’ll be able to add the current economic crisis to the list of issues where the two candidates have managed to avoid anything like a sustained argument about policy. It’s the Russo-Georgian War all over again: McCain responds boldly/impulsively, Obama responds carefully/overcautiously, but they both end up saying roughly the same thing, and the pundit class goes back to obsessing about whatever shocking poll or web ad has been released that day.


So Barack Obama, who once claimed to embody sweeping, once-in-a-generation change, has ended up running a cautious, negative, and deeply generic Democratic campaign, while John McCain, who’s supposedly all about honor and service and aching nobility, has offered a mix of snark, stunts, and manufactured controversies week in and week out. And the pundit class, deeply invested in the notion that the stakes in this election are stunningly, awesomely high, has responded to the fundamental dullness of the race itself with wild hyperventilation, unable to accept that this campaign just hasn’t lived up to their round-the-clock hype – and that it may not even turn out to be the most important election of this decade, let alone of a generation or a lifetime.

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