Winning by Provoking Unforced Errors

Of course the end of the presidential campaign each four years means we get those sports metaphors – a candidate really hit a home run with some pithy remark that clarified everything and left his opponent with nothing to say, or the candidate who is behind in the polls, and will surely lose, has thrown a Hail Mary pass sixty yards down the field, in a desperate attempt to win the game as the clock runs down, hoping one of the ten or so random guys in the distant end zone catches it, and happens to be one of the guys on his team. The Hail Mary pass would be, in that case, some new and wild idea or accusation no one could have expected. The chances of that Hail Mary working – turning everything around and winning against all odds – are mighty slim, but you have nothing to lose now. With Election Day always the first Tuesday in November, just after the World Series and smack in the middle of the NFL season, such sports metaphors just have to be there – the media makes things easy for us, putting things in terms we understand, because it’s just that time of year.

 

But sometimes the internal details of the game are more instructive. Forget the political stuff – give it a rest, grab a beer and some chips, plop down on the sofa and watch some National Football League game on Sunday afternoon. Sooner or later there will be some sort of fight – a late hit or a hold the refs didn’t see and you get the taunting, and the shoving and pushing, and then the fifteen-yard penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct. That’s always a killer, and you also lose a down. You wonder why these guys risk screwing their own team with such foolishness – but they’re all maniacally competitive steroid-enhanced mutants pumped up on adrenaline and caught up in the heat of the moment, so they really do get into it. But it is sometimes fun to imagine what would happen if one of the two players, as they face each other in rage, suddenly stopped, lowered his arms, and just stood there, smiling. The other player would explode – he’d draw the penalty and his team would lose the yardage and the down. Until the other team figured it out you could do that again and again and march down the field in fifteen-yard increments – when the refs aren’t watching provoke a fight, and when they turn and run over to break it up, you stand there smiling, doing nothing at all. In fact, just let the other guy hit you – you’re wearing pads and a helmet. What do you care? Given the driven people who play professional football of course that never happens. But it could happen. All you need is someone cool-headed and a bit sneaky. There’s no rule against that.

 

That is more like what is happening now, as Obama pulls away from McCain in the final days of the campaign. Obama is on message, almost boring at time, and the other side is exploding in rage. Eric Martin here points to the real problem with the Republican’s anti-Obama message:

 

… once you’ve made a narrative choice, you do have to stick with it – you can’t just keep bouncing around, or people become confused. If you are telling the story of a scary vampire, you can’t decide in chapter 2 that he’s also 500 feet tall and radioactive and bent on destroying Tokyo, in chapter 3 that he is actually a giant man-eating shark, and in chapter 4 that he is all this and a super-terrorist trying to plant a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. All of these things are, indeed, scary, but taken together they add up to a muddle.

 

This is the problem. It’s not just the McCain campaign’s problem – although their inability to pick a narrative and stick to it is a special kind of inexcusable – it’s a problem for the entire wingnut noise machine. Obama is a Marxist Muslim Arab Jesus Black White Terrorist Technocrat Racist Do-Gooder Liberal FDR Stalin Hilter Commie Fascist Gay Womanizing Naive Cynical Insider Noob Boring Radical Unaccomplished Elite Slick Gaffe-Prone Pedophile Pedophile-Seducing Liberation Theology Atheist – Etc. & Anti-Etc. – with a bunch of scary friends from – wait for it! – the Nineteen Hundred And Sixties.

 

It makes no sense. It’s a jumble sale of fears and scary associations from 50 years of wingnut witch hunts and smear campaigns, a flea market of pre-owned and antique resentments, and if one does detect a semi-consistent 1960’s motif running through it all, that’s because that’s when most of these ideas were coined.

 

Exploding in uncontrolled rage draws the penalty – fifteen yards and loss of downs for incoherence and silliness.

 

All the newspapers endorsing Obama – more and more pouring in day by day – are the refs throwing the yellow flag to the turf and assessing the penalty, like this from the Pensacola News-Journal:

 

McCain raised questions about his judgment in his selection of an unqualified running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who, while energizing the “base,” has been a flop with most voters outside of what she recklessly calls the “pro-American” parts of our country.

 

And so we ask: Where is the McCain who warned that President Bush’s tax cuts, without spending cuts, risked creating the deficits that followed? He now embraces them. Where is the McCain who once spoke with authority and reason on immigration reform? “We do not torture,” John McCain famously, and courageously, said. But he now supports a presidential veto of an anti-torture law.

 

It seems McCain was rattled and lost it – the “it” being any semblance of coherency. Players who lose it lose.

 

And now the Hail Mary is calling Obama a socialist, over and over, as Obama wants to cut taxes for only ninety-five percent of us, which would mean higher taxes – the former ones – for those at the top of things. This is taking from those who earned lots and sort of giving more of what they earned to those who didn’t – what Obama calls spreading the wealth around and McCain and Palin are now calling Marxist socialism or communism or whatever.

 

But Andrew Sullivan has a simple question:

 

I’m a flat-taxer, because I don’t believe the government has any business punishing people for getting richer. But I don’t think that people who support the kind of punitive taxation that Obama does or Cameron does in Britain or Reagan did in 1986 is a “socialist.” Is it now the McCain campaign’s assertion that anyone who isn’t for a flat tax is socialist? I should add that if Obama is a socialist, Richard Nixon must have been a commie.

 

More of that and the McCain campaign will have to change the subject, again, which they actually did on Tuesday, October 28, when suddenly they started using Joe the Plumber as their new key campaign spokesman. Fox news got the exclusive – an extended daytime interview with this Sage of Toledo. And Joe did change the subject:

 

Joe the Plumber endorsed Republican John McCain for president on Tuesday and agreed that a vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama would be “a vote for the death of Israel.”

 

You had to watch the full interview with Sheppard Smith, as Smith asked Joe why Joe had decided that. Perhaps the McCain folks, and those at Fox News who worked out the specific questions, thought Joe would knock that one out of the park – they lobbed him a softball pitch. Joe didn’t even swing. He didn’t even lay down a bunt. Joe was angry at being asked, saying he didn’t need to explain that assessment, as everyone just knew that was so, and it certainly wasn’t his job to do Smith’s work for him. Okay – it was an embarrassment. The pinch hitter blew it – time for McCain’s people and Fox News to get together again and decide who should bat next in the lineup.

 

And Obama had to do nothing. Let the ideologues rant – no problem. The best response is no response. They’ll sink on their own. In fact, in a video discussion Noam Scheiber discusses Obama’s aversion to ideology – “Almost the opposite of Sarah Palin.” Let them have at it.

 

Of course you can play the refs – or in baseball, the umpires – claiming they should be more even-handed. There is a lot of that being said on the McCain side – the press is in the tank for Obama and all that – but in a long item in Politico, they say that they print more unfavorable stories about McCain than Obama for a reason. McCain’s campaign kind of sucks:

 

There have been moments in the general election when the one-sidedness of our site – when nearly every story was some variation on how poorly McCain was doing or how well Barack Obama was faring – has made us cringe. As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.

 

You call them like you see them.

 

And sometimes, out of kindness, you might just let some things go. There is the celebrity Victoria Jackson, late of Saturday who has her own strong feelings about Barack Obama, as you can see on her website:

 

I don’t want a political label, but Obama bears traits that resemble the anti-Christ and I’m scared to death that uneducated people will ignorantly vote him into office.

 

Maybe Fox News will have her come to bat next.

 

Obama just sits back, smiling, as the other side falls apart:

 

The social conservatives and moderates who together boosted the Republican Party to dominance have begun a tense battle over the future of the GOP, with social conservatives already moving to seize control of the party’s machinery and some vowing to limit John McCain’s influence, even if he wins the presidency.

 

In skirmishes around the country in recent months, evangelicals and others who believe Republicans have been too timid in fighting abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration have won election to the party’s national committee, in preparation for a fight over the direction and leadership of the party.

 

Kevin Drum comments:

 

Obviously this sounds crazy to liberal ears, but I guess I can’t blame them. After all, the job of a true believer is to believe. And turning elections into culture war battlefields certainly seems to have worked in the past for them.

 

But times change. Among vast swathes of the young, the culture war has lost its salience. Worse, it’s become an albatross, a sign of intolerance and hatred that young voters despise. The results are crystal clear in party ID polling: twenty-somethings have fled the Republican Party in numbers not seen since the Great Depression, and if social conservatives manage to wrest control of the GOP and start shrieking 24/7 about banning abortion and hating gay people, they’ll be guaranteeing Democratic dominance among an entire cohort of voters for decades to come.

 

Which is fine with me, of course. But the adults in the Republican Party better plan on knocking heads very hard and very fast if they don’t share my attitude. Sarah Palin isn’t the future of their party; she’s the future of mine.

 

Just stand back and smile. Or see Ross Douthat here on this Rush Limbaugh monologue – Limbaugh says it’s time to purge the Republican Party of the weak-willed moderates that he’s always warned of, those who think and write books and have any education beyond high school. He uses the term “intellectualoid” for conservative media figures – the guys Kevin Drum calls the adults, and Rush calls the traitors and wimps, like McCain, and unlike Sarah Palin. All you can do is stand back and watch.

 

It is fun, actually. See Mark Kleiman:

 

McCain seems to have re-assembled the William Jennings Bryan coalition, consisting of people who live in rural areas, attend church, and distrust those who know more than they do. That coalition, both in 1896 and today, is capable of carrying the South and most of the Great Plains. That was, and is, a durable majority.

 

For the other side, of course.

 

And he adds this:

 

A friend who was doubtless more socially successful in her high school than I was in mine characterizes the McCain/Palin ticket as “the captain of the football team and the mean girl who connived her way to head cheerleader: the two kids you most love to hate.”

 

When the other team wants to do dumb-ass things and lose, you let them.

 

But some on the other team get it, like Patrick Ruffini here:

 

Nothing the McCain campaign did could change the reality of McCain the candidate’s poor management instincts and his tendency to fidget around and not stay on message. When the economic crisis hit, this reality flew in the face of the McCain campaign’s message of steadiness versus inexperience. Whether by design or the candidate’s nature, Obama’s caution and deliberation was a living, breathing talking point against the experience card.

 

Likewise, I think it will be said that the McCain campaign has yet to really lay a glove on Obama character-wise because Obama himself simply does not project the cloying, insecure, effete tendencies of past nominees like Gore and Kerry, though the only two times he’s come close (Wright and bitter/cling) have barely figured in the general election campaign. I do think “celeb” was the best chance we had to define Obama personally, but again, though there is something to be said for attacking a guy’s strength, Obama’s grassroots appeal was a legitimate strength, not a hidden weakness.

 

Obama just remained cool. Let the others be the maniacally competitive steroid-enhanced mutants pumped up on adrenaline and caught up in the heat of the moment.

 

In the New York Times, Stanley Fish explains it all in The Power of Passive Campaigning:

 

In the aftermath of the 2000 and 2004 elections, the post-mortem verdict was that the Republicans had run a better campaign. They knew how to seize or manufacture an issue. They were able to master the dynamics of negative advertising. They kept on message. Now, when many print and TV commentators are predicting if not assuming an Obama victory, the conventional wisdom is that this time the Democrats have run a better campaign.

 

When did the Democrats smarten up? When did they learn how to outdo the Republicans at their own game?

 

Fish argues that they didn’t. Obama changed things. He showed the way with “straightforward non-campaigning.” And it was all in being calm:

 

We saw it in the 10 days when the activity around the mounting economic crisis was at its height. Henry Paulson alternated between scaring members of Congress and scaring the public. Nancy Pelosi alternated between playing the responsible Congressional statesperson and playing the partisan attack dog. Media commentators went from one hysterical prediction to another. John McCain went from saying there’s nothing to worry about to saying there’s everything to worry about to saying that he would fix everything by suspending his campaign to saying that he was not suspending his campaign and that he would debate after all.

 

And Barack Obama? He didn’t do much and he said less (O.K., he did say some reassuring, optimistic things), and his poll numbers went up.

 

Weeks later, the pattern continues, but in an even more intense form. The McCain campaign huffs and puffs and jumps from charge to charge: Obama consorts with terrorists; he’s a socialist; he’s a communist; he is un-American; he’s not one of us; he’s a celebrity; he’s going to take your money and give it to people who never did a day’s work; he’s going to sell out Israel; he’ll cozy up to foreign dictators; he’s measuring the drapes.

 

In response, Obama explains his tax policy for the umpteenth time, points out that capitalists like Warren Buffet support him, details his relationship with Bill Ayers, lists those he consults with, observes that Senator McCain, by his own boast, voted with President George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, and calls for change.

 

Yep, it may be boring, and infuriate the outraged and angry left, but it works:

 

What he (or his campaign) doesn’t do is bring up the Keating Five, or make veiled references to McCain’s treatment of his first wife, or make fun of Sarah Palin (she doesn’t need any help), or disparage his opponent’s experience, or hint at the disabilities of age. He just stands there looking languid (George Will called him the Fred Astaire of politics), always smiling and never raising his voice.

 

Meanwhile, McCain’s surrogates get red in the face on TV when they try to explain away the latest jaw-dropping thing Sarah Palin has said, or proclaim that anything can happen in seven days, or respond to ever more discouraging poll numbers by saying (how’s this for a weak cliché) that the only poll that counts is the poll on election day. (I know things are bad when my wife, a staunch Democrat, feels sorry for them.)

 

This is followed with a fascinating discussion of Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Regained” – but only those of us with graduate degrees in English need read all that. It is fine, and utterly appropriate, but Milton is an acquired taste. And it ends with this:

 

Toward the end, the poem describes the mighty contest in a metaphor that captures its odd and negative dynamic. Jesus is “a solid rock” continually assaulted by “surging waves”; and even though the repeated assaults result only in the waves being “all to shivers dashed,” they keep on coming until they exhaust themselves “in froth or bubbles.” The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It’s rope-a-dope on a grand scale.

 

And McCain knows it. Last Wednesday, campaigning in New Hampshire, he spoke sneeringly about Obama’s campaign being “disciplined and careful.” That’s exactly right, and so far the combination of discipline and care – care not to get out too far in front of anything – along with a boatload of money is working just fine. Jesus is usually the political model for Republicans, but this time his brand of passive, patient leadership is being channeled by a Democrat.

 

Well, you may be put off by Milton and Jesus talk. If so, think back to the counterculture anti-war novel of 1961 if you’d like, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The Czech writer Arnošt Lustig says that Joseph Heller personally told him that he would never have written Catch-22 had he not first read The Good Soldier Švejk – the short novel by Jaroslav Hašek about the guy who drives everyone crazy and finally shows the absurdity of a war, and ends it, by smiling and doing exactly what he’s told to do.

 

And you might remember, in the Heller book, who drove Yossarian really crazy – Captain Aardvark, the navigator in Yossarian’s B-25, always oblivious to incoming flak, getting lost on missions, smoking his pipe and, as Yossarian sputters in despair and outrage, calmly and innocently asking what’s the matter? McCain might feel a bit like Yossarian.

 

Letting the other guy fume, and lose it, and take the penalty – that works, until the other team figures it out and also steps back and smiles. But they just haven’t figured it out.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Catch-22, Forcing Errors, Joe the Plumber, McCain, McCain Hot - Obama Cool, McCain Lacks Maturity, McCain Traps Himself, McCain's Hail Mary, McCain: Hot-Head, Obama, Obama as the Grown-Up, Obama Calm and Steady, Republican Civil War, Straightforward Non-Campaigning. Bookmark the permalink.

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