Thursday, September 25, 2008

Open Source Obama

Has any candidate inspired more armchair quarterbacks (speechwriters/debaters/asskickers) than Barack Obama?

Watching the first Presidential debate, I felt much like Maureen Dowd (or Christophers Hitchens and Matthews): where was the knock-out punch? Why won't Obama finish him Mortal Kombat style? In a column titled "Barack Obama Doesn't Need Your Two Cents," Christopher Beam explains how all the sideline shouting cancels itself out. He should attack Palin! He should ignore Palin! He should warm up! He should cool down! And so on. I'm starting to think this slow-boil frustration is actually part of the Obama strategy. Call it DIY Rhetoric. And then pause to watch the following video again. Because now that McCain has conceded Michigan and publicly vowed to do nothing but throw poop for the remaining month, it's worth remembering which candidate actually has an affirming vision for the country:

Back in the primaries, Hillary Clinton actually tried to turn the screeching downhill skid of her own candidacy into a point against Obama. Why can't he close the deal? True, he's winning, but would you trust a guy who takes this long to beat me? It's a cotton candy assault. Say it once and it's tasty. Say it twice out loud and it evaporates in your mouth. She's essentially right, of course, since John McCain would be beating her much more thoroughly right about now. But only in the Clintonian crazy-straw of triangulation* and capitulation does this ploy make sense.

At the time, my shower-stall speech on the subject went something like this ... ahem:

I find it incredibly inspiring that we've taken our time to pick a nominee. Yes, many people have had their minds made up from the beginning. But this election is too important to resign to knee-jerk primary race trend-setting. Think about it. For the first time in ages, the national attention span has paused to consider the needs of each state in the country. How often does the mainstream media sit down to hear from the people of Montana? How often do national news networks stop to look at voters as diverse as Hoosiers and Tarheels? And within the same week, at that? Hillary may find this race tedious, but I think we're healthier as a nation when we give each corner of the country a chance to be heard. I think we have an invigorated, battle-tested candidate when they've been called to make the case to Americans everywhere, not just Iowa and New Hampshire. Call me crazy, but I think democracy is stronger when everyone gets a chance to participate.

And so watching the first presidential debate felt like watching the Act Two anticlimax of a sloppy kung-fu movie. "Man, if McCain tried that shit with me, I'd be all like suck THIS motherfucker! WOO-HA NEEEEEEEEEEYAAAH!"

As it happens, I'm living in the battleground state of Virginia for the next couple months -- so I have a place to take this frustration. For the past two Saturdays, I've been canvassing in the DC suburb of Shirlington ("commie country" according to McCain's brother). One of the Obama operatives there pointed out that Arlington county is overwhelmingly Democratic, but they only got 55% turnout in 2004. Their goal is to reach 80% this year and the voter registration deadline is today. If anyone else out there feels like a helpless fantasy football player, I can tell you that nothing sublimates spectator spin better than knocking on doors to spread the word.

On my first day, I confessed to the Obama reps on hand that half my motivation for helping came from this armchair quarterback impulse. I believe in Obama, yes. But I also believe he's in danger. And then it struck me: Barack Obama is the CSS Zen Garden of political candidates. I don't know if this is ingenious, cybernetic open source democracy or the Borg Collective, but the man needs people to complete him. In that spirit, I humbly offer the following post-debate dream sound bites. I hope to have fewer of them after tomorrow's town hall bout in Tennessee.

"Thank you for joining us, John."

Simple. Casual. Innocuous. It only sounds cheeky if you honestly think McCain's campaign "suspension" and debate postponement were serious maneuvers to abate the Wall Street meltdown. Obama made much the same point in his opening remarks when he said "I believe now is the time we should be speaking to the American people." But he could have politely reminded John that he'd already won a round just by showing up. And he could have "owned" the occasion up front.

"You can't treat international negotiations like a junior high school lunch room. No new clubs, no pretending the other person isn't there."

McCain wants to form a League of Democracies. But what happens when free-thinking societies freely think such a club is ridiculous? France, Germany and Britain are out. McCain booted Spain before the fact. So who's left? The League of Democracies is to international negotiations what Earmark Cuts are to budget policy -- a feeble cosmetic idea that doesn't begin to confront the challenges at hand. Combine this with McCain's blithe ignorance about the nation of Iran and you get a foreign policy that goes over very well with fourteen-year-old girls: la la la I can't hear you this is the cool kids table.

Every other democracy has open negotiations with Iran. And why? Because Iran happens to have a large, vibrant, young, pro-Western population. They see the elder theocracy dying off very shortly and their main beef with America isn't our freedom (gasp!) but the simple fact that we've already invaded two of their neighboring countries. McCain and his neocon boosters should be proud because we've already overthrown Iran's democratically-elected government once in living memory. But we can't just keep invading the same country every half-century. American regimes now have worse mileage than American cars. This won't stop McCain from inflating the tires with talk of a "second holocaust," but please.

Many sober minds on both sides of the aisle have pointed out the ironic temperament swap between the young black man and the white elder statesman. I wish Obama had inverted the age disparity by connecting the League of Democracies and Iranian diplomacy with McCain's adolescent world view, too. Which brings me to my last fantasy play ...

"You have to be able to look your opponent in the eye."

Is there a better way to connect the debate about international relations with McCain's bizarre behavior during that very debate? Obama made the same point in his Denver speech by pointing out how "McCain likes to say he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell. But he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives." So why not take the same moral high ground w/r/t diplomacy and fuse that with McCain's cowardly shuffling during the debate? McCain has now repeated two disastrous gambits from Carter's failed 1980 campaign. First he tried to skip the debate altogether. After Obama called the bluff, he tried to pretend Obama wasn't on the same stage with him. Both were attempts to minimize his opponent as a spoiler. It only takes a brief rhetorical judo kick to turn this nonsense back on itself. McCain likes to say he won't blink, but he can't even face the man he's running against.

I don't have anything to add to the Biden-Palin smackdown. It was more declamation than debate anyway. But even within that tightly-girdled pageant, Biden burnt away everything but Palin's eyelashes. Who would have thought his most forceful answer (and Palin's most excruciating fumble) would be on the basic Constitutional definition of the Vice Presidency?! It's worth watching again because, in many ways, the whole debate boils down to this.

I mean, for fuck's sake, they even had the Constitution written in large letters behind them. I knew Palin would be consulting her notecards the whole time, but she can't even answer the question when the crib sheet is hanging in a tapestry right behind her opponent? Never mind the Bush Doctrine. I have the horrid feeling that Palin couldn't have recited the preamble with Joe blocking her view.

I don't expect Biden to point this out, but I thought maybe SNL might.


*Clintonian triangulation Remember when she offered Obama the VP slot before she had the lead to do so? No one expected her to follow through on the promise, of course. The offer was made to float the mere idea of an inverted ticket and thereby deflate Obama's steady triumph in that race. As Obama was quick to point out, you can't offer a second-place spot when you're the one in second place. But no matter. Both Clintons are extremely generous when the gift isn't theirs to give. As Jon Stewart once put it, their "integrity is at its highest when the situation is at its most hypothetical."

1 comment:

the artist formerly known as jess. said...

Hullo there, Karl!

Just letting you know, you've been tagg(-hap)ed: