Archive for the ‘John McCain’ Category

Personal Memories of Campaign 2008

November 6, 2008
I first met Barack Obama at a sparsely attended press conference for Deval Patrick in October 2006. I saw him electrify an audience at the JFK Library and witnessed his first big appearance in New Hampshire in early December. I was there in Concord when Obama stood by his vow to meet the president of Iran during his first year in office. “We don’t need Bush-Cheney Lite,” he said as the crowd erupted in cheers. Even when this became an issue in the debates with McCain, nobody told McCain Obama ever said that.
I heard him implore Massachusetts to vote for him with Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy at his side the night before the primary. He lost but he did not lose his cool.
I saw his last appearance with foreign policy aide Samantha Power. Obama seemed to love her energy but his staffers kept reeling her in.
I was one of the few writers to spend an extended period of time with Joe Biden, who gave me time after a book talk at Borders in downtown Boston. In an odd juxtaposition from four years earlier, I waited for Biden with the BPPA’s leadership team.
I attended scores of Hillary Clinton speeches and watched her campaign of inevitability devolve into desperation. I saw her fight back as the NH primary approached. I was in the room when two goons got up during one of her speeches shouting “Iron My Shirt! Iron My Shirt!”
I covered the Pennsylvania primary before Obama had figured out how to capture the votes of blue collar whites (or before the economy entirely went south.) I saw a Bill Clinton, reduced to giving 25 minute speeches in out-of-the-way venues, rev up the crowd in Millvale, PA. I interviewed Senator Casey of Pennsylvania who assured me Obama would win over enough Catholic voters to become president.
On the Republican side, I began by following Mitt Romney around New Hampshire. I saw Rudy Giuliani take brief interest and lose it in the Granite State. While he started to resonate in July, his big tour across Southern New Hampshire was a bust. The lasting image is of his gaggle of stilettoed press aides shoeing away the media, including David Broder who subsequently slammed Giuliani in the Washington Post.
McCain began his presidential campaign in Portsmouth at a highly orchestrated event right on the river with just one problem. The t.v. cameras could not shoot over the big speakers McCain’s people had set up. I called around NH when McCain hit his low point. McCain would win NH on his own, his supporters said. And they were right. I was with McCain the night he won NH and killed the campaign of Mitt Romney. The campaign blared Chuck Berry’s “Go Johnny Go!” How is this guy going to compete with Obama and his U2 “City of Blinding Light?” I thought.
I was there in Denver when Obama made everything in his campaign bigger and pulled it off.

Palin: Didn’t Know Africa Was a Continent

November 6, 2008

I’m truly amazed by the reports coming out of the McCain campaign. Now, according to the New York Times, McCain’s advisers admit that they were blind-sided by Sarah Palin’s lack of knowledge and reluctance to prepare for interviews. The reporting of Carl Cameron of Fox News goes even further, saying the Alaska governor did not realize Africa was a continent:

We’re told by folks that she didn’t know what countries that were in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that being the Canada, the US, and Mexico. We’re told she didn’t understand that Africa was a continent rather than a country just in itself … a whole host of questions that caused serious problems about.

It’s true that in the wake of a failed campaign there’s always going to be finger pointing. I’m sure Palin feels that Team McCain is attempting to throw her under the bus: the ill will was clear when McCain permitted Tina Fey to take a shot at his running mate over her 2012 ambitions with him on set. 

At some point, however, blame has to be assigned at the ticket’s top. As soon as McCain picked Palin, I suggested it would be a disaster for the Republicans.

To me, it’s a desperate and reckless pick. The Republicans seem to be ready to throw away their best argument, experience, for the novelty of somebody new. 

Given the all but nonexistent briefing of Palin, we now know how true that was.

The issue all these aides, Palin and McCain himself need to confront is how did they let this happen? Aides owe a duty to their principals to give them their best advice and then their loyalty. McCain had an obligation to the country to select a running mate ready to be president. And Palin had a responsibility to herself and to her country to decline a top post if she knew she wasn’t prepared for it.

EDIT. I’m adding a quote I’ve subsequently located from an anonymous McCain aide describing Palin’s $150,000 shopping spree: “A “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.” Note that when members of the Blue-Coastal Media and blog community made similar comments around Labor Day, they were dubbed culturally-biased and anti-feminist by the pro-McCain forces.

McCain Town Meeting in New Hampshire

November 3, 2008

Here are some thoughts on John McCain’s 11th hour town meeting in New Hampshire:

  • McCain appears confident, loose and, oddly given his appearance on Saturday Night Live last night, well-rested.
  • His advance specialists have failed him. There’s a guy yawning and nodding off directly in the shot just next to McCain.
  • It’s hard for me to believe that McCain’s presence in New Hampshire, where he has always been popular, will outweigh the tremendous field resources Barack Obama’s campaign has unleashed in New Hampshire this weekend.
  • McCain better finish up soon. The New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts tonight.

Finally, while I endorse the idea of McCain’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, I was stunned to see him stand cheerily by as Tina Fey stuck a knife into Sarah Palin and her 2012 ambitions and twist it.

Powell’s Endorsement of Obama: Foreign Policy, Not Race

October 20, 2008

Colin Powell, appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, made all the arguments designed to appeal to independent and swing voters likely to be swayed by a moderate Republican with national security credentials. While praising John McCain as a person, he cited McCain’s bumbling of the economic issue and appearing to grapple erratically for a solution to the economic troubles. Then, he criticized the selection of Governor Palin and the tone of the McCain campaign in recent weeks.

In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to deal with the economic problems that we were having and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem. And that concerned me, sensing that he didn’t have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had. And I was also concerned at the selection of Governor Palin. She’s a very distinguished woman, and she’s to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made.

I reject the suggestion that Powell’s decision was based on race. As a long-time watcher of Powell’s career, I suspect that the motivating factor in his decision was foreign policy. Powell’s foreign policy views have always been closer to the consensus-oriented, coalition-building approach espoused by Barack Obama. He even warned, remember, the first President Bush about going to war over Kuwait, which was then occupied by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. When Powell knew war was inevitable, he pushed for a broad coalition, which included even Syria, and as large of a troop force as possible.

Anyone who has watched the Frontline specials of the last several years about the lead-up to the war in Iraq, knows the extent to which Powell was marginalized and then used by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and company. Even though McCain himself — although you wouldn’t know it from his comments — waged war with this same faction of the administration, it’s my sense that Powell believes the McCain view represents a continuation of a hawkish foreign policy. So, like much that happens in politics, it’s pay-back. We can attribute retribution, not race, to this decision, which may help Obama in the margins with swing voters.

Final Presidential Debate

October 16, 2008

The debate’s not yet over, but unless something absolutely wild happens in the waning minutes, Barack Obama won it — as Dick Cheney would say — big time.

John McCain finally levied his attacks against Obama to his face. He pushed the William Ayers issue and criticized Obama’s links to Acorn. Yet even in finally making these points, his style was off. He spent a lot of time on expressing hurt over John Lewis’s comments before deciding to stand by his campaign’s attacks on Obama. His response to Bob Schiefer’s question reflected a certain ambivalence on McCain’s part. If McCain truly made a conscious decision to go after Obama on these issues prior to the debate, it would be expected that McCain could raise and prosecute the attack in a comprehensible way. If he didn’t want to do it, he should have renounced it. Twenty days to an election is too late for a candidate to demonstrate ambivalence.

As a matter of rhetorical style, I’m a big believer in candidates and public figures knowing what they want to say prior to a big speech or event. They have to know — not just intellectually, but emotionally– what they believe and what they stand for. Handlers and aides are great for helping their principals sharpen their arguments and make their points more clear. But the candidates need to buy into it. If I had been advising McCain, I would have pressed him as far as possible behind-the-scenes. And if McCain really couldn’t do it, I would have recommended that McCain jetison that line of attack.

Half-hearted, backwards criticisms don’t work. For that reason, McCain lost this final debate.

Republican Infighting on the Eve of Debate

October 15, 2008

The backdrop of Republican infighting for tonight’s presidential debate is not good for John McCain. I was surprised to see such vocal and critical comments from William Kristol, a longtime John McCain ally, so close to the election. In case you missed it, here’s what Kristol said: “It’s a stupid campaign,” Kristol said in remarks reported in the New York Times. “It’s really become a pathetic campaign.”

Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, answers Kristol in an op-ed today. While he doesn’t cite Kristol by name — another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, and a New York Times columnist, David Brooks, have also be leveling complaints about the McCain campaign — read it and you’ll get the point.

John McCain has reached this stage of criticism among conservatives. Some attack him for “frenetic improvisation,” while others urge him to frenetically improvise. His campaign is in a “defensive crouch” while also being “obnoxious” in its “phony populism.” McCain’s running mate is a “fatal cancer” who should “read more books.”

This kind of cheap shot is, thank goodness, the prerogative of the commentator — an option I will doubtlessly exercise in the future. But having once been on the political side of the divide, I remember how truly obnoxious such advice can become. If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-Elevens, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent’s ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family — or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity — the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must be himself.

McCain might benefit from shifts in strategy: a retooled stump speech has already been rolled out. But sometimes a candidate who is down in the polls is not an incompetent but a bystander. While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.

The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide. Americans blamed the party with executive power, which is also the party most closely tied in the public mind to bankers and Wall Street. None of this was fair to McCain, who has never been the Wall Street type. But party images are vivid, durable and almost impossible to shift on short notice.

Previous to this economic free fall — and after his transformative vice-presidential choice — McCain was about tied in a race he should have been losing by a large margin. The public clearly had questions about Obama’s leadership qualities. But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.

Following the onset of the crisis, McCain was left with flawed options. He reasonably chose to work for a responsible bailout while hoping the markets would stabilize quickly. Instead, the bailout proved politically unpopular and the markets gyrated like the Pussycat Dolls. Then McCain raised Obama’s past association with William Ayers — a valid attack if properly raised. (Can anyone doubt that the past political association of McCain with a right-wing terrorist would attract some attention?) But this accusation naturally looks small compared to the nation’s outsized economic fears.


Here’s where I come down in this debate. I think Gerson’s spot on with the fact that something very much akin to a tidal wave hit the McCain campaign when the drastic economic downturn struck in September. Fair or not, as Gerson asserts, the party in control of the executive branch wears the after-effects of a major crisis.

But Kristol and company have a point too. The McCain campaign has compounded its problems by raising questions about Obama that do look small at a time like this (as Gerson acknowledges.) I know from my own reporting that McCain campaign operatives examined the Deval Patrick-Kerry Healey race in 2006. They saw how Healey’s tough law and order ads not only failed but also sent the campaign into a downward spiral. Those mean-spirited ads alienated independent swing voters and had no resonance in what was then very much a “change” election. Yet despite that knowledge they made the same mistake.

I’m not sure how you take a candidate who has been in the Senate for more than two decades and never seriously dealt with the economy and run him in the midst of an economic crisis. My sense is that if McCain had come out of his time-out with a serious and newfound commitment to the issue and made the case that he was the best man for troubled times, he would have had to be doing better than he is now. But, as I’ve said before, the tide is against him.

Another Reason Why the Economy is So Bad for John McCain

October 11, 2008


Republicans, traditionally, embrace the free market. Today the news is all about how the seven leading industrialized nations are agreeing to collaborate to solve the economic crisis; Secretary Paulson has announced that the United States government is prepared to take positions in the largest banks.

The news that everyone is talking about represents a tremendous amount of government intervention, something that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. The plan involves government on a scale unrivaled since the Era of Franklin Roosevelt, and it is being backed, supported and promoted by a Republican president.

Unless McCain is ready to take the unprecedented action of reorganizing his campaign around Calvin Coolidge libertarian economic principles (the ones that lead to the first Great Depression) he has no political play on the most important issue of the day. That McCain has never given economic issues any serious thought compounds his problem.

With leaders around the globe returning to a Keynesian — even Galbraithian — approach to solve economic problems, voters, understandably, will turn to the political party that believes in government intervention into many areas of life, the Democrats. That’s the tide that McCain, even with his laudable resume, is up against.

Sacrifice: Why McCain Is Losing

October 8, 2008

A good example of why John McCain is losing this race came tonight when a “child of the Depression” asked both candidates about what Americans needed to sacrifice. McCain spoke first and gave a dry answer about cutting spending and programs. Barack Obama gave a deeper answer referencing the way President Bush squandered America’s spirit of unity after September 11th. He then talked about the need for National Service and its appeal to young people — an answer that drew positive responses from CNN’s group of undecided voters. When the question came back to McCain, he returned to the subject of Obama and taxes.

This was more than a missed opportunity for McCain, one of the leading Republican proponents of national service. Obama’s answer was exactly what McCain was saying about Americans and sacrifice in 2001. Back then, McCain gave a major speech on national service to the national gathering of City Year. That same year he sponsored national service legislation and promoted it again in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It’s unbelievable that McCain, who is now in the part of the campaign when the candidate is supposed to be capturing the center, ceded this ground to Obama, when he backed national service at a time it faced threat from the Bush Administration.

Here’s what McCain wrote about the issue in the Washington Monthly that year (notice, by the way, McCain’s specific reference to sacrifice.)

America is witnessing a welcome blooming of popular culture chronicling the contributions of the generation that lived through the Depression and vanquished fascism. From Saving Private Ryan to Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation to Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, Americans are hungry to learn about the heroic service of our parents and grandparents. Some of the commentary surrounding this positive trend, however, has been wistful, even pessimistic. While rightly celebrating the feats of the World War II generation, many pundits bemoan the lack of great causes in our day and doubt whether today’s young people would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to meet such challenges, even if they existed.
I believe these commentators have it wrong. During the last presidential race, I had the privilege of traveling the country and meeting vast numbers of young people. I cannot express how impressed I was. With energy and passion as contagious as it was inspiring, these young Americans confided their dreams and shared their aspirations, not for themselves alone, but for their country. Their attitude should come as no surprise. Though today’s young people, according to polls, have little faith in politics, they are great believers in service. Indeed, they are doing volunteer work in their communities in record numbers—proof that the urge to serve runs especially deep in them. Indeed, most Americans share this impulse, as witnessed after last month’s terrorist attacks, when thousands of Americans lined up to give blood and assist in rescue efforts. It is time we tapped that urge for great national ends.

And it is not true, as the cynics suggest, that our era lacks great causes. Such causes are all around us. Thousands of schools in our poorest neighborhoods are failing their students and cry out for talented teachers. Millions of elderly Americans desperately want to stay in their homes and out of nursing facilities, but cannot do so without help with the small tasks of daily life. More and more of our communities are being devastated by natural disasters. And our men and women in uniform are stretched thin meeting the vital task of keeping the peace in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.

Beyond such concrete needs lies a deeper spiritual crisis within our national culture. Since Watergate, we have witnessed an increased cynicism about our governmental institutions. We see its impact in declining voter participation and apathy about our public life—symptoms of a system that demands reform. But it’s a mistake, I think, to believe that this apathy means Americans do not love their country and aren’t motivated to fix what is wrong. The growth of local volunteerism and the outpouring of sentiment for “the greatest generation” suggest a different explanation: that Americans hunger for patriotic service to the nation, but do not see ways to personally make a difference.

What is lacking today is not a need for patriotic service, nor a willingness to serve, but the opportunity. Indeed, one of the curious truths of our era is that while opportunities to serve ourselves have exploded—with ever-expanding choices of what to buy, where to eat, what to read, watch, or listen to—opportunities to spend some time serving our country have narrowed. The high cost of campaigning keeps many idealistic people from running for public office. Teacher-certification requirements keep talented people out of the classroom. The all-volunteer military is looking for lifers, not those who might want to serve for shorter tours of duty.

The one big exception to this trend is AmeriCorps, the program of national service begun by President Bill Clinton. Since 1994, more than 200,000 Americans have served one-to-two-year stints in AmeriCorps, tutoring school children, building low-income housing, or helping flood-ravaged communities. AmeriCorps members receive a small stipend and $4,725 in college aid for their service. But the real draw is the chance to have an adventure and accomplish something important. And AmeriCorps’ achievements are indeed impressive: thousands of homes constructed; hundreds of thousands of senior citizens assisted to live independently in their own homes; millions of children taught, tutored, or mentored.

The Bailout Plan: Points For Obama

October 8, 2008

I give a lot of credit to Barack Obama for explaining the rationale for the financial rescue plan in a straight forward way.

McCain’s Economic Answer

October 8, 2008

Two parts of John McCain’s answer on the economy failed to resonate. He spoke of the needs to make America energy independent and to curb Washington spending, neither of which address the scope of the current financial crisis. I did like his suggestion of addressing the basic home prices for ordinary Americans. This seemed to be an attempt to come up with a proposal relevant to voters. While I’m not sure I understand the substance of his vague proposal, he deserves points for devising an appeal to the average American.