Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Risk-taking and Role Reversal in the 2008 Election

Just a few weeks ago, the rivalry between Barack Obama and John McCain looked very familiar: the hip, young dude versus the boring old crank. We’ve seen this stereotypical matchup in TV shows like All in the Family (Michael Stivic vs. Archie Bunker) and we’ve seen it in past elections (Walter Mondale vs. Ronald Reagan). But as it turns out, the roles are reversed for this election. Who’d have guessed that John McCain, the “bland white guy,” would be the one making this election exciting with his bold gambles and unprecedented decisions, and that Barack Obama would be running a typical, dull campaign?

A month ago, Dick Morris, a very intelligent Democrat who supports John McCain, predicted that McCain would not be a big part of this election. He believed people will either vote for Obama because they really love him, or vote against him because they really hate him (not because they really love John McCain); therefore, Obama would be the central figure in this election.

Yet, two completely unexpected decisions by John McCain have been game-changers in this election. Obviously, the first is his selection of Sarah Palin for his running mate. That was big news. When I interviewed students for my column on the VP selections, everyone knew about Sarah Palin. Few students I spoke to knew who Joe Biden was, even though Obama had made that announcement weeks earlier, and I can’t blame them. It seems the only time I see Joe Biden in the news is when he makes a gaffe, like when he asserted that if Palin was elected VP, it would be a step back for women, or when he forgot that Herbert Hoover was President during the Great Depression and that there weren’t TVs back then.

I’m not saying Biden is stupid; everyone slips up now and then, including McCain and Obama. In fact, I think Joe Biden is a good man. For example, Biden criticized his own campaign when it released an ad, approved by Obama, which suggested that John McCain isn’t prepared to be President because he has never sent an e-mail. The ad didn’t mention that the reason McCain can’t send an e-mail is the same reason he can’t tie his shoes, comb his hair, or lift his arms above his shoulders: injuries he sustained as a POW in the infamous prison camp, the Hanoi Hilton. Kudos to Biden for speaking out against this despicable ad which ridicules McCain’s war injuries.

Still, Biden was a boring pick. He’s old, and he’s been in Washington longer than John McCain, which means that Obama can’t use these points to attack McCain without looking like a hypocrite. The reason Obama picked Biden is that he’s a safe bet. Hillary Clinton would have been a riskier choice, but a much more exciting one. On the other hand, McCain hasn’t been afraid to take risks.

On Sept. 24, President Bush gave an address to the nation, explaining his plan to help our struggling economy. According to the President, “We've seen triple-digit swings in the stock market. Major financial institutions have teetered on the edge of collapse, and some have failed…Financial assets related to home mortgages have lost value during the house decline, and the banks holding these assets have restricted credit. As a result, our entire economy is in danger. So I propose that the federal government reduce the risk posed by these troubled assets and supply urgently needed money so banks and other financial institutions can avoid collapse and resume lending.” This bailout would put seven hundred billion dollars of taxpayer money at risk.

Days before the first Presidential debate, McCain decided to suspended his own campaign and go to Washington and fix this bill! According to Dick Morris, “The Democrats had already cut their deal with Bush. The Dems agreed to the price tag while Bush agreed to special aid to families facing foreclosure, equity for the taxpayers, and limits on executive compensation. But no sooner had McCain arrived than he derailed the deal. Knowing how unpopular the bailout is with the American people, the Democrats are not about to pass anything without broad Republican support even though their majorities permit them to act alone. Instead of signing on with the Democratic/Bush package, the House Republicans are insisting on replacing the purchase of corporate debt with loans to companies and insurance paid for by the companies, not by the taxpayers. That, of course, is a popular position.

It’s hard to tell whether taking this course of action has helped or hurt John McCain. Some voters think this was just a political stunt. Here’s why I disagree: it doesn’t make sense to me that McCain would jeopardize his campaign when he and Obama are so close in the polls just so he can pose in front of the cameras. I think John McCain suspended his campaign because he thought it was the right thing to do. He once said that he would rather lose this election than lose a war. What McCain’s bold action shows us is that he would also rather put his campaign at risk than let the hard-earned money of the American people be used to bail out Wall Street.

When he felt he had done all he could on Capitol Hill, McCain agreed to go ahead with the Presidential debate. Though the questions were supposed to cover foreign policy, about thirty minutes were devoted to questions about the economy. Both candidates did very well, but I’d say Obama did a better job talking about his views on the economy. Dick Morris thought McCain blew it. In his opinion, McCain should have talked more about why he had suspended his campaign, and how he opposed both President Bush and the Democrats; it would have been a crushing blow for Obama. Morris is right. John McCain simply is not as sharp as Obama at these debates. Obama is a smooth-talking lawyer who is very slick at presenting his views.

However, I think McCain clearly beat Obama in the section on foreign policy. When McCain pointed out that he had visited Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times and Obama hadn’t, Obama’s response was that, though he hadn’t visited these countries, Joe Biden had, and he could rely on his input. Essentially, Obama was admitting that Biden has more foreign policy experience than he does. (In that case, it should be Biden at the top of the ticket, making the actual decisions on foreign policy.)

John McCain may not have the presence of mind Obama has during a debate, but he is running an exciting campaign full of risks, while Obama is playing it safe. That’s a role-reversal no one expected. Perhaps a better way to frame our Presidential choice in 2008 is “a man who talks about action vs. a man of action.”

(Find Dick Morris’ article “The Brilliance of McCain’s Move” at http://www.dickmorris.com/blog. Find the transcript for Bush’s speech at http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/09/24/bush.transcript/index.html.)

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