Wednesday, January 10, 2007


The conventional left-blogosphere wisdom about John McCain and the war is now showing up in the mainstream press. Here's Steve Kornacki in The New York Observer:

...Mr. Popularity's close association with what may be the least popular war in the country's history is a ticking time bomb that threatens to destroy his standing with the broad fall electorate.

... Mr. McCain seemed to have staked out almost enviable '08 turf on the subject in the days immediately following November's Democratic Congressional sweep....

Mr. McCain loudly registered his objections to any withdrawal, instead renewing his call for a massive infusion of more troops. With that stroke, he moved measurably closer to making peace with the hard-line, pro-Bush wing of the G.O.P. that undermined him in 2000.

And since it was assumed that his protestations were purely for posterity ... Mr. McCain also seemed to have ably positioned himself to deflect the Iraq issue in the fall of '08....

Then something funny happened: Mr. Bush -- apparently -- decided to take Mr. McCain up on his advice.

...Suddenly, Mr. McCain's 2008 prospects are inextricably tied to the success of this last-ditch surge....

This all seems perfectly logical. And that's the problem.

Voters aren't perfectly logical. Do voters vote based on a logical assessment of issues and individuals? Sure -- except when they don't.

I'd argue that, in the case of well-known political figures, voters vote based on established, endlessly repeated capsule characterizations -- whatever would wind up in the first sentence of the obituary. Thus, for many voters, nothing John McCain says or does, nothing he advocates, will supplant the image of him as a "straight talker" and a "maverick" -- words that are sure to appear in the first sentence of his obituary. Similarly, the first sentence of Joe Lieberman's obituary will probably include the phrase "with an independent streak" -- and the (delusional) belief that he's admirably independent surely helps explain why he was reelected to the Senate even though he's about as far to the right as it's possible to be on a war that's wildly unpopular in his state.

Glenn Greenwald addressed this question recently, in response to something McCain said: "I reject the notion that all Americans, or the majority of Americans just want us out of Iraq. Joe Lieberman would not have been re-elected in a very liberal state if that were the case." Greenwald ticked off the Republican senators who were defeated in states Bush had won twice -- George Allen in Virginia, Conrad Burns in Montana, Jim Talent in Missouri, Mike DeWine in Ohio. He's right, obviously; the war helped defeat these senators. But none of them had a first-obituary-sentence perceived character trait potent enough to overcome voters' anger with the war.

I'm not saying that first-obituary-sentence traits (or perceived traits) trump reality altogether. They interact with reality. And new ones can be added. (Allen. "Macaca.")

Being perceived as a rock-ribbed conservative was a liability in 2006 -- but being perceived as reasonable and moderate still has great power, even if the perception is utterly at odds with reality. Being perceived as a genuine hero trumps reality, too.

McCain (abused POW) and Giuliani ("America's Mayor") have the hero thing going for them. McCain, Lieberman, and -- perhaps most bafflingly -- the quite popular Condi Rice have the perception of reasonableness going for them.

If you think about Condi, you realize that even Bush might be able to avoid full blame for the Iraq debacle if his first-obituary-sentence character traits included "uniter, not a divider" rather than "stubborn" and "cowboy."

Oh, and there's one other issue here: Political demimondes have their own variants on the first obituary sentence. Right-wingers, in particular, live in their own dreamworld, where Hillary Clinton is a Maoist and McCain isn't really a Republican. These perceptions are also very difficult for reality to wear down. And so, bizarrely -- if I'm right about all this -- we have McCain becoming a hawk's hawk but not losing support among moderates, while he fails to gain support among the war's biggest cheerleaders, who still regard him with skepticism.

That makes no sense. But voters' perceptions sometimes don't.


UPDATE, 1/12: Well, here it is, from a New York Times story on the reaction Bush's surge plan:

"It's one thing to be steadfast and another to be stubborn," said Rick Lacey, another Republican at the Legion hall who voted for a Democrat in the last election. "A guy like McCain, I don't agree with him on this troop increase issue, but he is steadfast because he bases his decisions on experience. Our president, he bases it on ideology and being stubborn."

Translation: It's OK for McCain to make the same stupid choice as Bush because McCain, unlike Bush, is a war hero. The first sentence....

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