Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Matt Yglesias thinks John McCain's current personal-nostalgia tour is lousy strategy -- but then he shows signs that he's starting to grasp the point of it all:

What I'll say on behalf of this strategy is that it's the best way I can think of to try to take advantage of older people's potential discomfort with the idea of a woman or a black man in the White House that doesn't involve exploiting racism or sexism in a discreditable way. McCain's putting together an identity politics counter-narrative steeped in nostalgia; it didn't work [for Bob Dole in 1996] against a white southerner running on a very cautious agenda, but 2008 is going to see the Democrats nominating an unorthodox candidate running on a more liberal agenda.

That's absolutely right -- McCain's saying (without saying it) that he's a white male whose forbears represented an overwhelmingly white and male military tradition.

But there's much more to McCain's emphasis on biography. A presidential candidate has to make voters able to imagine him or her as part of a ruling elite, but (usually) without appearing like a member of the dreaded yuppie-scum caste. Republicans generally accomplish this by pulling on a pair of cowboy boots and turning themselves into members of a Southern or Western leadership class in which the leaders are seen as macho wild men. (Dole, it should be noted, never did this.) Bill Clinton, the one Democrat who's won a presidential election in recent years, didn't wear boots, but he did drop his g's and he loved greasy food, so we forgave him his hoity-toity education.

McCain, right now, is telling people he's part of three non-yuppie subgroups: Southerners, old men, and the military. So he's qualified to be a leader of the elite, but he's not a latte-swilling yuppie elitist.

One more thing: Matt sneers that McCain's people are running a "campaign emphasizing the idea that their candidate is genetically programmed to monger war through his jingoistic heritage (or something)" -- but what we hear from the media isn't that, it's this:

McCain, who has always described himself as an indifferent student who graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, calls himself "a pretty rambunctious boy, with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder."

Translation: He's part of a hereditary military elite, but he rebelled against that elite. (And by the way, can you imagine circumstances under which Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would want to boast about doing poorly in school? It would be a sign that they were unworthy affirmative-action cases. McCain doesn't have to worry about anything like that.)

There's more: McCain's campaign, far from running away from the anger issue, is clearly making sure that the media knows he was known as "Punk" and "McNasty" at his high school -- and the press is lapping it up. ABC:

McCain the 'Punk' Goes Back to School

Once 'McNasty', Presumed Republican Nominee Praises Teacher's Influence

The New York Times:

'McNasty' Goes Back to School

Translation: He may look old and frail now, but he had manly animal vigor.

(Don't worry about the temper, though -- he jokes about it now, in a soft, mellow deadpan, which comes off as the exact opposite of a bad temper, so you're supposed to feel he won't fly off the handle now.)

Also see this morning's NPR story, which walks through everything I've just mentioned and says the result is: Being a punk rebel kid turned McCain into a bipartisan!

Sen. John McCain returns Wednesday to the Naval Academy, where he proudly graduated fifth from the bottom of his class. It doesn't seem to have hurt him any. After all, he's speaking as the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for the White House.

All this week, McCain is visiting old stomping grounds as a way to "reintroduce" himself to voters. On Tuesday, he was at Episcopal High School outside Washington, where in the 1950s he earned the nickname "Punk."

"I arrived here a pretty rambunctious boy, with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," McCain said. "I was always the new kid and was accustomed to proving myself quickly at each new school as someone not to be challenged lightly."

McCain insisted that he has mellowed in the years since, although he joked that some detractors might not see it that way. As a lawmaker, McCain has shown a notable ability to work with colleagues from across the political spectrum....

That last leap is so breathtaking that you miss it if you blink. But these are powerful messages -- the press is falling for them and voters may fall for them as well. So be afraid. Be very afraid.


In the long post that inspired Matt's post, Ed Kilgore says,

Maybe this is all emphemeral, and at some point John McCain will abandon the biographical message to focus on policy issues.

Here's a simple answer to this stupid question: No, he won't. Not if he's smart, and his campaign so far suggests that he is.

Americans don't cast presidential votes based on policy issues (otherwise Democrats would regularly win) -- they cast presidential votes based on biography and gut reactions to the candidates and whatever horrible impressions of the evilness and weirdness of one (usually Democratic) candidate they've been bombarded with in the media. McCain is the candidate of the party that knows how to win under these conditions, the party that's won seven of the last ten times, so he's not going to run on issues. He and his people (and his party) simply know better.

And that brings us back to Matt:

To me, though, one primary issue in a McCain-Obama race is going to be how successful McCain can be at obscuring his enormous hostility to America's public sector retirement infrastructure. McCain's record, and that of his key economic advisors, is pretty clear -- these are people who want to gut Social Security and Medicare in order to clear budgetary space for an agenda of low taxes and many wars.

"[O]bscuring his enormous hostility to America's public sector retirement infrastructure"? Matt, stop dreaming -- Americans don't read position papers or voting records. They vote for the candidate who seems to stand for what they believe.

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