Sunday, July 13, 2008


In today's New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai writes about the critiques of our politics by John McCain and Barack Obama -- and, well, wouldn't you know it, the two fit precisely into their parties' stereotypes:

...Both men criticize a lack of responsiveness of government to its people, caused primarily by the influence of "special interests." McCain, however, takes a personal and confrontational approach toward reform, which he sees fundamentally as a matter of overhauling the rules that govern Washington. By this thinking, a Rough-Rider-type leader should press for tough measures -- publicizing earmarks, for example -- that insulate legislators from moneyed interests.

Obama, on the other hand, casts reform as something that primarily congeals outside Washington, which is why he started to sound a little like the Doobie Brothers during the primaries, invoking a movement that was taking it to the streets. In his view, politics is saved not by some solitary crusade but by encouraging local activists to rise up. Perhaps befitting the mythologies of their generations, McCain offers himself up as the sheriff on the Potomac, while Obama seems to envision himself more as the organizer in chief....

Never mind the fact that Obama's actual generation -- the one that graduated college in the early 1980s -- wasn't interested in organizing and collective action at all, its main goal being to make as much money as humanly possible after leaving school; that's irrelevant to Bai because, as far as he's concerned, all Democrats are automatically members of the Woodstock Generation, and everything about them is always reminiscent of peace signs and roach clips.

And never mind the fact it's impossible to imagine how a "Rough-Rider-type leader" would deal with the culture of Washington, because when Teddy Roosevelt was a Rough Rider, he was a soldier, not an elected official. And I don't know what either of these has to do with being a sheriff. But sheriffs and Rough Riders are armed and on horseback and manly, as, in Bai's view, all Republicans are, even the ones who've gone years without holding any weapon more dangerous than barbecue tongs.

What's neat about this is that you could do it the opposite way, too. If Obama were primarily talking about "overhauling the rules that govern Washington," he'd be a typical wonky-wussy Democrat elitist -- one whose whole world is government and who thinks the solution to every problem is more regulation. And if McCain were the one who "casts reform as something that primarily congeals outside Washington," he'd be the regular guy who disdains D.C. and thinks there's much more wisdom on Main Street U.S.A. than on Pennsylvania Avenue.

I will give Bai credit for referencing the Doobs rather than resorting to the usual "hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya'" in reference to the Democrat -- but maybe this is in response to some new directive at the Times, one that urges columnists to go for the cliche, but in a way that seems vaguely new and different; see also the recent David Brooks column in which, instead of "under the bus," he said (how daring!) "under the truck."

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