Intangiables

Ezra (who’s apparently some kind of famous now) writes:

Imagine, then, what would have happened if Barack Obama had ended up running against the senator who brought the first cap-and-trade bill before the Congress, passed one of the most important campaign finance reform bills in history, voted against Bush’s tax cuts, championed the Patient’s Bill of Rights, fought for comprehensive immigration reform, and was the Senate’s most effective opponent of torture. Catastrophe, right?

Luckily, Obama didn’t run against that guy. John McCain, who did all that, spent this election refusing to mention any of his accomplishments. He argued the virtues of experience without pointing to its fruits. He bragged of being a maverick without explaining how his independence had resulted in tangible achievements. The reality of his record is that he was an ineffective Senator until the aftermath of the 2000 election, when his anger with the Republican Party led him to construct odd-bedfellows coalitions with Democrats and his national celebrity — yes, celebrity — helped him pass the legislation, or at least get press for breaking with his party. The resulting achievements proved deeply unpopular with the conservative base. So when he ran as the Republican nominee, he clammed up about global warming and flip-flopped on immigration. He stopped talking about campaign finance reform and started supporting tax cuts. His resulting criticisms of Obama fell flat: Unable to detail his own record, he couldn’t connect with his critique of Obama’s history. Unable to explain why it was good to be a maverick, he came off like a pro-wrestler trying to promote his new nickname.

I’m not all that sure I buy this. On the one hand it’s certainly tempting to imagine a world in which McCain had embraced his (recent) record, and really given some meaning to the “maverick,” but on the other hand I don’t know that that really would have changed very much. At the end of the day 80%+ of the country thinks we’re on the wrong track, the Republicans control the White House, and John McCain is still a Republican.

On the other hand, I think this drastically misunderstands the way a lot of voters make their decisions. While I think we’d certainly like to think that voters consider, you know, issues in making their choice, in reality the matter comes down to, for a large number of voters (and an even larger share of “Swing” voters), a gut level decision about who they “like,” and that kind of decision involves a certain amount of emotional appeal that is hard to quantify.

At the end of the day, experience or not, John McCain is a very discomforting person. He’s one of the most seemingly uncomfortable politicians in public I’ve ever seen, his movements and expression are very awkward, his speaking style is hurried and staccato, and he has a tendency to string sound bytes and attack buzzes together in ways that don’t always come out in complete sentences or leave the viewer feeling awkward, and of course he’s extremely susceptible to certain tics. Obama, on the other hand, always manages to tie a point together, even when it’s peppered with “uh’s,” and generally manages to remain smooth verbally.

I think this also downplays the extent to which people see the President as something extra-political. Yes, he’s the chief executive of the government, yes issues are going to matter at the end of the day, but at the same time the President, as the only truly national office in the government, means more to us than just that. They’re a symbol of the country, they’re someone we instinctively respect on some level (the holiday is “Presidents’ Day), and they’re someone we look to for something we can’t always understand, something reassuring, especially when times get hard. Ronald Reagan understood that, and his “Morning in America” campaign cliched it. And this is, I think, the essence of Obama. Yes he’s electrifying, he’s certainly inspiring in multiple ways, but he’s also unflappable. He never seems rattled, even by the enormity of the moment. And at the end of the day, there’s something downright comforting about seeing him, especially at this moment. I mean, at the brink of what could potentially be an historic economic downturn, after an historically bad Presidency and a low point of sorts in our history, we’re about to elect a biracial black man who was raised by his white, single, mother and whose father was a Kenyan. If we can do that, now, less than 50 years after Congress actually had to take federal action to protect blacks’ right to vote, then what’s a little thing like a financial crisis?

And that’s a factor that no one could compete with.