Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 August 2008

Frat Boy II

Almost exactly a year ago, I published a post entitled “Five Questions for Vetting Candidates.” Here are the questions, with links to the year-ago essay:

These are pretty basic questions. They go to competence and character—the two most important prerequisites for any position, let alone the most important job in the world.

At the moment, John McCain gets failing grades on four out of five. If he picks Mitt Romney for his running mate, he’ll flunk the last test and make a clean sweep of failure.

McCain has displayed appalling ignorance in this presidential campaign. In discussing Iran, he confused Sunnis and Shiites. He referred to the “Iraq/Pakistan border” although Iraq shares no border with Pakistan. And just this week he had to admit, after ridiculing the idea, that inflating all our tires to proper pressure can make a significant contribution to energy independence.

You can write off these gaffes as “over-fifty moments” of a man in his early seventies. But are they really? The Sunni/Shiite divide, the geography of the Middle East, and the few easy ways to make progress on energy independence are not exactly obscure topics. They are central to the real challenges facing us and have been for several years. If a man doesn’t know or can’t recall the basic facts he needs to do his job, is he qualified?

Let’s skip to the fourth question—can the candidate think? On Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain called Obama “exactly wrong” in seeking to redirect our attention and forces from one to the other. But despite its lack of political progress, Iraq is stable, while Afghanistan is not. Obama recommended shifting our attention and resources over a year ago. Secretary of Defense Gates is planning how to do so now. Do we really want a president who’s the class dullard, the very last to get the point?

You would think that someone who spent over a quarter-century in Congress would at least think clearly about politics. McCain says he wants to break our oil addiction. Yet what does he make the centerpiece of his energy policy? Opening prohibited, environmentally sensitive areas to drilling for oil.

Most experts think that approach won’t have any effect for close to a decade and will have a negligible effect on gas prices when the new production kicks in. But that’s beside the point. Breaking our oil addiction and achieving energy independence will require a clear national plan, hard work, sacrifice, and taking the long view. Most of all, it will require a sweeping political consensus for change. How do you build a political consensus for change in energy policy by making drilling for yet more oil the centerpiece of your energy plan?

For McCain, the two most important vetting questions are the second and third. Is he an admirable person or a jerk, and does he take issues and opponents seriously? No one ever accused him of having a formidable intellect. His strong point has always been character: his war heroism, his putting duty and country above self, and his erstwhile political independence.

Before this campaign, you might have answered those two questions favorably to McCain. Almost alone among Republicans, he had a reputation for fighting corruption, the gravest danger to our Republic. Many years ago, he refused to be released from the “Hanoi Hilton” before his comrades. Last summer, when his campaign was on the rocks, he famously said he’d rather lose a campaign than a war. All these things were admirable.

But lately McCain has not only taken millions from oil interests. He’s also become a consummate jerk. He falsely accused Obama of refusing to visit wounded troops because cameras couldn’t be present. His campaign accused Obama of being “presumptuous” in seeking the highest office—a rough synonym for “uppity” in this context. Then his campaign had the gall to accuse Obama of “playing the race card”—a view that McCain did not disclaim. And what can you say about someone who introduces Britney Spears and Paris Hilton into serious discussions of leadership and foreign policy, other than that he’s a jerk?

We have here a reverse Superman story. Admirable war hero and maverick Clark McCain sneaks into a telephone booth. There he dons garb supplied by Rove’s disciple Schmidt. At last he emerges, transformed and resplendent as Frat Boy II.

McCain has taken the frat-boy mantle from Dubya and is preparing to succeed him as the biggest jerk in American politics, the frat boy in chief. Like Dubya, McCain aims to win with snideness, sarcasm, and puerile verbal chops, forsaking any semblance of serious debate. His own lies (on the wounded troops), name calling (“presumptuous,” “elitist,” “out of touch”) and titillating irrelevancies (Spears and Hilton) echo Dubya’s Swift-boating and “flop-flopping” John Kerry and “Defeatocrating” his party.

What else can McCain do? Obama outclasses him in education, intelligence and detailed command of the issues. Obama crushes him in perspective, emotional balance and self-restraint.

Once the three debates begin, it will all be over for John McCain. Outsmarted and outclassed, he will likely lose his legendary temper and release the schoolyard bully lurking within him. The whole nation will see the irascible, explosive personality with which his Senate colleagues are familiar, but which so far has stayed hidden from the general public.

You can laugh at this if you wish. With superb humor and perfect accuracy, Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times today does just that. I roared with laughter on reading it.

But I’m not sure that laughter is the most appropriate response to McCain’s transmutation. It’s sad when an old man’s inner demons emerge to subvert his honorable public persona. It’s depressing when a hero loses his dignity. It’s tragic when the puerile exercise that passes for presidential campaigning today destroys the public’s trust in and respect for both candidates and makes it hard for the winner to govern. And it’s terrifying even to suspect that Americans might once again mistake the greatest office in the world for the presidency of a fraternity.


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