Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Age of McCain

I have to admit that I am puzzled by McCain's strategy on how to deal with his age issue. There are two recent past examples of the age problem in presidential politics: Reagan and Dole. The conventional wisdom is that Dole's age was one of the issues that killed his candidacy, but it didn't cause Reagan any serious problem at all. We all remember Reagan's swift comeback when the issue came up in a televised debate with Mondale, and that seemed to be a watershed moment for his campaign. It is also true that they showed him working out with weights and doing other vigorous physical activity. His hair, magically, never showed even a strand of grayness, and he denied that it was unnaturally colored. He wasn't a war hero, and he didn't seem very religious, but people bought him anyway. Dole didn't manage to put the issue behind him, although he was a war hero. He came to be a symbol for an aging politician, and he ended up doing Viagra commercials after he lost the election.

McCain now faces that age hurdle, but his only winning strategy so far is to trot out his aging mother to show what good genes he has. We don't see clips of him doing any vigorous exercise, as we did with Reagan. We don't seem him jogging in any parks. Instead, we see a classic rapid-response technique. They are all primed and ready to go for Obama to start making comments about his age. So, when Obama made a "lost his bearings" comment, they immediately fired back with a sharp criticism. Unfortunately, they seemed to have jumped the gun, because Obama's comment was about McCain's ethical bearings, a charge that could be leveled at any politician including even Obama himself. The quick-fire response method was honed by Bill Clinton in his successful political campaigns, so it was a reasonable thing to try. The thing is that it just reminded everyone that age is an issue, and unnecessarily so. In fact, McCain jokes about his age frequently--perhaps to try to recapture that Reagan moment when a quip deflated the whole issue. In McCain's case, however, those continual quips now serve to remind voters that they need to keep focusing on his age. Is McCain going to be able to get around this issue, or is he just going to keep making it worse?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

American Politics and Character Issues

It is legitimate to worry about the personal traits of a political candidate. Will John McCain be too old to lead the nation? Is he getting senile? Is Hillary Clinton trustworthy? Does Barack Obama lack an understanding of average Americans? Will his race prevent him from being elected? These are all reasonable questions for voters to ask, and the public news media are right to address them. But sometimes it seems that those are the only issues that matter to American voters. Personality disputes don't require a lot of investigative reporting, and people seem to prefer not to think about the serious problems that the nation faces.

Our elections have come to be treated by our news media as little more than sporting events. News shows spend almost all of their time reporting on who is up or down in the polls and every primary contest becomes a "make or break" situation for the candidates. Meanwhile, food riots go on in the background, the rising cost of oil is driving prices of everything through the roof, water supplies are dwindling, sea levels are rising, and the weather is playing havoc with our lives. Surely, there are more important things to focus on than the opinions of Obama's former pastor and whether or not he can "weather" them in a contest that few doubt he has already won.

Neither party is proposing radical changes in our future, but radical changes are on the way. No political candidate is going to campaign on the prospect of meeting the challenge of impending catastrophes, but that is just what the future president faces. We will need a leader with extraordinary abilities, but our style of campaigning seems only able to focus on the failures and weaknesses of proposed new leaders. The news media can be blamed to some extent for failing to address issues that voters care about, but is it really all their fault? In the end, they are driven by ratings, and Americans don't want to hear that serious changes are on the way. They want a president who will reassure them that their lives will remain largely unchanged from the past. So the public dialog comes down to who has the least worst personality, not what the candidates intend to do about the real world.