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Obama’s Challenge July 31, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Despite eight years of Republican government resulting in multiple foreign policy fiascos, economic collapse, the corruption of every government agency, studied indifference toward looming environmental threats-and despite solid voter registration favoring Democrats-national polls show Republican candidate John McCain behind the Democratic nominee Barack Obama by only a few percentage points. Polls this far from the election are sometimes not good predictors of election outcomes, but McCain’s ability to stay with Obama needs explaining.

One might think the close race is testimony to McCain’s visionary policy proposals or political skills. But that explanation won’t fly. McCain has shown himself to be a gaffe machine, stumbling over rudimentary facts about the world that a Senator on the Armed Services Committee should know by heart. His policy proposals and foreign policy vision are so similar to those of the disastrous President Bush that he has earned the nickname “John McSame”. Yet this obeisance to Bush is just one of many incarnations of the real John McCain, who has changed his mind so often on so many issues one would be hard-pressed to say what his core beliefs are or what a McCain administration would actually do. “Political opportunist” fits him to a tee. If that were not sufficient to send his poll numbers plummeting, the key issue of his campaign–achieving victory in Iraq and maintaining permanent bases there–has been undermined by the Iraqi’s themselves who have endorsed Obama’s timeline for American withdrawal.

Meanwhile Obama, whose political skills are obvious, has run a nearly flawless campaign, put together a campaign organization second to none, raised record breaking quantities of cash, while articulating thoughtful policy proposals to address most of the serious problems we confront. So why is McCain still in the game?

Racial bias may explain the reluctance of some voters to vote for Obama, although polling doesn’t yet provide evidence for that explanation.

Obama supporters blame the press for this state of affairs and with good reason. McCain has always used his buddy act to chat up the suck-ups in the Washington Press corps, whose jobs depend on access. The press has soft-pedaled, or failed to report, criticism of McCain while amplifying criticisms of Obama. But McCain’s personal relationships with members of the press can’t explain the extent of their deference to this deeply flawed candidate. This deference toward conservatives has been a fact of American politics long before McCain first stoked a fire in the grill for his fan boys in the press.

The best explanation of whatever success McCain has had thus far is the double standard that has existed in American politics for roughly 30 years. By “double standard”, I mean the tendency of the press and the public to give conservatives a free ride on questions of moral integrity while manufacturing faux moral criticisms of liberals.

Evidence of the double standard abounds. McCain’s confusion about basic facts, his constant flip-flopping on issues, and his persistent accusations that Obama is disloyal to America are never the source of outrage in the press or public, who seem to ignore the trail of lies that daily fall from the straight talk express. Yet, if Obama had been similarly confused, inconsistent, or devious the avalanche of criticism would run him out of the race.

The Reverend Wright fiasco, in which Obama’s former pastor made intemperate remarks critical of American foreign and domestic policy, was treated by the press and public as evidence that Obama harbored Anti-American views, despite Obama’s explicit denounciations of the remarks. No outcry of similar scope or intensity was provoked by McCain’s active pursuit of the support of Christian conservative religious leaders whose bigoted Anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic remarks were far more odious than anything Reverend Wright could muster.

McCain has carefully cultivated his image as a principled reformer who tirelessly wages war against special interests, an image that is never tarnished by his involvement in the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal in 1989, or his on-going relationship with powerful Washington lobbyists, many of whom now run his campaign.

I doubt that most voters know of McCain’s unconscionable treatment of his wives (here and here) or his explosive temper and lack of self-control that many of his own colleagues in the Senate say should disqualify him from the oval office. Yet, we hear endless carping in the press about Obama’s alleged arrogance or indifference, charges that have been thoroughly manufactured out of whole cloth by the McCain campaign team.

This double standard is not new.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate, was widely vilified for changing his mind on the Iraq War. The public and pundits took this to be evidence that Kerry lacked principles and integrity and was taking positions for political reasons. Yet, McCain has flip-flopped on almost every major issue in American politics. He was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform until he voted against it; he was opposed to the Bush tax cuts but now wants them to be permanent; he was opposed to the Bush Administration’s refusal to negotiate with enemy states, now he favors it; he claims to favor environmental regulation but has a record of voting against most environmental legislation; he from time to time has spoken in favor of abortion rights and gay rights, but now opposes them; torture, campaign finance, I could go on and on. This is the man who famously called Reverend Pat Robertson and his ilk agents of intolerance in 2000 but who has been kissing their feet ever since. Yet he is never accused of being unprincipled or lacking in core beliefs.

Wholesale flip-flopping by conservatives is considered to be thoughtful, nuanced calibrations of a viewpoint; subtle changes of perspective by liberals are evidence of a lack of principles or backbone.

Military service also receives the double-standard treatment. In 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole was widely admired as a war hero for his sacrifices during WWII. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was accused of being a draft dodger for taking a student deferment in the Viet Nam War. But in 2000 and 2004 we were supposed to ignore the fact that George W. used his family’s influence to secure a cushy National Guard assignment from which he virtually went AWOL. By contrast, the military service of the Democratic candidate John Kerry, a wounded war hero during the Viet Nam War, was mocked and derided and the legitimacy of his injuries questioned. In similar fashion, we are now supposed to take John McCain’s POW experience as preparation for his being commander-in-chief. No one can quite put their finger on how being a prisoner of war prepares one for the presidency. But when Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democrat and someone who knows something about military matters, made exactly that point, the press and the public caught the vapors, shocked that anyone would question the powerful character-building influence of St. John’s wartime experience.

Apparently, if you are conservative, military service builds character. If you are liberal, military service is infantilizing.

This double standard in fact reaches way back to the beginnings of our current culture wars. Ronald Reagan was famously referred to as the “Teflon President” for his ability to deflect criticism. The public adored him, despite the fact that he was a detached and stubborn ideologue who engaged in mean-spirited attacks on the helpless while presiding over gargantuan budget deficits, economic recession, and multiple scandals. His defeated rival, President Carter, a genuinely good man whose policies, had they been adopted, could have avoided much of our current energy and environmental crises, was vilified by the public, his presidency widely regarded as a failure.

The current right-wing attacks against Obama–that he is a fashionable fop, a preening, vacuous celebrity, the darling of euro-trash, or a smooth-talking dilettante with a fancy college degree, etc.–are cut from the same cloth. The message is that Obama is without moral substance, too detached from the lives of ordinary Americans to battle the evil that stalks America. Somehow, McCain’s millionaire trophy wife, his $500 Italian shoes, and his Senate votes favoring corporate welfare never find their way into stories about elitism.

This background assumption, burnished by the press and immune to evidence, that conservatives are inherently more honest, principled and loyal to American values and liberals are morally suspect is the challenge that Obama confronts. I am not yet convinced that he or any liberal politician can overcome it, because its roots run deep in the American character.

I have some thoughts about those roots. But as this post is already overly long, they will have to wait for another day.

But as we contemplate how McCain, who has carefully cultivated the image of a principled man of honor, could endorse the racist Britney/Paris campaign ad that casts Obama as an uppity, pimped out song and dance man, it is important to remember that this is just page one of the Republican playbook.

John McSame indeed.



1. Stop US Wars » Blog Archive » Obama’s Challenge - July 31, 2008

[…] admin wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe Reverend Wright fiasco, in which Obama’s former pastor made intemperate remarks critical of American foreign and domestic policy, was treated by the press and public as evidence that Obama harbored Anti-American views, … […]

2. Double Standard Redux « Philosophy On The Mesa - August 17, 2008

[…] 2008 Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow’s Posts. trackback I wrote recently (here) that Obama’s main challenge is the double standard to which he is held by the press and […]

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