Monday, October 6, 2008

"Forget Issues. Just... forget it!"

I have always tried to remind people that a Presidency is driven by national and world events during that term, and a President is ultimately judged by his he leads the nation during those events.  After all, what defines the Bush Presidency more than anything?  It was the hysterical reaction to 9/11 (invading the wrong country and ensnaring us in an incredibly damaging war) and the bungling of the Katrina disaster.  The adminstration choosing partisan loyalty over competence in staffing traditionally apolitical functions like intelligence and justice led to a leaderless government utterly unable to intelligently and capable deal with crises.

John McCain has already given us a window into how he handles difficult decisions.

Consider how he handled his "3 a.m. phone call" on the banking crisis:

His first response to was to blame it on Barack Obama, claiming that Obama was too entrenched in the lobbying culture of Washington, too busy "gaming the system" to do any real work.  This is especially bizarre given McCain's previous attacks accusing Obama of having too little Washington experience to lead the country.  And the response is downright hypocritical considering the integral role people such as Phil Gramm, Rick Davis, and Randy Scheunemann have played in his campaign and in the formation of his policies.

His next response was the bogus "suspension" of his campaign that involved not an hour's slowdown of fundraising, ad buys, appearances field operations or interviews.  He accused Obama of not putting country first and mocked him for merely working the phones, which, interestingly, was all McCain himself did.  And he might have gotten away with this deception had he not cancelled on David Letterman.  Knowing that Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin did not go well, McCain wanted to see if he could head that off at the pass by doing his own interview with Couric.  Now, had McCain simply told Letterman that given what was happening, it would not be appropriate for him to appear in a comedy show, it would have all been dismissed.  Instead, he told Letterman that he was heading back to Washington.  This was an absolutely absurd lie, as not only does the entire world know the movements of both candidates, but McCain was in another CBS studio, prompting an enraged Letterman to have Keith Olbermann sit in for McCain.  Olbermann, a fierce partisan, even looked uncomfortable as Letterman ranted about McCain's uber-clumsy maneuver. The entire gambit was nothing more than presenting the false appearance of putting country over party (when in fact he changed nothing) and hoping to take credit for parachuting in and getting the bailout deal done, when in fact he could not corral the far right of the House Republican caucus that ultimately held up the deal.

McCain's coup de grace was voting for the bailout deal out together by the Senate despite the presence of over $100 billion in pork.  McCain has pledged to veto any bill with earmarks attached, but McCain's vote for the necessary (if difficult to swallow) bailout deal laid bare his inability to detach from his certitudes and see the complexities of issues that a President needs to.  The consequences when he cannot, as we have seen over the last 8 years, are dire.  McCain simply flailed around from pillar to post, an exercise in erratic and ineffectual behavior.

Even the very selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate speaks to an erratic problem solving methodology of disengagement with issues followed by wild, unpredictable and often emotional or under-thought responses.  It is said that choosing a running mate is a candidate's first Presidential decision, and let's look at how McCain made it.  

By all accounts his first choices were Tom Ridge and Joe Lieberman, but when the GOP powers that be would not allow him to put a pro-choice running mate a heartbeat away from the Presidency, his knee instead jerked to Palin, an unknown far-right ideologue who on face looked like a play for disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters but in actuality was a somewhat successful attempt to rile up the base.  The problem was, they didn't bother to vet her, and thus didn't know about her pursuit of the mother of all earmarks (the "Bridge to Nowhere")- a sore subject with McCain- nor did they realize that they were getting George W. Bush in a skirt:  fiesty, folksy, not even a tiny bit engaged with issues, and completely unable to think on her feet, as evidenced by her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric.  And these aren't even the heavyweights.   The result has been that only the most partisan of observers are willing to believe she might be up to the job; 41% according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll- little more than the committed, partisan base who would support any candidate of their party.  Even the moderate punditocracy is scared to death that she could be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  

"Can we now admit the obvious?  Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be Vice President.  She is a feisty, charismatic politician who has done some good things in Alaska.  But she has never spent a day thinking about any important national issue, and this is a hell of a time to start.  There is an ongoing military operation in Iraq that still costs $10 billion a month, a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is not going well and is not easily fixed. Iran, Russia and Venezuela present tough strategic challenges.  

And the American government is stretched to the limit.  Between the Bush tax cuts, homeland security needs, Iraq, Afghanistan and the bailout, the budget is looking bleak. Plus, within a few years the retirement of the Baby Boomers begins with its massive and rising costs (in the trillions) 

Obviously these are very serious challenges and constraints.  In these times, for John McCain to have chosen this person to be his running mate is fudamentally irresponsible.  McCain says that he always puts country first.  In this important case, it is simply not true."

So forget the candidates' positions on issues. They matter, to be sure, but equally critical is how a President can think and act and lead under duress.  McCain has shown us his capabilities in this area, and it's not at all encouraging.

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