Opinion

Obama or McCain: Who's performing better?

Today's question: How are the campaigns performing? What is each side doing that's resonating with voters, and what are they misfiring on? All week, Matt Welch and Kareem Crayton debate the McCain-Obama campaign as it enters its final month.

Obama relaxes, McCain flails Point: Matt Welch

Kareem,

How long has this interminable yet strangely fascinating presidential campaign gone on? So long that even I, who have a book out on one of the two major candidates and a semi-political magazine to edit, would really, really rather talk about the rehabilitation of the Hollywood Palladium or the liberation of my fair ex-city's taco trucks (you're next, oh valiant bacon-dog vendors!). This campaign has gone on for so long that -- no lie -- during its course Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez has not once but twice blown game two of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox; so long that when I saw Fred Thompson the other night in that great 1990 period piece "Die Hard 2," it took me a few moments before I remembered to say, "Ha ha, I’m with Fred!"

But, as we all know, this is the most important election in the history of ever, and even if it's not, maybe talking about it for a week will make these last 30 days go faster. So let's start by going literal: Interesting choice of words there by my former colleagues, "performing." To paraphrase Elvis, all the world of politics is a stage, and the dramaturgy of the past two months has been, in almost every instance, more interesting and probably more revealing than the substance of any soliloquy.

Take the Obamas at the Democratic National Convention. Though a nation of pundits applauded, I groaned at Michelle's gee-willickers, I-watched-"The Brady Bunch"-too shtick on opening night. Thankfully for her, I wasn't the target audience. That whole week's staging, down to the mostly boring nomination speech, was designed to pound home two messages about Barack Obama over and over again: No really, even though you don't know me and I might be perceived with worry in some quarters, I am, in fact, as normal as any American you have ever met; and despite the inexperience, you can trust me on foreign policy. The exact same calculus was at play with the selection of Joe Biden, who, despite being one of the Senate's worst drug warriors and a Grade-A certified clown, at least knows a lot about foreign policy and allegedly seems "normal" to people in Scranton, Penn.

Obama is a smart enough campaigner to know in his core what this election's central truth has been even before President Bush declared that the Great Depression is just around the corner: This is a terrible, terrible year for Republicans, and deservedly so. All Obama has really had to do is avoid seeming too scary, radiate stentorian calm and hope there isn't soon another foreign policy crisis on the level of the Russia-Georgia war or worse. He has succeeded very well on all these points.

John McCain, on the other hand, has been performing like a chicken with its head cut off. Don't take my word for it; read such other non-Democrats as George Will, Charles Krauthammer and former maverick strategist Mike Murphy. The man has gone from one Hail Mary to the next, thundering against bailouts one day, voting for them the next, and exuding a kind of angry, scattershot incoherence that is clearly starting to become wearisome to a general population that once snacked out of his hand. It's almost impossible to remember at this point, but he was famously a "Happy Warrior" in the 2000 presidential campaign, though maybe that was because he knew he was going to lose.

Are the two candidates "resonating with voters"? Unlike too many political pundits, I am happy to admit that I have no freaking idea what "voters" think, nor would I be anything but scared if I ever found out. I do suspect that voters (or at least my wife) are connecting most on a human level with the unique character of Sarah Palin, even if many are concluding (with either sadness or glee) that she belongs nowhere near the Red Button. I do agree with Sebastian Mallaby today (it had to happen once!) that Obama and the Democrats are setting themselves up for a fall if they think that justified voter anger at the Wall Street crisis and the bailout is congruent with some kind of over-arching public desire for re-regulation and the kind of anti-Wall Street rhetoric I thought we'd safely buried with Oliver Stone. (Sadly for the Republicans, their standard-bearer is little better on this malefactors-of-great-wealth front.)

But Obama doesn't have to resonate or even offer sound economic policies to win this election; he just needs to talk calmly and hope we don't launch a shooting war with Pakistan. Democrats this year are fired up with hate for all things Republican; independents are sick of Republicans too. Even Republicans are tired of themselves, especially here in Washington.

A final first-day note of warning, however: John McCain loves being the underdog. His whole mentality and even worldview thrive on it. This has been the craziest election I can remember ( Mike Huckabee? Sarah Palin? A black guy with the middle name Hussein making the nomination finals against a woman?), and McCain is nothing if not a drama queen. We are going to see some pretty weird stuff here down the home stretch, perhaps starting as soon as Tuesday night's presidential debate. Though I'm afraid America will lose no matter who wins the election, at least we've been treated to some first-rate entertainment.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."

This style-over-substance campaign is Obama's to loseCounterpoint: Kareem Crayton

Matt,

I'll start with a quick word of thanks to The Times for inviting our contributions to this worthwhile forum and to you, Matt, for providing such an interesting and -- dare I say -- entertaining first installment about your views of the election to date.

I'm not formally trained or inherently skilled in the art of entertaining a room (virtual or otherwise), although I occasionally amuse my USC law students in lectures. So instead, I'll stick to my strong suit by offering my take on campaign mechanics and adding some perspective from the "production side" of the electioneering process.

You have much to say in your piece, Matt, but I think it boils down to three main ideas about the campaign: This campaign has lasted far too long, style has largely trumped substance, and this race is Obama's to lose. On these three points, I think that we largely agree. Here are some more specific thoughts on each point.

I don't know any person who would seriously take issue with your complaints regarding the lengthiness of this presidential race. Candidates started declaring their intentions to run more than a year before the first ballots were cast, and most of the rumors about those declarations date back even months earlier. Part of the reason for this "race to get in the race" is that the field of candidates was left so wide open. There was no sitting president or vice president in this campaign, leaving news outlets hard-pressed to dub candidates such as Hillary Clinton a "quasi-incumbent." The open field left virtually every member of the U.S. Senate asking the question that Al Franken posed in a book title a few years back, "Why Not Me?"

This extreme lengthiness is also due to what I view as an unhappy result of our federalist system: States such as Florida and Michigan were unapologetically jockeying to hold the nation's first presidential primaries. In the absence of any centrally enforced schedule by the parties or Congress, the legislatures in both these states tried to attract candidates, the press and advertising dollars with a potentially decisive primary in January. To be fair, their efforts were not entirely without justification; Iowa and New Hampshire combined aren't as populous or diverse as either Florida or Michigan. In the end, Iowa retained its first-in-line status (and its cherished corn subsidies) by scheduling its caucuses just after New Year's Day. The stampede into January thankfully preserved the electorate's Christmas morning, but it did subject us to some pretty lame holiday campaign ads.

Still, this exceedingly long schedule has not come without some costs. For one thing, the voters who actually decide most elections are only now paying attention -- just as the rest of us are able to recite the candidates' warmed-over stump speeches verbatim. Second, the campaign has cost an outrageously large sum of money to finance. Every month that passes means more polls are conducted, television ads are produced and public events are staged. All of this requires lots of cash. The major party candidates alone have spent close to $1 billion, which is a particularly obscene amount in light of the nation's current financial crisis. Whatever you think of a public-financing system in politics, the tab for this campaign is tough to justify when taking account of the unbearably long schedule.

This brings me to your point, Matt, about style and substance. Style is not entirely irrelevant in politics, but it shouldn't eclipse substantive issues at such an important time (by the way, Matt, I invite you to revisit the 1992 Democratic convention, where then-Gov. Bill Clinton's core messaging strategy was pretty similar to the one that you now ascribe to Obama). I don't believe this general election has become as Seinfeldian as 1988 (an election almost entirely about tax slogans, racial imagery and little else), but it recently has veered away from exploring solutions to problems that actually matter to voters. While there were interesting ideas about the healthcare system and Social Security exchanged in the primaries, the general election jolted both candidates back into their respective party orthodoxies.

I assign blame to both candidates for this, since I know they are capable of far better. Quick challenge: Can you (or anybody) name the single substantive policy initiative that either candidate will stake his presidency on achieving?

Just today, we have new evidence that the remaining month will feature the candidates slinging mud at the other's character. I find this development lamentable, especially given how long this campaign has lasted. Don't get me wrong; I'm from Alabama, where politics can often resemble a low-scoring college football game in the Southeastern Conference (three downs and a cloud of dust). But in politics, which isn't just a game, the unavoidable bumps and bruises should serve a higher substantive purpose. If they do not, then the transition from campaigning to governing will be a difficult one for whichever candidate wins Nov. 4.

My fervent hope is that Tuesday's presidential debate, moderated by Tom Brokaw, someone who increasingly looks like the last living member of the media's greatest generation, will force the candidates beyond the gimmickry into a more serious discussion of what they will commit to accomplishing as president.

As for the race being Obama's to lose, I suspect that your point is largely a correct read of the current polls and early reports about registration numbers (I'll have more to say about this tomorrow). I should emphasize that I am not one to view anything in politics as inevitable (Every four years, the 10th month on every calendar should be renamed "Surprise!"), but Obama appears on pace to win if the metrics don't change substantially.

The current electoral map shows about six or seven toss-up states -- all of which were won by President Bush in 2004. That sobering fact plus a nearly 250 electoral vote count that Obama now enjoys from the states he's locked up equals some bad news for Team McCain. If the GOP can't somehow shore up the vote in big states like Ohio and Virginia that it must win, there will be no need to stay up late Nov. 4 -- unless you would like to be entertained by the analyses of the stage production decisions the Obama people think up for his victory speech.

Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. He is an expert on election law and serves as a consultant for redistrictinggame.com.

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