Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Priority of Campaigning

It is interesting to contemplate the extent to which President George W. Bush's address to the nation last night may have amounted to a non-event. It may have been at the top of my Yahoo! home page this morning; but the link was to Yahoo! Finance (rather than Yahoo! News), which reflected an analysis at by Brian Wingfield, whose assessment reflected the sort of position one might expect from a "capitalist tool" like Forbes:

In a way, he's the best pitchman the administration's got. The credit crunch is an extraordinarily complicated issue, and Bush's most popular trait is his homespun way of connecting with people.

Wingfield never got closer to Main Street than that "homespun way of connecting with people" phrase; and, if we are to take the interviews aired this morning on NPR's Morning Edition, then, whatever the "capitalist tool" may have hoped, the pitchman just did not connect.

One reason may have been that Main Street just was not paying attention. The President had been "scooped" by John McCain's announcement that he would leave the campaign trail and return to Washington and work with his fellow Senators on their reaction to the proposal submitted by the Treasury Department. One analyst on NPR described this as yet another example of McCain's willingness to take big risks, seeing it as a parallel to the nomination of Sarah Palin. At the very least, McCain seems to have been just as effective at "scooping" Barack Obama as he was with the President. I have never heard Obama sound quite so tongue-tied as in is attempt to define his response to McCain's actions. Now the confusion is spreading among the Obama supporters, many of whom would like to dismiss McCain's gambit as a cheap political shot.

Well, to be fair, it is hard to imagine any politician doing anything for a motive that was not political; but it may be that the most important consequence for the rest of us is that McCain has reminded us all about priorities. I may be going against the grain on this one, but I continue to hold to the premise that a Senator is a Senator first and a candidate second. Yes, what Lyndon Johnson famously called "pressing the flesh" is important; but (remembering the Olympic "wisdom" of Thomas Bach) let's not kid ourselves: The campaign is a media product. As in a Hollywood film, the "star" does not have to be "on screen" all the time and may even be there "virtually." Hollywood knew about this with stunt men even in the days before CGI. By recognizing this prioritization, McCain has challenged Obama on it; and, whether or not he did this as a baldly political strategy, I have to give him points in my own scorecard.

Back in the days when the business world was sane, a major commitment of funds would never be made without first performing "due diligence" over the nature of the commitment. We are currently seeing this practice in the current efforts to rescue Washington Mutual, which, as a point of personal record, happens the be the bank that holds both my checking account and my (fixed-rate) mortgage. It is the role of Congress to perform such "due diligence" over the bailout proposal; and, Congress being what it is, the machinery of due diligence consists primarily in hearings and debates. This particular commitment of funds is sufficiently serious that, by all rights, the two Senators who are also Presidential candidates should be involved in that Congressional machinery. Furthermore, as I have previously noted, that involvement will be documented in the Congressional Record, providing one of the few sources pertaining to either candidate that is not a skillfully crafted media product. We the people (could not resist the cliché) have the perfect opportunity to observe both candidates in a major decision-making situation; and we should celebrate that opportunity.

Whatever McCain's motives may have been, I applaud the move he has taken. I am disappointed that Obama's response has run the gamut from lame reaction ("I thought of it first") to rejection ("I still plan to be at the debate"). I also agree with Congressional leaders (such as Harry Reid) who are concerned that either candidate could easily turn the Senate floor into the site of a stump speech; but the beauty of the Congressional Record is its objectivity. It documents our representatives' efforts to come up with solutions, and it documents when they make fools of themselves. With a little bit of clever manipulation, McCain has managed to get Obama to look a bit like Achilleus sulking in his tent (not the first time I have invoked this simile); and Obama had better be quick about getting his focus back on that electorate he is supposed to be serving!

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