Yesterday I talked about whether John McCain's aging brain will make him too old to be president, but the buzz right now is around the fact that he doesn't know how to use a computer.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, it seems like a clear negative for the same reason that the former President Bush's supposed unfamiliarity with a supermarket scanner was a negative. In fact, it's much worse for a couple reasons: (1) The Bush/scanner story wasn't really fair to Bush. He was apparently humoring some grocers who were demonstrating a new-and-improved scanner at a technology exhibit. The basis of the McCain/computer story is several straightforward admissions by McCain himself, so you can't really say it's unfair. (2) Computers and the internet are approximately a zillion times more important than supermarket scanners.
On the other hand, to the extent that it's a negative at all, most voters will see it as a very slight negative. In 2000, one of the most biggest raps against Bush was his verbal slip-ups. (This was largely a proxy for intelligence, but the media was reluctant to make that point head-on because "intelligence" is so subjective and difficult to prove.) Do you think that really hurt Bush? Or did it help him by focusing people's attention on an extremely minor shortcoming instead of the major ones? It was also easy for the candidate and his surrogates to laugh it off and segue into "what the American people really care about."
And it was easy for us voters to engage in the sloppy reasoning that "If that's the worst they can say about him, he can't be all bad!"
But I think Jonathan Chait has a key point about why McCain's computer illiteracy, and particularly his email illiteracy, might actually matter:
I wonder if it's actually possible to be an effective president today without being able to access email or the internet. McCain's entire staff surely uses email to communicate virtually everything with each other. If McCain is never in the electronic loop, how is he supposed to manage that staff? All those stories about the chaotic nature of his campaign -- "a swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who represent a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds" -- actually make a lot more sense if you factor in McCain's total lack of emailing skill.Here's the problem: "out of the loop in his own organizational structure" is unlikely to have the kind of resonance with the public as something like "flip-flopper" or "lefty."
But it seems pretty important. Someone who does a bad job at seeing the big picture of what everyone on his staff is saying, and who's faced with "a swirl of competing spheres of influence," might want to cut the Gordian knot by selecting a few advisors to fall back on. Isn't this more likely if the president isn't communicating with people by email?
Of course, even if McCain isn't able to sit down at a computer and email people, he could theoretically get around this by having incoming messages printed out for him to read, and dictating his outgoing messages. That's better than nothing, but it just doesn't seem good enough. If you have to miss an important meeting, it's nice to be able to read the minutes, but you really missed out by not being in the thick of things -- an active participant instead of a passive observer after the fact.
It used to be common to criticize email for taking us away from real life. But that cliche has become a moot point. For better or for worse, email is real life now, and it's only going to become more and more ubiquitous.
Back to the point about the connection between email illiteracy and loyalty. (I don't necessarily consider "loyalty" a positive term.) If I'm right about that, then that raises another question: Do we want a president who latches onto a few especially trusted advisors and gets his information heavily filtered through them? Didn't we invade Iraq because Bush was faced with an unwieldy ideological civil war within his administration and felt the need to use "loyalty" to a few of the more hawkish figures as a shortcut to avoid sifting through the details himself?