Thursday, July 3, 2008

McCain recoils

This is an odd moment from the campaign trail (via DailyKos):

McCain became visibly angry when I asked him to explain how his Vietnam experience prepared him for the Presidency.
"Please," he said, recoiling back in his seat in distaste at the very question.
Two of McCain's allies who were there with him, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, had to jump in and cover for him.
McCain then collected himself and apologized for his initial reaction.

"I kind of reacted the way I did because I have a reluctance to talk about my experiences," he said....
Based on that article, it doesn't seem that McCain ever did answer the reporter's question, though Graham made the obvious point that his experience as a POW has informed his position on torture (or at least one of his positions).

So let's get this straight.

When Gen. Wesley Clark says McCain's experience being captured at war isn't a "qualification to be president," that's way over the line. Unacceptable.

But when a reporter asks McCain to explain how his military service is a qualification to be president -- that's over the line too!

Also, is it true that McCain is "reluctant to talk about" his heroism in Vietnam? I don't know. But he hasn't been reluctant to say "I'm John McCain and I approve this message" in an ad showing footage of him as a POW, intercut with a closeup of McCain with the word "hero" emblazoned on his forehead. (Here's a similar example.)

No matter what your opinion is of Barack Obama, I think you have to give him this: he'd never approve an ad that was based on highlighting a specific argument for why he's qualified to be president, but then later try to shut down any rational discussion of that precise point.

For all the talk of Obama as too slick and superficial and not having enough substance, I'm starting to think that McCain is the candidate who has to be carefully choreographed and shielded from spontaneous debate over his qualifications.

We should give McCain huge points for character based on his enormous sacrifice for his country in the Vietnam War. But it's fair to point out that this is not the same thing as leadership ability.

And it's fair to question what's going on with his recoiling.

* * *
UPDATE: My mom links to this post and says this in response to my point that Obama wouldn't try to shut down debate over his qualifications the way McCain did:
I think there are some things that Barack Obama has tried to place beyond debate, such as the things his wife has said in political speeches on his behalf.
Well, I agree he's clearly tried to shield his wife's comments from rational scrutiny: "Lay off my wife!"

But that isn't a counterexample to what I said. I said that Obama wouldn't put his imprimatur on an argument about his qualifications to be president and then turn around and tell people not to engage with that argument. I'm not aware of any instance of Obama doing that.

What you'd need to point to is something like: Michelle argues that Barack's experience as a community organizer is a qualification for being president ... but then Barack castigates people for asking him how his experience as a community organizer has prepared him to be president! Or Michelle points out that he actually has an impressive legislative record ... but then Barack lashes out at people who ask him whether he really does have a strong legislative record!

But, of course, that hasn't happened.

The only example I'm aware of where Barack tried to say that criticizing Michelle is off limits had to do with an extemporaneous remark she made about her own emotions (feeling proud of her country), not a rational argument that her husband would make a good president.

OK, maybe her comments were written out beforehand, but even so, I don't see any reason to assume that Barack Obama personally vets all his wife's speeches. At least Obama is probably rightly thinking to himself, "Gee, it's too bad that my wife made an ill-advised statement, but it doesn't really have much to do with my campaign, so I wish they'd stop hounding me about it."

McCain, on the other hand, has no excuse for distancing himself from a core argument for his candidacy that was set forth in one of his own ads, followed by the explicit statement: "I'm John McCain, and I approve this message."

(Of course, the real reason McCain supporters shouldn't trash Michelle Obama for her comment about being proud of her country for the first time is that McCain has said the same thing.)


carly said...

McCain's experience as a POW doesn't in itself prepare him to be POTUS, but it makes sense to include information about that period of his life in an ad that focuses on his biography. McCain's OK of such an ad doesn't conflict with not wanting to discuss or highlight that portion of his life himself. Obama has "approved" ads that are similarly aimed at allowing people to become acquainted with his life story. The point is NOT to have to talk about things that will make people like you better (you hope...).

I don't really think the outrage over Clark's statements is correctly aimed. What Clark said wasn't so much offensive as laughable and stupid. Saying that McCain doesn't have the experience of the judgment to be POTUS when he's on TV as a "surrogate" for Obama who has neither experience nor proven judgment is counterproductive; it reminds people just how little experience Obama has. To bring up this line of attack (one that's, interestingly, being echoed by others in the Obama campaign) seems the height of stupidity.

I don't see any problem with McCain approving ads that fill folks in on his life story and still demurring from blabbering about his time as a POW. McCain's imprisonment is only a part of his military experience and his military experience is only one part of his curriculum vitae.

None of which is to say that I think McCain should be POTUS. He strikes me as not terribly bright, I cringe at his wrongheaded advocacy for things that spit on the free market. Honestly, I'm creeped out by the dude. But, with the only other choice being Obama, I have no choice but to vote for him.

Simon said...

John, the last video linked to really fails the laugh test. McCain's phrasing is plainly along the lines of "you haven't lived until you've skydived" or "you don't really appreciate american government until you've studied how other countries do it." To compare that statement to Obama's wife's statement is silly bordering on the frivolous, and I'm honestly surprised to see you advancing it, however indirectly.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Simon: I agree that McCain was using a rhetorical device.

Dan Abrams calls it "eloquent" in that video. Abrams is praising McCain for saying it.

I think McCain is a war hero and a great American, and he should not be disparaged for using that rhetorical device in which he implies that he didn't used to be truly patriotic.

But if we're going to praise McCain for using that rhetorical device to accentuate his patriotic fervor ... then I don't see why Michelle Obama has to be trashed for using the same rhetorical device.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that what Michelle said was a good idea. Obviously, she shouldn't have said it. It was incredibly clumsy. She blundered in trying to come across as patriotic.

But the fact is, they were both using the same device: "I feel this so strongly that I've never really felt it before."

Of course, McCain is immune from criticism because he's a war hero, whereas it's OK to trash Michelle Obama. Unfortunately, of the two of those people, McCain is the one who's running for president. If one of them has to be wide open for criticism, I'd rather it be McCain than Michelle.

People are trying to destroy Michelle Obama's representation over nothing. You said I was advancing the video "indirectly," so let me be more direct: I absolutely agree with everything Dan Abrams says in that video.

Simon said...

JAC said...
"Dan Abrams calls it "eloquent" in that video. Abrams is praising McCain for saying it."

Yes and no: that we can, by exploiting context, say more than the words we speak might otherwise convey has been been instinctively understood since at least the time when the phrase "damning with faint praise" became common currency. What Abrams is doing is piggybacking: saying "look, there's nothing wrong with McCain saying this" as a way of arguing that there's nothing wrong with what Michelle Obama said, because (the claim goes) she was doing exactly the same thing.

But she wasn't doing the same thing. The claim that she was makes me think back to Tina Fey's now-famous "women's news" segment (the "bitch is the new black" skit): immediately prior to the now-famous bit, noting that some celebrity denied regaining the weight she lost on some diet plan or other, Fey deadpanned, "she knows we can see her, right?" And the claim that Michelle "[was] using the same rhetorical device" makes me feel much the same: those who push that narrative know that there's video, right? We're not just talking about a transcript, or a reporter's paraphrase (and when some have tried to blow air into a scandal that was built on a reporter's paraphrase, I have defended Obama; I may come acros as a little strident in Another Place about Obama, but I'm not reflexively hostile), we can see the speech - including all the relevant context. And it seems to me that there is just no way that, in the context in which Obama uttered those words, she was using the same rhetorical device that all agree McCain was using. The speech just won't bear that meaning.

This peggyback approach isn't a new strategy for the Obama camp, either. Recall his speech in Philadelphia: "Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias." Of course, the comparison was fatuous, but the strategy was basically the same one used here: X said Y, but Z said something that was much like Y, so if you don't object to what Z said, you can't object to what X said. That holds only if what X and Z said can fairly be called similar. If not, it's a disingenuous and inartful dodge.

I understand the imperative to man the barricades, but what Abrams said in the video was profoundly silly and wholly disingenuous; I am confident that even those who align themselves with it out of the political necessity to provide covering fire will, in time, come to see as much. Of course McCain is not "immune from criticism because he's a war hero." That's a strawman argument. The issue is whether criticism that is silly and ill-founded in reality can serve as what one Oracle wisely notes is "an offensive attempt at a gotcha" by a "piece of work" of a network.

XWL said...

I question if McCain really 'recoiled' or not. Seems some folks are determined to paint him as the angry old codger at every opportunity. I doubt things are exactly as stated at the ABC News blog, given if it was a real blow up, others on the plane would have jumped all over the incident.

Also, patterns of behavior count for something. Michelle Obama, when she was more active on the campaign trail, showed a pattern of criticism for this American project, that criticism is common amongst certain Democratic circles, but occaisonally sounds a bit unpatriotic to everyone else.

Jonah Goldberg expressed the difference pretty well this week, "This sense that America is in need of fixing in order to be a great country points to Obama's real patriotism problem. And it's not Obama's alone."

So when she out and out falls flat on her face with a lot of people for a statement that gets blown out of proportion, it's not the same thing as McCain's clumsy rhetorical device.

I think there is a real difference between the way Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain see the United States, and there's a real difference between how they'd address the challenges we'll face over the next few years.

I prefer coming at the problems we face from the perspective that we're already a pretty awesome bunch of folks, and given a little free rein we'll get things right most of the time. I wish McCain was a lot more libertarian in view, but he's certainly more libertarian than an Obama administration could ever be, so all the other noise is just noise.

Everyone is faced with a very imperfect choice of candidate this election cycle, there's plenty to be disappointed by in both Senators (I think being a Senator in of itself should be considered a disqualification for the Presidency, Senators gain habits that make for being a poor Executive).

This campaign will ultimately be decided by issues, hopefully Sen. Obama will stop the posturing and agree to those Town Halls that McCain suggested a month ago, then we can stop worrying about surrogates, and reporters, and instead focus on the candidates, there policies, and their differences as they directly engage each other face to face.

(that Obama has been dragging his feet on the Town Hall issue says a lot about him, I think)

Simon said...

[Link to the SNL "bitch is the new black" skit cited in my previous comment.]

John Althouse Cohen said...

I question if McCain really 'recoiled' or not. Seems some folks are determined to paint him as the angry old codger at every opportunity. I doubt things are exactly as stated at the ABC News blog, given if it was a real blow up, others on the plane would have jumped all over the incident.

I admit I was playing up the reporter's word choice for all it's worth. I wish there were video so we could see for ourselves.

But if I'm just going on a hunch, I'm inclined to believe it was accurate. While a reporter can take all sorts of liberties with description, I tend to assume that at least the quotes are accurate -- and to me the quotes in that story give it the ring of truth. I mean, if his whole response was a one-word "Please," that suggests a disgusted reaction. And then the "I reacted the way I did..." -- if that's an accurate quote, that's implying he felt the need to explain an unusual reaction.

Simon said...

XWL said...
"Also, patterns of behavior count for something. Michelle Obama, when she was more active on the campaign trail, showed a pattern of criticism for this American project, that criticism is common amongst certain Democratic circles, but occaisonally sounds a bit unpatriotic to everyone else."

Well, I wouldn't say "occasionally," but advocatus diaboli, you still have to connect what the speaker said to the candidate. Is the criticism that having someone who believes such things in his camp, giving speeches on his behalf shows poor judgment? (Like pointing to his association with Ayres, that's not a bad argument, given that a large part of the President's job, appointments, involves character assessment.) Is the criticism that he associates with and allows his children to be raised by someone who believes such things? (But then, what do you do with interpartisan marriages?) Or is the criticism that if she believes it, he likely believes it, too? It's the latter that's the largest-bore weapon, but it takes some real muscle to bear it, and I don't know that anyone's yet done so. It would be (one hopes) fatal for a Presidential candidate to believe such things - but is it fatal for the candidate that his wife believes it?

John Althouse Cohen said...

we can see the speech - including all the relevant context.

You know, the person you call an "Oracle," i.e. my mom, actually saw the speech in person. She found it totally innocuous and unremarkable in context.

John Althouse Cohen said...

In fact, it was after seeing that speech that she decided to vote for Obama in the primary, as she explains in this video.

Simon said...

John, I'm familiar with the video and the post that you're alluding to, but despite my somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference, and although I don't hide according her judgment considerable weight and deference, I don't agree with her on everything. Moreover, it does not follow that being there in person provides a heightened claim on the experience. When I saw U2 in Chicago, I didn't notice any of the mistakes that I see on the DVD they put out of the show. Being able to watch or read something several times is more likely to expose minutiae than simply being there. Ceteris pribus, who would we suppose has a better understanding of Heller, the woman who read the opinion twice, or the man who was there for the opinion announcement?