Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thanks again for the bridge to nowhere

Yesterday I pointed out that, as the New York Times apparently didn't realize, Sarah Palin is still supporting the so-called bridge to nowhere.

But I also said something is bothering me about what the whole bridge-to-nowhere debacle says about the state of the race.

This Slate article is a good starting point: even discussing earmarks at all could be implicitly forfeiting a more important argument to McCain:

The Obama campaign has been working hard to make an issue of the Bridge to Nowhere, and the McCain campaign doesn't mind. Aides believe any discussion about earmarks is one McCain is winning. Instead of talking about taxes or the larger economy and whether McCain's policies will be a change from Bush's, Obama is arguing over a $16 billion portion of the budget where McCain has actually been a force for change. Arguing over earmarks shrinks the field of debate into one where he has a long track record. Obama has waged no significant battles with Democrats.
Of course, almost any issue is an issue Obama has no "long track record" on, because Obama doesn't have much experience, period. But that obviously can't be much consolation for Obama supporters (of whom I am one).

I have to wonder: could it be that Obama just isn't very comfortable talking policy specifics, and that's why he's chosen the easier tack of pointing out the falsehoods in McCain/Palin's assertions instead of questioning their basic economic premises?

Jon Chait has pointed out that (1) earmarks just aren't very important, and (2) the McCain campaign seems unwilling to single out specific earmarks for criticism aside from the bridge to nowhere. Presumably that's because if voters were faced with the reality of what earmarks are really about, their reaction would be, "Hey, that actually sounds pretty good!" (That's why earmarks increased when they became more transparent.)

Big picture: McCain's position on this is pretty weak, and Obama himself has procured a lot of earmarks. So why doesn't Obama proactively admit this and justify his position to the people?

To be clear, I'm not accusing Obama of being deceptive on this, since he's actually been forthcoming in divulging the relevant information about his record. A couple examples chosen semi-randomly from his website:
AIDSCARE, Inc., for general operating support, $750,000 -- AIDSCARE is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that provides housing and care for homeless children, families and adults living with advanced HIV/AIDS in the Chicago Area. ...

Chicago State University, for research into unmanned aerial systems, $5,000,000 -- Funding will be used to improve the effectiveness of the military's unmanned aerial systems by replacing conventional power supply systems with fuel cell technology packages specifically made for mobile robotics systems.
How hard could it be for the Obama campaign to talk about federal funding of these programs in a positive light?

(A caveat: without having scoured through every single one of Obama's statements, I can't say for sure that he hasn't made the argument I'm describing. But I assume the campaign hasn't emphasized it, since I haven't heard it. Also, he was asked about his record on earmarks in one of the primary debates, and I vaguely remember thinking his answer was weak.)

There's a broader point in all this: why does Obama keep letting his campaign get lured into quicksand by McCain? It's seeming more and more like every time Obama tries out some new initiative or campaign strategy, McCain takes it and turns it into something negative. Off the top of my head: the choice of setting for his convention speech ... the emphasis on his "community organizer" background ... the "lipstick on a pig" critique of McCain's message ... the decision to choose Joe Biden over Hillary Clinton ...

For each of those cases, you can easily defend Obama's decision if you want to. But isn't there an undeniable pattern? (1) Obama does something that seems like a good idea; (2) McCain gets the better of him somehow; (3) the Obama campaign uses up a lot of energy and media coverage reacting to McCain; (4) the whole thing ends up looking like a big mess that neither candidate really won or lost.

Could it be that Obama is just not such a great candidate, and that if the nominee had been one of any number of other Democratic primary candidates (including "candidates" who didn't even choose to run but surely considered it), that person would have been as effective in the general election if not more so? I've resisted this conclusion for a long time, but I've been increasingly thinking that it's simply too obvious to ignore. More about this soon ...


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"Obama is just not such a great candidate..." This could be a Copernican moment in American politics: The sun no longer revolves around him! Actually, I hope the news doesn't spread, because I want him to win. But looking at the history of the Democrats in 2000/2004/2008, I think the fault is not in the candidates but in the managers, consultants, and experts they pay fortunes to tell them how to run. These people are tactically inept to the point of self-sabotage. They let their opponents frame the issues; they panic whenever their opponents score a point; and their counterattacks are tone-deaf. They blather about the politics of hope, but they run scared. If Obama had a James Carville, this would be a shoo-in.