Monday, September 15, 2008

McQueeg's lies

Yesterday, Danny Westneat had a good column in The Seattle Times:

Does lying matter anymore? Is it so common that voters will shrug and say: "Oh well, everybody does it. What's the big deal?"

This is the presidency. And this time it isn't lies from an independent group or anonymous blog. It's from the candidate himself.

What happened to McCain? Maybe he has many sides. Or maybe I judged him wrong. But I remember the reason he impressed me was because he showed me, in person, how he believed in something intangible, a principle beyond the game of politics.

Now I can't tell what he believes in. Beyond winning. Any sleazy way he can.

Westneat was a McQueeg admirer. This campaign has turned him sour. The problem is that most people in the press aren't willing to call a lie for what it is. Things are starting to turn, however. Witness Slate's Farhad Manjoo:
Since July, John McCain and his campaign have made 11 political claims that are barely true, eight that are categorically false, and three that you'd have to call pants-on-fire lies—a total of 22 clearly deceptive statements (many of them made repeatedly in ads and stump speeches). Barack Obama and Joe Biden, meanwhile, have put out eight bare truths, four untruths, and zero pants-on-fire lies—12 false claims. These stats and categories come from PolitiFact, but the story looks pretty much the same if you count up fabrications documented by or the Washington Post's Fact Checker, the other truth-squad operations working the race: During the past two and a half months, McCain has lied more often and more outrageously than Obama.
Libertarians are also taking note. Steve Chapman in Reason magazine:
But McCain has concluded that a fact-based case about Obama isn't enough to prevail in November. So he has chosen to smear his opponent with ridiculous claims that he thinks the American people are gullible enough to believe.

He has charged repeatedly that his opponent is willing to lose a war to win an election. What's McCain willing to lose to become president? Nothing so consequential as a war. Just his soul.
It's good to read that some outlets are calling these folks out (both Obama/Biden and McQueeg/The Palindrone), but back to Westneat's point: Does lying matter? I'm not convinced that it does. For one thing, if lying mattered then the current president would have been tossed in 2004. By that point the American public knew that he had lied about going to war in Iraq, about torture, and about a number of other scandals. It was troubled by that fact, but it didn't stop him from getting into office. Of course, the Democrats gave him a bit of a head start by nominating an exceedingly weak candidate.

Another thing to keep in mind here is that most Americans are not really paying attention to the campaign yet. Oh, they tune in here and there, but only to begin to form opinions. For the pounding away on the lying to sink in the media are going to have to continue to bring it up often and without fail through November. Even so, most of the public is likely to walk away from the current coverage with the message that both candidates lie and not that McQueeg lies egregiously, outrageously, and at almost double the rate of Obama.

Finally, and I've noted this before, presidents are not elected based on such things as policy positions or lies. A candidate could promise to put a new hybrid car in every driveway and a year's supply of beer in the garage and it wouldn't get him elected if he were Michael Dukakis or Gerald Ford. Why? Because he doesn't have the proper personality and charisma. Candidates are elected because people trust that person to do a good job in office. Simple as that. It's a visceral, gut reaction. Policy positions, promises, and lies do not matter a whit.

There's good reason for this reliance on gut reactions. Our system of government is generally designed to prevent any president from really going off the rails by having a legislative body that can prevent that from happening. No matter what the candidates promise, the 535 members of Congress will ultimately write legislation, pass spending bills, and do much to actually make government work (or not). When that doesn't happen, when too often the legislative body is perceived as just being a lap dog for the president, then a correction is voted into office. The 1994 and 2006 elections were just such a correction.

Democrats who are heartened by my analysis of electing a president based on personality and charisma should take pause at the point made in the paragraph above. Obama certainly has the charisma over McQueeg. On the other paw, McQueeg is still selling that "Straight Talk" bullshit and people seem to be buying it. Still, Obama should cream him. He's young, exciting, intelligent, and energizing. McQueeg on the other paw is old, boring, intelligent, and finds orange juice energizing. McQueeg is prone to emotional outbursts of anger - not exactly a trait one wants in a president, but one might find endearing in a sitcom grandfather.

If this were 1996, Obama would defeat McQueeg as badly as Clinton defeated Dole. Unfortunately for Democrats their party controls Congress and it looks as if they are going to get greater control of Congress. That doesn't bode well for Obama. This country likes divided government. It prefers that the legislative body is not a lap dog of the executive branch. We've had recent experience where that was the case and it hurt us in many ways. If the Congress does indeed go to the Democrats, then it becomes more likely that it will prefer the Republican candidate in office to hold that Congress in check.

To my mind that's the real problem for Obama. He's got the goods to be president in most people's minds. But does he have the ability to keep the Congress from giving into it's worst habits? He needs to prove that he can control that body. He also needs to convey some sense of really understanding and managing the economy. We've entered an economic malaise that isn't going to end any time soon if we continue the policies we're pursuing. He needs to offer something different and sprinkle it with a bit of hope. I don't expect that he'll do that so Obama better work on the Congress issue hard.

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