Friday, July 18, 2008

Is John McCain the New Bob Dole?

I remember watching the 1996 Republican primaries with intense interest. Bob Dole was the leading contender for the nomination, but then the fundamentalist preacher Pat Buchanan won unexpected early victories in New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Alaska. Even though he was an extremist, transparent demagogue, one should never underestimate the gullibility of the American voter, so I was worried. I thought he was dangerous. It seemed possible that he could withstand the charm and charisma of Bill Clinton.

I was enormously relieved when Dole locked the nomination by winning every primary after North Dakota. I knew Clinton would easily beat Dole. Why? Three impressions brought me to that conclusion. First, Dole (and his party) were fixated on the past. They wanted to rediscover the Reagan era and they talked endlessly about supply-side economics and reactionary social values. But the country was looking for a change. That was obvious.

Second was the personal factor. Dole was much older than Clinton, and pale and frail-looking. He had zero charisma and was not a compelling speaker. He was slow moving and slow talking, with stiff gestures and awkward head movements. He looked like he would never live to serve out a full term. Despite his admirable record of government service, he did not seem convincingly “presidential.”

Finally, Dole seemed to be a default choice, the one guy the power brokers could agree on. There were more interesting candidates the Republicans could have promoted, including Colin Powell, Lamar Alexander, and others, but none of them could support a consensus, so Dole was the last man standing. Like any choice made to please a committee, he did not have many particularly strong features.

I saw McCain giving a speech on TV recently and he looked tired, old, frail, jerky, and distracted. He seemed to have trouble stringing his sentences together. He was talking about the banking crisis but didn't seem to understand the words he was saying. The gist of most of his political statements is about conserving the present and avoiding anything new. How did McCain get the nomination? Basically by being the anodyne choice of a fractionated party. My immediate thought was, “McCain is the next Bob Dole.”

If true, we should expect Obama to trounce McCain in November. Clinton beat Dole by over 8 million votes, or 8.5%, the record so far in presidential elections for a margin of victory. Obama has the race issue, but that works both ways and may net out neutral. So notwithstanding that Democrats are exceptionally creative at clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, I don’t think this one is going to be close.

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