The whole presidential election is a sideshow

Many now look upon the Palin-Biden clash as a ‘sideshow’. In truth, this entire contest has become irrelevant to real-world events.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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It is common now for people to say that this year’s American presidential election has generated more interest than others in recent history. Millions more have voted in primaries, registered to vote, attended rallies and watched debates on TV. It’s also been the major topic of conversation in the culture, from late-night TV comedians to workers around the proverbial water-coolers. To this list we can also now add last week’s vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, which drew a record 70million TV viewers.

But the Palin-Biden debate also revealed a deeper truth about this year’s election: that the greater attention paid does not represent an increase in political engagement. In fact, for the most part the interest in the contest is apolitical rather than political in nature.

A circus-like atmosphere has surrounded Palin since John McCain selected her to be the Republican VP candidate. And following embarrassing interviews with Katie Couric, millions tuned into last week’s debate just to see if Palin would self-destruct on primetime. It was the chance to see a possible train-wreck, rather than learn about her and Biden’s policies, which led to record viewing figures.

In the event, Palin did not run off the stage in tears – to the disappointment of Democrats and the relief of Republicans. But she survived only by sticking to talking points that were only occasionally applicable to the question asked (at one point she admitted as much, saying ‘I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear’). Biden, for his part, did not directly address Palin, for fear of appearing condescending or sexist. According to polls conducted afterwards, Biden had ‘won’ decisively, but the real point was that, with neither candidate really addressing one another, it was more like alternating infomercials than a debate.

As the New York Times put it, ‘Rarely has a vice-presidential showdown been packed with such political importance’ (1). But the anti-climatic debate led many to see that the vice-presidents were not going to alter dramatically the presidential election outcome. In fact, historically VPs have been only minor subplots in elections. The real question is: why did both sides invest so much importance in this year’s VP candidates, especially Palin?

When she first emerged, Republicans were desperate to boost the lacklustre McCain campaign, and Palin was seen as its saviour – and, according to some, even as the future of the GOP. But, like a one-hit wonder, Palin’s rapid rise has been followed by an equally fast decline. In a matter of weeks she was exposed as an uninformed lightweight, and prominent Republicans ditched her by the day. Palin was supposed to bring white women over to McCain’s side, but the opposite happened, as polls showed white women moving towards Obama (2).

Palin, governor of the state of Alaska, has preferred to talk more about her ordinary ‘hockey mom’ roots than her record, and her debate speech was filled with more folksy, Fargo-esque colloquialisms (‘darn right’, ‘doggone’, the ‘shout out’ to schoolchildren) than ever heard from a candidate before. But her populist shtick appeals only to a minority, and can equally come across as patronising (real ‘Joe Sixpacks’ do not call themselves that). When you push lifestyle politics, as the McCain campaign has done with Palin, you have a good chance of winning over those with the same lifestyle concerns, but at the same time you’re also likely to alienate as many people who don’t share that lifestyle. Palin’s praise for rural small towns – and accompanying attacks on other areas (including, during the TV debate, the entire East Coast) – means that she has written off Americans who live in cities and suburbs, which represents a large majority of the country. If Palin ever did become the Republicans’ leader, the party would become a rump.

For their part, the Democrats have devoted as much energy to attacking Palin as the Republicans have done to promoting her. Many Democrats see her as an easy target, and they repeat the same criticisms they levelled at George W Bush (essentially: stupid hick). For these Democrats, Palin is evil incarnate, and the most common adjective they use to describe her is ‘scary’. Yet their obsessive focus on Palin has had the result of inflating her importance, and has come at the expense of putting forward a positive message about their election campaign. Moreover, their attacks have played right into the Republicans’ hands: Palin, with her in-your-face red-state image, was perfect bait, and many liberals couldn’t resist taking it. In criticising her for backward reasons (like her accent, Alaskan lifestyle, and her kids), the Democrats came across, once again, as the party of snobs, and increased distrust amongst at least a section of the working classes.

All of the discussion around Palin is really a way to avoid talking about politics. After the TV debate, liberals cracked jokes about her accent, while conservatives delighted in retelling her one-line zingers. Both felt comforted in a way, and to some appeared to be engaging in ‘politics’ – but neither side was talking about difficult political issues (and certainly not with someone from the other side).

In the aftermath of the debate, many commentators came around, belatedly, to the view that the vice-presidential debate was a ‘sideshow’, and they now turned their attention to the ‘main event’ – that is, the Obama-McCain contest. What these commentators don’t realise is that the entire presidential election battle has become a sideshow in relation to developments in the real world, such as the financial crisis.

Indeed, the candidates did not distinguish themselves as Congress sought to agree a bailout bill, which was approved and signed into law last Friday. Many criticised the House representatives who voted against the bill earlier in the week, but in fact all sections of the political class, including Obama and McCain, looked out of control in the face of the financial unravelling. McCain suspended his campaign and parachuted into Washington to save the day, but was ignored by most of his party. Obama took the strong position of ‘call me if you need me’. During this episode, President Bush has looked like a lame duck, but, based on the candidates’ responses to the crisis, don’t be surprised if November’s winner looks as ineffectual in the face of challenges shortly after taking office.

In the ‘main event’, Obama has pulled ahead of McCain. Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls finds Obama leading McCain by a 50 per cent to 44 per cent margin, and Obama is currently on top in many states that Bush carried in 2004, including Ohio and Florida, the deciding states in the past two elections (3).

According to conventional wisdom, Obama is winning because of his response to the financial crisis and his approach to the economy. It is true that Obama has benefited from the latest developments, but it is not because of his specific economic policies are on-point in dealing with worsening economic problems. As noted, he has had little to add regarding the bailout. And when asked to explain how his approach would change in the face of likely high deficits following the bailout, Obama dodges the question, saying only that his proposals will be ‘delayed’.

Instead, Obama has taken advantage of the current situation by stoking up fears of economic meltdown, and then presenting himself as a safer pair of hands than his Republican opponent. McCain’s ‘cancel the debate’ stunt two weeks ago and other unpredictable gestures has provided Obama with material for his latest TV ad, in which he calls McCain ‘erratic in crisis’. Conservative newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer writes that McCain’s ‘frenetic improvisation has perversely (for him) framed the rookie challenger favourably as calm, steady and cool’. Krauthammer adds that Obama has ‘both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament’ that will ‘likely be enough to make him president’ (4).

This ‘vote for me, I’m safe’ approach infuses Obama’s criticisms of McCain’s healthcare policies, which his campaign says will become the focus of their attacks in the upcoming weeks. After the vice-presidential debate, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe revealed that his candidate campaign’s will use fear as a motivator when he said: ‘I think Senator Biden did a terrific job today of describing why middle-class families should fear John McCain’s health plan.’ Furthermore, the Obama campaign will criticise McCain’s healthcare plan – which includes a $5,000 tax credit and treats employers’ healthcare payments as taxable – as ‘radical’ (5). Note that the problem they identify with McCain’s proposal is that it is extreme; not expensive or impractical, but ‘radical’. Obama’s argument may be helping him to win, but it is essentially a conservative one.

On the back foot, the McCain campaign appears to want to change the focus of the election discussion towards Obama’s qualifications to lead. The Republican National Committee’s press secretary, Alex Conant, said the Palin debate performance and the signing of the bailout bill will allow the Republicans to ‘turn the page’, and ‘Barack Obama’s readiness will return to being the central subject of debate’ (6). And on the weekend, Palin indicated where such campaigning might go when she accused Obama of being ‘someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists’ (7). Palin was referring to Bill Ayers, a member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground organisation that claimed responsibility for about a dozen bombings in the US, and who appears to be a peripheral acquaintance of Obama’s in Chicago.

If the McCain campaign does move into this ‘guilt by association’ territory, it will further take the election away from real problems. Such an attack approach could have some impact on voters, but it is likely to be limited. Obama has already been challenged on his questionable associations with his pastor Jeremiah Wright and others, and came out without too much damage. But as some Obama supporters will tell you in private, they are worried about the prospect of a personal-attacks campaign on their candidate. What his supporters’ anxieties reveal is a fear that they can’t trust working-class support for Obama – that the people are stupid enough to fall for an ‘October surprise’, race-baiting, or some other type of negative attack from Republicans.

In last week’s debate, Joe Biden said: ‘This is the most important election you will ever, ever have voted in, any of you, since 1932.’ It’s a sentiment that is widely expressed this year. But is it really ‘the most important election’? True, the country faces significant challenges, but it has in the past, too. Yet what really makes the claim of ‘the most important election’ seem so out of sync to my ears is the fact that the candidates’ campaigns are so removed from the pressing issues of the day. As their responses to the financial crisis showed, Obama and McCain seem small in relation to the tasks at hand.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Cordial but pointed, Palin and Biden Face Off, New York Times, 3 October 2008

(2) McCain seen as less likely to bring change, poll finds, New York Times, 18 September 2008

(3) See Real Clear Politics‘s poll of polls here.

(4) Hail Mary vs. Cool Barry, Washington Post, 3 October 2008

(5) Campaign trajectory remains unchanged, Politico, 3 October 2008

(6) Campaign trajectory remains unchanged, Politico, 3 October 2008

(7) Palin seizes on Obama’s Ayers ties, Washington Post, 5 October 2008

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Topics USA


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