Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Both presidential nominees and the American people failed to follow the typical script for the first presidential debate on Friday night -- to all their credit. Usually, an hour-and-a-half of policy talk ends up being reduced to a four-word slam, a grimace, a gaffe, a gesture. This time, the debate about the debate, the analysis of ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk, ended up being about the ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk.
This news was particularly welcome because both candidates’ behavior was disappointing in the two weeks leading up to the debate. During the week of the financial meltdown, as Washington insiders ranging from the former Wall Street titan Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to the crusading liberal Congressman Barney Frank cooperated with each other seeking a bailout, the candidates acted ridiculous. Here was a leadership opportunity for both Barack Obama and John McCain. Either of them could have risen to the challenge, offering a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the problem – and proposing a creative solution to the troubles of both Wall Street and Main Street. Instead, both offered simplistic, idiotic, demagogic postures scapegoating Wall Street -- and the other guy.
Both needed to start with some risky, bipartisan criticism. Democratic Senators such as Chris Dodd and Charles Schumer, who happily took millions from lobbyists and bankers to protect Wall Street’s and the two Freddies’ interests, are as responsible for the lax federal oversight as the most ideological anti-big-government Bushies. Had either candidate pointed out the sinners in his own party as well as in the other party, had either then worked with the financial whiz kids surrounding each campaign to present a bold solution, the American people would have cheered enthusiastically. Instead, both abdicated, allowing the leadership and statesmanship to come from the White House, the Federal Reserve Bank, and Capitol Hill.
By week two, when both helped improve the bailout package, Senator McCain stood out as a particular bumbler. Attempting to appear bipartisan, he announced he was suspending his campaign and wanted to cancel the debate to avoid playing politics at a time like this. Obama wisely held his ground, insisting on showing up for what could have been a ninety-minute televised freebie on all the major networks. There was no reason why McCain could not take time at 9 PM on a Friday to address the American people. American democracy puts a premium on sticking to its quadrennial presidential electoral timetable. If Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could run for reelection during the Civil War and World War II respectively, John McCain could show up to debate. Fortunately, for his sake and for history, McCain came to his senses, hid behind the figleaf of “progress” on the bailout talks, and showed up.
The results were impressive. While neither delivered a memorable line or a knock-out punch, both acquitted themselves honorably. John McCain was dominant, especially in the second, foreign-policy-oriented, half. He showed he was vigorous and fast on his feet, not at all the plodding septuagenarian he appeared to be during the summer. Barack Obama was equally impressive, refusing to concede or be cowed by McCain’s body blows. In fighting the older, more experienced foreign policy expert to a draw in the debate devoted to foreign policy, Obama repeated John Kennedy’s accomplishment in simply sharing the stage and appearing to be the equal of his better-known and more experienced rival Richard Nixon in 1960 (although in that case, Kennedy and Nixon actually were peers; it was just Nixon’s eight years as Vice President that set the two apart so dramatically).
The American people gained by watching such a substantive discussion by two clearly talented candidates during a crisis. It was instructive to see where the candidates agreed as much as where they disagreed. Both candidates’ horror at the thought of a nuclear Iran, their criticism of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, their concern over the excesses of Wall Street, demonstrated a common “Main Street” sensibility. The two candidates’ clashes, particularly about the Iraq war, revealed that the American people have a clear and significant choice to make in November. Here, McCain was particularly strong, having been vindicated by the surge. Obama faltered, trying to repudiate the Iraq invasion without disrespecting the troops.
The first debate may not have ensured a victory for either candidate but it may have helped Americans realize that regardless of who wins in November, the new president will be smart, sincere, and ready to lead.
And if we think over the history of debates, the moments are frequently one-liners, and sometimes mere gestures. Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter with just four words in 1980 – “there you go again” – and took a few more to dispatch Walter Mondale four years later, when the aging president promised not to make an issue of the Democratic challenger’s (younger) age. On the down side, Gerald Ford rhetorically liberated Eastern Europe with an ill-considered phrase in 1976 – thus reinforcing the Saturday Night Live-fed stereotype that this Yale-educated lawyer was a dummy. And Al Gore may have lost the presidency in the excruciatingly close 2000 race because of a few unfortunate winces and sighs that seemed to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward his rival George W. Bush. Of course, Papa Bush in 1992 was partially defeated by a sidelong glance – at his watch – during a debate, supposedly telegraphing impatience with the proceedings and disrespect for the American people.
So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website www.moderometer.com to assess how moderate the various statements are).
Still, like a young kid watching a pitcher’s duel on a long summer afternoon, I and most other viewers will be enduring the back and forths, waiting for the big moment. But unlike in baseball, we may not even realize the import of a particular gesture, clash, gaffe or put down, until later, When President Ford misspoke in 1976 about the relative freedom of Eastern Europe, few people watching reacted initially. In fact, afterwards, most people surveyed said Ford had won that debate against Carter. But some savvy reporters seized on the gaffe – and the networks starting replaying that one particular snippet. In the Gerald Ford Presidential Library there are studies showing how with each turn of the news cycle – the “controversy” grew and Ford’s standing plummeted. Twenty-fours hours after the debate, the polls reversed and most Americans surveyed now perceived Jimmy Carter as the victor and Ford as the loser.
And that is the other duality most of us watching debates experience. We watch with our own eyes, listening with our own ears, assessing with our own particular balance sheets. But we will also be watching through the eyes of the media, seeing how reporters react and spin, knowing that their assessments will be so crucial in determining not just who wins the debates, but who wins the election.
The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event"nonpartisan." But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.
Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes. Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.
The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians. The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.
The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art. In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.
The candidates of 2008 seem to agree about one thing -- we need a change. Sen. Barack Obama is campaigning for "Change We Can Believe In," having defeated John Edwards, who cried "Join the Campaign to Change America," and Hillary Clinton, who insisted that she was "Ready for Change." Now, Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, has warned "the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd: Change is coming."
A promise to bring about "change" seems to be the most obvious campaign pledge: After all, most presidential campaigns are romantic quests promising salvation. And post-1960s Democrats have spoken of comprehensive change with particular zeal.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter rode a wave of Watergate disgust, promising "A Leader, for a Change." Eight years later, fighting Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984, Walter Mondale lost while proclaiming that "America Needs a Change." In an early example of the GOP shrewdly co-opting Democratic strategies, a retired Reagan gave his successor George H.W. Bush the slogan "We Are the Change" in 1988 and again in 1992. In the latter year, however, more Americans believed Bill Clinton, who proclaimed: "It's Time to Change America."
Before the 1960s, the word change was less popular -- and slogans were less existential. One of the most famous 19th-century slogans brusquely demanded, "Turn the Rascals Out," as reformers opposed Ulysses S. Grant's corrupt administration in 1872. Pro-administration Republicans simply responded: "Grant Us Another Term." During Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the slogan was more subtle, but still less global than today. In 1936, supporters of Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon opposed FDR's New Deal by shouting, "Let's Get Another Deck." Successful insurgents understand that calls to change work best when there's hope for improvement. In 1960, John F. Kennedy rejected the complacent Eisenhower years, vowing, "We Can Do Better."
Of course, some presidents have resisted calls for change. Fighting for reelection while fighting the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln modestly told his fellow Republicans in 1864 that it was "Not best to swap horses while crossing the river" of fraternal conflict. The phrase caught on as the incumbent's rallying cry: "Don't swap horses in midstream." In 1900, William McKinley's reelection plea, "Let Well Enough Alone," was even less grandiose. Nevertheless, from 1896 to 1900, McKinley boosted his electoral and popular vote totals, suggesting that you don't always need a good slogan to secure a great victory.
On this score, the two candidates – and their parties – pose an interesting contrast. Barack Obama and the Democrats seem to risk forgetting the lessons of 9/11. Democrats barely mentioned terrorism or 9/11 during their convention. Moreover, their disgust with George W. Bush’s policy has soured too many on the entire War against Terror while misleading them that Bush somehow triggered the troubles. Democrats must remember that al Qaida declared war on America during Bill Clinton’s enlightened reign, when America was actively seeking peace in the Middle East.
Republicans, on the other hand, cannot use the continuing threat of terrorism as an excuse to justify ignoring America’s economic, energy, and health crises. It is frustrating to watch as Republicans fail to encourage serious alternatives to oil, considering the estimated $700 billion America pumps annually into many oil-saturated, terrorist-friendly regimes. Welcome steps toward energy independence would change the geopolitical conditions that have financed terrorists.
Much of this debate centers on the tactical divide between relying on hard power versus soft power. Obama Democrats tend to trust soft power; McCaniac Republicans tend to reverse Winston Churchill's maxim, and frequently trust "war, war" over "Jaw, Jaw." Of course, an effective foreign policy requires a deft mix of soft and hard power, trusting diplomacy but being willing and ready to use force if necessary.
More broadly, this anniversary should compel both candidates to remember what unites them as Americans – in opposing terror and facing other challenges as well. Political campaigns emphasize the differences between candidates, creating a series of false contrasts. Just because John McCain is passionately anti-terror, Barack Obama is not pro-terror. Just because Barack Obama is in favor of preserving civil liberties even amid the terrorist threat, John McCain is not against civil liberties.
Even amid the presidential campaign tensions, both candidates should make sure to affirm their and their country’s consensus against terror and for civil liberties. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy – before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism – before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terror and cherishing the Constitution.
Sarah Palin’s rhetorical tour de force on Wednesday night energized the once-listless Republican convention – and may have spurred John McCain to give one of the best speeches of his life as well. McCain is not a natural. Unlike his Democratic rival, McCain is far better in informal back-and-forths with voters than with grand addresses in large settings. But it was clear that McCain felt vindicated by Palin’s success – after a week of naysaying that questioned his judgment along with her suitability – and pretty jazzed too. McCain also feels vindicated by his call for the surge against Iraq and his decades of fighting corruption, and based his appeal on his record not just of serving, but of being right and righteous.
While much of his acceptance speech was unexceptional, neither as soaring as Obama’s nor as fun as Pallin’s, McCain ended with a rousing call to Americans to fight for what’s right. Starting with a powerful recounting of his experiences as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam, saying that he learned from the traumas he endured to live for his country not just for himself, McCain called on his fellow Americans to learn the same lesson. Culminating with a patriotic haiku shouted above the cheers of his fellow Republicans, McCain cried: “Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.” Using the kind of rhetoric that usually sets foreign teeth on edge but Americans love, McCain ended saying: “We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.”
McCain’s speech, though less entertaining and memorable than Palin’s, offered an important balance to his running mate’s rhetoric. Underneath all Palin’s charm was an ugly, divisive call for Republicans to revive the Culture Wars of the last few decades. Her us versus them message, though gift-wrapped beautifully, may help Republicans win in 2008 but is not what America needs. Politically, it helped compensate for George W. Bush’s historic lows in the polls, and the perception that Republicans have no fresh solutions to the problems that have appeared on their watch. But it was the equivalent of the lawyer with a guilty client pounding the table passionately to compensate for the weakness of his case.
McCain’s speech reinforced the message that Republicans are patriots who serve, especially in the military, and Democrats are doubters who dodge. But McCain also elegantly saluted Barack Obama and the Democrats as “fellow Americans,” saying: “that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” McCain also called for an end to the “partisan rancor” that characterizes so much of contemporary politics. He used his running mate to emphasize his maverick status as a Washington outsider – and as someone not responsible for the Bush administration’s failures.
The election remains too close to call and will inevitably be fought passionately, and at times, viciously. But perhaps, just this once, Americans can be proud that they have such talented people vying to be their leaders. Perhaps, just this once, we can follow John McCain’s cue, and appreciate the common ideals that unite these leaders and their fellow citizens, even amid the hurly burly and hoopla of a presidential campaign.
Without trying to minimize the current tribulations of the hurricane-Gustav-tossed regions, and well-aware of the ongoing trauma of Katrina, it is nevertheless easy to mock the sick synergies between hysterical television reporters and posturing politicians on display this holiday weekend. Network anchors often seem downright disappointed when their exaggerated predictions of unprecedented storm damage so frequently are not met; and there are few scenes more cringe-inducing than a convention-hall filled with maudlin politicians trying to outdo each other sentimentally.
Moreover, the strategy worked. So far, the coverage of McCain and the Republicans has been rapturous. President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney ended up with golden excuses for keeping their low popularity ratings and toxic embrace of the McCain campaign thousands of miles away. And Cindy McCain was spared the humiliation of having her speech compared with Michelle Obama’s silky-smooth superb speech last week.
Less cynically, there is something unsettling about changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. In politics as in entertainment, the usual instinct is to insist that “the show must go on.” One of American democracy’s glories is that presidential elections have kept to their quadrennial cycle in good times and in bad, during civil war and world wars. Sticking to the routine despite disasters, be they natural or man-made, has great appeal. To start fiddling with the fundamentals of the American political system such as the party conventions unnerves the body politic.
Despite all these concerns, there is something profoundly moving about dramatically changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. McCain’s sacrifice – and losing four days of television coverage during such a tight race is a sacrifice – helps remind Americans that politics is about more than partisanship. McCain’s gesture – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars Republicans have been donating to flood relief at the convention – affirm that these disparate states remain united, that this country of 300 million people still has a sense of community.
One of the great secrets to American success has been American nationalism, this near magical ability to feel a sense of connection across this vast, diverse, continental empire. There is something delightfully old-fashioned about turning the Republican National Convention into what one Fox News anchor called yet another Labor Day telethon. Before pummeling each other politically, before even choosing a future leader, Americans sometimes need to stop what they are doing, roll up their sleeves, and work together to solve a problem. When people from all over the country gathering in Minneapolis feel the pain of their fellow citizens in New Orleans, America shows that it still works.
We need a politics that can accommodate that kind of communal cooperation even amid partisan combat. We need politicians who can build that sense of community and respond to national crises as national leaders, seeking what is best for our nation, not just for their party.
In fairness, Barack Obama and the Democrats have been equally gracious during this difficult, confusing weekend. But given that John McCain and the Republicans sacrificed more this week, they deserve all the more credit. This campaign has not always produced the kind of high-minded politics both Obama and McCain each have promised, at their respective bests. But this moment of inter-regional sensitivity, national sensibility, and human generosity should be remembered as a highlight, not only of this campaign but of this era, when our focus on individual differences and elite cynicism about nationalism tends to overlook the powerful positive forces keeping Americans together, forging the American nation.
Palin drew a line between those who serve in the army – and those who don’t, between those who live in the bicoastal bubble – and those who live in what she made clear was the real America. To appreciate her performance at its best, remember the angry harsh attacks Marilyn Quayle and Pat Buchanan launched in 1992. Palin was equally sharp but far less shrill. Lines about a candidate who has authored two memoirs about his life but authored no major law, about a small town mayor being like a community organizer – but with responsibility were zingers aimed directly at Barack Obama, delivered with a smile. In her ability to plunge the stiletto so deftly, and so delightfully, Sarah Palin channeled the great hero of depressed Republicans, Ronald Reagan.
Tonight was definitely a big win for Sarah Palin, for John McCain, and the GOP. Of course, the real question is – is this good for Am erica? Does America need another round of culture wars, even if delivered with a smile?I for one don’t think so and hope that this election will be fought about the problems we need to solve rather than the anxieties demagogues can stir.