Irregular Thoughts

Unusual thoughts on curious things, posted on occasion
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MAY 1, 2008 11:16AM

Entirely about character

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The usually astute Paul Krugman seems not to realize that, when it comes to Obama v. Clinton, he's fighting both the old and the wrong wars.  Says Krugman:

Obama is still the clear favorite for the nomination. But if he is the nominee, and runs this way in the general election — if it’s about the candidate’s awesomeness, not about why progressive policies make peoples’ lives better — it’s a formula for defeat.

Krugman is commenting on Walter Shaprio's insightful commentary on the Obama-Clinton stalemate, in which Shapiro argues that Obama's appeal boils down to a rather mushy "feeling" (about Obama, about the US, about politics, about everything) rather than to his substantive platform.  Krugman (and Shapiro, too, I think) misses two points.

  1. The old war: U.S. presidential campaigns  these days, for a laundry list of tragic reasons--including a corrupt media culture, a popular culture which is hostile to authentic political life, and the bumbling of ineptitude of progressive leadership--aren't really run on "the issues."  They're run on the perception of personality (and not character, which is something else altogether).  That is, they're run on the extent to which a political figure becomes alive in the collective psyche of the electorate.  This explains why the Republicans since Nixon have run ciphers whose principal virtue is that they have no real character of their own.  This is a twisted form of political life, but it's the world we're living in, and if we want to pry the levers of power away from the mortifying clutches of Cheney and his ilk, we need to play to win.
  2. The wrong war: It's worth recalling that the difference between Clinton's platform and Obama's is vanishingly small, especially as compared with McCain's.  It seems to me that the Dem contenders have pretty much exhausted "the issues," and now they're arguing mainly about electoral sex appeal.  Well, I suppose they feel like they have to keep talking about something, but I frankly haven't heard much substantive from any campaign since Edwards left the race.  So let them talk.  To the extent that the issues carry real weight in electoral decisions (and I think they do carry some), we shouldn't expect to see much real debate until after the Dems have chosen their champion for 2008.  Until then, it's only natural that the Dems will squabble about marginal topics.

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I think the November elections will come down to this:

If the Democrats successfully tie John McCain to George Bush and his thoroughly unpopular policies, McCain will lose. It's that simple. Show just how completely a McCain administration will be a continuation of Bush's, and the Democrats will win.

I'm not saying it will be easy, mind you, because the MSM is quite resistant to this notion and it's long term ramifications, but that's the task at hand.
I hope I NEVER hear "character" in an election again as long as I live. What emerges as "character" in an election is a) a running total of the number of times one side has called each other -- or preferably, how much someone else not directly tied to the campaign has called the names. The person who has been called the most names loses because they have "bad character." Nonsense, of course. Or b) "character" means nothing much at all. "Character" means a lot in life. But our political campaigns take place in a dream world. George Bush dolls were constructed by the media in 2000. Those dolls had character. They were squinty frontiersmen.
I'm for the woman who stands up there, again and again, and describes what she wants to do. Character can bite my behind. It's just blather and spin. "Character" gets oppo researchers looking into your pastor's words for 20 years, looking for something to spin.
@Jim H

You're entirely right, of course. That's what the word character has come to mean, at least in the context of national elections.

I refuse to cede the idea of character, though. Pretty much my entire gripe with Bush is that he lacks it. He's a shallow, infantile, fatuous brat--and that fact explains everything that he's done and left undone. Occam's Razor.

But then, if the word character is tainted, what should we call that inner quality of a person which is simultaneously his/her personality and strength?