Thursday, October 16, 2008

Shifting Paradigms in American Politics: Observations on Political Obfuscation and the Presidential Elections

Elections may be a time of fascination for anyone remotely interested in the world of politics and the wild scheming that accompanies this great game, perhaps one of the greatest of all human past-times. What we are observing is the modern expression of the ideal of the democratic process that the founding fathers of the Republic of the United States bestowed upon their fledgling nation with the establishment of their constitution. While the initial intent of the founders may have been subverted by the passage of time and the changing moral standards of the people, the great experiment that became America continues despite the greatest attempts by those who would see the Republic crumble under the weight of corruption and tyranny.

Illustration © by Ben Heine
So long as we remind ourselves of the difference between the idea of democracy today and the initial vision offered by the founding fathers it will be very easy to appreciate the importance of exercising that most sacred right of a citizen on the 4th of November: today it is the right of all citizens to vote, regardless of the colour of their skin, their sex, or even who they happen to worship while the original “democracy” was intended for white men; privileged land owners who controlled the laws of the land and the lives of those who were not considered to be fully on-par with whites by virtue of their skin colour. How much more can democracy have traveled in that the current front-runner in the campaign is a black man, a man who would not have even been counted as a “whole person” at the beginning of American history? Senator Barack Obama is not, however, a significant candidate solely because he is the first “black candidate”, or “African American” – he is not, the Communist Party of the United States nominated an African-American women named Angela Davis in 1980 as their candidate for Vice-President; Obama’s significance as a candidate stems from his deep understanding of the issues at play and the remarkable poise with which he has faced this marathon campaign.

While many people find politics to be something fascinating and rather like a spectator sport there are times when it seems to devolve into something more akin to a high-school popularity contest mated with a three-ring circus; the primary difference being the amount of money being spent by those involved and, ultimately, the prize awarded at the end of the contest. The invective comments that have been spewed of late by certain candidates demonstrates that the closer you get to the actual election the worse the rhetoric becomes as the desperation level is elevated to new heights.

Since there is no incumbent running in this election – for some odd reason Vice-President Dick Cheney did not decide to seek the position of President after his eight years in office – Senator John McCain finds himself in the unenviable position of inheriting the legacy of what many political analysts and historians have already described as being the worst president tenure of the 20th century, if not American history. McCain has no choice but to run on the record of the incumbent president, but cutting all ties with the Republican Party would be political suicide – even more so than tying himself to the record of George W. Bush. Sine the record of the present Republican administration has done such a stellar job, embroiling the nation in a war without a foreseeable end, a crushingly high unemployment rate, record job losses, a mortgage fiasco that may cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars with nary a chance of recovery and still result in a recession the likes of which has not been seen since the dark days following the market collapse of 1929, it only makes sense that John McCain would now – more than ever – want to show that he really is not completely aligned with President Bush and his policies. The truth, however, is much easier to see: after supporting the policies of President Bush – proudly – over 90% of the time during the past eight years McCain has demonstrated that he is much less of a Maverick and much more of one of the “good old boys” that he pretends to rail against when ranting about the ills of “the system”. This is the system that his top economic advisor, former Senator Phil Gramm, had a very large part in engineering. Is it any wonder that the Republicans would rather attack their opponents rather than face them on the issues? Senator McCain made the conscious choice of attacking Senator Obama on the most trivial of matters in the a desperate attempt to divert the public’s attention from the true issues at hand: the failure of the government of the past eight years – the Republican Presidency of George W. Bush – to effectively protect the American taxpayer from the unregulated greed of Wall Street and their lobbyists.

Once it became obvious that the call for “change” being heralded from the Obama camp was being taken up across the nation the McCain camp decided to recast their message to show that their candidate was the one that represented real change. Rather than facing the issues, rather than addressing things of substance, they worked on a slogan – a slogan that had already been in use by the other side. These are tactics to turn the attention of the people away from the fact that this is the same man who has been trying to distance himself from the record of President Bush while at the same time, during speeches to partisan crowds, McCain spoke proudly of his voting record over the two terms of President Bush; having voted for the things that have caused the problems currently plaguing the United States of America, including the mortgage scandal. John McCain has clearly demonstrated one thing about his abilities as a perspective leader and decision maker: he lacks the insight into issues that an American President requires in order to fully execute their responsibilities. He is also unable to consider an issue past the partisan politics that it may represent and the ways in which it will effect his own political future, despite his claims of “reaching across the aisle”; he also shows that he is not above overtly lying about what he, and others, have done in order to make it look as thought things “aren't as they seem”.

While the presence of rhetoric, particularly during a presidential election, will never be lacking, this present campaign seems to have been endowed with an extra-large and potent dose. Unfortunately, the quantity of the words being spouted does not necessarily equate to the quality of what is being said; or, for that matter, does it have anything to do with the veracity of the statements. As though any examples were needed, it only took the announcement of the running-mate by Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, to raise the level of rhetoric past the point of manic hysteria. The sudden injection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin into this political equation has, in effect, turned everything on its head. Could anyone have imagined that the selection of a running-mate after having only known her for a short period of time and having had a single thirty-minute meeting would have generated such a sense unease for so many and an upsurge in the lack of confidence of the Senator's choice and in his decision making abilities, not to mention his judgment?

This first executive decision, which McCain says he made with more than enough information to ensure that Governor Palin was the right choice for the job and is not only qualified to serve as the Vice-President, but is also more than prepared to serve as President should something happen to him during his term as president demonstrates a clear disconnection with reality. He is completely confident in his choice, confident that Governor Palin is capable of running the nation, and yet the nation has barely had a chance to hear her speak outside of the campaign trail save for a few interviews. Since her acceptance of the nomination it hardly seems odd that even with the support of Senator McCain and several other Republicans Governor Palin has been under a state of constant attack from certain elements of the media; could this be explained, in part, because of the McCain campaigns extreme restrictions on what the Governor can say, and to whom she can speak? Having the press take pictures while the candidate sits with foreign dignitaries but refuses to answer questions just does not generate a great deal of trust; we cannot read her mind, we need to hear what she has to say on the important issues.

Of course, once the public has an opportunity to properly investigate Governor Palin through the same process that Senators McCain, Obama, and Biden have been through – scores of print, radio and television interviews – the citizens will have had the opportunity to judge her in the same light that the other three have been judged, based on their own words, measured against what they say and what their records reflect. When you have an opportunity to truly see where a politician stands on every aspect of their platform it is much easier to decide whether or not you will support them or not; this has not been possible with Governor Palin, especially with the way the “Straight Talk Express” has been handling her every move since the convention. When the campaign has permitted interviews they have been turned into catastrophic events due entirely to the candidate herself; not knowing the “Bush Doctrine” and having an opinion on whether or not she supported it, misrepresenting the amount of energy that the State of Alaska produces – on numerous occasions, not knowing the names of foreign leaders, and not being able to cite a single United States Supreme Court decision with which she disagrees (aside from Roe v. Wade) does very little to help build one’s image in the eyes of the electorate. There is a difference between someone who is “plain-spoken” but knows what they are talking about and someone who is down-right “ignorant” and aspires to appeal to the “average Joe six-pack”; based on her interviews Governor Palin has been coming across as someone who simply does not know what she is talking about. She sounds more like someone repeating a carefully crafted script of party-line answers to standard issues without having a thorough understanding of the fundamental issue being discussed.

The McCain campaign’s answer to these missteps: It was the interviewer’s fault; they should not have asked such difficult questions. Now, it must be said – in defense of Governor Palin – that she may not be completely to blame here: after all, it has been reported that she is being coached by some of the same people that coached George W. Bush before his debates with Al Gore. Considering the past eight years of having George W. Bush as the model for America's children (and, apparently, some of her adults as well), the idea that mediocrity should be something to be attained rather than surpassed seems to have entered the consciousness of the American psyche to the extent that there are many people who actually aspire to achieve as little as possible, believing that they will ultimately succeed in life simply because they are “good” people and therefore “deserve” to be rewarded out of the general benevolence of the world in which they live. In reality, this is merely a contemporary bastardization of the old idea that “ignorance is bliss”, whereas now we have many individuals who are, in effect, “blissfully ignorant”.

Without regard for what is being reported and believing that the main stream media is entirely biased against the Republican message and, therefore, must not be trusted, those in support of the Republican ticket seem to be turning to “alternative” news sources, without bothering to listen to anything that has substance behind it or any basis in fact. They look at the “news” as something that is barely a step above a reality show being broadcast on television, the only difference being that the news directors are unable to create the most violent acts ... at least, not yet. The most sensational stories capture the imaginations – and attentions – of those tuning in, and the same goes with the coverage of the political sphere; does it matter what the truth is behind the story or is the “sound bite”, usually taken out of context, more important? In an election year where the McCain-Palin ticket has complained about impartial media coverage it is interesting to survey the viewing on the Fox network. One could well call it the Republican National Network without much of a stretch of the imagination. Rupert K. Murdoch is not apologetic for his support of right-wing candidates and issues, but to then call his news channel “Fair and Balanced” is, in a word, ridiculous. True, there are dissenting views represented on the Fox network, but they are made to be caricatures of their ideals by their own colleagues, ridiculed for adhering to views that are so “un-American”.

The primary theme of the McCain-Palin campaign, rather than focusing on any of the issues facing the nation, or the economic crisis that could paralyze the country, or the war in Iraq, has been a string of lies and personal attacks on the character of Senator Barack Obama. At the beginning of the campaign his faith was questioned, if not by the candidates themselves then by the friendly – and helpful – folks at Fox Noise, repeatedly referring to him as a Muslim, even when there is more than ample proof to demonstrate that he is a true believer and a devout Christian. One might ask of Senator McCain, would a true Christian attack another, or allow attacks on another, knowing them to be false, accusing them of being a Muslim ... no, I didn't think so either. Obama and his wife were accused, by commentators on Fox News, of being a part of some sort of underground Muslim group because of the “fist” greeting they shared onstage at some event; proof that if a commentator has nothing relevant to say at Fox they will not be deterred, they will spew out anything they can in order to assist their candidate on his quest for the White House. This “innocent” comment aroused heated debate regarding Senator Obama’s patriotism, his fitness for office, and many other irrelevant issues that all served to distract from the true issues of the campaign.

Now, thanks to the level of the invective rhetoric and outright misinformation that has been spread by the opposition campaigns there have been calls for the killing of Obama at McCain-Palin rallies while others shout out that the “real Obama” is a “terrorist” because of the fact that he served on a public housing board in Chicago – with both Republicans and Democrats – and William Ayres, who had committed acts of domestic terrorism back in the 1960’s ... when Obama was EIGHT years old. As a result of the fear-mongering that Senator McCain has fomented he was forced to tell one of his own rallies that they “had nothing to fear” from an Obama presidency and that “Obama was a decent man”. McCain was booed by his own supporters for these comments, the people just did not want to hear that they should not distrust this black man with the odd-sounding name – after all, it does sound an awful lot like “Osama” ... it was even printed that way (by mistake) on 300 advance poll ballots in the State of New York. Barack Hussein Osama – Obama. Having a Sherriff, in uniform, introducing Governor Palin at an event where he used Senator Obama's full name – including the middle name, Hussein, was clearly inflammatory, and the result was clearly effective: many of those entering a McCain rally, when asked, indicated that they believe that Barack Obama was “a Muslim” and could not be trusted – or that he was a “traitor”.

He has been described as a “Manchurian” candidate by some, though one would think that supporters of McCain would want to avoid that inference given the fact that it was their guy who spent five years in Hanoi with the North Vietnamese; if anyone is a “Manchurian” candidate his name is Senator John McCain. It is a well known historical fact that he decided to pursue his career in politics after his father died – being the son of a full Admiral was apparently a burden for the war hero and his true ambitions, but surely his desire to serve his nation in any capacity would have been acceptable to Admiral McCain ... unless the North Vietnamese were using him to get information while he remained in the military. Once his usefulness was over (once access to the Admiral was gone) there was no need to remain where he was and his political path began. [You see – that is how easy it is to manufacture this fiction – forty-five seconds and there you have it, the Manchurian background to Senator McCain ... if anyone is interested I will provide an appropriate background from the prison – the making of the candidate – leave a request in the comments.]

The manipulation of what his opponent has said and the outright lying whenever it is convenient seems to have become standard policy for the McCain-Palin ticket. Rather than projecting an image of respectability and true honour they have stooped to the level of those who have no discernable moral compass. It is certainly not the image that one would expect to find from people professing to be Christians, individuals seeking the trust of their fellow citizens as they seek the highest offices of the land: their actions speak much louder than their words. When Senator Obama commented on the McCain economic plan and said that it was like “putting lipstick on a pig”, the title of a book by a Republican strategist and a phrase used by McCain himself, the McCain campaign took those words and turned them around, claiming that Obama had made the comment about Governor Palin. Even after demonstrating that this was false (something that should not have been necessary given the original context of the comment and the speech in which the comment was made), the ad ran showing that McCain and the Republican party have, in fact, not changed from the old style dirty tricks and smear tactics that have been present in their arsenal for generations of elections. The truth for the Republicans, alas, is only an optional concept; winning is all that matters.

When there are so many people that have virtually instant access to this thing called the Internet it takes a very brave individual to go onstage and lie in front of television cameras; for this reason alone we can have no doubt about the fortitude of John McCain. During one of his speeches where he introduced Governor Palin as his new running mate McCain stated that Palin had put the Governor's jet on EBay and sold it for a profit. Well, that is only part of the story: this airplane was purchased with taxpayer's money so they deserve to hear the truth. The jet was listed on EBay – listed – not sold. Palin actually sold the jet through a private broker; there is nothing wrong with using a private broker to sell something, but it is not the same as selling on EBay and McCain should know better, not to mention the fact that Governor Palin has had numerous opportunities to correct her running mate but has not done so once. Rather than attempting to set the record straight she has allowed the lie to be repeated over and over, as well as the myth of the profits that were generated by this sale: rather than the mythical profit made through the EBay sale the jet was actually sold at a loss of several million dollars, not the glamour sale you will likely hear about from McCain-Palin though; in this case fiction makes for much better press, they do not want anyone to hear about their failures, only things that make them look good – regardless of the veracity of the story. On top of that little lie, her subsequent travel expenses have cost the Alaskan taxpayers over $400,000 (in only 20 months!), since she travels with the entire family ... that private jet (taking back the millions lost) is looking much better now, especially if you consider getting back that $400,000 for commercial travel and the millions lost in the sale of the jet. The operational cost of the private jet, being used as it had been initially intended, would likely have seemed far more economical when measured against such wasteful uses of taxpayer dollars, something that Governor Palin has said she is very much against. Not quite the same success story as before, is it, nor will you likely hear it coming from the McCain campaign.

When issues such as these untruths are raised, or issues surrounding the qualifications of Governor Palin to serve as Vice-President – or President should McCain die in office – are mentioned in the main stream media the reaction of the McCain-Palin ticket is quick and too the point, usually supported by their surrogate press-agency, Fox Noise: “the main stream media is controlled by the liberals and is biased against us” - and “we aren't getting fair coverage in this election”. When you consider that the McCain camp has virtually kept their VP nominee under lock and key since naming her, only allowing her to speak to a select group of interviewers under very controlled conditions, it is difficult to take these claims with anything less than a massive grain of salt: having observed the political coverage on several of the main stream media channels it is very easy to see that the Republican ticket is receiving its fair share of coverage. Is Senator Obama being mentioned more times than Senator McCain? I am not about to count the number of times that the two names are invoked at any particular time, but consider this: if a politician has something to say that is worth reporting there is a greater likelihood that this will be reported rather than having a long report about a stop in X-ville where the candidates delivered the same old stump speech for the umpteenth time; the news does not like “reruns”, it does not make for interesting reporting.

While complaining that the media is being unfair to them it would seem odd that Senator McCain would want to shoot himself in the foot with a cannon, but that is precisely what he did when he called up David Letterman and blatantly lied to him about his reasons for not being able to appear on his popular television show. The Late Show is taped in the early afternoon and Senator McCain was scheduled to appear but called Letterman to tell him that he had to return to Washington that very afternoon to help fix the economic crises. This was, in fact, another lie. While the show was being taped they found out that Senator McCain was in another CBS studio, taping an interview with Katie Couric; while some would argue that he wanted to avoid an appearance on a comedy show during an economic crisis, remember this, McCain appeared on the Conan O'Brien Show right after hurricane Katrina, and David Letterman has done serious interviews with people in the past when called for by the situation. Letterman was visibly annoyed with the fact that he had been lied to, particularly after McCain had used his program to launch his campaign – taking advantage of the 6 million regular viewers that tune in every night. As for the return to Washington, a one hour flight from New York, McCain was still in New York that night – speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative, and he was there the next day.

When he finally returned to Washington he dropped in at the end of the meeting with Secretary Paulson, said a few words about his own proposal (having indicated in an interview of a few days prior that he had not read Sec. Paulson's proposal) and then leaving. He then went to another campaign stop (during his now suspended campaign) and told them how important it was for him to get back to Washington so he could help fix the economic mess that he was now accusing Barack Obama and his “cronies” of causing. “Cronies”: McCain referring to Obama and “his” cronies. Now I am wondering if I have tuned into an episode of the Twilight Zone, or, even worse, if a psychotic episode is in the near future … I cannot imagine what could make someone who has spent the first part of this campaign taking aim at the “lack of experience” that Barack Obama has and his “lack of readiness” to serve as president has morphed their message into him suddenly having had enough experience to have “cronies” all of his own; this coming from a man who has spent the past twenty-five years in Washington calling himself a “deregulator” with great pride. When the proposal by Secretary Paulson contained no oversight it was, by the way, the Democrats that fought to ensure there would be an apparatus in place to help protect the taxpayer's money. The deregulations that Senator McCain is so proud of are a very key part to what led to the atmosphere that contributed to the economic crises facing the U.S. government, much to the chagrin of Senator McCain who is now being forced to face economic issues in this campaign for the first time.

If these actions sound like those of an honest, trustworthy politician, Senator McCain is your man, otherwise, you might want to find out some more about his opponent. There is no shame in being undecided when there is so much at stake for the nation and the people – especially the people. If you think that more of the fiscal management that has resulted in the country tottering on the brink of economic collapse is something that you want to see more of, there is a clear choice for you: the Republican ticket represents a continuation of that which has brought America and its economy to its knees. Accepting the idea that the Republican ticket represents real change must be seriously examined in light of the record of the past eight years and the nature of those involved. Governor Palin represents the extreme conservatism that the Republican base did not see in Senator McCain or the person who had been very prominent in his campaign before the selection of Governor Palin, Senator Joseph Liebermann. Governor Palin embodies the most extremist views of the Republicans, including those which the majority of women would find repugnant. The very idea that she was chosen to lure disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters away from Senator Obama, merely because they will have an opportunity to vote for a woman and thereby shatter the proverbial “glass ceiling”, clearly demonstrates the dim view the Republican strategists have of women: do they really believe that women are so shallow that they will choose to vote for an extreme conservative simply because they are female rather than supporting a candidate that shares their fundamental views, regardless of their sex or colour, who has not only been endorsed by their candidate of choice but by their own words and actions can be seen to be more concerned with women's issues than the female Republican Party’s candidate for Vice-President? The idea is, quite frankly, an insult to all women with even the slightest amount of intelligence and a modicum of personal integrity.

Accepting everything that is being said by any of these politicians is, in a word, silly; they each have their own agendas and their own desire to sit in the Oval Office, but we must still ask ourselves whether the words being spoken carry a hint of desperation and more than a little hysteria as one side seems to change their script from day to day. A political campaign should not mean that those involved cannot pursue their goals through honorable means; it simply means we must be careful as we listen to them, making sure that we are especially careful to discern the truth from the sweetened condiments added to make the messages more appealing for those who have not yet made their decisions. Election campaigns are not for the members of an individual party; those people will take very little convincing to vote for “their” candidate. Campaigns are for the much-coveted “undecided” voter and the “fence-sitter”, those who can still be swayed even up to the day of the election. These individuals will be watching everything from the way the candidate talks about their opponent to the way they tie their ties or wear their hair.

Ultimately, the decision that someone makes on November 4th will be guided by a set of priorities that each individual will have to assess on the basis of their own conscience. If honesty enters into the equation, however, and people force themselves to examine each candidate on the merits of their individual platform, without the filter of lies and obfuscations that the opposition uses to distract people from the real issues they may just discover something significant, perhaps the truth about the tax-plans from either candidate ... or the health-care platforms. In the first two Presidential Debates Senator McCain blatantly misrepresented Senator Obama's tax-plan and health-care plan, but he made the tactical error of doing so in an arena where his opponent was there to rebut his assertions. This left him standing there looking like an angry old man, impotent with rage at the realization that his attack had been foiled yet again by this young upstart; but that, Senator McCain must be reminding himself more and more these days, is the name of this game called politics.

For those of us less inclined to call politics a game, to those who see the ramifications of such elections extending far beyond the borders of the United States, Senator McCain’s actions indeed leave the impression of an angry old man shouting at the children who have wandered into his yard, but also of one who has altogether lost the plot and is stumbling around, unable to find his way in the dark.

1 comment:

Burr Deming said...

The incident you pointed out in which McCain calmed his supporters, was a touch of class.

To be balanced, there have been moments that lend a touch of class to the McCain campaign, but only moments and only a touch.