The Candidate We Still Don't Know
AS I went on vacation at the end of July, Barack Obama was leading John McCain by three to four percentage points in national polls. When I returned last week he still was. But lo and behold, a whole new plot twist had rolled off the bloviation assembly line in those intervening two weeks: Obama had lost the election!
The poor guy should be winning in a landslide against the despised party of Bush-Cheney, and he's not. He should be passing the 50 percent mark in polls, and he's not. He's been done in by that ad with Britney and Paris and by a new international crisis that allows McCain to again flex his Manchurian Candidate military cred. Let the neocons identify a new battleground for igniting World War III, whether Baghdad or Tehran or Moscow, and McCain gets with the program as if Angela Lansbury has just dealt him the Queen of Hearts.
Obama has also been defeated by racism (again). He can't connect and "close the deal" with ordinary Americans too doltish to comprehend a multicultural biography that includes what Cokie Roberts of ABC News has damned as the "foreign, exotic place" of Hawaii. As The Economist sums up the received wisdom, "lunch-pail Ohio Democrats" find Obama's ideas of change "airy-fairy" and are all asking, "Who on earth is this guy?"
It seems almost churlish to look at some actual facts. No presidential candidate was breaking the 50 percent mark in mid-August polls in 2004 or 2000. Obama's average lead of three to four points is marginally larger than both John Kerry's and Al Gore's leads then (each was winning by one point in Gallup surveys). Obama is also ahead of Ronald Reagan in mid-August 1980 (40 percent to Jimmy Carter's 46). At Pollster.com, which aggregates polls and gauges the electoral count, Obama as of Friday stood at 284 electoral votes, McCain at 169. That means McCain could win all 85 electoral votes in current toss-up states and still lose the election.
Yet surely, we keep hearing, Obama should be running away with the thing. Even Michael Dukakis was beating the first George Bush by 17 percentage points in the summer of 1988. Of course, were Obama ahead by 17 points today, the same prognosticators now fussing over his narrow lead would be predicting that the arrogant and presumptuous Obama was destined to squander that landslide on vacation and tank just like his hapless predecessor.
The truth is we have no idea what will happen in November. But for the sake of argument, let's posit that one thread of the Obama-is-doomed scenario is right: His lead should be huge in a year when the G.O.P. is in such disrepute that at least eight of the party's own senatorial incumbents are skipping their own convention, the fail-safe way to avoid being caught near the Larry Craig Memorial Men's Room at the Twin Cities airport.
So why isn't Obama romping? The obvious answer - and both the excessively genteel Obama campaign and a too-compliant press bear responsibility for it - is that the public doesn't know who on earth John McCain is. The most revealing poll this month by far is the Pew Research Center survey finding that 48 percent of Americans feel they're "hearing too much" about Obama. Pew found that only 26 percent feel that way about McCain, and that nearly 4 in 10 Americans feel they hear too little about him. It's past time for that pressing educational need to be met.
What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president's response to Katrina; he fought the "agents of intolerance" of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.
With the exception of McCain's imprisonment in Vietnam, every aspect of this profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct.
McCain never called for Donald Rumsfeld to be fired and didn't start criticizing the war plan until late August 2003, nearly four months after "Mission Accomplished." By then the growing insurgency was undeniable. On the day Hurricane Katrina hit, McCain laughed it up with the oblivious president at a birthday photo-op in Arizona. McCain didn't get to New Orleans for another six months and didn't sharply express public criticism of the Bush response to the calamity until this April, when he traveled to the Gulf Coast in desperate search of election-year pageantry surrounding him with black extras.
McCain long ago embraced the right's agents of intolerance, even spending months courting the Rev. John Hagee, whose fringe views about Roman Catholics and the Holocaust were known to anyone who can use the Internet. (Once the McCain campaign discovered YouTube, it ditched Hagee.) On Monday McCain is scheduled to appear at an Atlanta fund-raiser being promoted by Ralph Reed, who is not only the former aide de camp to one of the agents of intolerance McCain once vilified (Pat Robertson) but is also the former Abramoff acolyte showcased in McCain's own Senate investigation of Indian casino lobbying.
Though the McCain campaign announced a new no-lobbyists policy three months after The Washington Post's February report that lobbyists were "essentially running" the whole operation, the fact remains that McCain's top officials and fund-raisers have past financial ties to nearly every domestic and foreign flashpoint, from Fannie Mae to Blackwater to Ahmad Chalabi to the government of Georgia. No sooner does McCain flip-flop on oil drilling than a bevy of Hess Oil family members and executives, not to mention a lowly Hess office manager and his wife, each give a maximum $28,500 to the Republican Party.
While reporters at The Post and The New York Times have been vetting McCain, many others give him a free pass. Their default clichÃ© is to present him as the Old Faithful everyone already knows. They routinely salute his "independence," his "maverick image" and his "renegade reputation" - as the hackneyed script was reiterated by Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column last week. At Talking Points Memo, the essential blog vigilantly pursuing the McCain revelations often ignored elsewhere, Josh Marshall accurately observes that the Republican candidate is "graded on a curve."
Most Americans still don't know, as Marshall writes, that on the campaign trail "McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries' names wrong, forgets things he's said only hours or days before and is frequently just confused." Most Americans still don't know it is precisely for this reason that the McCain campaign has now shut down the press's previously unfettered access to the candidate on the Straight Talk Express.
To appreciate the discrepancy in what we know about McCain and Obama, merely look at the coverage of the potential first ladies. We have heard too much indeed about Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis, her pay raises at the University of Chicago hospital, her statement about being "proud" of her country and the false rumor of a video of her ranting about "whitey." But we still haven't been inside Cindy McCain's tax returns, all her multiple homes or private plane. The Los Angeles Times reported in June that Hensley & Company, the enormous beer distributorship she controls, "lobbies regulatory agencies on alcohol issues that involve public health and safety," in opposition to groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The McCain campaign told The Times that Mrs. McCain's future role in her beer empire won't be revealed before the election.
Some of those who know McCain best - Republicans - are tougher on him than the press is. Rita Hauser, who was a Bush financial chairwoman in New York in 2000 and served on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in the administration's first term, joined other players in the G.O.P. establishment in forming Republicans for Obama last week. Why? The leadership qualities she admires in Obama - temperament, sustained judgment, the ability to play well with others - are missing in McCain. "He doesn't listen carefully to people and make reasoned judgments," Hauser told me. "If John says â€˜I'm going with so and so,' you can't count on that the next morning," she complained, adding, "That's not the man we want for president."
McCain has even prompted alarms from the right's own favorite hit man du jour: Jerome Corsi, who Swift-boated John Kerry as co-author of "Unfit to Command" in 2004 and who is trying to do the same to Obama in his newly minted best seller, "The Obama Nation."
Corsi's writings have been repeatedly promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News; Corsi's publisher, Mary Matalin, has praised her author's "scholarship." If Republican warriors like Hannity and Matalin think so highly of Corsi's research into Obama, then perhaps we should take seriously Corsi's scholarship about McCain. In recent articles at worldnetdaily.com, Corsi has claimed (among other charges) that the McCain campaign received "strong" financial support from a "group tied to Al Qaeda" and that "McCain's personal fortune traces back to organized crime in Arizona."
As everyone says, polls are meaningless in the summers of election years. Especially this year, when there's one candidate whose real story has yet to be fully told.
Frank Rich is a columnist for The New York Times.
© 2008 The New York Times