Party of One

The impetuous young man threw the long ball, suspending his campaign and flying to Washington to save the day. The more measured and less excitable older man said easy does it, let’s unite and issue a statement together. The young man seemed decisive if tightly wound, the older man unruffled, if cloudier in his remarks.

Barack ObamaWait, I have it wrong, it’s the older man who was dramatic and impetuous, the younger man who was deliberative and temperate!

What a week, with all categories upside-down and out the window.

How does the McCain gambit play out? Nothing wrong with his decision: We are in a crisis, why not return to Washington and try to help? But it’s also true that in moving unilaterally, and claiming at the same time he was just trying to make things less tackily political, he made things more political, or rather more partisan.

Was it too cute? I don’t know. Not sure at the end of the day it will matter. But cute isn’t precisely what a great nation needs in a moment of crisis. Bipartisan spirit would be more reassuring.

John McCain’s camp is playing a tough, hard, daring game.
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Those who thought exhausted Republicans were out of strategy, and would not be hungry and resourceful, were wrong. You can see this in the sudden suspension of the campaign, but you can also see it in Mr. McCain’s embrace of an attitudinal populism. He is now, with Sarah Palin holding down his right flank, kicking away from a party whose brand has been dragged into the mud. And so: Democrat Andrew Cuomo for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Current SEC chairman Chris Cox, the highly respected and longtime conservative player, is thrown over the side. There’s a general damning of the Washington (read: Republican) establishment. And a daring declaration of war on the mainstream media, taking on the New York Times frontally on the issue of bias. (Old reality: “Never have a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” New reality: The old information monopoly is over, the age of the Internet is the age of freelance surrogates, of pixel-packing mamas who’ll answer any and every political charge.) Mr. McCain is talking about omnibus immigration reform on the trail; he no longer finesses or glides past it. The McCain campaign is kicking away from the conservative establishment, to the extent it was ever with that establishment, as it grabs for the independent vote, the middle.

This is very McCainian. It’s the story of his career, the story of McCain-Feingold, the story of his bracing, intellectually unwhole, go-it-your-own independence. And it may be the way to win. In terms of the media, it’s daring, but in terms of conservatism, and the Conservative Thinkosphere of the Net and editorial pages, it seems to me breathtaking. George Bush senior couldn’t ignore the Thinkosphere, he tried to placate it. Bush junior tried to own it. Ronald Reagan handled it, but with the light touch of one who was of them, who read Human Events, and liked conservative thinkers.

I agree with the cliché that when the issue is the economy, voters have a greater tendency to turn to the Democrats. The economy is a Democratic issue. But I am not at all certain that this is benefiting Barack Obama. The polls are dead even. This is astounding. The Democrat, after two wars and an unprecedented economic crisis, should be 10 or 20 points up right now. The polls say Mr. Obama is rising, but if he’s not sweeping now, he’s losing.

Here I think is a central problem. I don’t think voters see Mr. Obama as “the Democrat.” I think they see him as Obama—unusual, singular. He’s not your basic Dem, he’s his own phenomenon, his own distinctive and, in a way, partyless self. “I am one of you,” said the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But Mr. Obama doesn’t carry that vibration, or fit into the old categories. Is he a lunch-pail Dem? No. Old-time big-city ethnic Dem? Southern Dem? Nah. He’s new, young, and still exotic. He’s cerebral, urbane, detached. I suspect he picked Joe Biden in part because Mr. Biden is part of the Democratic brand in a way Mr. Obama isn’t.

What should he do? The answer to that is connected to another question. It is: Isn’t it odd, and discomfiting, that we know so little about how each candidate thinks? What his philosophy is? We know their specific stands, but as to how they think, Mr. McCain often seems to be making it up as he goes along, and Mr. Obama often seems to be concealing it.

Here’s a way to reveal more. Mr. Obama should give a series of speeches on “Why I am a Democrat.” What does he think it means to be a Democrat? What is the Democratic Party, what is its role and purpose in America’s political life? What does it exist to do? Why does it matter?

For Mr. Obama this might have the virtue of associating himself with an old brand, as they say, which might make him look less alone up there. It might help him speak to and persuade older working-class and middle-class Democrats, especially women. But more important, it might make how and what he thinks clearer to everyone, to all voters.

I think Mr. McCain should do the same. Why is he a Republican? What does it mean to be a Republican? Why didn’t he become a moderate Democrat when he came back from Vietnam? We know his stands and strategies, but not, really, his philosophy.

As for Sarah Palin, the McCain campaign continues to make mistakes. They don’t seem to understand her strengths and weaknesses. The U.N. photo-ops were a staged embarrassment. Keeping the press away made her look infantilized. When she finally began to sit for television interviews, the atmosphere was heightened, every misstep magnified. With Katie Couric she seemed rattled. In the Charlie Gibson interview it was not good when she sounded chirpy discussing possible war with Russia. One should not chirp about such things. Or one wouldn’t if one knew the implications. And knowing the implications is part of what we hire leaders for.

Mrs. Palin is a two-term mayor and has two years as a governor of an American state. She is well-liked and highly regarded back home. She rose for a reason. She has to show America what she showed Alaska.

It is true that the mainstream press, in interviews, will tend toward muted hostility. That’s life for Republicans. But it’s also part and parcel of the game and its requirements. Mrs. Palin gave a great speech at the Republican convention, and has roused crowds since. But there is much about her we do not know. Are her impulses, in terms of foreign policy, Reaganite or Bushian? Is she of the realist school, is she a neoconservative, does she see such a distinction? How does she see the world?

Mrs. Palin is charming, bright and strong enough to be a social conservative in a world whose establishments don’t love social conservatism. But she is still a largely unknown quantity in terms of how she thinks, what she thinks, and who she is. And voters must be able to judge these things, because she is running for Heartbeat Away.

She might give thought to “Why I am a Republican” too.