Light posting this weekend, so here’s a big post to tide you over. As promised, it features some thoughts about the presidential candidates. Or really one thought, in particular. The thought that is causing quiet unease and gnashing of teeth in Democratic circles since Republican candidate John McCain’s decisive victory in the Florida primary. That thought is "Oh shit."
If the Republicans nominate John McCain, he will be the next president of the U.S. If I’m right about this (more on that later), it makes the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama kind of secondary. Now, of course I’m going to vote in the Democrats Abroad primary and I’m going to pick Obama. Not because I dislike Hillary, but because lots of other people do. Whether this is fair or not is beside the point — it’s true, and it will be a drag on her prospects for reasons Hilzoy explains here.
Why do I think John McCain will win? The conventional reasons are that he’s not insane, not incompetent, has huge name recognition (a key fact) because of his decades-long presence on the American political scene. He’s also intelligent, loved by the press, and viewed favorably by a majority of American voters. McCain is viewed as a moderate, which makes him a tempting choice for self-described "independents." Sure, the most conservative wing of the Republican party doesn’t like him, but once he’s the nominee, they’ll shut up and support him. They always have, and they will this time, too. That’s life in a winner-take-all two-party system.
Now on to the deeper reasons. During the general election this fall, ignorant people will be heard for the first time. Voters in presidential primaries are political junkies, but they make up only 3-4% of the population. During a general election, though, millions of people will vote who are almost completely ignorant of the political system and the details of both parties’ policy positions.
The personalities of the presidential candidates — and most definitely not the issues — will be a decisive factor for these voters. Northern Europeans often misunderstand American elections. Voters in places like Germany or Sweden are content to elect dull but competent technocrats, since governing, to them, is less taking the reins of destiny than competently managing a complex organization — the modern European welfare state. Large numbers of American voters, though, want to be entertained and inspired even, perhaps especially, by their politicians. So the questions become: Is the candidate likable? Does he seem trustworthy? Sincere? Inspiring? Decisive? Is there an exciting or unusual arc to his his life that would make me feel part of a wonderful story if I voted for him?
So now many of you are saying: yeah, but how about Obama and Hillary Clinton? First black or female president? What’s not exciting about that?
Nothing! But keep in mind the Lee Marvin effect. Imagine a spectrum. On the left end, you have effete, chain-smoking French intellectuals. Just to pick a name out of the blue, we’ll populate this end of the spectrum with Gilles "Plane of Immanence" Deleuze:
Not that I have anything against Deleuze, mind you — he just represents a certain approach to life that mainstream American voters have decided opinions about.
On the right hand of the spectrum, you have tough, decisive, virile, taciturn men of action. A man who doesn’t waste words or mince them, who doesn’t swan about, and who gets the damn job done. My pick would be Lee Marvin. I guess what I really mean is the kind of characters Lee Marvin played, but even in his private life, Lee Marvin’s seed was so desired by the womenfolk of his land that judges often had to sort things out:
Take all recent presidential elections, and locate the candidates on the Deleuze-Marvin spectrum. John Kerry failed to conceal the fact that he spoke French, so his placement is clear:
Now to Al Gore. Sure, his family came from Tennessee, but the man wrote books. About the environment. And sometimes even discussed foreign philosophers:
Clinton and Dole is pretty much a toss-up, I’d say. But Clinton-Bush I, no question. George H.W. Bush was tall, elegant, patrician, lived in a giant house in Maine, and liked the word "prudent." Bill Clinton grew up in a two-bit chicken shack in Arkansas (well, sort of), and spoke with an audible Southern accent. And, of course, his seed was also in high demand, at least in his eyes [revise!! — ed.]:
I hardly need to do the Reagan/Mondale and Bush I/Dukakis comparisons, do I?
A caveat or two. First, it’s not how close the candidate is to the Marvin end of the spectrum that’s particularly important, but where he is relative to the other candidate. This is why George Bush I, while clearly less Lee-Marvinesque than Bill Clinton nevertheless creamed the diminutive, squeaky-voiced technocrat Michael Dukakis, who might as well have campaigned while wearing a chamois beret and chain-smoking Gauloises from an onyx holder. The larger the distance between the candidates on the Deleuze/Marvin Spectrum the greater the advantage for the Marvinesque candidate. Other factors come into play only when the candidates are close.
Now, some of you are protesting: this is all so damned superficial! What about the economy? Iraq? The mortgage crisis? They will be important, but not decisive. People like me, who sit around and read books all day, we care about policy issues. But we’re freaks. The considerations that sway great masses of voters are superficial. They will pick the candidate they like and admire — someone who makes them feel part of a grand, inspiring narrative. They will pick John McCain.
That’s why I will hereby confidently predict that John McCain, if nominated, will beat either Clinton or Obama. I’m so confident I’ve put this prediction in bold type, and will leave it up until this November, come what may.
Why am I so confident? Because of the gigantic distance between John McCain and either Clinton or Obama on the Deleuze/Marvin spectrum. John McCain, you see, actually is Lee Marvin. No, wait, it’s even better than that — he’s the kind of man Lee Marvin only pretended to be. A patriotic Navy fighter pilot who spent five years being tortured by Communists! An ornery, confident maverick who says what he thinks and defies party orthodoxy to take independent stands when conscience compels him! A friendly, relaxed truth-teller who can tell a joke and honestly admits to (some of) his failings!
Are all these narratives 100% accurate? Of course not, but that’s beside the point. They are deeply-established, and will color every voter’s perception of McCain. Just as you do with anyone you like, voters who like him — and there are many of those — will fit any political missteps or blunders into an overarching narrative of likability. Occasional fits of rage? What do you expect from a decisive man of action? Doesn’t understand the economy? Sure, but neither do I. It reassures me to know the candidate’s a regular guy like me in some respects, and I’m sure he’ll pick good aides. Besides, he came right out and admitted it! When’s the last time a politician did that? Etc., etc., etc.
Barring some drastic turn in events, neither Hillary nor Obama will be able to hold a candle to McCain’s charisma. Hillary will seem too evasive and too studied, and besides, large numbers of Americans already think they know her, do not like her, and will not change their minds. Obama will seem embarrassingly fresh-faced and inexperienced next to McCain, and his "uniter, not a divider" message will be neutralized by McCain’s actual history of reaching across party lines on occasion.
The upside is that John McCain, whatever you think of his political views, is not a blundering amateur. Therefore, his presidency cannot but be a improvement over the status quo.