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McCain tossing Hail Marys while Obama uses Reagan playbook

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Charles Krauthammer
October 3, 2008
— Krauthammer’s Hail Mary Rule: You get only two per game. John McCain, unfortunately, has already thrown three. The first was his bet on the surge, a deep pass to David Petraeus who miraculously ran it all the way into the end zone.

Then, seeking a game-changer after the Democratic convention, McCain threw blind into the end zone to a waiting Sarah Palin. She caught the ball. Her subsequent fumbles have taken the sheen off of that play, but she nonetheless invaluably solidifies his Republican base.


When the financial crisis hit, McCain went razzle-dazzle again, suspending his campaign and declaring he’d stay away from the first presidential debate until the financial crisis was solved.


He tempted fate one time too many. After climbing up on his high horse, McCain had to climb down. The crisis unresolved, he showed up at the debate regardless, rather abjectly conceding Obama’s mocking retort that presidential candidates should be able to do “more than one thing at once.” (Although McCain might have pointed out that while he was trying to do two things, Obama was sitting on the sidelines doing one thing only: campaigning.)


You can’t blame McCain. In an election in which all the fundamentals are working for the opposition, he feels he has to keep throwing long in order to keep hope alive. Nonetheless, his frenetic improvisation has perversely (for him) framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.


In the primary campaign, Obama was cool as in hip. Now Obama is cool as in collected. He has the discipline to let slow and steady carry him to victory. He has not at all distinguished himself in this economic crisis—nor, one might add, in any other during his national career—but detachment has served him well.


He understands that this election, like the election of 1980, demands only one thing of the challenger: Make yourself acceptable.


Once Ronald Reagan convinced America that he was not menacing, he won in a landslide. If Obama convinces the electorate he is not too exotic or green or unprepared, he wins as well.


When after the Republican convention Obama’s poll numbers momentarily slipped behind McCain’s, panicked Democrats urged him to get mad. He did precisely the opposite. He got calm. He repositioned himself as ordinary, becoming the earnest factory-floor, coffee-shop, union-hall candidate.


In doing so, he continues his clever convention-speech pivot from primary to general election. In a crowded primary field in which he was the newcomer and the stranger, he rose above the crowd on pure special effects: dazzling rhetoric, natural charisma and a magic carpet ride of transcendence and hope.


It worked for two reasons: Democrats believe that nonsense, and he was new. But now he needs more than Democrats. And novelty fades.


Obama understood that the magic was wearing off and the audacity of hope wearing thin. Hence the self-denial perfectly personified in his acceptance speech in Denver. He could have had 80,000 people in rapture. Instead, he made himself prosaic, even pedestrian, going right to the general election audience to project himself as one of them.


Ordinariness was the theme. His self-told life story? Common man, hence that brazen introductory biopic that shamelessly skipped from Hawaii grade-schooler to Chicago community organizer with not a word about Columbia and Harvard. His riff on American concerns? All middle-class anxieties. His list of programs? All pitched as his middle-class remedies.


He’s been moderate in policy and temper ever since. His one goal: Pass the Reagan ’80 threshold. Be acceptable, be cool, be reassuring.


Part of reassurance is intellectual. Like Palin, he’s a rookie, but in his 19 months on the national stage he has achieved fluency in areas in which he has no experience. In the foreign policy debate with McCain, as in his July news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama held his own—fluid, familiar, and therefore plausibly presidential.


Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”


Obama has shown that he is a man of limited experience, questionable convictions, deeply troubling associations (Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Tony Rezko) and an alarming lack of self-definition—do you really know who he is and what he believes? Nonetheless, he’s got both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.


That will likely be enough to make him president.


Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

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