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Archive for Sunday, October 26, 2008

Obama, McCain should elevate rhetoric

October 26, 2008

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Here's a thought that goes against every political orthodoxy ever expressed: The last 10 days of a presidential campaign are not a time to run for office, but to run for history.

Why say such a thing - why suggest an uplifting, thoughtful campaign style thoroughly at odds with the political playbook - at a time when the outcome of the election still isn't known?

Because despite what the pollsters and commentators tell you, it is inconceivable that there are many (if any) undecided voters left, and as a consequence there are few (if any) swing states left. We're accustomed to close elections - the last two have been within democracy's margin of error - and so the temptation is to press for every last advantage, and to air every last swipe at the opposition.

Make spring positive

So this is an argument to turn all known election strategy on its head. In fact, it's a plea for each nominee to run the final sprint as if he knows he is going to lose, not as if he thinks he might win.

Such an outlook would completely transform the final breaths of the campaign. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona wouldn't run as blunt instruments of attack but as reflective critics of the country, of its culture and its place among nations. Running as if they are about to lose means they would run so that history remembered them as smart, civil, worthy and sound.

Only once in recent times has a candidate tried that. It was Walter F. Mondale, and he had been around politics long enough to know, in October 1984, that nothing he could do would break up the country's dewy dawn-in-America romance with Ronald Reagan. So at the very end he ran not as the candidate the consultants had shaped, and not as the candidate for whom his strategy was built.

He ran, finally, as Walter Mondale of Elmore, Minn., the preacher's son, and anyone who was in the crowd in tiny Canton, Mo. (population 2,545), hard by Bud Miller's Chevrolet-Olds dealership and the Sears catalog store, will remember a man who seemed liberated, honest, refreshed - and refreshing. He was angry, to be sure - about the plight of the poor, about how the culture had been shaped to the will of the rich - but he was at peace, comfortable talking about compassion and caring for the neighbors. It is possible that the most thrilling moments of the nearly two-year presidential campaign of Mondale came when the presidency was finally beyond his reach.

No second chances

Now, not later, is the time for Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama to worry about their legacies. If they lose, and one of these men will, there will be no second chance. McCain is too old to run for a first term in 2012, and Obama will be assailed as a politician who couldn't even win against the backdrop of a wildly uncertain economy, a deeply controversial war and a profoundly unpopular president. And isn't that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over there, waiting in the wings?

This would require a campaign so different in style and tone that the voters, stunned at the transformation, might actually listen and not turn away in frustration, and might actually change their minds based on the power of ideas and character.

In his brilliant new biography of Lester B. Pearson in Penguin's new Extraordinary Canadians series, Andrew Cohen cites a phrase that the former Canadian prime minister and diplomat liked to employ, which we might paraphrase for our purposes below the 49th parallel: This tactic might not assure that one of the candidates prevails, but it might prove that he deserved to prevail.

In truth, both of these men have it in them to conduct a campaign like this. These are two remarkable nominees, perhaps more remarkable than any set of major-party candidates to run for the White House in decades. America has had able presidents in the past half-century - George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton come to mind - but political figures like Bush and Clinton are the natural product of a politically fertile nation. Ronald Reagan, who preceded them both, will be remembered as a politician who changed the American conversation.

But as a pair of nominees, McCain and Obama may be the most remarkable since John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. There is no American story like McCain's, set for five years in privation in a faraway prison, except perhaps for the American story of Obama, with its roots in Kansas and Kenya and with chapters in Hawaii and Indonesia. They both represent change and hope. They both personify independence of perspective. They both would change how America looks abroad, and how Americans feel about themselves at home.

Remarkable race

It is a rich nation that offers up not one but two of them in one election. Contrast this year's candidates with, say, the unimpressive pair on offer in 1920 - Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox - at another important moment of departure when the country was coming of age.

But instead of a campaign worthy of themselves, McCain and Obama are running campaigns worthy of the wrestling ring and the mosh pit. It wasn't always that way, of course. Their early primary and caucus campaigns were genuinely inspiring, each in its own way, and offered important departures from the customary and the discredited. But now they are in the finals - the last round, you might say, before the championship game on Nov. 4 - and they are playing it in a way that is, sadly, both discredited and customary.

There is still time to retreat from all that, to let the better angels of their nature speak, to remind Americans that both nominees are, at base, men of great decency. This is one of those rare times when candidates not yet elected nor rejected can make a difference for the nation, and one of those rare times when their own interests and the country's converge.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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