Monday, October 13, 2008

John McCain's Moment, and the term "Radical"

The masquerade is over. The stealth candidacy has to come out from cover. It's time to talk issues; to use the dreaded "L" word; to say the policies of our opposition and the congressional leadership of his party are liberal, liberal, liberal.

... President Reagan, welcoming remarks at the Republican National Convention, 1988.

Michael Dukakis was the "stealth candidate" to which Reagan was referring. George H. W. Bush was the Republican nominee. If you read closely, the ACLU seemed to fill the role of ACORN. Other than that, President Bush today could give the same speech on behalf of John McCain.

Except, well, McCain will have to rely on himself.

As we know, John McCain recently bucked his own party by insisting at a town hall forum that Sen. Obama is "not an Arab", and then we have nothing to fear from an Obama presidency in that way. It was a good first stab, as Barack Obama's first remarks on the Rev. Wright controversy were a good first stab, but now McCain has to make clear what he really means -- and also, what he really means when he criticizes Obama as harshly as he does.

Such a message necessarily entails a lot of nuance, a certain amount of length, and some practiced rhetoric. He would be well advised to travel to a symbolic location and deliver a Major Address on civility in political discourse -- and tied to that, given the compressed calendar, he would have every right to include the real stakes in this election as he sees them.

It's hard to imagine McCain stirring all the necessary herbs and spices into Wednesday's debate, though he may well attempt that anyway. He could try to arrange a deferential interview with a well-respected reporter, or better yet, do it at the top of a press conference. Whatever the format, this is his only move to get back in this race, and it could work.

Unfortunately, he may not elect to do that. Early indications are that McCain may try to have his cake and eat it too -- make a few gestures of civility and repudiation, all the while employing surrogates and advertisements to do the exact opposite. This would fail mostly because it would be look hopelessly awkward.

One tempting window through which the McCain / Palin ticket could try to thread this needle is the term "radical".

3 a: marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional : extreme b: tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions c: of, relating to, or constituting a political group associated with views, practices, and policies of extreme change d: advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs radical<> (Mirriam Webster)

It is at least a matter of debate if this term properly defines Barack Obama. However, the term "radical" has more recently, even more frequently, been used as a noun to identify a person -- not someone who holds radical views, but someone who acts in a radical and dangerous fashion. Throwing bombs. Being a terrorist.

One can allege that Barack Obama holds radical liberal views, while at the same time implying that he could be personally dangerous. There are other linguistic tricks that can be and are being used to make this point, but "radical" seems to be the favorite, if one is inclined to fudge meanings.

The association with William Ayers doesn't help.

We've been trying to formulate something like this, but Clyde Wynant put it very well:

The Weathermen were a natural outgrowth of their time, a time when we were feeding our young men into the maw of a pointless, horrible war at an alarming rate. A war which took the lives of nearly 60-thousand American soldiers.

So it wasn't surprising that some people got together and thought, "Hey, this is wrong. Let's fight back." Many of them felt the same frustrations we all feel today. But unlike the complacent populace who voted for GWB 'cause they thought he'd be fun to drink with, these people put their lives and careers and futures on the line for a philosophical belief. Were they right or wrong?

That depends on your point of view. Much of the violence which bubbled to the surface during the 60's undoubtedly led to changes in our society. The war in Viet Nam was finally ended. The civil rights movement brought sweeping changes. As did the women's right movement and the nascent gay rights movement. Bottom line? While I don't condone what the Weather Underground did, they can't be as easily pigeon-holed as most would like. (2 Political Junkies)

That will either resonate or it won't. However, what about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Though merely an intellectual radical, doesn't that now make a radical sandwich?

Let's get real. If you are a liberal or a conservative, and if you are an intellectual, and ambitious, you should want nothing more than the opportunity to form relationships and share ideas with the most interesting and compelling liberal or conservative radicals of your age and ages past. Radicals are creative and challenging.

One should not take orders from them -- one should not be beholden to them -- and radicals probably should not be one's significant advisers. But if one gets a chance to learn from their experiences, pounce!

If Bill Ayers was that intolerable to society, he would be in prison somewhere or dead, not walking around Chicago. If Rev. Wright was that bad, he would not have built his church to a membership of 10,000. We must bear this in mind for radicals on both sides of the spectrum -- even as we bear in mind the length and the nature of these relationships.

No, none of this will do at this point. Sen. McCain has only one game-changer at his disposal. John McCain needs to be genuinely high-minded and do what he says he is doing. Then, he needs to portray Sen. Obama as a radical liberal -- that is, an extreme liberal -- too liberal for the country.

One thing he can do is assert that all liberals are too liberal. He can try to redo what both Ronald Reagan and trailblazing radical propagandist Rush Limbaugh did to liberalism 20 years ago. Any nod to the left became a slippery slope towards socialism. All liberal ideas have been exhausted, and they always fail.

The problem is, the center of the country senses intuitively that liberalism and conservatism are Yin and Yang -- both have something to say, and the two should remain in balance, at least over time. Furthermore, conservatism is the ideology that today seems tired and played out -- conservatism in excess has been recently perceived to fail.

Finally, the liberals may now have a Great Communicator of their own. If John McCain does engage this conversation -- which would be at once his smartest move, and the most courageous thing for his country -- Barack Obama would answer back. And unfortunately for Mr. McCain, there is very little in Obama's record as a public official, in the programs he is proposing, and in his rhetoric and temperament to suggest he is a wild-eyed extremist.

Obama is simply a center-left liberal, and that's okay. Mainstream America is ready at this point in its history to welcome a liberal President with open arms and a huge sigh of relief.


  1. You know, the thing is, William Ayers is out in the open, as is Jeremiah Wright. And they're both fairly old. Sure they are both fairly unrepentant radicals, but they are past the days of wanting to take anything over. They agitate from the sidelines a bit, but I think they are past the time where they actually want to do something dramatic and stressful. It would be wonderful if these two guys were the worst thing America had to be worried about. But the deal Bush just cut with North Korea, for example, looks to me exactly like the deals Clinton used to cut with North Korea, the ones the Republican opposition would say were just Kim Jung Il tricks.

    Maybe we can send Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright over to North Korea.

  2. Don't get me started on Rev. Wright. We're not sending him anywhere.