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Eyes on the (yawn) prize

The biggest story coming from the campaign trail lately seems to be: Which candidate is more lackluster?
By STEVEN STARK  |  July 23, 2008


In the roughly two months since we’ve known the identity of both major party’s presumed nominees, a remarkable thing has happened: neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has done virtually anything to bolster his candidacy.

There is, in fact, a historical reason for this. Neither McCain nor Obama have much experience running a serious campaign against a member of the opposition party. And, wow, does it show.

Obama has little important, translatable electoral experience of any sort, running against Republicans included. In his one statewide Senate race in Illinois, his major GOP opponent had to drop out because of a scandal, only to be replaced by carpetbagger Alan Keyes, a man even Republicans can’t stand. Though it was a landslide victory, Obama arguably won by default.

McCain may be the candidate of experience in this election, but that know-how doesn’t extend to facing off against a Democrat. He first won election to the Senate in 1986 against a relative unknown (he might have gotten a tough race from Bruce Babbitt, but Babbitt declined to run), and he’s faced only token opposition ever since.

Having a general-election novice as a presidential nominee is a relatively rare occurrence. The last two nominees who had such similar inexperience were Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Though both had faced tough primaries before running for president, neither had ever faced a bruising competition with a typical Republican. That helps explain why both ran general-election campaigns in which they marched steadily backward — as McCain and Obama have appeared to do so far.

For his part, McCain can’t seem to get traction, as he wanders from town meeting to town meeting, trying to attract a crowd and media coverage. If age is indeed one of his major liabilities, the fact that he can’t even get on the national radar screen seems to make him more ancient by the day.

Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, has been so lackluster that he’s taken a page from the playbooks of unpopular presidents by going abroad so that he can receive acclaim. (That, at least, seems to be working, but it’s a short-term fix.) And in the past eight weeks, the candidate who once promised to change our politics has begun to cement the impression among voters that he will take any position to get elected. That’s a big step in the wrong direction.

The tedious two
More bad news for Obama comes in the form of political humor. First he showed a very thin skin in how he reacted to the caricature cover of the New Yorker magazine, which depicted him and his wife as Islamic terrorists. Then humorist Andy Borowitz passed around this joke:

Barack Obama and a kangaroo pull up to a gas station. The gas-station attendant takes one look at the kangaroo and says, ‘You know, we don’t get many kangaroos here.’ Barack Obama replies, ‘At these prices, I’m not surprised. That’s why we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.’

There’s insight in humor. The image of Obama that emerges in these and other similar jokes is that of a boring, lecturing, policy drone. These traits may help you get elected president of the Harvard Law Review, but they don’t get you elected president of the United States.

The presidency is still a kind of four-year television series, with the chief executive in the starring role. Yes, executive and international experience count. But what may count more is whether voters think they can live comfortably with this character coming into their living rooms and bedrooms night after night for four years. Obama has done little to make himself acceptable in this fashion.

How tedious has this campaign been so far? With the candidates doing so little of consequence, the press has been reduced to endlessly speculating about vice-presidential choices. (I’ve written three such pieces myself!) Or they’ve pounced on the remarks of such surrogate mediocrities as Wesley Clark and Phil Gramm who, last anyone looked, were pretty much complete failures when they sought national office themselves.

Recently, some expressed surprise that McCain has chosen so far not to campaign on weekends, and that Obama had enough free time one day this past week to spend three hours exercising in a gym. Yet out of sight means out of mind. The way these two are campaigning, the more days they spend away from the public eye the better off they will be. May the least lackluster campaign win.


Odds: 6-7 | this past week: same
Odds: 7-6 | this past week: same

To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to Steven Stark can be reached

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