Obama? McCain? I’m back on the fence.

Posted on Tuesday 9 September 2008

Update:  I’ve expanded on my rationale in a separate post at The Moderate Voice.

There’s been a lot of speculation (and angst) about the size and scope of McCain’s convention bounce.  If the blogosphere is any indication of the true state of things (and that’s a big “if”), Democrats are on the verge of panic and the Republicans are riding a swelling momentum tide.

What’s going on?  Is it just Sarah Palin?  Certainly that’s part of it, but there’s more to it than that — and if this Gallup poll is accurate, it looks to me as if Democrats have good reason to panic.  It seems that independents are starting to break toward John McCain.

PRINCETON, NJ — John McCain’s 6 percentage-point bounce in voter support spanning the Republican National Convention is largely explained by political independents shifting to him in fairly big numbers, from 40% pre-convention to 52% post-convention in Gallup Poll Daily tracking.

I suspect that Gallup poll is absolutely correct.  In fact, if they’d called me for their poll (nobody ever does), I’d have been one of the shifting numbers — because I can no longer say with any degree of confidence that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama.

David Brooks hits some of the reasons why in the NY Times:

Last winter, Barack Obama succeeded by running a weird campaign. He wasn’t just a normal politician aiming for office, he was going to cleanse the country of the baby-boom culture war mentality. In his soaring speeches, he denounced the mores of both the Clinton and Bush eras and made an argument for unity and hope over endless partisan warfare.

But over the course of the spring, Obama’s campaign got less weird. The crucial pivot came when he failed to seize on McCain’s offer to do a series of joint town-hall meetings across the country. Those meetings would have elevated the race and shown that Obama is willing to take risks in order to truly change the way things are done.

That’s true.  Those meetings would have been a radical departure from the partisan garbage.  But in and of itself, turning them down wasn’t a problem.  Obama would have been fine if he’d come out of the convention hitting the themes of this spring’s campaign.

But he hasn’t.  He’s sounding more and more like an ordinary Democrat — and ordinary is NOT what this election should be about.

Meanwhile, John McCain has tossed ordinary right out the window.

The old warrior jumped right in. Think about how weird last week was. The Republican convention was one long protest against the way the Republicans themselves have run Washington. McCain’s convention speech barely mentioned his own party. His vice-presidential nominee came out of the blue and seems totally unlike the regular crowd of former eighth-grade class presidents who normally dominate public life. McCain’s campaign ideology, exemplified in a new ad released on Monday, is not familiar conservatism. It’s maverickism — against the entrenched powers and party orthodoxies.

Obama supporters are hung up on Sarah Palin, and whether she is or is not everything the Republicans have presented.  Myself, I don’t think she is.  How could she be?  She’s the GOP’s very own Messiah.  But that’s totally beside the point in this context.

Independents — like Polimom — have had it with the same old sh..t (SOS). And just at the moment, only John McCain seems to have remembered that elections can’t be won without us.

Granted, some of the SOS is wrapped up with McCain, too.  I detest the hyper-nationalism, for instance — this holier-than-thou approach to foreign policy and the patriotism litmus tests.  Furthermore, I’m extremely concerned about the threat to a woman’s reproductive choice under a McCain-Palin administration.

But that’s why Congress is there, is it not?  (Don’t laugh…)

Frankly, if Obama wants to swing this thing, he’s going to have to re-find his feet.  That streak of independent thinking, which was so alluring during the endless Democratic primary, must reassert itself.

Polimom has already removed the Obama sticker from the back window of the truck… and at the moment, it’s been mentally replaced with a great big question mark.


I’m back on the fence.

    September 9, 2008 | 9:58 am

    With all due respect, I think you’ve been swept up in a lot of rhetoric that is not backed by reality. McCain gave a glimpse of his 2000 self in his speech. But he offers nothing substantively different than GOP boilerplate.

    And as for Sarah Palin, she is turning out to be far more ordinary – in a bad way – as a politician than she claims. Just about all her reformer cred has been torn to shreds by even conservative news outlets like the Wall Street Journal. Yet, she persists in misleading people about Bridge to Nowhere, etc.

    September 9, 2008 | 10:01 am

    Hi Elrod — I haven’t actually been swept up in the Palin rhetoric anymore than I was the Obama. It’s fair to challenge Palin’s cred, and I agree (and have written) that the Bridge to Nowhereand the earmarks for that matter — are a load of manure.

    OTOH, the Obama campaign has stretched some of his cred as well.

    September 9, 2008 | 10:05 am

    I’m not being snarky here. I read this post and thought, “Huh? Polimom is being swayed because the consummate DC insider puts out TV ads that say he’s really mavericky?”

    I’ve been reading your blog a long time and after reading this, I admit that I am utterly confused about what your criteria are for picking a president. Do issues figure in? You’ve aleady identified one where you disagree with McCain and where he’s have an opportunity as president to influence national policy (via court appointments) well into AC’s middle age.

    I am honestly confused.

    September 9, 2008 | 10:12 am


    I liked Barack Obama before he decided to run for the presidency. His approaches to problems were only superficially related to standard Democratic policy prescriptions, in that they were grounded on the people as primary to any solution, and a government that was there to support their efforts.

    The Barack Obama of the primaries hit those themes hard, again and again. While many of his policies sounded the same, the underlying principles made him very different, in my eyes. And he was a pragmatist to boot.

    But the Obama of the primaries seems to have disappeared. I understood why he was so slow to acknowledge the success of the surge, but I didn’t like the pure politics of it. I understand why he’s sounded populism themes, but I didn’t like the reactionism.

    And I even understand why he’s had to back off of any possible mention of a negative in relation to the Clinton years… but again, it’s pure partisan politicking.

    Is McCain necessarily a maverick? Is he actually anything different? In some ways he is, yes, and in others he’s certainly not — and of course you’re right that he’s also sold out in recent months on much of his standing cred.

    But so has Obama.

    And for the record — I’ve been pondering my position on this for weeks, not days.

    The Master
    September 9, 2008 | 11:30 am


    I agree with you that the Obama of today is not the same Obama of the primaries. The primary Obama was talking about a change in the political climate. The general election (GE) Obama is not. It appears as if the primary Obama has been completely captured by the Democratic party, and is being remade (reprogrammed?) by the party in its current (rather unappealing to me) image.

    While I agree with you that primary Obama’s approaches to the problems he saw were different–much more open to the free market/private sector–I disagree that primary Obama’s policies and goals were ever anything but standard liberal Democrat boilerplate. A different approach offered him a chance for some nuance, but on what he wanted to achieve, he always sounded like a “central casting liberal democrat” to me. I believe that is why he was able to mirror Hilliary’s positions so closely that there was almost no space between them. He offered Democratic primary voters the same outcomes, to be achieved through a different, less contentious and divisive process. It worked.

    Obama seems to have lost his mojo in the last couple of months. GE Obama has totally lost focus on the change in political climate that originally attracted him so much favorable attention. His acceptance speech at the convention was a laundry list (wish list?) of Democrat programs of the last 30 years. Any past Democratic presidential candidate from that time would have felt comfortable with that list–and not at all surprised by anything in it.

    When GE Obama was faced with his first big, public decision of the general election (his running mate) he abandoned the “change” theme and went with the most conventional, pedestrian, “safe” choice imaginable. In doing so, he seems to have validated his critics charge that his lack of national political experience is a major flaw in his candidacy. Why else try to cover the gap? Picking Hilliary would have had many dangers and risks, but it would have been the bolder pick, one that would have demonstrated self confidence, and not timidity.

    As a result, GE Obama seems to have surrendered the “Change” theme to McCain (another pedestrian, inside-the-beltway guy). McCain at least has a record of fighting against his own party when he believed the issue was important enough–and winning more than once. By picking Palin he has doubled down on the “we are the Change ticket” theme and he seems to have left Obama gasping for breath. (Whether McCain/Palin would or could deliver major league change is questionable, but right now it seems likelier to do so than Obama/Biden.) McCain/Palin is now the ticket for those who dare to ‘hope’. GE Obama seems to have become the standard bearer for “the conventional Democrats”. Good for them, maybe, but not for him.

    Any deviation from Democratic orthodoxy, any hint of flexibility in the goals, is met with cries from the right (to be expected) and the left of “flip flop”! The left frequently adds “traitor” to the cry also. GE Obama does not seem to know what to say or do. McCain has been doing this long enough that he has learned to ignore the noise. Obama seems sensitive to it, and disheartened by it.

    Definitely no longer the happy warrior brimming with confidence in his ability to lead the party and country where it wants to go.

    September 9, 2008 | 12:08 pm

    The way I see it, I am looking at the probable outcomes of the November elections, and what they promise(?) us in terms of the next several years:

    1) Obama wins the WH, Democrats retain control of Congress: this probably results in ’77-79 or ’92-94 rerun, neither of which are particularly appealing to me.

    2) McCain wins the WH, Democrats retain control of Congress: this continues a certain level of tension between the Executive and Legislative branches, however if McCain shows the bipartisan/apartisan spirit that he showed back earlier in the Bush years, this could be the best outcome (especially if the Democrats pony up a real leader or two in Congress – more on this below.)

    3) The GOP regains control of one or both houses of Congress: to me, the least desirable option – also the most unlikely, as the GOP has some serious wandering in the desert (rebuilding) to do before they will be ready (or trusted) to govern.

    My problem with the Democrats right now is that neither Ms. Pelosi nor Mr. Reid have shown any real political leadership/vision. At the same time, neither has the GOP – at least, not since News Gingrich and the “Contract with America.” Both parties need to get serious about developing some new leadership and visionaries. Sen. Obama may well rise to this level (I am not sure he is quite there yet, tho his campaign during the primaries was promising), and it might be better for the country if he got a bit more seasoning before moving into the WH – as, for example, majority leader of the Senate, or even Speaker of the House.

    At the same time, I hope both parties will start looking away from their “base” – neither the Rabid Right nor the Loony Left are a good foundation for governance. I had hopes for the “big open tent” and “compassionate conservatism” philosophies of the GOP, but for that to work they need to show a whole lot more ‘compassion’, and ease up on the ‘conservative’ a bit.


    September 9, 2008 | 2:40 pm

    I think its funny that Moms with one kids are the ones freaking out about her being overworked but the moms with 3+ are like go get em’. And I also think its funny they make up sarah palin scandal.

    September 9, 2008 | 3:03 pm

    I did a trackback on ModerateVoice with my post but I don’t see it. So they display trackbacks?

    September 9, 2008 | 3:05 pm

    No, not anymore. I think they disabled the functionality.

    September 9, 2008 | 8:34 pm

    I’m not seeing the substantive changes in Obama’s approaches that people are talking about here. It’s entirely possible that I missed it. I have seem trimming around the edges, but I get the feeling that everyone is responding to campaign rhetoric more than substance.

    I guess some of it comes down to why someone might have supported one candidate over the other in the first place. I never bought the Obama “different culture” stuff as a major differentiator; he’s a politician, he has been for a long time, just like McCain. The reason I’m supporting him, and can’t imagine supporting McCain, is that I think McCain’s economic ideas are utterly incoherent, and that he’s part of a party whose approach to government over the last eight years has been marked by shocking fiscal irresponsibility, a dramatic increase in secrecy and misinformation being spread to the public on a range of issues, and McCain’s long history of talking about being a maverick coupled with his actual history of pretty much kowtowing to whoever had the money and power. There are exceptions, and he’s no worse than most politicians, but if you’re going to say you’re different, you need to be.

    What I saw at the Republican convention pretty much confirmed that nothing was different. I think Palin certainly has a great story and I don’t bear her any ill will, but her nomination – coupled with the spectacle of a rich governor of Massachusetts railing against the “elites,” and so on – and the post-nomination spectacle of assorted Republicans singing her praises based on the very factors that they were criticizing in Democrats days earlier – just further confirmed what I already thought.

    So it’s a pragmatic thing for me; on most (but not all) issues, I think Obama has better ideas than McCain. It has little to do with the men themselves.

    I understand that most voters don’t approach their choice that way, but I confess that I don’t understand it – and thus when I see people saying that they are concerned about all kinds of economic issues and then voting for the candidate of party that’s made all those things measurably worse, I wonder what on earth they are thinking.

    And I still can’t figure out what these big changes in Obama on what counts – what the man will try do if he’s elected – that you’re talking about actually are.

    Let’s face it, either man will have to deal with political reality if elected, and many compromises will be made. I tend to go for the one who at least seems to be starting from the right place, even if I have lots of reservations about him – which is how I managed to vote for Kerry. And Dukakis. And even Mondale back when.

    And so this conversation makes me feel like I’m listening to people talk about window dressing while the windows are cracking and falling out of their panes. I can understand someone disagreeing with me about how to fix those windows. I’m not really hearing much of that here though.

    September 9, 2008 | 8:45 pm

    John, my old friend — I’m tired at the moment from fielding comments on this post (more so at TMV) all day, so I’m not going to respond at length here. I can, however, give you an example of the pressures on Obama that worry me, and that I worry about him succumbing to.


    Also — EdT’s comment about the balance of power has relevance here — especially in combination with the hard left forces the Democratic base will bring to bear in a Democratic-run-across-the-board government. I have no desire to tip all the way left, and it’s not clear to me that Obama will stand up to them.

    I’m sure I’ll expand much of my thinking in other posts in the near future, though.

    September 9, 2008 | 11:12 pm

    Ed does bring up some good points. I originally backed Obama in the Tx primary as well. Having watched both McCain and Obama morph into party line general election politicians I’m giving serious thought to voting for Bob Barr. Since my state is going to McCain anyway I can at least use my vote ti send a message to the GOP rather than “waste” it voting for Obama. (And my record of voting for divided government will be maintained to boot.)

    September 10, 2008 | 6:12 am

    Trade is the issue where I find Obama most problematic.

    here’s what I find interesting, tough – McCain has basically jettisoned what appeared to be core beliefs – for example, regarding the religious right, who went from “agents of intolerance” to his new buddies, and who really want to do exactly what you’re worried about, give faith the force of law – and it’s considered expected triangulation from someone who still get to keep his “maverick” title – whereas Obama wiggles on one issue that’s an electoral hot potato and it’s a big character question.

    I think they are both being politicians. It’s just funny that McCain is allowed to be one, and Obama’s not. Some of that is of course because of how he got so popular, but there’s an element of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face here.

    September 10, 2008 | 6:20 am

    A followup though, on the trade thing: questions of trade policy do not come down to “are you for the workers or not?” Trade is good for us, but it causes economic dislocation, and there’s no simple “column A / column B” position that makes any sense. Part of what Obama seemed to be tapping into was the idea that we don’t get anywhere by framing complex questions that way. So now he’s not, and he’s getting criticized for it, sometimes by those who LIKED that about him.

    I think this is inevitable fallout from having an electorate that isn’t interested in actual policy issues, other than wanting to pick a side and shout out for it.

    You’re saying that Obama won’t stand up to extremists within his own party – but criticizing him for not wanting to build consensus, which is part of the process of avoiding extremism.

    I’m beginning to think (not just from reading your comments here) that Obama’s challenge is that he is what we say we want, but when it comes down to it, we really don’t want it; we want a colorful character to take on “those Washington types.” Like Bush, who has spent the last eight years helping the Washington types become further entrenched. He may be the victim of our national delusion about what we think we want in politics, versus what we really vote for.

    September 10, 2008 | 10:59 am

    As a former Alaskan familiar with the Wasilla and Mat-Su area, I can tell you that Republicans in that area are far different than the East Coast variety that have nodded their agreement with Gov. Palin. The level of religious infused policy and backward thinking social conservatism is beyond measure. I don’t say that lightly. Alaska Republicans, Palin included, are solidly in the Bob Barr/Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican party. Right now, Palin is a convincing chameleon with John McCain, but nothing they have said, nothing they have done, and nothing they have released has proven to me that they will govern the United States with any degree of change than George Bush. McCain has done a great job of turning this from an issues debate to a cultural differences debate. Why has he done this? Because John McCain doesn’t have a platform significantly different than the Republican Party. Obama has had a strategic plan from the beginning and it’s worked well but he doesn’t respond like a reed in the wind like many liberals do in the 24 hour news cycle. Like every election, this isn’t about the candidates we wish we had, but the candidates we have. I am very concerned that John McCain, a master of the media, will pull the wool over the eyes of the American public, and use the faux maverick rhetoric to push him into the WH. He can only do that if America votes him in. We elect the president we deserve.
    BTW, this is the first time I’ve seen your blog and it is FANTASTIC!

    September 10, 2008 | 11:06 am

    I guess I am much more concerned about the campaign that McCain and Palin are running of almost total BS. As a Republican adviser said: “”The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she’s new, she’s popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent,” Feehery said. “As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.”

    With about 50 days left they are running on lies, and hoping the fact that the media is quietly saying their speeches and ads are not true doesn’t matter.

    September 10, 2008 | 11:08 am

    Washington Post:

    A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Sept. 5 to Sept. 7 found that 51 percent of voters think Obama would raise their taxes, even though his plan would actually cut taxes for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Obama has proposed eliminating income taxes on seniors making less than $50,000 a year, but 41 percent of those seniors say their income taxes would go up in an Obama administration.

    McCain’s pitch as a reformer — especially as an opponent of pork-barrel spending — does not seem to have been damaged by media reports of his running mate’s pursuit of earmarks, first for her home town of Wasilla and then for Alaska. Obama’s once-sizable 32-point advantage on which candidate would do more to change government is down to 12 points.

    We have created a system where there is not a lot of shame in stretching the truth,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

    September 10, 2008 | 11:46 am

    PunditDad, what a nice comment — thank you! And I appreciate the Alaskan perspective. Many, many things about Alaska are different from what people in the lower 48 are used to, and it’s not just social conservatism. The whole dialogue about the ANWR, or states’ rights, has a much different look there.

    September 14, 2008 | 12:35 am

    This is such a thoughtful post. I look forward to seeing how your thinking develops.

    I’m a right-leaning Independent who’s pretty solidly for Obama. Somehow, he hasn’t disappointed me. I see him working to unify his party after a bitter battle, and I take that to be not unlike the way he’ll strive to unify the country after a bitter election. I see him mostly taking a high tone (in sharp contrast to the campaign McCain is running which embodies everything I hate about our political system). McCain’s the one who has shed his outsider creds for me, in a big way. But maybe I am biased because I see Obama as one of the most thoughtful and intelligent candidates we’ve had in a long time, and I prize that a very great deal. (I keep waiting to get disappointed, cause I always do, but not this time.)

    Anyway, I’ll keep an eye out for further develops from you!

    Julie Taha
    September 14, 2008 | 11:14 pm

    I realize Obama has made some reaches toward a less reckless and more moderate stance on some of the issues. It’s kind of like when you hear your favorite punk band, on an album they recorded in the studio. I felt the same way, but he is still the right leader for our contry at this critical time.

    I don’t know if you caught Fareed Zakaria’s show on CNN this morning, but he had a gentlemen speaking about the new green economics, which will mimic the dot.com explosion in the 1990′s. Currently most of Europe and Asia is way ahead of the US, we’re basically going to miss out on much of the opportunity to innovate the world’s energy. Please think back to when Japan started creating small, high mileage/gallon cars. They just put Michigan out of business bascially. They had the future and innovation on their side. That’s where I see one big difference between Obama and McCain. This is no reference to his age, by the way, I feel age is no consideration to leading the country. I just feel we need some of that innovation and energy and we’re not going to get it from McCain.

    I really did think he was an ok guy in 2000, but I now feel (and I’m a complete political junky now, I follow this stuff a lot), he’s sold his soul to the GOP, just to get elected. I would love to think he actually would rally behind some of the big issues he believe in back then, but I haven’t seen it at all during this campaign. I don’t feel that he has his own agenda anymore. He sure didn’t talk about his passion on global warming at the convention..which was very strange to me. This drill baby drill mentality is only going to get us an inch away from our dependence on oil, and they don’t really have any plans past that. I used to view him as a kind considerate person with his own viewpoint on the issues, now I feel he’s just part of the GOP machine.

    That’s my 2 cents worth, thanks for listening.

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