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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sharing a beer and a burger with the next President of the United States

Margaret Carlson, giving Al Gore his due at last, and doing it the only way a paid-up member of the Media Elite can give a Democrat his due, with a backhanded compliment, observes that possibly, just possibly, likeability isn’t the only qualification for a President of the United States.

Sure, she admits, George Bush might have been the more likeable guy back in 2000, but:

Maybe Americans prefer to have a beer and burger with the charming frat boy to the student who always does his homework. But is that a wise basis for choosing a president?

As Shakespeare’s Sister’s father would say, No foolin’, Red Ryder?

Carlson goes on to note that George Bush, as charming a frat boy as he is, hasn’t done a bang-up job:

With all the needless death from a ill-conceived war, the wasteful corruption of sweetheart contracts in Iraq and New Orleans, debt and deficits as far as the eye can see, gas prices through the roof with no energy policy in sight, and with a president who delegates to incompetents and cronies, I’m ready to give the class nerd his due and raise a glass to a serious man.

You’ll note that giving Al Gore his due doesn’t require her to admit he’d have been a better President or that he should run again in 2008 or for her to give up referring to him and Bush as if running for President of the United States was the same as running for high school class President.

Al’s still the class nerd.  And as Bob Somerby keeps pointing out, this caricature of Gore is not going to go away.  And if Gore does run and faces off against John McCain, the Media Elite will follow a very similar script in 2008 as they did in 2000, portraying the election as a contest between the robotic class nerd and the authentic, straight-talking, independent (but intellectually average and on the issues wronger than wrong, as wrong as George Bush) man of the people.

The Green Knight dug up something Carlson had to say about Gore and Bush back in 2000:

You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator or you look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore.

If you can find the difference in tone between what she said then and what she’s saying now you have a better ear than I have.  The problem, back then, apparently, was that telling the truth about Bush would have required work, while picking on Al Gore just came naturally.  Of course, in order to have done that, they needed to make things up about Gore, but that was ok because he was the class nerd, and nerds have no excuse to live if they aren’t there to be picked on.

But I want to deal with the likeability thing a little bit, the idea that Americans want of vote for the candidate they’d enjoying sharing a beer and a burger with.

I don’t know when this notion took root.  Maybe back in 1800 pundits were pointing out that regular Americans would prefer to quaff an ale with the charming, straight-talking war hero Aaron Burr to the cold, intellectual elitist Thomas Jefferson.

But the first I became aware of it was back when it was Morning in America, and analysts and journalists were trying to explain how it could be that while it was obvious to them that Reagan lied, flip-flopped ever which way on issues, blew off his conservative base when it suited him, ignored the will of Congress when that suited him, broke the law (Iran?  Contras?  Death Squads? Ah, memories!), praised dead Nazis (Bitburg.  Good times, good times.), just plain made stuff up, and basically was wrong about almost everything, he remained wildly popular.

Throwing up their hands collectively, they decided, Heck, it’s just that he’s so gosh darned likeable.

You can imagine yourself sitting down to have a beer with the guy.  There’s even a famous picture of Reagan in a pub raising a beer---that he didn’t drink.

I don’t recall anyone suggesting at the time that Reagan’s likeability and apparent sociability excused everything else.

By 2000, their tune had changed.  George Bush was likeable, the charming frat boy you’d share a beer and a burger with.  Al Gore was the class nerd, the kind of annoying twerp who always did his homework and made sure you knew it (Sigh).  And not only did this explain why Bush was the people’s choice, even though he was only half the people’s choice, it made Bush the pundits’ darling and the Right Man at the Right Time.

Somerby would argue that it wasn’t so much the case that the Media Elite thought, or even, cared that Bush was likeable.  They were just using the likeability script to demonize Gore.

As Kurt Vonnegut likes to say, Whatever.

Here’s my point.  The beer and the burger thing?  It’s not necessarily such a dumb way of looking at candidates and why voters vote or don’t vote for them.

I have never heard anyone say that they voted for the candidate they thought would make the best drinking buddy, fishing buddy, hunting companion, lunch date, first date, second date, husband, wife, father, mother, best pal, parish priest, or starship captain---at least not until right after some talking head on TV had just suggested that such and such a candidate was the kind of person voters could imagine as a drinking buddy, fishing buddy yadda yadda starship captain.

But I have heard people I know voted for Reagan and then Clinton and then Bush and the next time out will vote for Al Gore or Hillary or John McCain or Russ Feingold or Mike Huckabee and who did not and will not see any inconsistency in their choices.

These are not stupid people.  And they aren’t necessarily ill-informed.  What they aren’t is all that sure that any politician, whatever his or her ideology or positions on specific issues, can accomplish anything they set out to accomplish.  They see government as a mainly improvisational business.  It’s catch as catch can.  You deal with this problem, then you deal with that problem, as they come up.

What they want in a President, or a governor or a mayor or town selectman or a school board member, is someone who knows what the problems are---what their problems are.

They want leaders who understand the people, sympathize with them, like them, and trust them to know what they want and need and to have at least some idea themselves as to how to go about getting what they want and need done.

Those leaders don’t have to be the kind of people you’d feel comfortable sitting down to have a beer with.  But they have to be the kind of person you’d feel comfortable taking your problem to.

Jeffrey Goldberg has an article in the latest New Yorker (May 29) in which he looks at what the Democrats need to do to win in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t up on the New Yorker’s website yet, but there is an interview with Goldberg here.

Boiled down, these are what I think are Goldberg’s main points.

1. The Democrats need to win in the South and Midwest.

2.  Look out! Bloggers! Run for your lives!

3.  Whatever else they do, the Democrats must not, repeat, must not, nominate Hillary.

Nevermind points 2 and 3 for now.  Point 1 in Goldberg’s article isn’t as simplistic as I’ve stated it.  Boiling that one down, it comes out to this:

Whoever the Democrats nominate should be a moderate who doesn’t condescend to voters in the Heartland.

Goldberg seems to have done most of his legwork in Missouri, where a self-described "not a Liberal" Democrat named Claire McCaskill is running for the Senate.

McCaskill ran for governor in 2004 and lost a close election.  McCaskill doesn’t come flat out and say it, but she makes it plain that she thinks John Kerry cost her the election.  Kerry got stomped by Bush in Missouri, and having him at the top of the ticket almost surely cost McCaskill the relatively few votes she needed to close the gap on her opponent and win.

Actually, the way Goldberg tells the story, it appears that Teresa Heinz Kerry cost McCaskill the governorship.

Kerry was making a campaign stop at a soybean and cattle-farm in Smithville, MO:

Kerry reminisced about clearing fields on a Massachusetts famr and promised to side with small farmers in their struggles against agribusiness.  Teresa Heinz Kerry handed her husband a note, and then stood up to speak, recalling a visit to an organic hog famr in Iowa.  "It’s really inspiring to see the work they did," she said, and encouraged her audience to consider organic famring.  "It can be done.  It’s economical, and there is a huge market in America."

At that point, winston Simpson, a hog farmer from Clarence, Missouri, stood up and interrupted.  "I said, ‘Mrs. Kerry, you’ve got to undertand that hog farmers just freak out when they hear people telling them to go organic,’" Simpson recalled recently.  "She looked kind of surprised.  I was just there helping out, making a crowd [Simpson’s a Democrat, even something of a Liberal], but I’ve got an adrenaline problem, and when someone pisses me off I jump up and tell them."

Simpson is a grower-finisher; four thousand or so hogs come to him at forty pounds and leave their pens for slaughter two hundred and fifty pounds later.  "I’d go broke if we switched to organic farming," he said.  His public advice was informed by tactical, rather than ideological concerns.  "I don’t have a problem with people raising food organically.  If people want to eat that way, fine, but she shouldn’t have been pushing that as a solution to the farm problem  A lot of farmers think those organics as some kind of elitist lunatic-fringe thing."  For some, Mrs Kerry’s performance recaleld other moments of Democratic campaign obliviousness, like Michael Dukakis’s endorsement of Belgian endive as alternative crop for Iowa farmers...snip

Referring to the Kerry-Edwards campaign stop, [Claire McCaskill] said, "I’m sure Teresa’s motives were fine.  But I think it’s a tone thing.  It’s the ‘We know better’ thing.  Some of it is completely unfair, but there’s a critical number of Missourians who believe that people from the East Coast or West Coast don’t think that people in the heartland are smart."

Leaving aside the whole Teresa thing and the unfairness of judging a candidate by his or her choice of a spouse, and ignoring another example of John Kerry’s fitful and embarrassing attempts to pass himself off as a man of the people---like I said, I don’t think the people necessarily want a President who is one of them; they want somebody who understands them and sympathizes with them and respects them---it’s important to note two things.

One, the farmer Teresa pissed off was a Democrat.  Is it really so hard for us to find candidates who don’t annoy their own base?  And I’m not talking about us netroots types.  We aren’t the base.  We’re a pack of weirdos and normally we’re pretty proud of that fact.

Two, judging by what McCaskill says about how folks in the Show Me State feel about East and Left Coasters, the only way for the Democrats to win in the Heartland is to nominate someone who comes from there.

I don’t buy that.  It’s true that the only three Democrats who’ve been elected President in the last 40 years were from the South.  (Four if you count Gore, but I’ve made the case that nobody sees Gore as a true son of the South.)  But their two biggest losers were from the Heartland and both of them lost to Californians.

I do buy that neither John Kerry nor Al Gore came across as men you felt you could bring your troubles too---and I felt that before the Media Elites set out to caricature them as pompous, elitist stiffs.

This beer and burger thing, it’s another way of describing the common touch.

This being a democracy, having the common touch is in fact a qualification for public office.

Not the qualification, but certainly a qualification.

Some aristocrats have it, and some sons and daughters of the working classes don’t.

And whatever it is, it is not a matter of being a charming frat boy, or of not being the kind of A student who always has his homework done.

And whatever it is, should the Democrats find and nominate someone who has it, you can bet the Media Elite will do their best to tell us that that person doesn’t really have it or that the Republican candidate has it more authentically.

Or if they find someone who has it and the Media Elite can’t deny it, they’ll change the rules.  Having the common touch will be a sign of the Democrat’s bad character.  He, or she, will be dismissed as being someone who tries to be "all things to all people."

This has already been done.

You may remember that the Democrats had someone who was at home among the people, who liked crowds, who loved to talk with voters, who wasn’t just someone voters felt they could share a beer and a burger with but who wanted to share beers and burgers with them, who was someone people felt they could tell their problems to because he felt their pain.

You probably also remember how the Media Elites felt, and still feel, about that guy.

Cross-posted at my place.

Posted by Lance Mannion on 05/25 at 09:47 AM
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