newspaper report detailing a television exchange between conservative television host Bill O’Reilly and Barack Obama contained this telltale line: “Mr. Obama is known for the subtlety and nuance of his answers; Mr. O’Reilly has no patience for either.”
Everywhere, patience is in short supply. Rancor and wrath are simpler. It’s the Americanization of Italy’s voluble political model.
All of which stands to complicate the presidential race.
Neither Obama nor John McCain is a reckless man, or an angry one. Both instead radiate a ruminative decency — call it a vibe — that belies the harassing politics that will inevitably stain their campaigns.
Partisan hired hands and read-me-first columnists have already been crueler than the candidates they claim to advocate.
Seven years of Bush Administration policies have gradually transformed public deference into a necessary feature of the democratic process. Threat, risk and fear are the mantra of a class of believers, blue and white collar, whose personal and bureaucratic identity is defined by the “dangerous world” and its real and anticipated anxieties. Bring peril into into an informed and less gloomy context and those addicted to authority and obedient oversimplification grow surly. Confrontation is a national cliché to which many attach faith and moral purpose. Gradation equals dissembling.
Though Obama and McCain both deplore such manufactured anxiety, they recognize its centrality and are doomed to campaign against common sense and in apprehension’s sinister clinch. They have no choice. Look what happened to John Kerry when he recommended al-Qaeda be treated as a kind of Mafia; criminals yes, but not the single-minded engineers of the global apocalypse.
Challenging economic policy is acceptable; disparaging obsessive national security is not. The Iraq war is overwhelmingly controversial; the Patriot Act, for most, is not.
McCain’s own war position is knotty. He knows war well enough to despise it. An aristocratic Republican, it’s unlikely he would have unilaterally attacked Iraq in 2004 based on the advice of militant lackeys. At the same time, no former soldier undermines a fight in progress. All this yields a brittleness that shows.
Yet supporting war can be an antidote to reactionary misgivings. McCain met Obama’s campy “Yes We Can” with the similarly campy “Fight With Me,” two pieces of the same puzzle.
By contrast Obama is a confident if prudent Democrat who knows enough about human nature to apply dutiful skepticism to adorers and detractors alike. All can change in an instant. His support is passionate but precarious and rests on emotional intangibles Obama himself has yet to fully understand or harness. Ironically but perhaps predictably, Obama’s own nonconformity is less pronounced than McCain’s, who broadcasts a strange brew of cagy, idiosyncratic self-confidence and child-like impressionability. Patience is essential to both candidates because neither is a sure thing. Both are cocky but more at home with the coy.
The secular McCain — an insider on the outs — runs on behalf of a party whose incumbent stands for intractable, missionary conservatism. McCain does not, and there is no love lost between the two men. This can help McCain; he can finally be his own man, and also hurt him; unconvinced Republicans are treacherous.
Obama’s risks are more intricate. His intellectual airs — a kind of primal elegance — clash with an impatient (that word again) nation generally suspicious of the clever, the highbrow, and, perish the thought, the nuanced. To some, fine oratory is rock’n’roll for Baby Boomers and giddy girls. Meanwhile, the issue of race — whether America will actually elect a black man as president — defies prediction.
Neither candidate is a true alley fighter. Beneath the Washington-busting bluster, McCain broadcasts sentimental humility while Obama salutes dignity and personal privacy. Such values, which also include humility, discretion and confidentiality, are for now among the least public American traits. Self-promotion and voyeurism, each lucrative and immediately gratifying, comfortably take their place. Millennial society depends the shamelessness of others for news.
If Obama wins, it will be as a result of wooing and convincing a blue-collar public weaned on shamelessness and impatience, O’Reilly-style. This is a daunting task for a suave man.
If McCain wins, it will be because Obama fails in the wooing, and because his party’s meaner hardcore gets a second wind. Republicans of the cloth know that McCain’s rightward kowtow (Sarah Palin included) is a campaign tactic that doesn’t guarantee allegiance if elected. Bush was a literal no-brainer; McCain is anything but.
A vital American election is also a peculiar one. Restraint and intelligence are traits these candidates share, and traits that can also drive impatience crazy. Partisanship aside, however, they do help ensure that America can’t really lose.
At least not Bush-style.