13 ways to look at the election
Aspen CO, Colorado
Nearly a century ago now, Wallace Stevens told us there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. When he wasn’t working as a Hartford insurance executive, Stevens was our poetic guide at the dawn of the postmodern era. From him we learned that our perspective distorts the truth, and that we have to know the birdwatcher before we can know the bird. But, he reminded us, it’s still the bird that counts. In his deliberately circular phrasing: “I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.”
We are deep into the birdwatcher phase of this presidential campaign. I’m not sure that this is the first postmodern presidential campaign, but this one is unabashedly so. If America’s many woes are the blackbirds of the election, right now we are giving them only a sideways glance. Instead, we have all become pundits.
Talk once reserved for “Crossfire” and “Meet the Press” can now be overheard in hair salons and coffee shops. We are to this race as Bill James is to baseball. We digest the latest polls out of Pennsylvania faster than James Carville, and we weigh world events to determine if they will tip the scales toward Hillary or Barack.
This is despite the genuine public outrage at this administration’s handling of issue after issue. We know the score on global warming, health care, housing, and civil liberties; and we know we are losing. Instead of keeping our eyes on the prize, we indulge in a fitful quest for personal authenticity among the candidates, even as we suspect that it’s nowhere to be found.
To be fair, the dynamics of this race have abetted political metaphysics. Only the thinnest shaft of sunlight separates Senators Obama and Clinton on most of the major issues. Senator McCain, the GOP nominee, is currently playing three card monte on policy, hoping we don’t notice his painstaking shift to the right since 2004. Observers rightly expect that we are about to elect a “process president,” an executive whose success will hinge much more on whether he can bridge the partisan divide and make the machinery of government work than on his policy prescriptions.
When reaching for historical parallels, many writers have compared this race to the 1972 election, but in ’72 contemporary events had top billing. Everyone felt the white heat of Vietnam, racial violence, and economic recession. We have no shortage of material today, but many of us feel oddly removed from current events, like we’re viewing them on a small television from across the room.
We react with surprise when real hurt comes into view. Witness our deep discomfort with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s broadsides against the American dream. Anyone who’s read so much as a page of Richard Wright or James Baldwin knows that the tension between belonging and alienation is at the heart of the black experience in this country. But to confront that is to come face to face with something lingering, intractable, complicated, tough. It’s a lot easier to dissect exit polls and speculate about why Obama has a taste for sky blue neckties.
McCain is the master of this environment. Arch-ironist that he is, he keeps the wheels rolling on the Straight Talk Express while winking at his media entourage. This is the great game, he implies, and we are all just playing our parts until the curtain falls. Teflon John feints and parries on the issues while maintaining his reputation as a man of character. It is not so much that he nurtures his reputation, as that he nurtures the gap between the reality of his political career and our perception of it.
McCain is a virtuoso in this regard, but we are near the high-water mark of this style of politics. Once the parties have chosen their nominees, there is a natural shift toward a battle of ideologies in which the issues play a greater role. That shift may be sharper and more abrupt this year. We are about to turn our attention from the birdwatcher and back to the bird.
One issue above all others will drive this shift ” the war in Iraq. Even as we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the war and mark the 4,000th combat fatality, our national conversation about the war is on pause. Until recently, the surge has kept a lid on sectarian violence. Congressional Democrats have had over a year to raise Cain about why we’re still over there, but so far their approach to the war has been craven, calculating, and unprincipled.
Yet at some point this summer we are going to debate the question that McCain hopes we ignore: What comes after the suicide bombers hang up their vests? Iraqi civil society, or what’s left of it, is currently held hostage by ongoing violence and instability. Counter-insurgency experts tell us that the life span of an insurgency is in the range of 7 to 10 years. Optimistically, that means peace and security may return to the streets of Baghdad in a couple of years. But then what?
When he argues that the surge worked, McCain is on solid ground. He will be on much shakier ground when asked to paint a picture of a post-surge Iraq. He will need to tell us how Iraq isn’t carved up into three largely autonomous, sectarian regions, each governed by an autocratic strongman. If that is all we have to look forward to, Americans will get very queasy about keeping our troops in harm’s way.
National security is at the core of McCain’s pitch for why we should put him in the White House. Exhibit A is his advocacy for our presence in Iraq. Right now McCain is reaping the political dividends of the surge. Soon enough he will have to confront the possibility of an Iraq that is stable, but also undemocratic, sectarian, and hostile to our interests. Unless he can convince voters we will avoid that result, no amount of media adoration will save him.