Tuesday, August 19, 2008

H. L. Mencken and David Brooks on Presidential Politics

The last couple of weeks of political mudslinging between candidates who most people thought were above this stuff has been really frustrating. David Brooks wrote today about the disappointingly conventional turn McCain's historically unconventional campaigning style has taken.

McCain famously chastised himself in his book "Worth the Fighting For" for an episode during his 2000 presidential campaign in which McCain took a public position contrary to his personal beliefs, siding with conservative defenders of South Carolina's racist state flag in an effort to woo conservative voters.

So it's no surprise that he has seemed uninterested in his campaign's bullshit stunts like mocking Obama's prudent advice on tire-inflation as an energy-saving practice. Tire inflation, as many have noted, will actually make more of an impact on short term fuel expenditures than offshore drilling, which everybody admits will do nothing.

As near as I can tell, McCain's drilling plan is a naked gift to the energy lobby, and will yield no new oil for years. This kind of proposal is nakedly designed to create the illusion of doing something when there is really nothing that can be done, and anything helpful would be too complicated to explain to the average voter. The Clinton "Gas Tax Holiday," which would have saved less money than inflating tires.

McCain probably figures, when it's all over, he'll hate himself less for the compromises it will take to win than he'd hate himself for losing, and maybe he's right that the courageous, honorable, principled John McCain I've admired for years can't beat the crowd pleasing platitudes espoused by Barack Obama (who would be much more interesting if he bore a greater resemblance to Professor Obama of the U Chicago Law School). Personally, I don't see how shoehorning his maverick image into the generic Republican mold could possibly benefit McCain, because generic Republican is in for a beating by generic Democrat this year, and the name-brand Democrat is a lot stronger than John Kerry.

Mencken famously wrote about presidential politics:

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.' The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

This is the secret of Karl Rove's succes; he won in 2004 on gay panic, marshalling stupid voters from the pulpits of their stupid churches by seeding swing-state ballots with gay marriage referenda.

Maybe McCain is facing a reality, now verifiable by scientific polling, that shows he has to pander to win this election. If that's true, it means the presidency doesn't merely attract bad or mediocre people like Bush and Kerry and Carter; it ruins good ones like Clinton and McCain.

Maybe that is why Al Gore, a career politician who achieved almost as much as could be achieved in that field only made a genuinely admirable human being out of himself after he left office.

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