McCain puzzles me

I am as puzzled by John McCain’s performance at the third presidential debate as were the fine folks at Explananda. Purely as rhetoric, I thought it didn’t make any sense. You want to keep your opponent back on his heels, spending so much time responding to your points that he doesn’t have time to make his own. (This is a variant on Joel Spolsky’s Fire-and-Motion idea.) McCain kept lobbing nonsense at Obama that would have almost been considered softballs if they had come from the media. “[H]e voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion” says McCain. Surely the man knows why Obama did this, so surely he knows that Obama will come back with the only retort that’s necessary: “I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life, and this did not contain that exception.” Obama then returns to his argument. People can label him the Teflon don if they want, but I think it’s more sensible to say that McCain just doesn’t know how to throw things that stick.

Rhetoric isn’t just about packaging, though. This is a point that my dear friend Chris Rugen has made time and again in the context of design. Designing a product well doesn’t mean putting pretty wrapping on a box of shit. The product simply cannot be designed well if it’s poorly made. John McCain’s fundamental weakness is not “merely” rhetorical; his fundamental weakness is that he is a poor candidate. We can spend some time mulling over why that might be — that the “maverick” label was always nonsense; that nominating Sarah Palin shows a distinct lack of judgment; that his advisors have turned him into something ugly — but I think it’s pretty inescapable that the Republicans should have nominated someone different. Maybe this just wasn’t a year when they could have advanced a solid candidate.

Being a bad candidate, and being fundamentally a loser on issues that matter, McCain has had no choice but to go negative on nonsensical matters. ACORN, for instance. As everyone who’s been paying attention knows by now, ACORN is not a case of vote fraud; it is at best a case of registration fraud which at no point could have undermined American democracy. Yet McCain had the gall to bring it up during the debate. Whatever would stick, McCain would throw.

It’s the strategy of charlatans everywhere: since the truth is not on their side, lies are all that they have left.

Doing anything to get elected

I guess this shouldn’t come as a shock to me, but John McCain is doing anything he can to get elected. The Bill Ayers thing is the latest, and it’s the best example. Here’s conservative columnist David Frum:

But Bill Ayers? Does anybody really seriously believe that Barack Obama is a secret left-wing radical? And if not, then what is this fuss and fury supposed to show? It’s like Ronald Reagan’s opponents trying to beat him by pointing out that Birchers once supported him.

Here’s Ross Douthat:

I’m pretty sure that’s a losing message. And unless there’s some way I haven’t thought of to link the Weather Underground to the global stock market, or the subprime mess, or the cost of health care, or anything else that’s actually high on the voting public’s list of priorities, this “gloves off, dammit!” strategy will only serve to confirm the public’s perception that John McCain – and the ticket he heads, and the party he leads – are completely, utterly, and hopelessly out of touch.

(Both links via George Packer.)

McCain can’t possibly believe that Obama is a bomb-throwing radical. There’s simply no way that he can think Ayers is relevant to Obama’s candidacy. You just have to conclude that he’ll say whatever he needs to say to get elected. I imagine him giving Obama a pat on the back after the campaign is all over, shrugging and saying, “It’s just business.”

Tonight he threw another item against the wall to see if it would stick: that Obama was in the pocket of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

Meanwhile, they were getting all kinds of money in campaign contributions. Sen. Obama was the second highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history — in history.

The “second highest” bit appears to be true. But McCain must know that Fannie and Freddie had basically nothing to do with the subprime crisis:

[T]hey didnt do any subprime lending, because they cant: the definition of a subprime loan is precisely a loan that doesnt meet the requirement, imposed by law, that Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.

So it’s saying whatever he can to get elected. Whatever sucks about my guy, I think I can confidently say that he’s not that much of a bastard. It’s the sign of a discredited, intellectually bankrupt party that this is the only game they still know how to play.

The Palin image

If you needed a perfect example of what’s wrong with the media, the coverage of Sarah Palin is for you. Let’s be clear on something: she lost last night. Badly. She proved that she can only recite the talking points that are in front of her, and it’s clear to anyone who was watching that she is not competent to be the president of the United States. (Unless, that is, you think that someone who is no more intelligent than you or your neighbor should have her finger on the nuclear button.) This is rather important when the GOP presidential candidate has at least a 1 in 7 probability of dying within the next four years.

So the question from the debate should be whether she’s prepared to stand in for the president. Clearly she’s not. The best that anyone can say about her is that she is “charming” and “middle-class” and “just folks” and so forth. None of this has any bearing on whether she’s fit to be the president. I’ve heard no one even try to argue that she is.

Instead, somehow, the framing had been established before the debate even began: if Palin avoids making an ass of herself, she’s won — or at least not lost. If Biden isn’t condescending, he’s won — or at least not lost. Obama has recently been in the lead; therefore if neither Biden nor Palin make any major gaffes, this helps Obama — or at least doesn’t harm him.

But wait. No. The question is: do they both demonstrate command of the issues, and leadership? Of course they don’t; only Biden did. But we’re asked to evaluate them both on “charm.” Why? Well, presumably because that’s what the electorate cares about. But the electorate only cares about it because that’s the narrative that the media chose to write — that they chose to write, in fact, even before the debate began. We come to believe that we should care about that; we learned in 2000 that we were supposed to care about which candidate would make a better drinking buddy. (For the record, I would much rather have a beer with Obama than with McCain. It’s likewise a Biden rout.)

So now that Palin has turned on the “charm” and the “folksiness” again, we get the standard litany of stories — such as the New York Times telling us that Palin is revitalized after not absolutely messing up last night. This is the new narrative: she now has a head of steam. She’s a leader who’s breaking glass ceilings and saying “No, sir!” to McCain. Yes indeedy (as she might say), things are really changing now for Palin … Oh, what’s that you say? All her assertiveness still isn’t putting the campaign back in Michigan? Oh, I see. Glass ceiling still quite intact? Ah ha. Thanks, then.

It’s absurd. And I think the American people see that it’s absurd. We watch her on Katie Couric, and we know that she just isn’t qualified at all. You can’t put the YouTube back in the bottle, as it were. Undecided voters thought Biden won the debate by a 2:1 margin.

Yet here I will venture a bold prediction: the coverage will continue to be about Palin’s image. As opposed to her leadership ability, or her knowledge of … anything at all (other than her apparent mastery of resource allocation, being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the oil industry).

One month and one day until the election. May the day soon come when we no longer have to see this nonsensical clown.

P.S.: Hendrik Hertzberg says it better, of course.

Because I haven’t mentioned it in a few months, I should also point here to my favorite newspaper article ever: Jonathan Lebed: Stock Manipulator, S.E.C. Nemesis — and 15 whence this quote that might as well be applied to the soft news coverage of low expectations:

Xerox and AT&T and the rest needed to put the right spin on their quarterly earnings. The goal at the end of every quarter was for the newspapers and the cable television shows and the rest to announce that they had “exceeded analysts’ expectations.” The easiest way to exceed analysts’ expectations was to have the analysts lower them.

Daily election-griping

I’ll be quick. Just scanning the front page of the New York Times website:

Two headlines on NYT front page: 'VP Debate: What To Watch For' and 'An Everyman on the Trail, with Perks at Home

Summary of the first blurb there: “Here’s a preview of what the media will be watching for. Here we, the media, are telling you what we, the media, think you’ll want to be watching for.” Once again I’m reminded of the Keynesian beauty contest:

It is not a case of choosing those [faces] which, to the best of ones judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

As for that second blurb: can we just stop with the more-middle-class-than-thou nonsense? Both of the presidential candidates, and both the vice-presidential ones, are above the middle class. Biden’s house is a 6,800-square-foot custom-built colonial … on four lakefront acres, a property worth close to $3 million. Palin and her husband last year had a combined income of a quarter-million dollars. Obama made plenty of money from his bestselling books. McCain married a beer heiress.

Am I alone in thinking that none of this matters? At other times it hasn’t mattered at all to the public discourse: I don’t recall anyone saying that Perot was “out of touch with ordinary Americans” because he’s a billionaire; if anything, this was supposed to give him greater cred: his success at business is supposed to be an indication of his managerial prowess, not to mention his hardworking puritan virtue.

If I care at all about my candidates’ wholesomeness, it’s that I want them to have come by their money honestly. A Horatio Alger story is worth something: up from their bootstraps, given nothing, they made it to the nation’s highest elected office. There’s something nice in that. If Sarah Palin and her husband work hard for their money, then I wish them the best of luck. Congratulations to Senator Obama for writing books that people want to read. Nice job, Senator McCain, for finding a trophy wife. Wait, scratch that last one.

The probability of McCain's dying in office, redux

The most liberal estimate — i.e., the one that gives McCain the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t factor in the fact that he’s a cancer survivor — says that his probability of dying within the next four years is about 1 in 7; his probability of dying within eight years is about 1 in 3. Thus spake the Social Security Administration. The math is easy: if your probability of dying in a given year is 2%, and your probability of dying in the next year is 3%, then your probability of dying within two years is 1-(1-.02)(1-.03) = 1-(.98*.97) = .05. And so forth.

I’ve been looking for similar tables for melanoma survivors. If anyone can spot them, I’d love to see them.

(Here might be the place, apropos of nothing, to quote John McCarthy: “Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.”)

The actuarial table on McCain

Lots of people, myself included, have been talking about the probability that a President McCain would die in office. So let’s have at it: does anyone have the actuarial tables on the probability that a 72-year-old military veteran would live four more years?

Obviously the probabilities will be different for McCain than for the average veteran. If he has a heart attack, his odds are somewhat better than those of a homeless veteran. So run the numbers in various ways: probability of death within the four-year interval after age 72 for a wealthy nonsmoking man; probability of death for an Arizonan; and so forth. Maybe the estimates will vary a lot; maybe they won’t.

In general I’d love to know where to look for this kind of actuarial data.

P.S. (8 October 2008): I worked out a baseline estimate of the probability.

Here it’s necessary, by the way, to hand the mic over to Fafblog!:

Things are looking up for John McCain. Last week ended with a bang with the announcement of his fresh-faced new running mate Sarah Palin, who should provide McCain many more years of extended existence through gradual consumption of her life force, and, if needed, a new host body should his current vessel fail him. But McCain’s true masterstroke is his planned convention trip to the permanently hurricane-ravaged wasteland of New Orleans, where he will demonstrate his awesome powers of Presidentiality by climbing atop a mountain of corpses and emitting a series of ear-piercing shrieks before unfurling his once-gnarled bat wings to absorb the radiance of the city’s succulent Death Energy. He will then speak on the need for sacrifice, courage, and a new spirit of national unity in these times of extraordinary crisis before loping off to strangle and devour an aid worker.

Let's not all be hacks, please

It’s probably the case that Sarah Palin is unqualified to be one heartbeat away from the presidency — the vice president alongside a 72-year-old man. And Joe Biden may well be a decent candidate (though there are doubts on that score).

What I hate to see, though, is how everyone has turned into a hack for his own party in the past few days. All Democrats are now required to pile on Sarah Palin — she is clearly unqualified, and McCain can surely have nominated her only for the basest of reasons. Meanwhile, Obama’s choice of Biden was surely due to the latter’s strong backbone, foreign-policy whateverwhatever, graven visage, endless experience, etc., etc. Let’s admit it: no matter whom Obama chose (with obvious exceptions like Joe Lieberman), the Dems would be hailing the choice as further proof of Obama’s sainthood.

This hackery wouldn’t be so obvious were it not for everyone’s piling on Biden recently as an egomaniacal blowhard. Overnight he has been transformed into this party’s savior. It’s ridiculous to watch.

Our politicians are all bloodless hacks. Can’t we do ourselves a favor and not join them in the hackery?

Hillary is a loser candidate

Hillary Rodham Clinton should not be the Democrats’ nominee. She would lose in the general election. I’ve thought this for years, and I continue to think it now.

I’ll gladly accept the possibility that I’m wrong, and that she’ll win the White House in November. If I’m wrong, then at least there will be a Democrat in the White House … which is good for some reason. It’s not clear that she’d do very much at all to clean up the mess we’ve made in the world, but … maybe a Dem would be valuable. I don’t know. If it came down to a choice between Hillary and McCain, I’d have a hard time deciding what to do.

Which is to say: an abstract Democrat doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not going to vote for a party this time. I’m going to vote for the candidate who’s most likely to make things better, and I just don’t see Hillary doing that.

I submit that Hillary loses to McCain in the general election in a landslide. (Gallup says it would be close — or would have been as of June 2007.) I submit further that she’s the only Democratic candidate who could lose to Mitt Romney. That’s saying a lot. If there’s any doubt in your mind who would win in an HRC-v.-Romney race, ask yourself whether that’s a terrible harbinger. I think it is. Obama would clean the floor with Romney, and would give McCain a run for his money. (I don’t get why McCain hasn’t gone very far in previous elections.)

Since it’s now a two-person race between Obama and Clinton (for better or worse), I have to donate lots of money to Obama. I may actually go up to the Federal maximum of $1,000. I just don’t think this country can afford for Clinton to win the nomination.