They’re both unfit to lead, for different reasons.
McCain is emerging as someone who can only act in opposition to someone else. He self-defines by pushing back against someone in power. That, of course, has been his bio. But now that he has stepped forward to assume a fundamentally different role – that of Mr. President (or, at least, Mr. Standard-Bearer) rather than Mr. Contrarian – he has been called upon, as all leaders are, to lead. His attempts to do so in the campaign have been risible.
I don’t think he’s senile. I just think he’s constitutionally incapable of leading. He truly is the “maverick” he has claimed to be – not so much ideologically as emotionally and dispositionally. Yes, one element of that disposition – the least appealing element – is his by-now-famous temper. A man who is capable of calling his wife a “cunt” in front of reporters is pretty creepy. But his genuinely admirable qualities are also a part of the same person. His ability to “stand up” to things – to torture, to political pressure, to conventional wisdom – also comes from his innate in-opposition character.
That capacity is worthy of praise, but it’s not leadership. McCain is not an actor, he’s a reactor. And the demands of being a standard-bearer have smoked that out – even on his home turf, in foreign policy and national security. As Joe Klein persuasively argues, “McCain has straitjacketed himself in an ideology focused more on enemies (real and imagined) than on opportunities.” This seems “tough” – indeed, let’s grant that it is tough. But it is counter-punching tough. He doesn’t have the mindset or the skills to stage-manage a fight, merely to stand strong when he’s hit. He can’t be like Ali – can’t be the dramatist as well as an actor. And he certainly can’t redefine the game, can’t shape an agenda. He depends on others do so.
And when we move beyond national security, McCain’s lack of leadership is even more starkly evident – on pretty much every other issue and in every other field of policy. Most notably, he has never had a single thought about the economy in his life. The economy is a complex system, and McCain is not a systems thinker. He’s okay on the environment, on balance – but only because not to be so is to be a nut job, and McCain isn’t a nut job. He has built his political career by joining with Democrats to reform things, to fix things that need repair – in particular campaign finances and immigration. He deserves respect for having done so. But in his very long legislative career, he doesn’t seem to have found a single area – other than military affairs – on which to become expert, or in which to innovate.
Before and during the primaries, I had thought McCain a formidable candidate – by far the strongest of the GOP’s choices. But the campaign has exposed his fundamental limitations, just as it has Obama’s. One is all counterpunch, all defense. The other is all dance and no punch – entirely “float like a butterfly,” no “sting like a bee.”
And not only is neither of these men a leader or visionary, but neither gives any evidence of being able to run a complex operation. (Please don’t give us that “Obama’s campaign has been masterful” nonsense. Every bit of mastery it showed was in the pre-game tactics. In the fray, it was an increasingly losing effort. And, of course, ever since Hillary’s concession and endorsement, his performance has been a shameful embarrassment – woeful both in principle and tactics.)
So, here we are. The press has its two darlings. Along with the lefty blogosphere -- a sink of misogyny -- and the pathetic institutions of the Democratic Party -- still only halfway on its journey back to life -- this unholy trinity has succeeded in pushing aside the person with the smarts, the knowledge, the toughness and the character to tackle really hard, complex problems and to lead – to imagine a future, and actually build it. Mazeltov to all of us. Now is the glorious winter of our content made dog-day summer by these sons of… well, you know. Clothespin-makers should do a land-office business this November.