At the outset of the Republican and Democratic primaries in 2007, it seemed as though things could not get any worse for the American electorate. Stuck with a lame duck President who had shown no inclination or ability to resolve the United States' most pressing problems, Americans turned away from George W. Bush in droves, driving the woeful President's approval ratings to levels not seen since Harry S Truman found himself battling recession, the Soviets, and his own missteps in Korea. It seemed only Jimmy Carter had reason to beam. But the Democrats at least had reason to hope.
As 2007 gave way to 2008 and Senators John McCain and Barack Obama closed in on their Parties' respective presidential nominations, there even seemed to be some promise that, for the first time in many election years, Americans would benefit from a campaign between two candidates more interested in core issues than in political rhetoric.
Mr. McCain took the first shot at dashing those hopes with the introduction onto the scene of political surrogate and top adviser Charlie Black. Mr. Black's comments that the Republicans would have benefited in 2008 by another terrorist attack and that Mr. McCain, in particular, would be the beneficiary of such an attack, were a not so subtle attempt to keep Americans thinking that a Democratic President would curl up in the fetal position if confronted by terrorist threats--never mind that Republicans continue to borrow their tough talk talking points from the likes of notable Democratic Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, all the while glossing over equally famous though more notorious statements by Mrs. Bush and Bush, and entirely ignoring any Republican President--including Ronald Reagan.
Some commentators have suggested that Mr. Obama got his quid pro quo by way of former Hillary Clinton supporter, retired General Wesley Clark. Appearing on Face the Nation, Clark fielded questions from host Bob Schieffer (interview). In response to Mr. Schieffer's insinuation that Mr. McCain has presidential qualifications due to his experience as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam, Mr. Clark replied that he did not think that piloting a fighter plane and getting shot down bore Presidential credentials.
Mr. Schieffer, apparently suprised at a turn away from the anticipated script, could only muster up a feeble "Really?" in response--quite an embarrassing display for such a seasoned newscaster.
Mr. McCain's supporters, as well as reporters bent on showing that they have no preferences in this campaign--nor, apparently, any concern over truly pressing issues that seem to be going unaddressed at this point in the campaign--lambasted Clark for questioning Mr. McCain's military experience (criticism of Mr. Clark).
Mr. Clark's critics missed the point of Mr. Clark's comments, of course, either intentionally or dim-wittedly (see, e.g., CNN's continuing embarrassment). The point, as Mr. Clark made abundantly clear earlier in the interview, was not that Mr. McCain did not have presidential credentials to which he could point. Nor was the point that Mr. McCain did not face hardships in Viet Nam. Instead, the point was that Mr. McCain's experiences in Viet Nam do not, as Mr. McCain continues to suggest, necessarily qualify him to be the President of the United States.
The problem for Mr. McCain--the one that Mr. Clark hit on and that Mr. Schieffer was too slow to pick up on--is that Mr. McCain has become a one-trick-pony. And he has done so by choice.
Unwilling to venture into areas that will lead Americans to probe his true merits for being President, Mr. McCain has elected to cloak himself in his war experiences as the beginning and end of his qualifying experiences to serve as the President of the United States. As the campaign season progresses, that simply will not do. Even swift-boat Republicans understand that much.
Mr. Clark's comments were right on point. So too, however, were Mr. Obama's, when the presumptive Democratic nominee for President implicitly disavowed Mr. Clark's comments and praised Mr. McCain's perserverance as a P.O.W., commitment to the United States, and service as a respected U.S. Senator. Mr. Clark's comments were correct and accurate, but they were not words that Mr. Obama could endorse in the sound-bite form that they had become.
While Mr. Obama was distancing himself from Mr. Clark's comments on Mr. McCain, the electorate once again was being steered--by the candidates as well as by leading news outlets--to focus on the rhetoric rather than each candidate's as yet murky platforms. That's the kind of poor reporting that has cost the United States at least eight years of sound leadership.
And if that were not cause enough for anxiousness among the electorate, other recent developments ought to be. With Mr. Obama making faith-based issues the core of his early platform and Mr. McCain committed to spending nearly one-sixth of a bloated budget on the war in Iraq, it might be difficult for anyone to vote for either candidate in a year in which both candidates appear eminently more qualified than the man who they plan to replace.
Up Next: If You Think It's Butter. . .