by Alexi Koltowicz
As the story goes, G.W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 because enough people wanted to “have a beer with him.” Bush was a reformed alcoholic, so the idea was metaphorical. What people meant was that they felt that they could relate to G.W. Bush. Of course few of us really could. Was your daddy a president? Did you go to Yale and Harvard? Have you ever had dinner at the bin Laden house? No. None of the people who spouted the beer rationale could actually relate to Bush. The trick was that he didn’t talk about his father or Yale or what it’s like to roll around in oil money.
Karl Rove presented a mostly blank canvas and prompted people to project themselves, and their desires, onto his candidate. That is the pinnacle of identity politics. Attempting to project an identity doesn’t work, and John Kerry’s attempt at looking like hunter/man of the people exemplifies why it doesn’t. People didn’t feel like they could relate to either Gore or Kerry.
And this is why John McCain won’t win. We can admire the fact that he survived five and a half years as a POW, but only a handful of people can actually relate to it. People are apt to admire the fact that he’s a “maverick,” but very few people are mavericks and, frankly, most are probably a little frightened by them. Men might wish that they had married a younger, loaded wife, but they can’t relate to the actual experience. John McCain has run on his identity. Unlike Bush, people can’t make it up for him in their own minds. Or, they have to decide whether they actually like/trust him.
He might have pulled it out, but he brought Steve Schmidt on board. Schmidt is a protégé of Rove and not equal to his master. What Rove did slyly, Schmidt does brazenly. And what Rove did for Bush will not necessarily work for McCain anyhow because much of it forces McCain to take on an identity other than the one he’s cultivated for 25 years.
Even when they swing for the fences, as with the Palin pick, it backfires. Rather than offering the outline of a character for the voters to flesh out for themselves, they present a caricature. You either can or cannot relate to Sarah Palin; there is no middle ground of imagination. Moreover, many of us who can want her nowhere near national power…because we can relate to her.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, has the G.W. Bush quality of projection. Few of us can actually relate to Barack Obama either but we feel like we can. When he’s pictured looking dorky on a mountain bike, people see themselves. He’s the guy from school who was smarter than you but didn’t show off and still managed to be friends with the cool kids. He’s the coworker who will pass you by on his way up the ladder and you won’t even resent him for it. And he stands for “change you can believe in.” Note that his motto allows you to do the believing; you are free to project your idea of change onto the candidate.
It’s that old Reagan magic, and it probably means that John McCain will retire as a foot soldier rather than a field marshal.
Alexi Koltowicz is an autodidact and unrepentant underachiever who’s forsaken his education for the allure of ditch digging and prefers the company of plants to people, because he finds them substantially more intelligent. Ed. Note: It’s possible this isn’t the full story.