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August 19, 2008

A Pundit Not a President
Posted by Max Bergmann

Matt Yglesias has a great post which really captures a key component of McCain's foreign policy approach - it is rooted in hyperbolic rhetoric mixed with hysterical over reaction. As Matt describes it,

Not only is Russia on the march beyond Tbilisi to Ukraine, Finland, and substantial swathes of Poland but that’s not even the transcendent issue of our time. And North Korea’s nuclear program is “the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today” but that’s not the transcendent issue of our time. And Islamism is the transcendent issue of our time, but not a serious international crisis or an especially great challenge to U.S. security and world stability. Now of course there’s no way to make sense of that, because it’s not supposed to make any kind of sense. McCain just thinks that overreacting is the right reaction to everything. It’s a hysteria-based foreign policy.

Each of those statements from McCain sound like they came from an excited media pundit. Well that’s because they did.

McCain’s approach and tone on foreign policy has always been more emblematic of a tv pundit rather than a sober president. While McCain has attacked Obama as the "celebrity" candidate, the fact is that a bad place to be over the last 25 years has been between John McCain and a TV camera. The New York Times on Sunday noted that one of the first things McCain did after 9-11 was go on just about every TV program - where he incidentally called for attacking about four countries. In its biographical series profiling the candidates the Times also noted that McCain was attracted to the celebrity of the Senate with one close associate noting that McCain “saw the glamour of it. I think he really got smitten with the celebrity of power.” McCain clearly enjoys being on television and he has been a constant commentator on the Sunday news shows and the evening talk news programs.

But TV appearances encourage sound bites, over-the-top rhetoric, and good one-liners, not reasoned and nuanced diplomatic language. This is especially true from guests who are not in the current administration, since you are less likely to get invited back on Face the Nation if you down play a crisis or take a boring nuanced position. Thus on almost every crisis or incident over the last decade, McCain has sounded the alarm, ratcheted up the rhetoric and often called for military action - with almost no regards to the practical implications of such an approach.

The big concern with a McCain presidency – a concern which I am surprised has not been vocalized more fully – is that the U.S. will lurch from crisis to crisis, confrontation to confrontation, whether it be with Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. The danger is that McCain’s pundit-like rhetoric will entrap the U.S. in descending spiral of foreign policy brinksmanship. Just think about the very likely scenario of McCain giving Iran/Russia a rhetorical ultimatum and Iran/Russia ignoring it. Now we are stuck - either we lose face by not following through on our threats or we follow through and go to war.  We can’t afford such a reckless approach after the last eight years. For the next eight we need a president not a pundit.   

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Comments

"We need a president" -- is that open for discussion?
You need a president, I don't need a president, particularly one who invokes a concocted theory of executive privilege to do any damn thing he wants with the full backing of a rubber-stamp congress.
Executive privilege didn't start with Bush, and unfortunately it won't end with Bush.
General rule: If you want it bad that's how you'll get it.
It seems that the full tragedy of world hegemonic US foreign policy conducted by autocratic presidents is only in Act I.

Here's McCain in October, 2002 trashing the US Constitution:
"The Constitution of the United States designates the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief. The Congress of the United States plays a role, and I believe that this process we are about to embark on is the appropriate role that Congress should carry out its responsibilities. But at the end of the day, the final, most serious responsibility of sending young American men and women into harm's way rests with the President of the United States."
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/10/20021002-7.html

Obama talks with the same authoritarian air. Either of them would be a new Decider, a president we "need."

Well the president of Georgia looked like a pundit too. I guess it's not surprising since they share the same advisor/PR man.

Just move to Canada, then you don't have to worry about ever standing up to anyone.

I think all focus should be on the word "same".

Obama's new ad, which ties Ralph Reed to John McCain, ends with "we can't afford more of the same". This is his 2nd ad to feature this tag line.

Voters don't want the same thing we've had for the last seven years, and McCain's false "maverick" label is letting him off the hook of having been voting with Bush %90+ of the time. Hitting him hard on this "same" meme will have more impact than anything else.

Same wars. Same failed economy. Same foreign policy disaster. Same attitude. Same cabinet. Same lobbyist connections. Same oil buddies. Same billionaire friends.


McSame.

The End.

It looks awful easy for Old Men to send other folks' sons and daughters to spill their blood on foreign soil. I cannot for the life of me see the value in any of it. What is Georgia to me, or me to Georgia that I should weep? It used to be that we traded other countries for the things we could not produce ourselves, and them likewise. With the rising cost of energy and the rising yuan, China won't be enriching American capitalists much longer. There is no world wide communist revolution. Why all the brinksmanship? Why all the saber rattling? The reality is that we cannot afford to be the Sheriff of the world--we no longer have the money--we gave it al to Blackwater and Halliburton rebuilding Iraq while bridges collapse in Minneapolis.

This really resonates with me. I teach media theory and I guess I'm more sensitized than most people about how "the medium is the message." The point you make regarding McCain gives a perfect example of something I've been sort of vaguely thinking through over the past year or so----that the influence of cable TV punditry has become so overwhelming and universal that it has become the defining style of almost all political discourse (and therefore political thinking) in the U.S. Eric Alterman had an interesting piece on the rise of punditry in general as a function of the new information environment --- news as a commodity delivered to everyone at lightening speed and thousands of hours to fill up with content on cable news networks. It was no longer enough to deliver the latest story -- everyone had it. You had to interpret it, spin it, go "meta" and discuss and debate all the various scenarios regarding how the latest news will "play" with whatever demographic mattered. So the old fashioned columnist, who cultivated sources and had the lowdown on what insiders were thinking was transformed into Chris Matthews and Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell at one end and Limbaugh/Malkin/O'Reilly/Coulter at the other. They don't deliver scoops; they tell stories about how news can and should be perceived and received.

But it's not just the talking heads who talk and think like this now. It's the meta-language of consultants, marketers, spin-doctors, pollsters, agents, producers, critics, etc. I started to notice athletes adopting this style and then it was politicians. They now seek not so much to "make news" by doing things, rather they "make news" the way pundits do, by spinning what's already been reported.

When Bush made his famous comment about how when you are in his business you have to "catapult the propaganda"---we all laughed at his unintentionally appropriate mangling of the metaphor (I guess he meant "leapfrog the propaganda") --- but upon reflection, what really stands out is that Bush is talking like a pundit here, giving the inside, "horse-race" take on how the business works. I used to have other examples, but I can't remember them at the moment. You've supplied me with McCain as an example.

But yes, everyone's a pundit now and people with real power in major offices sometimes act like they'd like to get in on the "real game" of spinning and going "meta" and doing it in the kind of over-inflated, irresponsible way that the pundits have turned into our REAL "national conversation about politics"

This is how a Senator with a *real* grasp of foreign policy speaks:
"These are facts of life in which the United States' relationship with Russia, thank goodness, for 16 years, has worked steadily toward nonproliferation and toward reduction of threats to the U.S. Not to Georgia, but to the U.S. now.

We have got to keep our eye on the ball. This doesn't excuse brutal actions by the Russians. They took advantage of a situation in which we were far away. But at the same time, we need an agenda with Russia, even as we are discussing the agenda with Georgia."

That's Lugar on Blitzer:
http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0808/17/le.01.html

He's been in an undisclosed, secure location since he released to the media his call to President Saakashvili saying that Russia's actions "will not go unanswered," but these comments by Vice President* Cheney lead me to ponder whether a President McCain might be closer to a President Cheney than Bush. Of course, even I credit Mr. Cheney with much more introspection and strategic thinking than has Mr. McCain, but I think that his bellicose predispositions, combined with a coterie of unhinged neocons, make the two roughly comparable.

unfortunately, the hysteria-based, gun and run approach seems to be very effective domestically as a campaign stance, even if it would be close to catastrophic in practice. McCain plays to the near-audience, so to speak

Typical Conservitive Projection, or telegraphing, or both. What they accuse their rivals of doing is what they are doing or about to do.

This happens all the time. As a tactic, it also blurs the issue, since the worst case is a stalemate. ("both sides do it", etc.)

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