David Frum and Kurt Andersen on McCain’s Latent Leftiness and Whether Democrats or Republicans Are More Disingenuous

"I can also make the seasons change, you know." Photo: Getty Images

Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, David Frum, who writes daily for National Review Online, and New York columnist Kurt Andersen discuss Obama's faux-outrage, conservative "anti-information," and surprises a President McCain might have in store.

K.A.: I'm curious if the decision by McCain to abandon straight talk in favor of full-bore disingenuousness — about "lipstick on a pig" and more generally on celebrity and inexperience — makes you uncomfortable?

D.F.: Let me start with "lipstick on a pig," and repost here something I wrote earlier today:


The English courts of equity used to say: Those seeking equity must come with clean hands. That is the Obama campaign's problem with the lipstick story. After hyping allegations that the Clintons used racially charged language against him, Barack Obama is poorly placed to complain when the McCain camp plays the same trick with gender.

Mobilization through the inflammation of imaginary grievances is an ugly trait of modern American politics. It will only stop when it stops all around. So long as media ground rules make such mobilization profitable for Democrats, it is inevitable that Republicans will follow suit.

D.F.: More generally: One of the reasons that so many Republicans (not me) have been so delighted by the Palin pick is precisely that it represents an attempt to beat the Democrats at their own game. I can understand why Democrats are reacting now so negatively — one's own game never looks so nice when one sees somebody else playing it!

K.A.: Their own game in choosing Obama? Sure. But turning lipstick on a pig into a grievance is 100 percent phony. Whereas at least Obamaites taking umbrage at the Clintonites' racialism was 50 percent correct. Don't you think?

D.F.: I don't know how you calculate these percentages, but if you concede a high phoniness quotient to the Obama campaign's outraged reaction to the Clinton campaign, then you see my point.

But it's not just Obama-Clinton. This has been the normal stuff of American politics for a long time. Remember Chuck Schumer's faux-outrage over Alfonse D'Amato calling him a putzhead? Did Schumer even for a second think that D'Amato was revealing anti-Semitism rather than a deep New Yorker's familiarity with the rich argot of Yiddish abuse?

K.A.: Yeah (and I don't want to obsess over lipstick on a pig), but it's rare that there is no real basis for the phony outrage. Concoction versus exaggeration. And McCain's straight-shooting history raises the bar, one would think. And you're not going to get me to defend Chuck Schumer. ;)

D.F.: As to the larger question of "straight talk," let me refer you to a brilliant point made by my National Review Online colleague Jim Manzi. He cited the two passages on energy in the McCain and Obama acceptance speeches and noted (1) that it required a highly trained eye to be able to tell who delivered which; and more seriously, (2) that nobody familiar with energy issues could take either passage even slightly seriously. The absence of "straight talk" in politics is more a matter of these trivial little flaps.

K.A.: Which is why the third or half of Americans who hate electoral politics hate electoral politics. The tactical brilliance of Palin's selection aside, are you feeling more or less squeamish about the prospect of Palin one heartbeat away?

D.F.: I have been disturbed about the choice from the start, as you know. And I have not seen any reason to feel less disturbed. Part of this is the grim facts of mortality: I'd worry less if John McCain were 52 rather than 72.

K.A.: You mean, the one-in-six chance that any given 72-year-old will die during the next four years?

D.F.: One in seven, I think — but yes. She really could be president! And here's where my fellow conservatives really worry me.

K.A.: Recklessness because the prospect of winning is so euphoric and irresistible?

D.F.: They are so attracted by the symbolism of the selection that they show no concern — never mind for her executive competence — even for her views. There's a photograph circulating on conservative blogs that shows Palin lounging on a motorcycle, paired with another of Obama in a helmet on a bicycle. It's headed: "All you need to know." Personally I need to know a little more. That's not even insufficient information. It's anti-information — a denial that information matters.

You can enjoy a motorcycle and be pro-choice. Or antiwar. Or in favor of immigration amnesty. Or for that matter, in favor state control of the means of production!

K.A.: Exactly. And there are those people on the left, too, of course, but the "respectable right" seems to indulge in that somewhat more than the "respectable left."

D.F.: Well, I can't evaluate who does it more. But it's not my problem when it happens on the other side of the line! On our side, though, conservatives have been in agreement for some time that competence would be a real and legitimate issue in 2008. It's why so many of us in the conservative mainstream ended up with either Romney or Giuliani, each of whom could demonstrate a lengthy record of successful management.

K.A.: And yet you are a pretty lonely voice out there right now, as your fellow conservatives say it doesn't matter with Palin. Also: I sincerely think it's the problem of all intellectually honest people when the non-reality-based crazies on both sides are ascendant.

D.F.: It's not craziness that is the problem. Rather the opposite. We're all such political sophisticates these days. Have a beer in any airport bar and strike up a conversation with the guy on the next stool about politics. He sounds like a guest on Hardball! "Well, I think McCain has to drive up Obama's negatives." There are no civilians left.

I was watching Alex Castellanos on CNN the other day. Good man, I like him. He was defending the lipstick-on-a-pig bit. He said: This puts Obama on the defensive. How many hundreds of thousands of people nod sagely at that?

K.A.: I know what you mean, but it's the remaining civilians who are the swingable voters.

D.F.: Not so sure about that.

D.F.: The swingable voters are the least committed to politics, often the least informed. I don't think you get very far with swingable voters by pointing to the flaws in the presidential decision-making system of the past eight years, and by urging improvement in the bureaucratic process!

K.A.: If I were a Republican, I think I might want Obama to win — or, anyhow, for McCain to lose … because four more years of a Republican White House (even if Palin doesn't become president) are likely to be long-term bad for the GOP.

D.F.: Why bad?

K.A.: I would be worried that Iraq is probably not going to end in "victory" under a McCain presidency. That the economy will be rotten. That in general, the next four years are going to be unhappy, and that, after eight years, a despised Republican administration is going to make people think: "Jeez, enough with the GOP."

D.F.: I think life is too unpredictable for statements like that. Who knows? And leaders have a lot of leeway once they do win. My guess is that a President McCain would swing sharply to the left.

K.A.: Mine too, which is how I console myself during weeks like the last one.

D.F.: I can see the conversation now: Senator Reid arrives at the Oval Office. "Well, John, congratulations. This is a magnificent personal victory for you. Of course our party scored some victories too … in the Senate and the House … obviously the people want us to work together."

K.A.: And President McCain replies…?

D.F.: Then comes immigration amnesty, climate change, a partial reenactment of the expiring Bush tax cuts with a tax increase for the top-income tax brackets.

The deal is that McCain governs like a French Fifth Republic president…

K.A.: LOL

D.F.: He kicks away his party and concerns himself with foreign policy. He hates the GOP at least as much as you do, you know.

K.A.: I like the (2000) McCain-Danforth-etc. GOP.

Does he also appoint Souter II to the Supreme Court?

D.F.: Dunno.

Best play for him — send up a staunch conservative to the Senate, watch him or her be Cuisinarted by the hypercharged Democratic majority, then sorrowfully tell the base that you did your best.

K.A.: You're making me get downright sanguine about a McCain presidency. As long as he reverts to his anti-Establishment secular Beltway self.

D.F.: It's NOT anti-Establishment! He IS the establishment! That's why the press used to love him so. That's why the press hates him now.

K.A.: That's why I included "Beltway" among my modifiers.

D.F.: But that's why the press will forgive him when he reverts to type.

K.A.: And you too?

D.F.: Forgive him?

K.A.: Prefer the circa-2000 McCain to the 2008 one?

D.F.: I was for McCain in 2000 up to South Carolina. He lost his cool there. Presidents cannot do that. Of course he was provoked. That happens to presidents too.

I credit the 2008 McCain for the surge. I strenuously oppose him on immigration. But I wonder whether the common theme is one of temperament. I have to say, much as I think Barack Obama is disastrously wrong on just about everything he believes — especially his economics, which seem flat-out Mondale reactionary — I do admire his cool and calm. And his willingness to listen to a broad range of views from within his coalition.

K.A.: His cool and calm — meaning you'd worry less about the 3 a.m. call with BHO in the Oval Office than JSM?

D.F.: The 3 a.m. call with Obama is a problem, because then he's cast upon his (bad) instincts — as happened with his weak initial response to Georgia.

But he might do better at 3 p.m.! He wouldn't get bored during the Cabinet meeting. Or rather, he'd listen even though he was bored.

K.A.: And he wouldn't scream.

D.F.: Right.

Earlier: Kurt Andersen and Markos Moulitsas on Barack Obama’s Big Disadvantage and the Future of the GOP

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.