Eli Attie and Ken Layne on Whether Obama Can Steer This Election Back to Substance

If this were a superhero movie, she would be engulfed in flames right now.
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, West Wing screenwriter and former Al Gore speechwriter Eli Attie and Wonkette's Ken Layne discuss the inscrutability of undecided voters, whether the debates will matter, and what Philip K. Dick has to do with it.

K.L.: Well, this Paulson bailout seems to be working out swell, so far. The Dow is collapsing and oil is shooting up again … do the campaigns seem confused?

E.A.: I'm not sure if it's that the campaigns seem confused, exactly, but I'm also not sure this race has ever had a clear discourse about the economy, so it's probably unclear to the voters and the campaigns how this really fits into their central arguments.

I mean, Clinton-Bush '92 seemed like a race with a clear and fairly specific economic debate. This is more of a meta-campaign, it seems — about change writ large, and broad directional shifts, and perhaps harder to fold events like this into the daily flow. That said, one would think Obama would benefit handsomely from this; McCain's been something of a deregulator on these issues, and has certainly been cozy with corporate interests from his Commerce Committee post…

K.L.: It's bizarre that Obama hasn't taken this mess and run with it — McCain's the guy who said as recently as January that if you're interested in the best guy on the mortgage crisis, he was not your candidate.

E.A.: It actually amazes me that McCain hasn't been tagged more with the Bush economy overall, since (despite his flip-flopping on the Bush tax cuts), he actually shares much more of Bush's economic doctrine in general.

K.L.: And even though he changes his speech a few times a day to keep up with whatever anti-market, anti-capitalist move the Fed and Bush administration is making, McCain still comes off (to me!) as completely bewildered by not only the crisis, but the whole economy.

E.A.: Obama did give a fairly tough speech on these economic issues this morning. He clearly wants to try to insert himself into this fray.

K.L.: And that two-minute Obama commercial — where he's talking to the camera about specifics — was serious and solid. But I wonder how much of this serious stuff gets through to these undecided voters.

E.A.: Well, yes, that's the question. Is it that the coverage has changed or that voters have decided to stop paying attention to the nuts and bolts (to the extent that they ever did)? Or that they/we see everything as a subset of these broader themes and issues anyway (change vs. more of the same, insider vs. outsider, reformer vs. Washington lifer)?

But all of this raises a larger question, and a fascinating one to me: In the way that '92 was all about specificity — I think it was said that specificity was a character issue that year — this campaign seems specificity-resistant. Why do you think that is?

K.L.: Maybe it's the naked focus on those undecideds this time around — the people who get excited about a Sarah Palin regardless of what it means (and mostly doesn't mean). They were all with Perot in '92, weren't they?

E.A.: I think so, yes. I believed, as many people did, that Obama's task at the convention was to really lay out a specific domestic program — and he did that. But no one's been talking about it. I suppose because there are so many bigger and sexier things to write about: Palin, Obama himself, all that drama with the Clintons…

K.L.: I was thinking about Gore's acceptance speech at the 2000 DNC — the one about "working families," etc. — and how it shocked a lot of the people covering the race because it was populist and pretty pissed off. Did you write that one?

E.A.: I worked on it, yes, though Gore did a lot of it himself and so did Carter Eskew and Bob Shrum. In fact, while I never loved the phrase "people not the powerful," we got quite a boost out of that speech, something insane like eighteen points. I think, despite what we often read, populism does tend to work. The elite audiences hate it, of course, which is why it always gets trashed over time.

K.L.: And yet, just enough of the undecideds ended up going with the oilman millionaire because they thought he'd be fun to have a beer with, even though he was an admitted alcoholic who couldn't even have a drink.

E.A.: See, I think the story of the 2000 race — so sad and tragic in retrospect — is that people didn't care much who won. It had been 94 months since the most recent economic slowdown, and we were (seemingly) at peace; most presidentials are waged an average of (I think) 36 months after the most recent slowdown. So people figured, as long as Alan Greenspan's healthy, this election doesn't matter much.

K.L.: Nothing else better explains the Nader phenomenon in 2000.

E.A.: And we spent about two years waving our arms around and saying, "Hey, the other guy will squander the deficit and doesn't know his way around the globe and will try to privatize Social Security"! And we were called alarmist and it all happened! Bush could never have been elected in a year like this one, when people knew there were stakes.

K.L.: That's what I thought about McCain a few months ago: No way will a crazy dingbat like him win in an election that matters. And yet…

E.A.: Yes, exactly. Now it's about hockey moms and whether McCain knows how to use the Internet! But it does surprise me that this year's race hasn't been more specific, carried more of a sense of consequence and weightiness…

K.L.: It's like a Philip K. Dick version of an election. It's all about shooting moose and getting tortured 40 years ago and respecting women and elitist blacks. It's insane.

E.A.: I worry that the two candidates are such powerful archetypes, they almost crowd out real discussion. And for my part, I don't really care what's discussed as long as my archetype (Obama) wins. Do you think the debates can change this? Do you think, as we get closer to Election Day, that voters will zero in on the choice in a more serious way? Kerry ALMOST steered the discussion back to hard substance in the '04 debates with quite powerful performances, though that Bin Laden video right before the election seemed to replace the analytical with the visceral, which is really the Republican home turf.

K.L.: I'd like to think the debates will matter, that people will watch this angry character snapping at everything, and Obama being solid and steady. But the McCain campaign could just do something stupid like the Palin stunt — have a Muppet pop up next to him, whatever — and Obama could give the best debate performance in U.S. history and nobody would mention it.

It's so hard to figure what those undecideds, that weird 10 percent of registered voters who somehow register to vote without paying any attention to politics, really make of the Palin thing, or any of the weekly outrages and fake scandals.

E.A.: I do believe, for some undecideds, that substance will become more important as the race goes on. And there is the hope that expectations of Palin's debate performance will rise, which makes it less likely she'll be viewed as the winner. Though, of course, Biden will still be measured far more strictly, and if she doesn't get all tangled up in the microphone cords and drool on herself, she'll probably be hailed as the victor.

K.L.: Ha-ha, that's sexist! (Everything is sexist now.)

E.A.: I plead guilty in advance for my politico-sexist ways.

K.L.: Yes, we are typical liberal elites.

Who knew that the 2008 election would be about anything beyond Iraq and the economy? It's actually about how an elitist black man from humble origins is trying to spread sexism.

Speaking of, WTF with that Dowd column about President Bartlet?

E.A.: I knew about it, but didn't see the final version … what did you think of it?

K.L.: I'll just say that it's not easy to write a humorous column about politics week after week. And if she needs to consult a TV show about a fictional president from several years ago, well, that is probably good for your residuals.

E.A.: Well, I have a huge soft spot for Jed Bartlet and Aaron Sorkin so I'll defend it. Art imitates life imitates art advises life…

I don't think the Writers Guild won any residuals for newspaper columns, but knowing my guild, they will strike for six months to get it. And then not get it. (Kidding, kidding! I love my guild.)