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

Well, <i>eyeliner</i> on a pig changes everything!
Well, <i>eyeliner</i> on a pig changes everything! 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, New York columnist Kurt Andersen and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas discuss concocted gaffes, Sarah Palin's historical significance to the Republican Party, and whether there's any way to know which way the race will go.

M.M.: We're seeing another news cycle eaten up by a bs issue — that Obama supposedly called Palin a pig. The McCain campaign knows it's bs. The media knows it's bs. Yet they're talking about it. Do you see any way out of this cycle of bs? (Me being really eloquent there…)

K.A.: It's amazing that in an age of gotcha-ism and hair-trigger gaffe scrutiny we've come to a point where gaffes have to be concocted.

K.A.: I do think Obama's reasonableness and good humor and "niceness" in response to the bullshit is real, and that the (fake) anger that various commentators are suggesting he show isn't the way to go. But the way out is for the Next Juicy Moment to occur.

M.M.: Well, it's clear that Obama's "niceness" is making it easy for the McCain camp to hurl one ridiculous accusation after another. Witness the constant claim that Palin stopped the Bridge to Nowhere when in fact she was an ardent supporter. Every media outlet reports that it's a lie, yet it doesn't seem to matter. Biden was supposed to be the attack dog, yet he doesn't seem to be getting much oxygen if, indeed, he's attacking.

K.A.: The Bridge to Nowhere thing, indeed, is her principal claim to being a McCain Republican. But I think her disingenuousness/lying will get traction over time. My hunch is that we're still in the excited honeymoon stage with her, and it will fade, and the facts — like the fact that she was for the bridge, and took the money — will sit there and have salience in the end. I hope.

M.M.: We do have to remember that they call these things convention bounces for a reason. What comes up comes down, and we're already starting to see evidence of the "down" part today. But imagine if Palin were a Democrat? With the pregnant teenage daughter, the troubled son, the constant fibs … it took a manufactured quote to tag Gore with the "exaggerator" label. It doesn't seem so easy to do with Republicans.

K.A.: And imagine if McCain were, say, John Kerry? Fellow POWs would be found to cast doubt on his steadfastness in the Hanoi Hilton.

M.M.: I wonder what the equivalent of the Purple Band-Aid moment at the RNC convention might've been.

K.A.: But I do think going after Palin in the conventional sense is going to be hard for Biden & Obama to do for a little while longer — and probably counterproductive right now, until she's no longer "new." It took a while for Clinton to be able to attack Obama successfully last winter.

Purple Band-Aid?

M.M.: Mocking Kerry's Purple Heart in 2004.

But good point on Obama last year. Hadn't thought of that. Can you elaborate?

K.A.: First HRC was surprised by Iowa; then, because he was exciting and new (and black) and had momentum, her campaign was confused about how to attack; and then, after a couple of weeks, they got their ferocity and focus back — and the media (and "the people") were ready to register it. Although the time frame is more compressed now.

M.M.: There's the time frame; also, Palin isn't the presidential candidate. It really was a genius pick by McCain. He'd be on the ropes now had he picked Romney or Pawlenty. Lieberman might've injected some drama, but nothing like this.

K.A.: Because he/they realized or stumbled into the fact that the V.P. pick isn't really, in this day & age, if it ever was, a "functional" executive decision, but primarily a symbolic flag wave, almost a show-business casting decision.

M.M.: Well, it was clear McCain had his arm twisted on this. I think he really wanted someone he knew and trusted. Given the reaction to her, he obviously seems thrilled with the choice now, but it was clearly not his first. They just have to hope that her baggage doesn't catch up to him.

K.A.: Yes. Joe Lieberman wouldn't have given him a bounce, I don't think. Some adviser presumably accounts for the geniusness here. And maybe even then accidentally.

K.A.: I do think the baggage — Troopergate, the per diem $ for her own house, Bridge to Nowhere, etc. — while none of it is a game-changer individually, will accrete and, in the cold light of day in a month when the true swing voters finally decide, may count.

M.M.: I hope so. Regardless, I think we'll be seeing lots of Palin in years to come. I actually see in her and Huckabee a little of what we did with the Dean campaign: Challenge the system, lose, then take over our Democratic Party. If Palin and Huckabee are smart, they'll take a similar tack.

K.A.: Or Reagan.

M.M.: And while it'd be easy to dismiss them as fringe, they have a ton of personal appeal. We dismiss them at our own peril.

Reagan was sort of a culmination of the Goldwater movement. He wasn't the catalyst. If not "culmination" (which might really be the Gingrich revolution of '94), at least an important marker.

K.A.: But I don't think she (or Huckabee) are really the catalysts either. They're embodiments and markers, too, of the Christian-right ascension that was sort of phase two of the Reagan Revolution.

M.M.: Hmmm. I smell a future book. You can have dibs.

K.A.: The polling swing of true independents toward McCain, though, the last week is really worrying to me. I think it means there's a certain large fraction of independents who just hate the Establishment.

Worrying not because they hate the Establishment but because they feel that Palin is a worthy embodiment of that.

M.M.: Yup. That's the only red flag in polling that otherwise hasn't concerned me too much. If McCain consolidates his support in places like Alabama and Idaho, it sucks for down-ballot Democrats but isn't crippling to Obama. Any signs that he's losing independents, on the other hand, is.

K.A.: Exactly. And getting them back requires, I think, showing that she's a "normal politician," i.e. earmark-hungry, etc. As you look at the state-by-state polling, are there big differences in the post-convention Palin bounce?

M.M.: Surprisingly little in the battleground states. McCain picks up one to two points here, Obama picks up one to two points there. The overall picture remains similar. The one exception might be Ohio, where McCain has stretched out a lead of five to six points, but that's been offset by Florida, where Obama has closed an early gap and has it tied. And best of all, unlike 2004, we don't need either of those two states. Obama still looks great in Iowa, New Mexico, and needs just one more state out of many to close it out.

K.A.: If he wins Michigan and Pennsylvania.

M.M.: Obama? Penn is barely competitive at this point. Michigan is, but still gives Obama a five-ish-point lead

K.A.: You're more sanguine than I. The Charlie Gibson interview, I guess, will probably be the next big benchmark.

M.M.: Yeah, and then the debates. Though of course Kerry crushed Bush in the debates, but expectations were so low for Bush, it didn't matter. So at the end, I have to hope that overall national trends, the desire for change, and Obama's ground operation close this out. Because at the Senate and House levels, Democrats will make huge gains. The presidency is just about the only real drama, and Republicans are putting EVERYTHING they have into it.

K.A.: As for the debates (first one in two weeks!), there's substantive rhetorical crushing, and there's how these two beings compare, in the flesh, side by side. How they do compare in person, barring some truly remarkable gaffe (à la Ford on Soviet domination of Eastern Europe) or stroke of performance genius (Reagan: "There you go again"), is going to be dispositive, I think. And the risk for Biden looking like an asshole versus Palin is huge.

M.M.: So our time is up. Any last words of wisdom?

K.A.: I think your formulation "close this out" is probably more wishful than relevant. I've always thought this was 50-50, and I still do. I don't think it's closed out until November 4.

M.M.: Agreed. That's the ground-game part.

Earlier: Markos Moulitsas and Alex Pareene on McCain’s Mysterious Bump, Obama and the Electoral College, and Fetishizing the Undecided Voter

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.