And so it begins, the campaign proper. You probably guessed that there would be no letup in this relentless year, no break between the primaries and the general election, that both candidates would stay on the screen. You were right. They will not leave, and go, and rest. They feel they can’t, it’s inch by inch, slow and steady wins the race. This robs them of the power of disappearance. You disappear and then come back and people say, “Hey, look at that guy.” They listen anew after a break in the drone. Not this time. And maybe never again.
For Barack Obama this week, a Beltway setback. He chose for a key position a D.C. insider who got fat working the system. This was a poor decision by the candidate of change. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But Jim Johnson was removed with dispatch, and the country didn’t notice. Beltway bottom line: Mr. Obama the cool customer had a problem, removed the problem, has no problem.
John McCain had a worse time, with the famously awkward speech in front of the background whose color was variously compared to snot, puke and lime Jell-O. He was scored for not being adept with a teleprompter. The press knocked him, essentially, for not being smooth and manipulative enough. But if he were good at the teleprompter, they’d complain that he’s too smooth and scripted.
The press will be nice to him again. When he’s 17 points down.
It should not count against a man that he has not fully mastered the artifice of his profession. Then again, he should have nailed the prompter by now. Such things show a certain competence. Voters are slower to trust you with big things if they see a lack of skill in small things. In this vein, a suggestion. Podiums always seem to swallow Mr. McCain. He has limited mobility with his arms because of his torture in Vietnam. It restricts his ability to gesture. And he is not a big man. He often looks like he’s flailing up there: I’m not waving, I’m drowning! His staff should build a podium for him, one that fits, and take it wherever he goes. For a seal, the great state of Arizona, which he has represented in the U.S. Senate for 22 years. Let him master the podium five months out. Other masteries will follow.
The lay of the land? Mr. Obama is ahead 47% to 41% in this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, and no one is surprised. Everyone knows he’s ahead. Everyone knows this is a Democratic year. But I think there are two particular subtexts this year, or perhaps I should say texts. One, obviously, is youth versus age. This theme is the clearest it’s been since 1960, when the old general who’d planned the Normandy invasion found himself replaced by a young man who had commanded a rickety patrol torpedo boat in World War II. You know that on some level, at some moment, Dwight D. Eisenhower looked at John F. Kennedy and thought: Punk.
But 2008 will also prove in part to be a decisive political contest between the Old America and the New America. Between the thing we were, and the thing we have been becoming for 40 years or so. (I’m not referring here to age. Some young Americans have Old America heads and souls; some old people are all for the New.)
Mr. McCain is the Old America, of course; Mr. Obama the New.
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