Tuesday, March 4, 2008

McCain-Clinton-Obama: Fish on the Arguments

Stanley Fish, nothing if not contrarian, has tried to make the case that Senator Clinton is more likely than Senator Obama to defeat Senator McCain in a general election.

The polls don't support it, but polls are all but meaningless given how much can be expected to happen between now and November. So much for polls; Fish is more interested in the quality of the foreseeable arguments available to the campaigns, as am I. That being so, I find this analysis hard to take:

With Obama as his opponent, McCain has the advantage every which way. He continues to get mileage out of the straight-talk express, and at the same time he also has the political flexibility that comes along with having taken a few detours along the way, and talked out of several sides of his mouth.
To a large degree, Obama and McCain are making the same argument: that partisan fights are all too familiar, tired, and unhelpful; that new leadership with a new approach is needed. Phony as it may be, Obama can't possibly lose that argument against McCain, who seems to have entered the Congress directly upon his release from Bethesda Naval Hospital in the early 1970s, intravenous drip still attached, whereupon he immediately began changing from one "straight-talk" principle to the next as the political winds shifted. I fail to see how Hillary Clinton could do as well against the McCain-as-outsider argument, given that she has taken every opportunity in this campaign to cite her 35 years in politics.

Moreover, Clinton's astonishingly stupid "3am phone call" ad requires no edits whatsoever to serve McCain in a race against Clinton, although he may choose to replace "I'm Hillary Clinton and I approve this ad" with "I'm John McCain and I approve this ad" -- or perhaps he could leave it intact and just tack his own "I approve this ad" to the end of hers, to reinforce the fact that his opponent has agreed that the more experienced and more warlike candidate is the more qualified candidate. The ad typifies her entire argument against the right wing on "national security," which amounts to two paltry words: me too. How many electoral defeats before people learn that me too is a failed argument when applied to important issues? It fails for all parties, not just Democrats.

Fish concedes the above, more or less, but adds a valid point:
Obama fever may spread, not only to Clinton supporters but to independents and Republicans who become caught up in the gospel of hope and change. The youth vote might actually turn out for once.
Every political season, it seems, "the youth vote" is attached to a candidate -- usually the one I favor -- and time after time, the youth vote fails to show up and actually cast ballots. If Obama can change that, he stands to do very well indeed. But that's speculation stacked on more speculation, so whatever. Back to the arguments.

Democrats will argue that a vote for McCain is a vote for a third Bush-Cheney term, as it actually would be on the war, the economy, judicial nominees, and plenty more -- being true helps an argument to succeed, all else equal. If Obama is making that argument, McCain will be reduced to issuing half-truths and changing the subject with fear-mongering. Whereas if Clinton is making that argument, McCain can reply with the same half-truths and add, "voting for Hillary Clinton brings back everything you hated about Bill Clinton, including Bill Clinton himself." Touche.

Clinton would make a much better President than McCain would, but she has to win first. The arguments available to her are weaker, on emotional and intellectual grounds, than the arguments available to Obama. I hope Democrats continue to see that Obama, whatever his imperfections, is the more convincing and electable candidate against McCain, and that winning in November is the first priority.

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