Walk With Kings, Nor Lose the Common Touch


Last night’s McCain/Obama debate was pretty much a draw, suspending any partisan sentiment. Obama was strong out of the starting gate; He is certainly smooth, and he knows how to play on people’s concerns on the sensitive economic front. But on foreign policy, McCain’s experience showed, and his character shone.

He had some sharp lines, too: “Are you afraid I couldn’t hear him?” and “Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.” Funny and oh-so-true.

Both candidates banged a populist drum, something I’d heard predicted yesterday morning by Hank Sheinkopf, the Democratic political consultant and frequent commentator on CNN and other networks. At a Friday morning talk in midtown, Sheinkopf emphasized his belief that whoever can capture the populist ethos will win the election. In particular, he speculated the race will be extremely close and victory will go to he who is able to display (or best simulate) this common touch. The immediate tool for its expression will be the Wall Street crisis.

“The person who stands up and calls for blood will win [the election,]” he said, “because people don’t want to bail out these [Wall Street] gangsters….and they do think they’re gangsters. [Whereas] the first person to stand for the bailout will lose.”

The candidates certainly used tonight’s debate as a showcase for this kind of populist sentiment. Obama: “We’ve been hearing a lot about Wall Street, but those of you on Main Street have been struggling for a long time…” McCain: “I called for the resignation of the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission…somehow on Wall Street today, greed is rewarded…as president of the U.S. people are going to be held accountable in my administration.” McCain: “Main Street is paying a penalty for the excesses and greed of Wall Street…” Obama: “We’ve had years in which the reigning ideology has been what’s good for Wall Street, not what’s good for Main Street.”

The last time I heard this much discussion of “Main Street” I was watching my cousin star in a high school production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

Where even is the proverbial Main Street, this place where the lion’s share of people’s time and energy is spent resenting the big guy on Wall Street? It seems to me that most people in small town U.S.A. have the common sense to understand that, concerning as the looming economic crisis is and clear as the need is for reform, this country has murderous and real enemies, and dealing with them must be the federal government’s first priority. One thing is for sure, tonight McCain’s character showed as he highlighted the folly of Obama’s notions about meeting without preconditions with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “When you sit across a table from someone who’s called Israel a stinking corpse, [and] you legitimize these comments, it’s not just naïve, it’s dangerous.”

I wonder, though, if most viewers realize the danger of such potential “negotiations,” or that, to the extent there is anyone remotely approaching reasonable in Iran’s government, we are negotiating with them already. My friend Thinking Man commented, “To the average viewer, McCain’s point about never sitting down with Ahmadinejad probably just seemed simplistic. The average guy probably thinks, ‘So you sit down with him? So you talk with him, so what?'”

It’s too bad that, because of the delicacy of international affairs and diplomacy, McCain can’t really give the American people straight talk about the peril of such “negotiations,” without preconditions, at the Presidential level.

If he could, I imagine the dialogue would go something like this: “We are already on diplomatic terms with the Saudis, a country that systematically brainwashes its people against us and from which most of the 9/11 hijackers came. We help to fund the Palestinian Authority, a body whose “leader” argued in his Phd thesis that the Holocaust never occurred, that helps to sponsor the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terrorist group that has killed many innocent Israelis, our allies. We are bending over backward to dialogue with any organization that has credibility with the Arab “Street” that we perceive to be even a smidgen less than utterly hellbent on dominating/destroying us and our allies, including Israel. If there is even a slight chance such people exist within the Iranian power structure, don’t you think we would be or are engaged in dialogue with them already?

“While we’re at it, my friends, let me give you some more straight talk: do you know what sitting down and talking means? It means opening the door to negotiating. Do you know what negotiating entails? Let me tell you. It means trading. It means we are open to–we are potentially willing to–give the people with whom we are speaking at least some portion of what they want. Ask yourselves, what does Iran, a country that is run by religious fundamentalist fanatics, that has been killing U.S. soldiers through terrorist attacks in Iraq, that has vowed destruction of another country, want? What portion of its demands would you suggest I cede to? And if, rather than ceding the deaths of more Americans, Iraq’s collapse, Israel’s destruction, the destruction of our European allies and, down the road, ourselves, to make way for an Islamic caliphate, I merely offer to give this country a significant amount of goods or money to stop doing these things, are you prepared for the strong likelihood that this regime will be emboldened and continue its evil from a position of greater strength, thanks to such ‘negotiations?'”

It would seem John McCain is that rare man who can, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “…talk with crowds and keep [his] virtue/Or walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch.”

If only geopolitical and diplomatic realities, along with the realities of our media age, allowed him to offer the common man a more comprehensive sort of straight talk. I fear his not doing so may cost him the election, and cost the rest of us more dearly than we can imagine.

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