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Billy Kimball Headshot

Well Played, John McCain!

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The apocalyptic tone of this year's presidential race is starting to wear me out.

While neither Barack Obama or John McCain is claiming that the world will end if the other is elected (on the other hand, both Sarah Palin and Joe Biden seem perfectly capable of saying such a thing, but no one can talk to the former and no one is listening to the latter), their fans are becoming tribal. It's becoming hard to imagine that the McCainians and the Obamaites will be able to live together on November 5th considering the terrible things they're saying about each other.

Although I am planning to vote for Barack Obama, let me declare here and now that if John McCain wins the election, I will not be moving to France. I like it here. I might like it less with a conservative Supreme Court or with further tax cuts for the wealthy or with Sarah Palin as president (though, I couldn't care less about having a goofball vice-president; I've lived through those before.) but not enough to move pre-emptively.

Still, it's getting very lonely in the middle-of-the-road. After all, there isn't much to do there, although I'm thinking of circulating an online petition to declare one's admiration for both candidates and the democratic process in general.

On either side, the tribes are working themselves into a frenzy by attacking not just the figureheads but one another. It's not just, "I don't want to live in a country where John McCain is president." It is becoming "I don't want to live in a country with people who voted for John McCain."

Anecdotally, it seems as though mixed communities of the two tribes are now as rare in the U.S. as they are in Baghdad. I regularly hear from people who say that they simply don't know anyone who is voting for Senator McCain, even as the polls tell us that almost half of our fellow Americans are at least leaning that way. The insularity of the sides is so profound that the question is not, "Are you for Obama?" but "Have you maxed out yet?"

And the old-fashioned taboo on discussing politics in polite company, lest someone who disagrees with you take offense, has gone the way of the top hat and fish knife. People I know speak not just of politics but of nothing but politics. This is not because my friends are rude, but because the likelihood that anyone present disagrees with them is zero. It's not a matter of convincing anyone just over-topping one another's enthusiasm.

Still, you can't be indignant all the time. Shouting "fraud" and "lie" at every maneuver by the other side becomes a verbal tic. Inevitably, some people (most likely those with soft preferences that both sides need to win over) become habituated in their response, like the spider who stops investigating the inedible scientist tapping on her web.

Outrage fatigue officially set in for me as I observed the Left's reaction to the latest gambit by McCain: the announcement midday on Wednesday that he was "suspending his campaign" in order to return to Washington, roll up his sleeves, and solve the current financial crisis. Of course, we all know that presidential candidates have planes at their disposal and can command whatever legions are necessary to make remarkable things happen. Maybe John McCain can't be two places at once. But among living humans, he is one of four or five people in the world who can come awfully close. Further, as many have pointed out, a president has to be able to deal with a crisis without abandoning his other essential duties. To hearken back to dear old President Ford, one of the most basic stress tests of presidential timber is being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

But putting that aside for a minute, you have to admit that McCain's move was kind of clever, as the irritable response from the Obama camp proves. Either Obama RSVPs "yes" to McCain's invitation and appears to be following his lead or his stands around the stage in Oxford, Mississippi checking his watch and looking peevish. And partisan. And, worst of all, "political." And if anyone dares to say that McCain is dodging a debate, his people can always point out that he offered to face Obama ten times, an offer that Obama foolishly declined. (Sure, the carefully specified "town hall" format would supposedly favor McCain but isn't Barack Obama the great orator and Harvard Law Review president supposed to be able to wipe the floor with this McCain guy, even with one hand tied behind his back?)

The witchdoctors in Obama's hemi-blogosphere keep ranting that a presidential election is not a game and that the choice we are faced with is too important for schemes and stratagems. Give me a break! Wars are not a game, either, but they should be fought with minds as well as hearts. Coming up with an intelligent and unexpected ruse that puts your opponent on the defensive is a presidential skill, too, like being able to do two things at once.

The other side made a good play (or ploy, if you insist.) And it was a pretty clean one at that. Maybe John McCain is lying about his motives for making the dramatic return to Capitol Hill but he isn't lying about any facts. So, chuckle and applaud, if you can, or sulk and stew, if you must. But remember that debates have perils for Obama, too, with his penchant for pedantry and, at the end of the day, if the Illinois senator can navigate the false choice he's been confronted with, John McCain may have done him a huge favor.