Senator Charles Schumer was on to something when he said a couple of weeks ago that John McCain is not "the most likable fellow." Schumer, whose hard work and salesmanship make up for his own likability challenges, was referring to one of McCain's now infamous debate performances. In truth, this general election campaign is the first time most American voters have had a chance to see McCain unfiltered and unvarnished (except for the pancake make-up his campaign insists he slap onto his face: he would be better off showing some scarring than looking embalmed). And they do not like what they see.
Forget about McCain's poor grasp of economics, his limited view of foreign affairs (so aptly called out by Colin Powell) and his flip-flopping on the environment, energy and stem cell research. Forget, even, about his lack of judgment in picking Sarah Palin, his erratic response to the financial crisis and his obsession with Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher. It is the disconnect between what voters expected from a maverick war hero statesman and what they saw during the debates: an angry, petty, envious creature not in control of his own physical or mental faculties. Gail Collins of the New York Times has provided the best description: he is Gollum, from Lord of the Rings ("We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.")
For over a decade, many voters have liked the idea of McCain: basically, a party-bucking military guy with a sense of humor. The problem was that it was all conceptual, mostly the creation of a bunch of journalists whose reverence for McCain verged on the dirty. Bob Schieffer, for instance, called himself dangerously beguiled by the Arizona Senator (now that's a mental picture one could easily do without). It may well be that alcohol-fueled bus rides and one-on-one encounters with McCain produce man crushes even among the most old-school of journalists, but that is not most voters' experience of him. Now that McCain has to play to a national audience without the benefit of much of a filter, we are seeing him for who he is, and a majority of us are recoiling at the vision.
His campaigns for Congress and for the Republican nomination in 2000 exposed him to a tiny fraction of voters in just four states: Arizona, where he has not faced a hard fight in decades; Iowa, where he is so utterly disliked that he is sure to lose the state Bush won in 2004; in New Hampshire, his political home away from home (where he is nonetheless lagging in polls); and in South Carolina, where this year Republicans finally came to the realization that he had not been guilty of miscegenation. Indeed, outside of Arizona, he has only had to face a small, motivated group of voters from his own party. Even this year's GOP fight was not especially enlightening to voters nationally: most barely followed it and for those who did, McCain was but one in a large group of flawed candidates who enjoyed about 90 seconds of debate time each.
This means that until very recently most Americans have only known the McCain that the media has presented through sound bites, worshipful paeans to his bipartisanship and glowing portraits of his maverickness. It is little surprise, then, that when Gollum shows up in debates and, to a lesser extent, at other public appearances, it is a bit of a shock. The result: McCain is seriously struggling in half the states won by George W. Bush in 2004, some of them scarlet red. Yes, the economy and the incumbent do not help, but it is hard to believe that a more congenial candidate than McCain would not be doing better.
Let's not underestimate the importance of a candidate's likability and how much it matters beyond policy, beyond even character to some extent. Bush had neither great policy ideas nor character, yet he was able to pull off two victories, including a convincing one in 2004. Before voters felt utterly conned by the current President, a majority liked him enough to vote for him. It is incomprehensible to many of us, but it is a fact that Bush was able to convince most Americans that he was a good guy, with simple tastes, their kind of humor, the high-school athlete next door, or something like that. They knew he was an alcoholic, draft-dodging, wealthy, patrician cheerleader, but it did not seem to matter. Of course, they now feel utterly stupid that they were duped by an imbecile, and thus he will leave office with extraordinarily low approval ratings, after eight full years as president. Perhaps this explains how quickly Palin's own approval numbers have crashed: how many times can you be swindled by a dangerously ignorant and inarticulate aw-shucks politician without realizing it will destroy your country?
Before he severely dented the esteem many Democrats held for him, during this election's primary season, Bill Clinton could do no wrong: it is no small feat for an American politician universally known to be a serial adulterer to be elected and reelected to the presidency. This surely is a testament to the good will Clinton's personality was able to generate among voters. Barack Obama's burden was slightly different: clearly charismatic in any setting, he had to prove he was competent, partly because of his relatively short experience (comparable, however, to Clinton's) and, frankly, because of his race. It is one thing to like Will Smith (the top box-office draw in the US and worldwide in recent years), LeBron James (top paid team athlete) or Tiger Woods (top paid athlete, period), but another altogether for many white voters to like AND vote for an African-American political candidate, especially for the presidency. It seems, though, that Obama has passed both the likability and competence tests.
The expectations McCain brought to the race were impossibly high to fulfill, thanks to decades of media cheerleading and his ability to believe in his own hype. Were he more disciplined, a la Hillary Clinton, he could pull it off, acting the part as if he believes it and staying in sync with the image that has been carefully crafted for him for years. Perhaps he is simply too tired to try, or care, or be able to do so. Instead, he sticks out his tongue (literally), rolls his eyes, clenches his jaw, paces like a madman; he drips with sarcasm, seethes with anger and opens his eyes wide in fake outrage. For all the inanity of the debates, let's be grateful for this: we now know who the real McCain is, and he is not the one that the intoxicated media said he would be.