In a moment of unusual candor for a political professional, John McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis admitted earlier this week, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." Cynical as the sentiment may sound, he may well be right. Now that the two presidential tickets are officially in place, let's consider what a "composite view" of each tells us about America 2008.
There has been much talk in this campaign season of the "death" of the Republican "brand," given the increased spending, corruption and mismanagement of the Iraq war over the last several years. No surprise then that John McCain is running as a "maverick" who is "his own man." Ironically though, in the moving conclusion to an otherwise-perfunctory acceptance speech, he said that his experience as a POW made him no longer "his own man," but his "country's man"—and urged his party to be the same.
Thus, the convention audience and those at home heard a brief listing of the important "policy" topics (strangely less on international issues than one would expect from McCain's background) mixed with a litany of McCain's "greatest hits" of bipartisan congressional struggle—campaign finance reform, immigration, Jack Abramoff-connected corruption, etc. For an acceptance speech, it seemed as much looking back as looking forward, with very little "new" in terms of vision or agenda that particularly connected him to what is ostensibly his "party." Similarly, there was little on display in the Xcel Center in St. Paul that said "Republican."
Across the country when people are asked which party they support for Congress, Democrats are beating Republicans by about 10 points. The Democrats had more people voting in their primaries than did the GOP. So far, the ratings for the Democratic Convention have been higher than the Republican one (though part of that is because Democrats drew twice the number of African-American viewers than the Republicans). So, with the Republican brand M.I.A., the convention is highlighting personality over policy. Thus, the two acceptance speeches by McCain and Sarah Palin were heavy on biography and narrative, light on outlined policy and vision.
And one thing was clear: McCain and Palin are to be seen as a team, a unit in a way that few presidential tickets have been in the past. Palin was selected to energize the Republican base, yes, but she was also standing as a symbol—a blue-collar woman with five children and an unusual career path. McCain is the wizened vet partnered with an up-and-coming, junior wing-woman, prepping her for an inevitable ascension.
They are opposed by inverse mirror images: Barack Obama is the quick-study, young man in a hurry who committed party matricide, jumping the expected next-in-line. He is the entrepreneurial CEO partnered with the older counsel, brought in to comfort shareholders unsure of whether to entrust such a large enterprise to a young, untested hand.
And that is the package presented to the nation. But make no mistake, the "sexiness" in these packages is to be found in Obama and Palin. They are attractive, 40-something pols, great on television and can electrify thousands, nay, millions of people.
What's missing here? Another long-time political brand.
Despite McCain being at the top of the ticket, he is as much a supporting character in this election-cum-reality series as Joe Biden. The general election has taken on the same cultural shape as the Democratic primary: White men are afterthoughts. In addition to sullying the Republican brand, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (who didn't even get a ceremonial "retirement" video at the convention) seemed to have besmirched the white male brand that has occupied both parts of presidential tickets since the country's founding.
Shockingly, the black man and the white woman are the story; they are driving the ratings. They are creating a narrative that is forcing the media into awkward questions touching upon race and gender roles. Even more fascinating, racial, class and ideological stereotypes are turned on their heads.
The perfect, nuclear, first-marriage family is black and Democratic; his political partner is on his second wife—only because his first died in a horrific accident.
The Republican ticket is led by a divorced man now remarried; his political partner, a white female, has a pregnant, unwed, teenager.
Finally, this unusual line-up demonstrates another truth, another "brand" that has fallen into disrepute: The fact that Obama and Palin are on their tickets shouldn't be such a surprise. At, respectively, 47 and 44, they are cultural Generation Xers. He was born in 1961: Though some demographers assess the boom years as 1946-64, others see the Boom ending—in a cultural sense, as much as a demographic one—in 1960. Besides, you can just tell that Obama is of a different generation than the Clintons or the Bushes or the Gores.
McCain is a pre-baby boomer, a member of what is known as the Silent Generation (yes, an unusual way to think about John McCain). The closest to being an actual baby boomer is Joe Biden, at age 65. But he is unlikely to become president, absenting anything horrible happening to a President Obama.
So, that means George W. Bush is likely to be one of only two baby-boom presidents—a remarkably short run at the top of the political ladder for an age cohort that has dominated the culture for nearly half a century. Contrast that with the Greatest Generation which produced eight presidents between 1960 and 1992 (admittedly, that number was slightly high due to assassination and resignation). But, given how divisive boomer presidents Clinton and Bush have been—with sizable percentages of the other party believing each man is not merely politically wrong, but evil—it's not surprising that circumstances have worked out that the baby boomer generation has been evicted from the White House.
And the generation following them is both more diverse and more comfortable with different gender roles and unusual career paths: McCain has been a military man and politician his entire life; Biden, a senator since he was 30. Obama went Ivy League, but then into, yes, community organizing before going into law; Palin had a meandering academic career before going into media and then politics. And, surprise, they are both on presidential tickets.
This is what Gen Xers do: Take calculated risks with fearless abandon—then hoping for a great reward.
"Republican." "White male." "Baby boomer." One campaign season has diminished or wiped away the importance of three brands dominant for decades.
Which leaves two questions: 1) What might be next? 2) Which Gen X "composite" will decide they are most comfortable representing 21st century America—Gen X as leader now or Gen X as leader-in-waiting?
Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer, and he blogs at Ragged Thots.