The recent flurry of controversy over the questioning of McCain’s qualifications for the Presidency reveals a strange transformation in American politics. We no longer argue about the substance of candidates and issues, but about their poses and postures. The defenders of John McCain are not outraged that critics question how John McCain would go about being president. They are outraged because critics question how John McCain goes about being John McCain. It is the coolness, the righteousness, the mojo of the McCain BRAND that was being questioned.
What John McCain’s propaganda machine is trying to sell to the electorate is a posture, a way of acting, an attitude toward the world, not a set of principles or policies. To attack the goodness of his behavioral facade is to strike at the core of a modern political candidate. The electorate has been conditioned to buy the package, not the contents of the package. The taboo that General Clark violated was to attack the attractiveness of McCain’s personality package.
The persona of the “military man” is a powerful brand in American politics. We saw it defended vigorously when General Petraeus was criticized for backing an escalation of the Iraq war. Opponents of the surge were NOT attacked for questioning the surge tactic; they were attacked for questioning the goodness of an American Army officer. Their crime was trying to damage the US military “brand.”
Similarly, McCain’s defenders are defending the “gutsy Navy pilot” brand, not the leadership qualifications of John McCain, who hasn’t flown a jet in decades. The inability to focus on the actual qualifications of political candidates is a sign of a dysfunctional political process. A similar focus on Obama’s magical, mystical persona as an agent of change afflicts the campaign of the Democratic candidate.
Unfortunately, when the voters go to the polls to elect a President in November, they will be choosing between two package designs, not two sets of alternative policies. It is time to pay attention to the package contents, because the challenges facing America in the next decade will not be solved by posturing and packaging.