In the Reagan speechwriting shop, we had a rule about what today is called the mainstream media: The media does not just get things wrong; they get it EXACTLY wrong. Barack Obama’s recent overseas trip is an example.
Widely reported as a triumph, the tour in fact marked the worst week in the Democratic candidate’s long campaign. Despite saturation coverage unlike any presidential aspirant has ever received, much of it close to worshipful, by the end of this past week, Obama’s lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls was the lowest it had been since early June. And for the first time ever, the Gallup tracking poll, which had previously given Obama a consistent edge, showed the candidates tied as of Friday. Why?
The first and most obvious reason was a string of gaffes. Despite reports like Hendrik Herzberg’s in The New Yorker that Obama came off as a deft navigator of global waters, the excursion was filled with missteps. For example, in saying that he remained against the surge, even after General Petraeus had explained to him its remarkable effectiveness, he showed what many saw as a reckless disregard for national security. In canceling a visit to troops after being told that cameras couldn’t follow him, he reinforced a widely shared suspicion that all he was up to was political posturing. And in describing the fall of the Berlin Wall during his media-celebrated speech before 200,000 Berliners as if there had been no American role in the collapse of the Evil Empire, he seemed willfully ignorant of one of the greatest achievements of American diplomacy and strategy ever – perhaps because two Republican presidents had been in charge during that period, an unbecoming display of pettiness.
But beyond gaffes, something more fundamental fated Obama’s failure. Presidential campaigns are battles over agenda. Whichever candidate finds his agenda as the focus of discussion will very likely emerge the victor.
Throughout the primary campaign, Senator Obama had implied that the role of commander in chief was close to trivial. What else can be concluded from asserting that within 60 days following inauguration we could walk away from America’s largest combat commitment in 35 years with no consequences worth talking about? And yet, what was the message of his tour? Exactly what Senator McCain has argued, that commander-in-chief duties will be of central importance in the next presidential term. Apart from Obama’s adjustments to his stance on Iraq – and here much of the mainstream media rationalized every flip and every flop to his benefit – or the blandness of his Berlin address, the very fact of venturing abroad undercut the premises of the Illinois senator’s campaign.
Obama’s argument has been that the nation’s principal problems will not be solved by the application of policy – foreign or domestic – so much as by the repair of souls. The candidate’s sometimes-messianic tone has been a bi-product of a proposition that America is in a state of sin manifested by the divisions among us, that these divisions include those of excessive partisanship, and that Obama’s very election would represent the country’s transcending of its divisions.
This proposition is incompatible with a visit to a war zone and a speech given near where the Berlin Wall once stood. The world is a dangerous place, the journey acknowledged. Every moment invited comparison of a recently elevated state senator of no particular distinction with an opponent who in military service and the United States Senate has devoted his life to the nation’s safety.
In other words, in venturing overseas, Obama abandoned his agenda and embraced Senator McCain’s. He did this without prompting and apparently without realizing how foolish an errand he was on.
Many in the media have held that the 2008 election will be most like the election of 1980. In 1980 the public knew they didn’t like Carter but took until a week before the election to decide they trusted Reagan. Just as Reagan was the issue in 1980, some suggest, Obama is today. If the public trusts him, they will make him president.
But with so much coverage, not just on this trip but for months before, who in America cannot have formed a firm opinion of Senator Obama by now? Senator McCain is the one the public is still assessing. It is he, not Obama, whom the American people must now decide to trust or not. Once again the media has not just been wrong. It has been exactly wrong.
Clark S. Judge is managing director, White House Writers Group. He was a speechwriter for President Reagan.