August 31, 2008

VP Picks Reveal Contrasting Election Strategies of McCain and Obama

After the American Century

McCain and Obama have chosen quite different campaign strategies, as their choice of vice-presidential running mates reveals. McCain has adopted the polarizing tactic of going to the Right. Sarah Palin has extreme right-wing positions on most issues. Should Creationist ideas be given credibility? Yes, teach them in schools. Should gays be allowed to marry? Never. Should guns be controlled in any way? No way. Should abortion be permitted in any situations, for example when pregnancy is due to rape or incest? Absolutely not. Is global warming caused by human beings? Certainly not. Should alternative energies be developed? No. Should women's bodies by commodified? She was runner-up in Miss Alaska.

Huckabee supporters are delighted with her selection. So what if she has no law degree, no knowledge of history, no experience in government, and no ideas? She is a religious woman, an athlete, a gunslinger mother, and she wants to drill for every drop of oil that God in his infinite wisdom, as part of his intelligent design of the universe, deposited in American wilderness areas and wildlife reserves. Sarah Palin thus qualifies as the worst imaginable vice-president for the liberals and the best possible one for cultural conservatives. Selecting her is an example of mobilizing the base, or getting a high percentage of your side out to vote. At the same time, McCain's strategy now must be to run negative advertisements about Obama, in order to demotivate his base. Rather than win over opponents, it is just as effective to convince them to stay home. McCain has, in other words, adopted the Karl Rove theory of divisive and negative politics.

Obama has chosen the opposite strategy. He has softened many of this positions, so they are more mainstream. He has chosen Joe Biden, the experienced, moderate insider, who has a history of working with Republicans to get legislation through Congress. Obama is appealing to all Americans, including even the evangelicals, and he has tried to reassure them that he is religious himself. A careful reading of his acceptance speech reveals several passages sprinkled with religious references. He has positioned himself as the champion of the middle class. Almost everyone in the US thinks of themselves as being middle class, so he is promising the middle class a tax cut.About the only people Obama has written off are the big oil companies.

Until the selection of Sarah Palin, the election looked close. But now it is possible it will not be. Conceivably the American voters will become excited by Palin and will lose enthusiasm for Obama after a barrage of negative ads from the Republicans. But the more likely result is that Independents and moderate Republicans will be disenchanged with the McCain-Palin ticket. The Republicans are the smaller party, numerically, and they need the moderates to win.

This choice makes McCain more popular on the Right, but has apparently not been inspiring to his fellow Senators. Of the 49 Republicans from that chamber, it now appears that 10 find their schedules so busy they will not be able to attend the convention in St. Paul. Are ten of the most powerful Republicans treating McCain as a pariah? Are they afraid they might be photographed together, or worse yet, be seen shaking hands with President Bush?

August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin, Not Qualified

After the American Century

John McCain has selected as his running mate a person who clearly is not qualified to be president. Palin has a BA degree in journalism and mass media from the University of Idaho in Moscow. Danish readers may think a degree in journalism suggests a high quality person who managed to get into a very competitive program. But all state colleges and universities have such departments in the US, and they are not hard to get into. Palin attended not a top school, nor a second rank school, but a mediocre school located in Moscow, Idaho. Anyone spending a few minutes looking at their current faculty will see that there appears to be not a single scholar of distinction among them. Look at the curriculum, and it is evident that history, law, critical thinking, and other vital subjects one might expect of a president are all lacking.

So armed with this light-weight degree from a third-rate institution, Palin returned to Alaska, lived in a small town, had five children, and got involved in politics. All very admirable, but note that Alaskan politics are nothing like politics in the other 49 American Studies. Alaska continually elects Republicans, and is close to being a one-party state. Alaska has no state income tax, because its oil revenues are so large. Indeed, all residents of Alaska get a check each year from the State government, from the oil surplus. The financial problems faced by all other US states are entirely different. Being governor of a state with such a surplus does not prepare one to deal with ordinary economies. Furthermore, Palin has a bit less than two years of experience as governor, being elected as a reformer as part of a protest against extensive corruption in the Republican Party in Alaska. All that oil money washing around gets tempting.

It appears that Ms. Palin is not corrupt, which is something of course, though she is under investigation for abuse of power. She fired a state employee, apparently because he would not dismiss her ex brother-in-law, who seems a nasty piece of work who beat up her sister. One assumes that this heart-warming story of family values in action will be explored mercilessly in the coming weeks.

How did McCain come up with this mistaken nomination? We know that he cannot use computers, but perhaps his staff can. Imagine that they put into a data base the names of all Republicans holding state and national offices. Then they selected a running mate based on ideal criterea. The running mate should be under 50 to counter McCain's age, married with children, anti-abortion since his record is a bit weak on that, pro-gun ownership, a Bible-thumper to satisfy the Huckabee fanatics, and a completely unknown woman, to show that McCain really is a maverick. Once all the candidates were sorted with these criterea in mind, there was only one left: Sarah Palin!

I thought George Bush Sr. would always keep the prize for choosing the least qualified person to be president, in Dan Quayle. He was a pretty face behind which yawned a vast empty space where the mind can usually be located. He was the man who made himself immortal by apologizing to a group of Latin American leaders, by saying, "I'm sorry I do not speak Latin." But Sarah Palin looks like such a strong entry in the incompetent-nominee Veepstakes that Bush, Sr. has good reason to be worried. I'll bet, for starters, that Palin doesn't speak Latin either.

John McCain has failed the first important test of his leadership. He has selected a person too provincial. too poorly educated, and too inexperienced to be a plausible replacement for himself. She has no knowledge of the law, no experience operating in a state with normal economic problems, and no foreign policy experience. Compared to Joe Biden, there is no contest at all.

By himself, John McCain is a disquieting, backward-looking candidate, who is out of touch with computer technologies and the problems of ordinary people. I thought that was bad enough. But add Ms. Palin, and the Republicans have a grossly unacceptable team. It is inconceivable that any major European political party would run a person with so few qualifications as their number two candidate. Actually, until Dan Quayle it was inconceivable that the Amercans would.

I want to thank John McCain for this wonderful blunder, which should make the next two months much more entertaining - not least because many Republicans and some of media apparently do not yet see that she is not qualified.

August 29, 2008

Sun for Obama, Hurricane for McCain

After the American Century

There are times when the time, the place, and the very elements come together in patterns that make events seem fated, and the speech Barack Obama made in Denver was one of those moments in history. Convention locations and times are decided long before the candidates have been selected, so no one planned the coincidence that the first Black American to be nominated for president would close the convention on the very day that Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream speech" 45 years ago. Nor could anyone have forseen that Colorado itself would be a crucial swing state in the coming election. Obama did choose to speak outdoors in a stadium, and this was taking a chance on the weather. No one could guarantee years in advance that the day in question would be sunny, the evening would be gorgeous, the crowd ecstatic.

The chances of history do not appear to be favoring the Republicans, who prepare to hold their convention next week in St. Paul. Located on the Mississippi, it was always possible that it could remind Americans of the terrible flooding of New Orleans further downstream in 2005, exactly three years ago, and the disgracefully poor response of the Bush Administration. Weather reports now make clear that Hurrican Gustav will likely hit Louisiana just as the Republicans are scheduled to begin their convention. Not only is it a terrible reminder to voters of their cronyism, incompetence, and utter failure in a national emergency, but if the storm is at all serious, it will drown interest in what the Republicans are saying. Indeed, there is open talk of postponing their convention. However, anyone who has organized even a small conference knows that trying to change the dates will be a logistical nightmare, almost certain to make the Republicans look disorganized and reduce the impact of the event. Imagine trying to rebook 15,000 hotel rooms, to change all those airplane reservations, and so forth. So the ultimate nightmare: Republicans have a party in Minnesota while a storm rages in their electoral heartland. The scourge almost seems Biblical.

The sun shines on the Democrats, a hurricane strikes the Republicans. Shakespeare would have no problem that, and might have knocked out a couplet to punctuate the transition.

Then rose a mighty Hurricane upon the GOP convention.
It howled down John McCain and drowned his nomination.

August 28, 2008

Democratic Convention Even More Interesting Than Newspapers Tell You It Is

After the American Century

The nominating convention is not an institution invented by the Founding Fathers, and is not mentioned in the Constitution. It emerged in the 1830s, as voting was democratized and as the nation continued to expand well beyond the original 13 states. By the time convnetions were becoming a standard feature of US politics, the telegraph was available to publicize major speeches and the nominating process. One is tempted to think of the later nineteenth century as a golden era, when conventions really mattered, because real debate took place and because real choices between candidates had to be made. Judging by the general quality of the presidents from Grant to McKinley, however, perhaps Mark Twain and Dudley Warner were right to call it only the Gilded Age, or superficially golden.

Since then, every generation has reinvented the convention, which today is a showcase of unity, not a forum for debate. The Democratic National Convention in Denver is certainly a case in point. After a intra-party civil war all spring, the Clintonites have given their unequivocal support to Barack Obama. Moreover, the party has paraded a host of other speakers before the public, to show the diversity and talent that the Democrats can bring to the White House, if given the chance.

I watched all of the speakers on Tuesday night, and recommend going to YuuTube for a look at some of those who have not gotten much subsequent attention, particularly in Denmark where the quality of the coverage has been superficial at best. One of the best performances was that of the Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, who literally had the entire convention standing up and shouting their support by the end of his 15 minutes. He came across beautifully as a shrewd rancher turned politician, with economic policies that had already done for his state what Obama wants to do for the nation as a whole. But these words are a silly, weak, and dry summary that does no justice to his sly, triumphant performance. Watching him, you can see why the pragmatist wing of the party has managed to win the governorships of the formerly "Red" states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and even McCain's Arizona.

Other speakers reminded the party of its more radical traditions and urban roots, none better than Dennis Kucinich, a member of the House of Representatives from Cleveland. He has been demanding the impeachment of George W. Bush for lying to the nation about the reasons for going to war with Iraq. His six minute speech, "Wake Up America" was a wonderful example of a vitriolic, Populist attack on Washington, specifically the policies of George Bush. He also got much applause from the party faithful, though less than the more folksy Governor of Montana.

Then there were the personal stories told by ordinary citizens, something European politics might learn from. It is one thing to hear in the abstract that the Republican Congress has blocked legislation that would ensure women are given equal pay for equal work. It is another thing to hear a grandmother talk about working for a tire company for 19 years, discovering that during all that time she was given smaller raises than her male co-workers, winning a lawsuit at the local level, but losing it on appeal (Republican appointed judges on the Supreme Court), and how legislation to outlaw such discrimination was thwarted in the Senate (Republicans). There were many others with important personal stories to tell, and collectively they underscored the Democratic Party's platform.

If one follows all of the events, which can be done on-line, what emerges is a richer and more interesting tapestry of images and ideas than one gets from the newspapers. They have to tell one or at most two stories, and so focus on just a few aspects of the Convention. Yes, Hillary and Bill both gave excellent speeches, but there was far more content in many other presentations. As so often happens, reporters focus on those elements of the present that they know from the past. The Clintons are already history, as the saying goes. Their style of politics is on the way out, replaced by the pragmatism of a new generation. For one more example of that, have a look at the speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. I want to end by quoting extensively from his speech on Tuesday night:

"When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 50s and 60s, everything was broken. Playgrounds, schools, families and lives all broken. But we had a community. Those were days when every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. So if you messed up in front of Ms. Jones' stoop, she would straighten you out as if you were hers and then call home, so you would get it twice. What those adults were trying to get across to us was that they had a stake in us. They wanted us to understand that membership in a community is seeing the stake that each of us has in our neighbor's dreams and struggles, as well as our own."

Patrick went on, "Barack Obama has challenged us to rebuild our national community. To focus not on the things that tear us apart, but on those that bring us together; not on the right or the left, but right and wrong; not on yesterday, but tomorrow. These are the possibilities Barack Obama asks us to reach for. This is the kind of leadership he offers to bring to the presidency, not because government can solve every problem in everybody's life; but because "government," as Barney Frank likes to say, is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."

There is so much more to the Convention than you can find in the newspapers, especially the Danish newspapers, that for the rest of the campaign - less than 70 days left now - it would be best to get out on the Web and see the speeches, or read them, for yourself, rather than let a reporter tell you what was said. Just as important, you need to look for the things not covered at all in the newspapers.

August 23, 2008

Can Joe Biden Help Obama Regain the Lead?

After the American Century

Obama has chosen Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware since 1972 as his running mate. Biden has long chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (when the Democrats had a majority in that chamber) and his extensive experience there shores up one of Obama's weak points. The choice underscores the historical fact that vice-presidents often are not selected based on their ability to deliver a particular state. Delaware is one of the smallest states in the nation, and with only three electoral votes is not an important prize in itself. More important is Biden's mix of experience, feisty energy, and extensive Washington connections that will make him an engaging contrast to Obama.

Biden can emphasize that he is a Catholic, born in the working-class town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The over-riding question is whether he can inspire working-class voters who have been reluctant to support Obama. During the past month he has fallen in the polls against McCain, who might win a close election were it held today. The many polls tracked by RealClearPolitics collectively show that a month of negative campaigning led by Karl Rove trainees, has taken its toll on the Illinois senator. To some extent McCain has also risen in the polls, but a considerable number of voters, at least 15%, remain undecided. Negative campaigning has created some of that indecision.

In the last week Obama has begun to hit back, with his own negative advertisements. And so the downward spiral accelerates, propelling this campagin, like all others in recent memory, down the low road of attacking character rather than debating policies. McCain has accused Obama of being unpatriotic, inexperienced, and elitist, to make a short list. Obama is now replying that McCain is too wealthy and out of touch to understand the economy or the problems of ordinary Americans. The Arizona Senator provided grist for this mill when he could not tell a reporter how many houses he has. A man who is not certain how many houses he owns (seven) the argument goes, does not deserve to sit in the White House. Certainly, he is in a far different position than 99% of the public.

Obama has tried to keep to the high road in his national campaign advertisements, reserving the negative advertisements for particular state races. There is no need to parade negativity in places where he is comfortably ahead, like California or New York. If his strategy works, it will present him as an idealist who would rather not get down in the mud, but will fight there if that is the ground staked out by McCain's Rove-inspired campaign.

The danger with negative campaigning remains that in the end both candidates will only look bad to the voters. Perhaps the addition of Joe Biden will move Obama in another direction, quite familiar from previous races, where the vice-presidential nominee goes on the attack while the presidential candidate tries to stand above the fray.

Meanwhile, the press seems to agree that McCain has not yet decided on a running-mate, but that he is seriously considering three governors: Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota, Charlie Crist of Florida, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Many other names have been discussed, however, perhaps the most interesting being Condolezza Rice - who could suddenly give him traction with both Black and women voters.

With the race a statistical dead-heat, the coming two weeks of conventions may prove crucial to the public's perception of both candidates, and to the result on election day.

August 21, 2008

Why Class Size Matters

After the American Century

As universities and secondary schools and primary schools begin the new academic year, once again there are stories in the press about class size. In Denmark, some schools have pressed up the number of students to 30 in a room, and such class sizes can also be found in some parts of the US. Now anyone can see that the more students there are, the more work there is for the teacher, in terms of grading papers, exams, and reports. But actually, this is not the main problem with the larger classes.

After teaching for more than three decades, I think I have some insight into why class size matters. First, the larger the class the less each student can participate. If there are 30 students in a class that meets for one hour, given equal time, each of them can only speak for two minutes. In a language class, for example, that means students will speak so little that they will not improve. Furthermore, as all teachers can tell you, once there are 30 students, it becomes almost impossible to get all of them to participate equally. Rather, a smaller number will do more of the talking, and some will sit silently most of the time. Class participation matters because it gets students thinking. As soon as a student expresses an idea it must be defended, explained, compared to other positions, and so forth. The quiet student is far less likely to get engaged in discussions, and less likely to develop thoughtful positions.

A second reason class size matters is due to the internal dynamics of the group. Consider a class with just two students. There is only one relationship for each, two in all. Add one more student, and there are suddenly six relationships, two for each. Add a fourth student, and each of the four students has three relations, a total of 12. In other words, the social complexity of a class increases geometrically. By the time there are 30 students in a room, each of them has 29 relationships, not to mention cliques, clusters, and groups. A teacher can keep an eye on 15 or 20 students and maintain a sense of the various dynamics of the room, but the task becomes immensely more difficult as each new person is added. Speaking for myself, somewhere between 22 and 24 students the class gets too large for a comfortable, open dynamic. Consider that 22 students, who collectively have 462 potential relationships. A politician with no teaching experience may think it does not mean too much to add eight more students, but in fact the social complexity of what is going on almost doubles, to 870 potential relationships. At this point, few teachers can keep track of the internal dynamics in a class. More importantly, the students themselves cannot keep track of them all. A class is no longer comfortable, but unpredictable. It ceases to be a open context, and many decide to keep their heads down. Teachers find it necessary to do more and more of the talking as class size rises. Once larger than 30, it becomes hard to avoid turning the lesson into a lecture.

These two reasons ought to be enough, but there is one more. The larger the class gets, the more stressful teaching becomes, assuming that the teacher wants to keep a dialogue alive with the students. As the numbers grow, it becomes harder to remember student names and their individual problems, and students immediately sense this and of course resent it. As classes grow, teachers find it hard to create and maintain a bond. Disruptions and disciplinary problems become more frequent. Teachers caught in that situation year after year may leave the profession. Some will think it is their own fault, but foolish politicians who are "optimizing resources" are the culprits.

When you hear about classes being larger than about 24, you can be sure the educational process is in danger. When class size rises to 30, the politicians who have imposed this "savings" should be replaced as soon as possible. One final illustration suggests you should believe these observations. Look at elite private schools that cater to children of the rich. They have the choice to do whatever works best, and without exception they keep classes small.

August 20, 2008

Age Should Not be an Issue in this Election

After the American Century

Most presidents upon election have been between the ages of 50 and 60, but some of the most effective assumed office before then. One lingering misconception from the primary elections is that Barack Obama might be a bit too young or inexperienced to be president. This image was fostered by Hillary Clinton, but in fact, her own husband, Bill Clinton, was younger than Obama when he was elected president. Born in 1946, Clinton was 46 in 1992. He had no Washington experience at all, and his only preparation was to serve as governor of one of the smaller southern states.

Theodore Roosevelt was only 43 when he became president in 1901, the same age as John F. Kennedy when he was elected in 1960. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 50 when elected in 1932. In short, Obama is well within the range of normal presidential ages.

The Constitution is quite clear on this issue. It states no one is eligible to run for President until they have reached the age of 35. Life expectancy has increased since it was adopted, however, and candidates may be a little older as a result. But longer lifespans ought to have the effect of widening the field of possible candidates, not eliminating those who are in their 40s.

If there is no historical reason to think that Obama is too young, one might make a case for McCain as being too old, though I am loath to make it. Senator McCain, who will be 72 on August 29, gives every indication of being in full vigor. Ronald Reagan was elected in his 70th year, and remained in office until he was 78. If elected, however, McCain would begin to serve later in life than anyone before him. Given the strains of the modern presidency, which often turns into a 24-hour a day job, I personally would feel better in 2011 if the president were 50 rather than 75, but on the whole, this probably should not be an issue, anymore than Obama's supposed youth should be.

August 13, 2008

Generational Divide? Obama and McCain

After the American Century

McCain is almost exactly 25 years older than Obama, and just as importantly, he looks much older as well. Partly for this reason alone, they therefore appeal to quite different generations, though it is hard to decide how much a candidate's age influences particular groups of voters. In general, however, McCain would win easily if only people over 60 could vote, and Obama would win easily if only those under 50 could, and it would be landslide if only those under 40 could. The so-called "millennial generation" is more for him than Generation Xers, in other words. Each candidate is aware of these demographics, and anyone looking for an advertiser's view of this matter should look at "What Obama can teach you about Millennial Marking". Obama hopes to mobilize the youth vote, which is notoriously lazy about getting to the polls. McCain is banking on the geriatric electorate, which grows larger each year.

Rather than focus on the two ends of the spectrum, however, it might be more useful to think of the election in terms of who wins the votes of those between 50 and 62. This is the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1958. They graduated from college starting in 1968. They grew up with the Cold War and lived with the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. For them, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate were formative experiences. Most of them can tell you exactly where they were in 1963 when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Most of them also remember the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. This is a generation born into a wealthy nation that in its youth never imagined the dollar could be so weak or that the US could become a debtor nation on such a massive scale. But just as they were coming of age, they experienced the bleak 1970s economy, with its stagflation and energy crisis, which at time time appeared to be a permanent scarcity of resources.

This generation has already produced two presidents. Both Bush and Clinton were born in 1946, and they epitomize the complexity of the boomers, who were by no means all hippies and revolutionaries. The boomers divide geographically into those from the South, who tend toward cultural conservatism and the Republicans, those from the Northeast and West coast, who tend toward liberal and to a lesser extent to radical positions, and the key group that is up for grabs, from the Midwest and the West. In other words, Obama and McCain should be focusing on this demographic group in the heartland, and it would be highly likely for either or both to select a vice-president from a state like Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, or Ohio, who is part of that generation.

Yet more than the right demographic face is needed. Each candidate will need to develop a story that appeals to the boomer voters, extrapolating from their historical experience to the present. Obama will likely do this by calling upon the imagery and the language of the Kennedy era, including an echo of Martin Luther King as well. Note that his convention acceptance speech is scheduled on the anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" address. McCain stands for the supposed "lost cause" of Vietnam, and he has already begun to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. In other words, he is gently distancing himself from the younger Bush, in part by being seen with his father. Somewhat paradoxically, the older candidate will likely present himself as the heir of the 1980s, while the younger candidate will seek to represent the spirit of the early 1960s.

Will the Boomers prefer a return to Jackie and Jack's Camelot, with its idealism, hope, and promise? Or will they choose a warrior's narrative of struggle and survival against external threats? Obama and McCain will each project a different vision of the past as the basis that voters should use to see into the future. To the Midwestern Boomer generation, either of these scenarios might appear plausible.

August 07, 2008

Can Obama be Ordinary Enough to be President?

After the American Century
As the Olympics are about to begin, the presidential campaign has reached a point of quite temporary unimportance for the media. It is an appropriate moment to recall the amazing journey the American political system has made since early January. Back before the Iowa caucuses, few thought McCain had a chance for the Republican nomination, and Obama was an interesting outsider for the Democrats. Who could have predicted that Hillary would so mismange her finances and her campaign? Who thought Giuliani would fall so flat on his face? Who imagined that the Democrats would not reach a decision until June?

In these nearly eight months, Obama has gone from being an outsider to the favorite to win, and McCain has resurrected himself to a convincing foe. On the op-ed pages some columnists have been asking why Obama has so small a lead in the polls, given the abysmal ratings that Bush has in his last year as President. Surely, many are saying, Obama ought to have more than just a few points advantage. Such comments betray the mentality of the educated experts who live inside the Washington Beltway or in New York. The idea that a young, Black politician "ought" to have a sizeable lead over a more experienced white one suggests some commentators have lost track of the American people.

Furthermore, although McCain may be taking on the Bush policies and negative Bush campaign tactics, he has managed to preserve something of the image of a straight-talking maverick. He is presenting himself as the Republican non-Bush. To the extent that he can keep foreign policy and terror at the center of the campaign, he becomes stronger. Strangely, he would likely benefit were a major terror attack to occur before election day. McCain also will pass the "beer" test with white, male voters, who probably imagine themselves as being more comfortable having a brew with him down at the local saloon. Bush won the "beer" test against both Gore and Kerry.

With this in mind, probably the best thing that Obama can do to win over skeptical voters is appear to be more approachable, more average, more "just folks." Back in 1992 Bill Clinton went on a TV show and played the sax, which proved popular. To Europeans, such actions seem strange, because they do not expect politicians to reveal so much of their private lives. But Americans like politicians who have nicknames. It was not James, but Jimmy Carter, not John but Jack Kennedy, not Abraham but Abe Lincoln, and so on, at least back to the election of 1824. That was when "Old Hickory" - Andy Jackson - beat that Bostonian stuffed-shirt abolitionist aristocrat John Quincy Adams.

In other words, the average American needs to feel comfortable, on an imaginary first-name basis with the candidate, to vote for him. For Obama to win big, he will need to supplement his inspirational rhetoric with some down-to-earth qualities. He already has this rapport with the more literate minority who have read his two best-selling books. In contrast, McCain has more of this "average Joe" feeling, and his problem is the opposite - to find a loftier rhetorical register in at least a few of his speeches.

Politicians win the essential middle ground in the United States not through ideology, not through rhetoric, but through a direct appeal to the ordinary citizen. In short, as Lord Bryce realized long ago, Americans look not for extraordinary but ordinary people to lead them. Whatever his many failings, Bush was the ordinary man, the merely average student from nowhere important in Texas. Not a highbrow, he did not stress his Yale pedigree. For crucial swing voters, the often unvoiced question will be: Is Obama ordinary enough to be President?