This weekend, as part of a recent David Foster Wallace kick, I decided to revisit “Up, Simba,” an 80-page essay on John McCain and postmodern politics. On assignment for Rolling Stone, Wallace spent the final week of the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary embedded in the McCain campaign. McCain ended up losing to George W. Bush, and shortly thereafter withdrew from the race. This year, however, a resurgent McCain looks increasingly plausible as the national GOP nominee. I was hoping that re-reading Wallace’s essay (republished in Consider the Lobster) might offer some insight.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment. Wallace’s sympathetic portrait of McCain the man and conflicted take on McCain the legislator struck me as entirely credible, just as they did eight years ago. “Up Simba’s” account of the tactical logic of primary politics, though, now looked positively prophetic… of the 2008 Democratic campaign.
See if these phrases, scrubbed of their referents, ring a bell:
- “Something about [Candidate X] made us feel that the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or dollars, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a smell from childhood or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us hear cliches as more than just cliches.”
- “[Candidate X] drew first-time and never-before voters; he drew Democrats and Independents, Libertarians and soft socialists and college kids and soccer moms.”
- “The grateful press on the Trail transmit – maybe even exaggerate – [Candidate X’s] humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness…. The people are cheering for [Candidate X] not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him.
And then there’s Candidate Y, who as a member of a presidential dynasty has been the front-runner until some early primary upsets. Whose “campaign advisors… are the best that $70,000,000 and the full faith and credit of the [party] Establishment can buy.” Who “charges that [Candidate X] is fuzzy on policy, that he’s image over substance.” And who, in South Carolina, puzzles Wallace by “going negative.” When Wallace asks a shrewd group of network news technicians for their analysis, and they illuminate the “solid, even inspired” logic behind the move:
[Y’s] attack leaves [X] with two options. If he does not retaliate, some SC voters will credit [him] with keeping the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy…[or as ] “appeasing aggression”… So [X] pretty much has to hit back, the techs agree. But this is extremely dangerous, for by retaliating – which of course… means going Negative himself – [he] looks like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician, when of course so much time and effort and money have already gone into casting him as the exact opposite of that…. [The] race could quickly degenerate into just the sort of boring, depressing, cynical, charge-and-countercharge contest that turns off voters and keeps them away from the polls.
Which pretty much captures exactly how I’ve been feeling lately about the Democrats.
It bears saying that, in matters of policy, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are more like each other than they are like McCain or Bush. It also bears saying that the strategic carping of the Clintons doesn’t seem to have done them any good in South Carolina. Still, this year’s Democratic primary race seems to be unfolding along weirdly familiar narrative lines. “Up, Simba,” hamstrung by the Generation-Y affect of its tone, is not one of Wallace’s finest pieces of prose. But if you’re interested in a shrewd analysis of the presidential horse-race – in which no candidate is above the compromises and conflicts of politics – you might consider putting down the David Brooks and Maureen Dowd and picking up DFW.