Obama's sarcastic. McCain's all about "change." What's going on?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 19 2008 5:12 PM

Sarcasm You Can Believe In

Obama's sarcastic. McCain's all about "change." What's going on?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Espanola, N.M.—In recent weeks, John McCain has been portraying himself as force for change, particularly in response to the recent economic crisis. This makes Barack Obama happy. Change is his turf. He's been talking about it for two years. This also makes Barack Obama incredulous. Change is his turf. He's been talking about it for two years.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama has responded to McCain's new pitch with a torrent of sarcasm. In doing so, he sounds a lot like his opponent. So while McCain tries to adopt Obama's message (even using the same phrases), Obama is trying out some McCain attitude—and this presidential campaign is beginning to sound very familiar.

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Reacting to McCain's claim that he's going to take on the "old boys' network," Obama notes that several former lobbyists now work on the McCain campaign. "The old boys' network?" he asks, then pauses a beat like a true comedian. "In the McCain campaign, that's called a staff meeting." (This is a twofer because it allows Obama to say the word old a lot). Obama also jokes that McCain is so angry at corporations, "he wants to give them $200 billion more in tax breaks. … If they're not careful, he's going to give them a tax cut for shipping jobs overseas." And he's just getting warmed up. "Senator McCain bragged about how as chairman of the commerce committee in the Senate, he had oversight of every part of the economy," Obama told a Las Vegas crowd last week. "Well, all I can say to Senator McCain is, 'Nice job.' "

I'm a fan of sarcasm. Honestly. (My gift to you: I will try not to be sarcastic in this article.) Obama, on the other hand, has always put a premium on a new kind of politics, full of sincerity and virtue and earnestness. When he was sarcastic, it was about his lack of sarcasm, mocking critics who said he talked about hope so much that he was a "hope-monger."

Yet as it turns out, Obama is pretty good at sarcasm, too. At several stops last week, he got big laughs, just as Sarah Palin won raves from her night of dripping snark at her party's convention. (Obama wasn't perfect, though: In Espanola, N.M., on Thursday, he bungled a few canned sarcastic lines: "When the seven lobbyists working for McCain's campaign get together, it's called a staff meeting!" Well, yes.)

The base loves the sarcasm. But sarcasm is dangerous. It's more corrosive than nonsarcastic political humor, which sometimes can make even your opponents laugh. (Think of Ronald Reagan, who said he was going to dress up as Mondale's economic plan for Halloween.) As Peggy Noonan has written, humor delivered well entices voters, brings you on par with your opponent, and "gets people to carry your message for you" as they retell your joke.

Sarcasm is meaner. It gets your team fired up, but it also fires up the other side. Obama raised $10 million the day after Sarah Palin launched her sunny little darts in St. Paul, Minn. Undecided voters may also not like it. They may know some of those "community organizers" Sarah Palin turned her populist little nose up at in her acceptance speech. They might even serve as organizers in their local churches. Or they may not think it's so outlandish for McCain to present himself as a change agent. He has, after all, fought his party on tobacco legislation, immigration, campaign finance, judges, torture, and federal pork. What tough fights have you waged to shake up the system, Mr. Obama?

Whether or not Obama's sarcasm is successful, his reliance on it is just another indication of how this once-promisingly unconventional campaign has become thoroughly conventional. Once upon a time, both McCain and Obama were seen as nontraditional candidates. McCain was going to give straight talk, and Obama was going to stamp out cynicism. They were going to have joint town-hall appearances, not question each other's motives, and vacation together in the islands after it was all over. That's all gone now. We're back to the familiar.

McCain, who regularly used to declare that "spinning is lying," is whirring like a scratched DVD. His campaign, once known for being open and accessible, is now shuttered and arid like the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

Obama, meanwhile, has never really offered a robust new policy paradigm to match his post-partisan politics, which was the early promise of his campaign. Since last month he has placed even greater emphasis on what his economic policies could do for voters, but his policies sound ever more standard. In tone, he's a long way from The Audacity of Hope (a sarcasm-free book). He's not only running thoroughly conventional distortion ads on issues like McCain's lobbying ties, but he's running more of them than McCain. And his recent immigration ad is competing with McCain's sex-ed-in-kindergarten ad for the biggest distortion of the race, as ABC's Jake Tapper has pointed out.

Even the political map is starting to look conventional. Obama's advantage there has largely disappeared. Red states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Missouri, which once seemed in play for Obama, now seem less so. Wisconsin now looks like a tossup again, and the old-fashioned battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania are dead even. Again.

A race that includes the first biracial presidential candidate and a moose-hunting female Alaskan vice-presidential candidate can never be considered typical. But give them time. Before this campaign is over, Obama and McCain will have talked so much about change, they will seem utterly conventional.

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