Column: Issues are ignored in this American image war

Barack Obama’s trip to Europe and the Middle East did what it was supposed to. It untapped a stream of presidential images: the candidate addressing 200,000 delighted Berliners; the candidate mingling comfortably with American soldiers, riding in military helicopters like a commander-in-chief; the candidate dealing with foreign leaders as an equal. For most voters, it is the images that will stick – what else was there? – and they are priceless. John McCain’s chief line of attack against Mr Obama, that he lacks experience especially in foreign affairs, has been blunted if not neutralised.

Poor Mr McCain had the worst week of his campaign. Unable to lie low and let Mr Obama have his European moment, the only wise course, he made matters worse. He ran a television spot that said “blame Obama for the high price of gas”, a patently ludicrous assertion. (Republicans were laughing at their own candidate.) Campaign officials said he might announce his vice-presidential choice – a sad and unsuccessful attempt to steal some of Mr Obama’s limelight. And having spent months goading Mr Obama for his lack of foreign affairs experience, Mr McCain portrayed his own schedule of dreary and sparsely attended small-town events as proof of his superior authenticity.

In this election, the image war is turning into a rout. As Mr Obama grows in self-assurance (not that he was lacking any to begin with), Mr McCain looks older and less sure-footed. The greater surprise, though, and the real let-down in this campaign, is that the image war is all there is. In a way, last week’s contrasts sum things up. And what a pity this is. This was supposed to be an election about substance, with candidates – each of them an outsider in his own way – capable of mutual respect, capable of challenging party loyalists and keen to engage with each other in a new kind of politics. Instead we have the old kind of politics, only more so.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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