One of the biggest problems with Utopian thinking is that it is confounded by reality. The conclusion to be drawn by such a mind will be that reality is stupid or uninformed and the Utopian mind is still correct. The adjustment is ridicule, spin, denial of facts and history.
Over the past month, a foolish narrative has been abroad in the land: that this election is going to be a "referendum" on Barack Obama. This is not uncommon in presidential politics--John Kerry's consultants fantasized that the 2004 election was going to be a referendum on George W. Bush--but it is usually peddled by weak campaigns that want to avoid dealing with their own candidate's deficiencies. Presidential elections are never referendums. They are, ultimately, a choice. Two candidates stand on a stage in debate: they talk; you decide
Gee Joe, people were insane to suggest that 2004 would be a referendum on George Bush. I mean sure he was a guy who was elected by the electoral college, had the closest and most drawn out campaign ever, and of course 9/11 and a couple wars had started on his watch, but we all would be crazy to suggest that anyone would reflect on any of this in considering their vote. Instead let us just wave our hands and imagine incumbency means nothing.
Quite often, though strangely not in Kerry's case, the referendum gambit is a rationale for mudslinging. This year we have John McCain's attempt to paint Obama as aloof, messianic ... a celebrity, like Paris or Britney. The McCain ads have the slightly sordid quality of an inside joke: Oprah Winfrey called Obama "the One," and McCain's dyspeptic staffers latched on to that moniker, and now there's a sardonic ad using the messianic nickname, filled with celestial images of Obama smiling and orating grandiloquently, followed by Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. When Obama--correctly--said that keeping your tires inflated was one way to conserve energy (and save some money), McCain distributed tire-pressure gauges stamped OBAMA'S ENERGY PLAN.
I may be missing something, but snark isn't a quality often associated with the presidency. "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant," Obama said, laughing at the McCain campaign's crash-and-burn fighter-jock puerility.
Keep laughing and keep missing. Non-Utopians can see that doing something is better than doing nothing. Non-Utopians can see that the dismissive attempts to justify the Obama gaffe by mixing up vehicle fuel economy with national oil consumption will go no where. Finally bring out the caricatures of stupidity for those who disagree with you and watch the debate get shut off and the votes get lost.
Which is why I'm almost as puzzled by Obama's debate strategy as I am by McCain's advertising. Obama's decision not to accept McCain's offer of 10 summer debates--or, at least, to negotiate a more manageable total--always seemed wrong to me. After all, Obama is supposed to be the fresh breeze, and that would have been a brand-new, high-road way to engage the public. Obama's refusal made him seem less than courageous. It played into the notion that he wasn't a very good debater and that McCain was at his best in town meetings--an argument with elements of truth but also a fair amount of mythology. Obama has command of more facts on more issues than McCain does; McCain's strength at town meetings feeds off friendly crowds who roar at the jokes he's been telling for years. Obama's demeanor will show well on the debate stage; McCain's feistiness may not. And so Obama would be wise to change course now: challenge McCain to town-hall debates on the Sunday nights after each convention--one before a military audience, another with hard-pressed Rust Belt workers. He'd be wise to make this a campaign about issues instead of ads as soon as possible. It is true that debates often turn on one-liners and flubs, but more often they turn on sustained, vivid demonstrations of character.
Here is a "crazy" suggestion. Maybe, just maybe you are puzzled because you have the facts wrong. Al Gore and John Kerry were both supposed to be running against the supposedly dim bulb George Bush. Various aptitude tests and grades, conveniently found after the elections of course, proved that ol' George was actually the better of the two in the brains department.
You say Obama has a better command of the facts. Maybe he doesn't and knows he doesn't and that is why he would rather run than engage. It has been noted that Obama has given access to the press for speeches and photo ops, but he almost never holds press conferences where he takes questions. In addition his interviews are fawning and when they are not, they are very short, often with the candidate himself quickly snapping that he has answered perhaps eight questions or complaining about being pressed with the attacks of another candidate.
Finally it is pretty clear that whenever Obama thinks out loud, the results are pretty disastrous. McCain may switch two names, but Obama mangles entire concepts as demonstrated with the tire pressure comment that is still being defended.
Some of us are not puzzled by this at all because many of us Republicans watched a few of the Democratic debates and noted how each time Obama was engaged, he lost a big state to Hillary Clinton. A smile, and a speech off a teleprompter won't save you when you have to engage and argue your ideas with someone else. Every supposed strength of Obama, as you noted, is played up by these interactions and also, as you noted it could and should break the campaign wide open by putting that distance between him and McCain, or putting him over the magical 50% mark. Only it never did in the Democratic primary and that was an case where policy differences were small and personality traits were magnified. In other words, he couldn't do it when the circumstances were ideal.
So instead of being puzzled, instead of questioning reality, question your biases and preconceptions. Sen. Obama does not have a better command of the facts. His positions are inconsistent. He gives a good speech, raises gobs of money and mostly hopes that the occasional biased nudges of fawning interviews, photo ops and slanted polls helps him falsely claim and attempt to maintain a momentum that doesn't exist. In both the primary and now general election campaign, surrogates have tried to argue that campaign is over very early and have attempted to magnify minuscule leads. Calling everyone who notes this clueless, or stupid as Paul Krugman does this week will not alter that reality. Sen. Obama is doing what he believes is best for him. He is running away and engaging as little as possible with any entity that will question or force a defense of his ideas, positions and plans. Those of us who understand this are not puzzled at all. Instead we are wondering why when you are scratching your head you are puzzled instead of stupid and why when we aren't scratching our heads at all because our explanation fits the facts, we are stupid instead of correct.