Monday, November 3, 2008

Obamacons Transform!

Tomorrow I intend to vote for Barack Obama. I consider myself a libertarian-conservative Republican and yet I plan to vote for someone with the most liberal recent voting record in the United States Senate. Why?

1. Post-partisan Doesn’t Mean Bi-partisan

McCain has made a lot of the fact that he has been behind bipartisan legislation on a number of issues and that, by contrast, Sen. Obama has consistently voted with the left wing of his part. This is true, but it misses the point. Sen. Obama is a liberal and I wish he wasn’t (or was less so). But Sen. Obama is not the one claiming that those who vote for him represent the “pro-America parts of America” or are somehow the only “real America.” At his best, starting with his 2004 speech at the Democratic national convention and including his speech on race relations, Sen. Obama has shown an ability to understand the other side and to acknowledge their points without demonizing them. McCain is stuck in a Baby Boomer, Vietnam-era mindset where politics itself became an extension of war by other means. (Bill) Clinton, Gingrich, Bush, (Hillary) Clinton, all fall prey to this same sort of mindset. And for those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s when it quite plausibly seemed that America was coming apart, it’s easy enough to understand (though still sad and deplorable). But for Generation X and especially Generation Y (or whatever you call them) this kind of politics just doesn’t fire them up the way it did the Baby Boomers. Instead it turns them off in droves. Sen. Obama is trying harder than any politician in a generation to transcend the “politics of personal destruction” which has been simultaneously practiced and decried by both sides.

So no, I don’t expect Obama to be a centrist president. He’s got a liberal voting record and I expect he’ll be a liberal president. Nor do I expect him to be all sweetness and light. But I’m tired of being told who’s a “real American” and who isn’t. I’m tired of a politics where the ostensibly conservative candidate can’t just run on the issue in what I believe is still largely a center-right country, but has to exaggerate his opponent’s views into socialism as though he’s campaigning in 1928 instead of 2008. (Incidentally, many people including me thought that George W. Bush was going to be this kind of President. Remember “I’m a uniter not a divider?” So why do we think Obama might be different? Well, Bush ran a very divisive campaign in 2000 which I was too willing to write off as something one must do to get elected. And I must admit that my personal experience as a student of Obama’s at the University of Chicago also gives me comfort that he really is who he says he is.)

2. Sarah Palin

First, I think she was treated unfairly by the mainstream media. But, at the end of the day, one has to demonstrate that one is ready to be President. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt on this one. Obama has largely done that through two years of very tough campaigning. Palin’s seven weeks on the public stage were unlikely ever to have been enough to prove she was ready (which is a strike against McCain having picked her, not a strike against her personally) but she didn’t do enough with the time she had to put people at ease. But far more important to me is that Palin seems to embody the sort of politics of demonization that I hope Sen. Obama can help the country start to overcome. She lost me with “pallin’ around with terrorists” and “real America” and with the media criticizing her as a violation of her First Amendment rights. (Gov. Palin, you should try reading the First Amendment sometime. It’s quite interesting. It starts with “Congress shall make no law…”)

3. The Decider

I’ve come to believe that the Presidency is not about being the smartest person in the room but about making decisions and setting a tone and philosophy for governance. Obama has done that, even if it is to the left of where I’d like it to be. McCain has not. The Palin pick was ill-considered as were the shifts in campaign strategies. And McCain’s response to the economy has been muddled beyond belief; especially if one thinks all the way back a few short years ago when he opposed the Bush tax cuts. I know Obama is going to be a liberal president. I don’t know what I really expect McCain to do. My support for McCain was strongest during the Russian invasion of Georgia because I thought McCains swift and forceful condemnation was right on and Obama’s waffling sounded indecisive and weak. But we’re in a domestic crisis now and we need a leader who knows where he wants to take the country. One prerequisite for a market recovery is for the market to feel that there are clear rules. The ever-shifting bailout policies have sown confusion and made a bad situation worse. A McCain presidency really does seem like more the same on economic policy confusion.

4. A Fresh Start

Finally, Obama promises a fresh start for the United States’ reputation. I don’t expect this to last long or be very deep, but it will help for a bit. Ultimately the United States isn’t going to change on a lot of issues that cause other countries to dislike us (the death penalty, unilateralism, and just the fact that we’re big and have our hands in everything under the sun). But one lesson of the Bush administration is that we still need allies and our traditional allies are likely to find it easier to justify to their voters cooperation with President Obama. In fact, given Obama’s popularity overseas, it may be difficult, at least at first, for our allies not to increase their cooperation with the United States and we could certain use help in Afghanistan.

5. Competence

Three words can explain why President Bush is mired at a 25% approval rating: Iraq, Katrina, Foreclosure (or Bailout, take your pick). These have been challenging times, no doubt, but the president seems utterly unprepared and out of his depth on them. Obama lacks executive experience and he may turn out not to be competent. All we have to go on is his campaign. But the same is true for McCain who has been a legislator all these years. His executive experience must likewise be judged by his campaign. Who’s run the more competent campaign? I believe it’s been Obama. As the Economist said in its endorsement, Obama is a risk, but based on all the evidence we have, he’s a risk worth taking.

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