Friday, February 08, 2008

Hoping...Not for Miracles, but Just for Something Better

From the perch of his blog empire in the wilds of Ithaca, New York, my buddy Dustin has issued a call for me to clarify something about my support for Barack Obama. As the clever headline of his post asks, "Yes. We. Can. ... What?" He quotes James Walcott, who finds himself "increasingly wary of and resistant to the salvational fervor of the Obama campaign, the idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria." This is part of what Andrew Sullivan accurately calls a "developing meme" that "support for Obama is all emotion, fantasy, hysteria, etc."

And I'll start this post with a slight criticism of Obama, since I'm sure many of you will find that refreshing from me. Yes, he's threatening to get carried away lately with the soaring rhetoric. I first noticed him (and wanted him to run for president) at the 2004 Democratic convention, and what grabbed my attention was not just the inspiration of his style (though there was that) but the seeming reasonableness of him. He immediately struck me as motivational, intellectual, and personally grounded -- a combination I've yet to see in another politician in my life. I think that candidates are always tempted to overuse what's working best for them during a campaign because...well, because it's working, and campaigns are brutal. So, do I wish he would start to move back toward a better balance of reasonableness and revival-like passion? Absolutely. For now, I'll find those traits of his separately and put them together myself -- a political "mash-up" for those youngsters who are reading. The passion is easy enough to find; the reasonableness is on display in a clip I linked to a few days back, of Obama speaking to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.

I also feel it's important to say that I'm not an idealist on the social level. And while I'm sometimes cripplingly nostalgic, it's never (ever) about politics. I don't pine for the days of JFK before I was born. I don't generally look to politics for much of anything, honestly. My belief in governmental effectiveness (or that of any large bureaucracy) is reflected in this Onion article. And my opinion of the campaigning process in particular is summed up by Andrew Ferguson, in a piece I linked to yesterday, in which he writes:
From the backseats of freezing cars and vans you're hustled into overheated coffee shops and those packed school gymnasiums with the stink rising to the rafters and then the oppressive hush of corporate meeting rooms ... You open your mouth and you release the same cloud of words you recited yesterday and the day before. And in the Q&A, when you stop to listen, you hear the same questions and complaints from yesterday, the same mewling and blame-shifting, all imploring you to do the impossible and through some undefined action make the lives of these unhappy citizens somehow edifying, uplifting, and worth living. And you always promise you will do that; you have no choice but to tell this kind of lie.
This applies even to candidates who I think do their best to rise above, like Obama. So I'll end this long preface by saying that I'm not particularly interested in defending campaign tactics, though I'd rather my candidate press a vaguely motivational button too often than engage in a series of dishonest smears of her opponent.

So, I can understand why others are bothered by the sometimes messianic zeal of Obama's followers. After all, I don't think politics can save us. But I certainly think our politics need to be saved.

This is why Obama's tone remains his greatest appeal. (I'll get to policy in a second; sorry for the circuitous route, Dustin.) Plain and simple, replacing George W. Bush with Hillary Clinton is to replace one astoundingly polarizing figure with another. It replaces one corrupt dynasty with another. (This leaves aside the fact -- not a small one -- that I still don't think she can win a general election.) And it passes over the massive grassroots support that Obama has built in favor of a campaign far more reliant on insiders and a power of name recognition not very different from that employed by Kleenex or Pizza Hut.

But let's move slowly toward policy. I'm a pretty cynical person, so if it were just a matter of sending Hillary to Washington so she could bloody the Republicans and do God's work, I'd be fine with that. Here's where I get truly mystified. Lawrence Lessig, in a recent long but worthwhile speech, discussed "a certain kind of moral courage." And he was kind to say that we "can't really know" if Hillary would follow Bill's lead in this department. But he rightfully brings up that both Clintons (Bill when it came to gays in the military and numerous other issues, Hillary when it came to the war) have been motivated by "expedience," rather than "standing and fighting on the basis of principle." As president, Obama would no doubt run into obstacles and not get everything he desired done. But I trust him to fight for the right thing, and not to triangulate and routinely betray his supporters. I think the idea that Hillary Clinton would successfully push a certain agenda on principle flies in the face of everything we know about her and her husband, especially after this campaign.

Let's take something wonkier: Health care. Both candidates have very detailed plans. There's a camp of people -- perhaps you're among them, Dustin? -- who believe that Obama doesn't have details because Hillary talks about them more in her speeches. To this I have two responses: 1. Based just on her speeches, do you really find a ton of detail in Hillary's plans? To me, it's the same vague boilerplate repeated over and over again -- the policy equivalent of Obama's more feel-good repetitions. 2. Her focus on these vague (and sometimes unrealistic) details is why her speeches are duller than death. But there is a difference (one of the few between them, when it comes to policy), and that is Obama's reluctance to make health care insurance mandatory. Hillary wants to force everyone to pay for it. As far as I know, this might make for a better system. But in addition to sounding painfully difficult to enforce, I still have enough of a libertarian streak in me to think it sounds on the fascist side in its coercion. It also reflects a larger difference I sense in them, which is that Obama is not nearly as power-hungry as she is. I can picture him a couple of weeks after losing a presidential election. She, on the other hand, disappears from the screen.

But sometimes elections -- if they're between candidates who aren't radically opposed -- really aren't about policy. I especially feel this way about someone like Clinton, who has yet to tell me there's a single tough decision to be made about her dream plans, as if they will be smoothly enacted on her favorite day, "day one." Sometimes elections should be about vaguer notions -- this country's built on a few of them, and their vagueness doesn't mitigate their power. We're looking for someone to lead us, after all. If Hillary Clinton's grim view of political trench warfare was the only good option for Democrats this year, I could understand her being nominated, though I wouldn't vote for her. But with Obama available as an option -- someone with similar positions and a broad, bipartisan base of good will directed at him -- I just can't wrap my head around it. I'm not saying that as an apostle, I swear to Obama.


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