Monday, November 03, 2008

A Final Word

(Above, Senator Barack Obama, having just thrown a snowball)

As a friend of mine just asked, “Is this post going to be for any undecided voters reading the blog?” I suppose it is a little self-indulgent and pointless to write another lengthy post on the eve of the election, but it’s just seemed like too long a road to not finish it off with a wrap-up of sorts. And I actually do think that there might be a handful of readers who are undecided. So, here goes:


I’ve always believed that political candidates deserve to be heard on their own terms, and not restricted to generalizations about their party. But I’ve never believed, nor do I believe now, that such initial open-mindedness must end in equivalency. As conservatives are fond of saying, even an equal playing field isn’t going to produce equal results, and that’s OK. McCain started this campaign not with a blank slate, but with a surplus. Liberals and independents, including myself, had long thought of him, with reason, as someone capable of honoring the other side, and sometimes even agreeing with it. And more than just honoring the opposition, he also showed real interest in keeping his own side honest, in not mistaking loyalty for blind worship. The press flat-out adored him. His experience in the war was a clear testament to his character. Some of the worst moments on the left this year have come from online commenters who denigrate that experience, or poke fun at McCain’s less stellar achievements in the military. He went through years of a hell that no one should have to experience for a single day. And no one would be blamed for returning from such an experience with a spirit irreparably broken. Instead, McCain has led a vigorous life, and he’s maintained a pretty great sense of humor -- this is still one of my all-time favorite moments on “Saturday Night Live.”

But for the past few years -- and I’m sure it was a strategy on his part, so it’s hard to feel bad for him if it backfires; that’s part of the risk, no? -- McCain has time and again changed his opinion and policy recommendations on issues. As The Economist puts it in its endorsement of Obama:
Ironically, given that he first won over so many independents by speaking his mind, the case for Mr McCain comes down to a piece of artifice: vote for him on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying.
Palin and Tone

From the start, Obama has given me something/someone to argue for, rather than just argue against. That’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing quite as much about politics as I did during the primary season. It would have brought me no pleasure to consistently write against John McCain, who I think is stuck inside a strongly divided and often rancid party, and who I’d rather remember for better moments. The fact is that McCain won over a lot of independents and Democrats in 2000 by, in part, simply standing up to the slimiest of modern political tactics. And this year, he sent out fliers with the word “terrorists” spelled in cut-out magazine letters, like you’d see on a horror-movie ransom note, and it folded out to show -- (cue the theme from Psycho) -- Barack Obama.

In what I think was the first post I wrote in support of Obama, I said that he represented a potential “elevation of the country’s political discourse from the ad hominem pit in which it currently resides to some plateau of logical, grown-up engagement.”

The pit and the plateau are obviously linked. After the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain jumped into the pit (or at the very least, allowed her to jump into the pit) with what could be mistaken for glee. Several prominent Republicans have noted this, ruefully, and it’s one of the signs of the party’s current torpor that people like Colin Powell and George Will and Peggy Noonan, whether they go so far as to endorse Obama or not, see him so much differently than the “base” does. Ronald Reagan famously attracted “Reagan Democrats,” and I think it’s clear that Obama has attracted “Obama Republicans.” From the GOP Convention on, the party showed no interest in swaying any undecided independents, and it didn't sound all that concerned about many Republicans either.

Over the past two months, the country has seemed less divided by party or ideology than by one person; divided between those who find Palin an embarrassing figure and those who don’t. It’s easy to poke fun at her practiced aw-shucks demeanor in the same way it’s easy to poke fun at John Kerry windsurfing or Michael Dukakis poking his head out of a tank. But the easy laughs are not the problem. Her lack of substance is. She reduces politics to the purest form of Us vs. Them, and completes the strange reversal of traditional conservative elitism. Many notable conservatives in this country have endorsed Obama, but I’m sure that Palin would tell you those people don’t matter, no matter how long their conservative records, because they’re pointy-headed elitists. The devaluing of intellect under George W. Bush didn’t have to continue with McCain’s campaign -- McCain’s not the brightest bulb in the track lighting (and he gets a lot of mileage out of admitting it), but until the proudly dumb convention that nominated him, he never seemed anti-intellectual. Palin does.

Intellect is not nearly a final litmus test for someone’s capacity or character. I’ve met people five times smarter than I am who I wouldn’t trust to buy my groceries. I’ve met people ten times smarter than me who can’t do their dishes, much less run a country. Still, I can’t believe that intellect has to be actively degraded in order to respect every corner of the country. Palin’s pandering talk of the “real America” is not just offensive, but counterproductive. There are absolutely differences in America. I wouldn’t say there are “two Americas,” as many people do -- there are probably more like 75 or a hundred. And only one candidate has at least attempted to talk to all of them as if they might be able to sit down around the same table and get along, respect each other. And isn’t that the point of being a united country, in both spirit and name -- not a false sense of sameness, but an agreement to approach problems together despite differences?

Only Palin has brought out real anger in me this election cycle, and there's a reason for it. I've never argued that George Bush is the devil incarnate, or that everything that's wrong in the world can be laid at his feet. But he has done things -- and allowed things to be done -- that I consider shameful, and that I think don't represent the best parts of this country. Not by a long shot. And Palin is the kind of leader who has already implied on the stump that I'm not allowed to be ashamed of my country. Sorry. I reserve the right to be ashamed of anything I please, even of things and people I love.


What confounds me most is the insistent drumbeat from both detractors and some reluctant supporters that Obama is extremely liberal. Why, then, did he promote conservative editors to power at the Harvard Law Review? Why does he plausibly claim to value the counsel of Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar? Why is it easy to imagine him appointing Republicans to his cabinet? Obama’s conservatism, such as it is, is one of the reasons I support him. I’m not alone.

The Economist, a conservative magazine (but in a way that doesn’t scan easily in a country accustomed to thinking of Sean Hannity’s boiling face as “conservative”), endorsed Obama. So did The Houston Chronicle, which hadn’t endorsed a Democrat since 1964. Other Republican-leaning papers, like The Denver Post and The Salt Lake Tribune, both of which endorsed Bush in 2004, have also recommended Obama.

Common Sense

It’s amazing to read an observation that strikes me as fresh and true after, what, 48 years of this campaign season? But I did the other day. In the New York Review of Books (a publication I mostly value for things other than its politics, which are too often predictable), David Bromwich wrote that “Obama runs against (Bush’s) policies in a tone of injured common sense.” What a perfect phrase, and I don’t think it applies only -- or even most effectively -- to Obama’s tone about an opponent’s policies. Where others have often focused (adoringly or critically) on the soaring elements of his oratory and appeal, I’ve remained most impressed and motivated by that tone of injured common sense. It's accompanied by a human scale that comes through, among other times, when he occasionally suggests his approach to a given issue “might not work.” We’re so used to politicians adopting the braggadocio of marketing slogans -- “Gets Rid of Tough Stains!!” -- that I might have voted for Obama just because of the fact that he doesn’t. His capitalized slogans -- Hope, Change, etc. -- are abstract, aimed more at inspiring the electorate than describing Obama. He is, from almost all I can tell, and despite attempts to brand him as a self-anointed messiah, a natural, strong mixture of inner- and outer-directed.


In any major election, candidates are saddled with their baggage. McCain was always going to get the votes of racists, and that alone is not his fault. He’s a white dude running against a black man. That makes him the racists’ candidate. What is his fault is the manner in which his campaign, especially after the choice of Sarah Palin, has sometimes played to the worst suspicions in people, trying to capitalize on Obama’s "otherness" in a way that I think even McCain himself must find troubling. It was alarming when Hillary Clinton openly said that “white Americans” were not supporting Obama, and I don’t see why it’s any less alarming for the GOP to play that card.

Would I vote for Al Sharpton to be president just to smite racists? Of course not. But given that I’m a strong supporter of Obama to begin with (have you caught on yet?), is it a bonus that voting for him is at least in part a vote against troglodytes like this? Of course that’s a bonus! Is it a bonus that a vote for Obama is a vote against people who believe that God is watching this election, and that a vote for this accomplished, eloquent, widely admired person is somehow a vote from Hell? Hell, yes, that’s a bonus.

Bottom Line

The biggest bonus is having the opportunity to vote for someone I actively respect, in a way that goes beyond agreeing or disagreeing about every last policy. I don’t agree with Obama on everything. But isn’t that the point of leadership? Don’t leaders persuade? And if we’re lucky, they do it with respect for their dignity and ours, with respect for their own intellect and ours. If Obama is elected tomorrow, he and we will still need luck -- he’ll be the most powerful person in the world, with all the disappointments and temptations and pitfalls that the position brings. And the country is still going to be in a mess, on several fronts. But given the way he’s campaigned, with smarts, class, and unflappable determination, his leadership seems like a chance well worth taking.

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Anonymous Josh said...

Amen John.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous pf said...

That SNL clip is priceless. Funny, something seems to have taken the spring out of his step this time around ... Veep-appointer's remorse? Pernicious GOP-mia? That Economist blurb (and your very thoughtful analysis) sums it up: his campaign (which includes his choice of veep) has estranged him from his greatest strengths.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Strath said...

Probably the most even-keeled, well-rounded election day analysis I will enjoy (well, maybe until Mark Shields shows up). Thank you for that.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Well said, my friend.

12:18 PM  

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