With Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight, the general election season truly begins. It seems to me to be worthwhile to pause for a moment, and consider some of the implications of what we, as Americans, are about to do in electing a new president.
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the next President of the United States, whether it is McCain or Obama, is going to disappoint us all. Expectations are high, and it is inevitable that not all of them are going to be fulfilled. Following George W. Bush, who is about as popular among Americans right now as Mao Tse-tung is among Tibetan exiles, one might think that it wouldn't be terribly hard for the next president to look like a success. But even a Republican presidency under McCain won't be able to magically transform Iraq into a politically moderate and economically prosperous island of democracy in the Middle East, thus disappointing the neocons; and a Democratic presidency under Obama won't be able to magically transform inner-city Detroit into an upper-middle-class paradise, or make Detroit's automakers produce hybrid SUVs that survive 55-mph crashes, get 100 mpg and cost $12,000. Some inconvenient realities will get in the way. And regardless of party affiliation, the next president will have to deal with a Congress that is in no mood to kowtow to the White House after eight years of Bush the Younger.
This is not to say that it doesn't matter which candidate we elect. There are some important differences between them, as well as between the parties, and these must be taken into consideration. What follows is a brief sketch of each of them, and where they show promise as well as where they fall down.
John McCain is not the man that much of the Republican base wanted. He's been a bit of a maverick in the Senate, going against the Bush administration when it suited him, and there are lots of conservatives who are not happy with his candidacy. To some extent, this is probably a good thing--it increases his chances with the broad mass of the electorate, who tend to occupy the moderate center. Unfortunately for McCain, there has been some talk among the conservative core of sitting this election out. For a party that is trying to keep control of the White House despite the unpopularity of the incumbent, this is not good news.
McCain's personal life also does nothing to endear him to many voters. He unceremoniously dumped the wife who waited for him while he sat in a North Vietnamese prison in favor of a rich, blond, connected heiress to a beer distributorship. So much for the family values constituency. In a recent interview, he was unable to remember how many houses he owned, and suggested that you weren't rich unless you made more than $5 million a year. Unless you're the spokesman for Monocle Pete's Magic Yacht Wax(apologies to Merlin Mann), this isn't a good thing.
What is a good thing is that given McCain's experience as a POW during the Vietnam War, he's been fairly unequivocal in his denunciations of torture, which gives hope that he would curtail some of the activities that took place in places like Guantanamo Bay under the Bush administration. But given his voting record in the Senate, where he supported the policies of the current administration time and time again, voters would be wise to not make too many assumptions about his desire for change. And while a military background would seem to give him an edge in judgment about when to use force, his recent statements on the conflict between Russia and Georgia have been, in my opinion, grossly irresponsible.
Much has been made of Barack Obama's unusual background, which tends to obscure the fact that he is the product of an Ivy League education and is an incumbent U.S. Senator, which makes him somewhat less of an outsider than his campaign staff would like you to think. It also means that he is somewhat less naive and inexperienced than his detractors would have you think--no one who succeeds in the world of Chicago politics is exactly a babe in the woods.
As with McCain, Obama faces a challenge in that there are numerous members of his party who would have preferred to see someone else elected, namely Hillary Clinton. Some Clintonistas have voiced an intention to vote for McCain, and one of them has actually appeared in a McCain campaign ad. It's hard to imagine, though, that once the general election campaign starts and reality kicks in that many of them will actually vote for an elderly white male who opposes gay marriage and national health insurance and favors continuing the war in Iraq.
Obama also faces the problem of being the first black candidate to be nominated for President by one of the two major parties. While it would be nice to think that America has moved beyond racism, the reality is different, and it is not too difficult to find people who will refuse to vote for him because of his skin color. If this turns out to be a close election, it could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Some of that difference will be made up by the fact that he has been virtually anointed by the Kennedy family as the successor to JFK. In his youth, his optimism, and his vigor, he does remind many of the late President. Of course, this cuts two ways: like JFK, he is also thin on foreign policy experience, and has been in the Senate a relatively short time. The historian in me also remembers that JFK brought us closer to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis than any President before or since, and that the memory of his administration as Camelot is colored both by its relative brevity and a by a certain romanticism. Comparisons to JFK are not unreservedly positive.
As can perhaps be inferred from the foregoing, I will voting for Obama unless something happens in the next two months to change my mind. I will vote for him despite the fact that I disagree with him on certain issues (like abortion), and that I am far from certain he will be able to extricate us from the disaster that is Iraq. However, there is one overriding issue that takes precedence for me over all others, and which leads me to conclude that there is no other rational choice: the Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States is what defines us as a nation. In 1787, thirteen squabbling former British colonies came together to revise the Articles of Confederation that had been the basis for their government, and ended up writing one of the most flexible and far-sighted documents the world has ever seen. For over two hundred years, each President of the United States has taken an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution.
It is my belief that the current occupant of the White House is in violation of that oath. As a direct result of actions taken by the current administration, the U.S. is holding people in prison without charges for indefinite periods of time. It has handed over prisoners to governments that practice torture, for the express purpose of facilitating said torture. It has authorized the FBI to search individuals' homes without their knowledge, and to search their financial, email, and telephone records without a court order. If you are a person the government is interested in, they may compile information on your reading habits by searching your library and bookstore transactions. It has even turned the simple act of air travel into an ordeal resembling East German passport control (I speak from experience, having been through both).This is not how Americans are supposed to behave. This is not what America is supposed to be like.
I recognize, of course, that George W. Bush is not running for re-election. But to the extent that John McCain would continue the policies of the current Republican administration, I feel that it is too dangerous to take the chance of electing him. It's a shame, really. In many ways, he'd make a good President. But there is simply too much at risk. I'll take the chance of an Obama administration doing something really stupid, because I have more confidence that I'll be able to continue to exercise my constitutional rights under an Obama administration.
And one more thing: the Republicans as a party have behaved execrably in the last eight years. Historically, the GOP has seen itself as the party of fiscal restraint, yet this administration has taken the national debt to new highs, and Republicans in Congress have been all too willing to spend like drunken sailors on leave. And why shouldn't they? It was the "conservatives" who encouraged the rampant consumerism in this country over the last twenty years that led to easy credit, creating a society that accepted 8-year car loans and adjustable-rate mortgages with balloon payments that were predicated on a real-estate bubble that had to burst eventually. It's hard to argue that the government should live within its means when you're convincing the citizenry that they don't have to live within theirs.
Someday, there will be a true conservative movement in this country again, less beholden to global corporations, one that accepts the notions of restraint, frugality, personal responsibility, and the common good. Such a movement would be closer in ideology to what the British call Red Toryism than to the consumerist neoconservative drivel spouted by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. When that day comes, I'll be the first to join. Until then, I see no reason not to give my vote to the Democrats. They may tax me more to pay for social programs, but at least that's doing some of God's work. The Republicans have proven they are more interested in doing Mammon's.