Sunday, October 26, 2008

 

A Time to Endorse

Endorsements from the press are one of the signs that a campaign is reaching its final stages. There is a good reason for journalists, unlike politicians, to leave this until the last minute. Who would trust the impartiality of a reporter who had publicly declared who they support? And in any case, it can be highly unwise to come down on one side or another when there is still a lot of campaigning left to go. Who knows what might happen?

It goes without saying that I am not a journalist. But, as is my wont, I have tried to be evenhanded in all of my various bits of writing about this campaign. I firmly believe that the responsibility of any voter (or, as in my case, purportedly objective observer) is to allow themselves to be open to persuasion on matters of policy and character. It is the place of the campaigns to argue the issues, and, through their conduct, to demonstrate what sort of man or woman their candidate is and what style they would adopt in governing. It is the place of the voter to observe and to listen, and to weigh the candidates’ positions and personalities on their merits. For a political order to be optimistic and forward-looking, we the masses must banish our cynicism and be prepared to show respect to any person who is clever and hard-working enough to reach the pinnacle of their careers nearly at the top of the greasy pole; we must assume that they are in possession of impressive quantities of intelligence, pluck and charisma. Furthermore, we must be willing to give those people who we do not agree with the benefit of the doubt. It is possible for someone to be highly principled – and loyal to their principles – without professing policies that we personally would agree with. In a world where more and more we are able to choose our sources of information, and in a world where we increasingly only choose sources of information which profess views that we already agree with, it is easy to lose sight of this.

In light of this approach, I continue to see strengths and weaknesses in both candidates. But the race is drawing to a close, and it is time to make a decision. Objective or not, I doubt that my decision will surprise anybody. But nevertheless, it remains to be stated: on both policy and character, one candidate clearly deserves to win this race, and the other clearly does not. I rather doubt that I will be able to match the eloquence of the editors of the New Yorker
in reaching a conclusion, but at the end of the day, this is where I stand.

John McCain won his primary battle as a man of principle who was unafraid to take on his party establishment when he thought it was wrong. Not for nothing does he call himself a maverick, and it is a label which is deserved. In his long and distinguished career, he has demonstrated courage and determination, standing up for his principles on issues such as torture, clearly breaking with his party when it was wrong on issues such as global warming and the Bush tax cuts, reaching across the aisle to forge productive compromises on issues such as the confirmation of judges, and seeing the bigger picture by calling for a surge of troops to prevent failure in Iraq long before it became administration policy. Crucially, he had sworn to conduct his campaign in an honorable way and had, by and large, always been a man who delivered when it came to treating his opponents with respect. On all of those points, and on many others besides, his judgment was sound. Here was a man above the fray of interest groups, it was thought; here was a man who could be counted on to do the right thing when it counted.

I have no doubt that John McCain is still the same man that he always was. But what has become clear over the past few months is that John McCain is not a man who is able to run a campaign, let alone a country. He has surrounded himself with advisors who don’t get along with each other, and he has allowed them to persuade him of the wrong things and to dominate his campaign’s substance and style in ways that John McCain the Senator would never have countenanced. John McCain the presidential candidate has lost control of his message and his overall narrative; he has pandered shamelessly; and he has made extremely poor decisions.

As a New York Times magazine piece
made clear this week, no-one is really sure what John McCain’s central campaign theme is about. Was he the man of determination who kept on going when he knew he was right, even when he was left all alone with his principles? Was he a post-partisan proponent of good policy who was willing to break with his party whenever it was necessary? Was he a staunch conservative who was a champion of small government, tax cuts and balanced budgets? Was he a genuine American hero who survived unimaginable torment through his love for his country? Was he an honorable man who would fight an honorable campaign? Was he a fighter who would do what it takes to win? Was he the paragon of experience who knew how to get things done? Was he the agent of change who would sweep the corrupt old ways out of Washington? His campaign has attempted to be all of these things and more. Even when these various different narratives do not contradict each other, his campaign tactics have undermined them. His opponent, on the other hand, has had a single main message – change – and has stuck to it.

His decisions and stances throughout the campaign have done much to undermine his credibility. Is the man who spoke out so forthrightly against torture really the same man who condemned in the most outraged terms a Supreme Court ruling that was hostile to the set-up in Guantanamo Bay, and who now seems to think that it’s fine for US government employees to engage in acts of torture as long as they’re in the intelligence services and not in the military? Is the man who has opposed President Bush – and, crucially, his operating style and his mode of governing – so openly and proudly really the same man who picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate – a VP nominee whose social conservatism and contempt of limitations to her power resembles nothing so much as an even more extreme version of the sitting President? Is this man of such sound judgment really the same man who decided he was willing to put the grossly inexperienced Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency and who bounced around in a panicky and impotent way when trying to demonstrate his statesman-like stature in the face of financial crisis?

This chaotic, counterproductive and entirely badly organized campaign has been hurt the most, perhaps, by the style by which it has put itself across. McCain’s original formulation was that he was a man of experience who would bring a change to Washington through his demonstrated commitment to a more enlightened mode of political discourse. Respect for your opponent and a focus on policy not personality were the McCain hallmarks. His decision to pick Palin as his running mate completely undercut his “experience” argument, and his decision to run a hideously negative campaign against his opponent undercut his argument that he would bring a new way of working to Washington. Attack ads like the “Celebrity” spot, comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, are par for the course (and may have had a point). But it is his policy-related ads that have done the most damage to his reputation. The infamous spot saying that Obama favored comprehensive sex education for six-year-olds fell at the extreme end of this spectrum, as did his repeated invocation of a mostly non-existent relationship between Obama and Bill Ayers, a former domestic terrorist. But most insidious were the repeated and knowing misstatements about Obama’s core policies. Repeatedly pronouncing that Obama wants to “raise your taxes” and introduce “socialized medicine” were demonstrably untrue, and McCain’s statistics were repeatedly and comprehensively debunked. Yet he kept using them and continues to plug away at them, meaning that his campaign has knowingly pressed on in spreading what are, effectively, lies about his opponent. Such a strategy can charitably be called mendacious, and for a self-professed man of honor to engage in such behavior is very sad indeed. There are no two ways about it: John McCain has run a dishonorable campaign and ought to be ashamed of himself. So much for bringing civility back to political discourse, and indeed, so much for running a campaign based on policy.

And it is policy that is the final straw. McCain has not been a policy-oriented candidate. He has promised solutions to problems that will not work (such as drilling for oil offshore to alleviate high petrol prices), and he has made impossible promises (such as his pledge to eliminate a $600bn federal deficit through controlling discretionary spending which only totals $18bn). His health care plan is of dubious utility. His tax cuts would mostly benefit the wealthy. And most importantly, his economic packages (which at one point seemed to change every couple of days) demonstrate a genuine lack of understanding of economic issues. He is not a candidate who is able to engage in meaningful conversations about economics or about the current crisis, and he certainly is not a candidate who has offered constructive solutions. Even his main strength, foreign policy, has become a liability. He is unable to offer any strategy for Iraq apart from keeping troops there until they achieve “victory”, a poorly-defined word that David Petraeus refuses to use and that even the Bush Administration has backed away from. He has called for an unworkable “League of Democracies” to confront tomorrow’s challenges, a concept that would be immensely counter-productive. Worst of all, he has blundered and gaffed his way through the campaign – hardly the sign of a candidate who is clearly on top of the issues, and a particular problem considering his age.

There is no doubt that McCain does understand foreign policy issues at a great level of depth and with considerable ability. But he has failed to put this across. And there are considerable doubts about his understanding of domestic issues, and even about the extent to which he would prioritize the difficult choices and domestic challenges that the next president will have a unique opportunity to address. His stumbling performance in debates and on the campaign trail, his inability to manage his campaign properly, his failure to behave in a statesmanlike manner, his willingness to employ the most distasteful tactics; all these things and more show that John McCain, a distinguished man of intelligence and integrity, is out of his depth and, quite possibly, just too old. Even after all of this, his record suggests that he might not be too bad as President, especially given the extent to which his powers would be constrained by a Democratic Congress. But after the campaign that he has run, he does not deserve to be given the chance.

Barack Obama, in the meantime, was not ready to be President in 2007 when he started running for it. The soaring rhetoric of his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention was not replicated in the surprisingly plodding stump speeches that he made on the campaign trail. His policy prescriptions were slight and shallow. His legislative achievements were minimal. By putting himself up against the formidable machine of Hillary Clinton’s campaign after just four years in the Senate, he seemed presumptuous and unready.

It is possible to argue that Obama did not so much beat Clinton as manage to stay in the game long enough for her to defeat herself; her campaign was marked by disorganization and waste. A formidable campaigner, she showed in places like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania that she had what it took to win when it counted. But to suggest that the election was hers to lose and she lost it through her own mistakes would be a grave mistake that discounts the organizational brilliance and strategic insight of the Obama campaign. This starts with the candidate himself.

Barack Obama is a breath of fresh air in politics, his past in Illinois as a local politician on the up notwithstanding. The reason why he inspires is not because he is a black man, nor is it because his policy prescriptions are particularly original or brilliant. The reason why he inspires is that he is that rare politician who seems utterly genuine, who opens up about how he feels and what he is thinking, who is not afraid to be intelligent and who is willing to treat voters as adults rather than fobbing them off with tried and tested political tricks and canned soundbites. His public persona is decent and open, and he is able to transcend his unusual upbringing by connecting to ordinary voters through his intelligence and openness. Capping this off is a gift for soaring rhetoric that puts one in mind of the great orators of the past: if elected, he is sure to join John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill on mugs, calendars and inscriptions on walls where great quotes lurk forevermore. He is young and somehow apart from the political scene that envelops most Senators, though opponents will forget that he is indeed a politician at their peril.

The greatest thing about Obama in this campaign, however, has been his response to adversity. His solution to unreadiness has not been the Sarah Palin approach of floundering around and being pictured next to great people, but rather a determined effort to turn weakness into strength. When his stump speeches were deficient, he overhauled them and created the reliably inspiring style that we are familiar with today. When his campaign was up against most of the Democratic party machine which Hillary Clinton had locked up in her favor right after the 2004 election, he came up with an approach to organizing a campaign that relied on young people, new technologies of social networking and broad-based fundraising, and determined outreach to specific people that he needed onside. When the thinness of his policies was clearly a liability, he bolstered his campaign staff with a new generation of policy thinkers and a framework for getting them to produce excellent plans that were politically workable. In short, when he didn’t know something or couldn’t do something, he learned about it and made it happen. By the time his primary campaign was over, he had a much more detailed policy platform than John McCain, and a much better thought-through one. His policies eschewed easy solutions in favor of complicated realities – no gas tax holidays here – while proposing a fundamental realignment of American political discourse away from the increasingly discredited conservative policies of the Reagan revolution on healthcare, education, social policy and taxation and a move towards a more caring, equitable society. By preparing with such meticulous detail, he has somehow managed to become the candidate of competency, with joined up policies and a command of the detail that have allowed him to calmly bat away the McCain campaign’s misleading allegations and respond with confidence and authority. When John McCain, in the debates, attacked Obama’s policies, it was astonishing that Obama could so calmly explain why McCain’s premise was unsound, what his policies actually were, and then pivot to what McCain’s policies were and how they were deficient – a remarkably effortless success in painting his opponent’s platform in his own terms. Far from coming away knowing that Obama would raise taxes, for example, most viewers will have come away knowing that Obama’s economic plan would lower taxes for 95% of taxpayers, even if this statistic has some caveats of its own.

He has responded well in other situations, too, demonstrating a calm and level-headed ability to respond to crises. When the Reverend Wright controversy kicked up in the spring, Obama’s idea of damage control was to make a major speech on race that defused the issue in political circles through its empathy and intelligence. As he explained later, he made a choice to treat voters as grown-ups rather than patronizing them with the usual political tactics of distancing and repudiation (although those, too, came later). When cornered in the primaries, for example after Clinton’s wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio, he calmly stuck to the game plan instead of panicking and changing course; similarly, when McCain enjoyed a post-convention, post-Palin bounce, Democrats screamed for Obama to go on the offensive and he refused, sticking again to the game plan and calmly waiting out the end of McCain’s unsustainable lead. His refusal to panic even when Republicans attacked him on the most outrageous basis or in the face of major shocks to the country’s situation, has marked him out as being above the fray and statesmanlike. While McCain has seen his approval ratings fall as a result of his negative attacks and his flailing around helplessly in the face of a financial crisis that he did not understand, Obama has been cautious and constructive and has appeared more in-control, more mature, and – crucially – more presidential. Slow but steady has put him in command of a race that just a month ago was looking very close indeed.

All of this steadiness has extended to his longer-term preparations too. His selection of Joe Biden as running mate, who has been of little use on the campaign trail and occasionally a liability, has given him a wise old Washington hand to advise him closely if he wins. He has been cultivating senior figures in both parties to join his cabinet. His detailed policies will form the basis for negotiations with Congress and are intended to actually solve problems in a sustainable way, not just to grandstand prior to the election. He has kept crucial flexibility even in areas such as his much-vaunted timeline for withdrawing from Iraq. And he has weighed in intelligently on current policy questions such as how best to implement America’s financial rescue package. His maturity, intelligence and understanding of the issues shows every sign of continuing unhesitatingly into a post-election world – should he manage to win. This is not presumptuousness, as the McCain campaign claims: it is simply good practice. If John McCain is not doing the exact same thing, then voters have another reason to hesitate before voting for him.

The icing on the cake of all of this is the value of Obama as an individual who would bring together a nation that has been tearing itself apart for 8 years and who would restore America’s stature in the world. There is great value in symbolism, and an America which succeeded in electing anyone other than a white male would be an America that was looking forward and putting its past inequalities behind it. Obama is not a “black” candidate, but rather a post-racial candidate, one who understands division and prejudice and has chosen to rise above it, choosing to believe that people can get along and that America can improve. It is not simply racial reconciliation that he would deliver, however, but cultural reconciliation as well. Obama is too young to have participated in the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, too young to have been either one of the hippies who protested against Vietnam or one of the stern conservatives who reviled drugs and loose morals and supported the war. He speaks to a generation that was not divided into those who served in uniform and those who didn’t, that is relaxed about drug use and sexual mores, and understands modern technologies and their many uses. He is the counterpart on the left of those Christian conservatives who choose to focus more on creation care and loving thy neighbor than they do on abortion and intelligent design. He represents a post-ideological generation that is intelligent, practical and results-oriented, and this appeal enables him – when he wants to – to transcend politics in a way that few politicians before him have been able to do. In short, a victory for Obama would redefine the terms of reference for American politics and herald a real change in political methods and values that would be important and long-lasting. This election is an epoch-making moment, much as the 1968 election could have been and the 1980 election was. A President Obama would catapult America into the sorts of political discourse that the rest of the world takes for granted, and could potentially change the game for good. And this is all before even considering the impact of America having a President that the rest of the world could look up to, an effect which would restore American stature to heights that it has comprehensively lost over the last two decades.

Now, I am conscious that it is easy to be taken in by hyberbole, and it may well be that much of the breathless optimism that characterizes much of the conversation about Obama (my previous paragraph included) will not come true. No President can ever implement the policy platform that they run on owing to the dominance of Congress. Idealism is inevitably tempered by the realities of governing, which involves considerable horse trading and many messy compromises. And America will never return to the levels of global leadership that it enjoyed during the Cold War, when it was the leader and protector of the free world and emerging economies had yet to begin emerging.

But the choice that faces the American people this November 4th is between a candidate who has a shot at pushing America in a forward-looking, optimistic, dynamic direction, and a candidate who does not. It is a choice between a candidate who has an excellently prepared set of policy proposals that might just be workable and would promote equity and economic dynamism, and a candidate who does not. It is a choice between a calm, clear-minded and detail-oriented candidate who understands the world in which we live and how it works, and a candidate who, regrettably, does not seem to. And it is a choice between a candidate who has the good judgment and organizational acumen to turn America’s polarized and unpleasant politics into something better – and one who does not.

The candidate who can do these things is Barack Obama, and the candidate who cannot is John McCain. McCain has run a poor campaign, and Obama has run an excellent one; McCain does not have the policies, the understanding or (apparently) the good judgment to turn the current situation around, and Obama does. Most of all, McCain is a candidate of the past, and Obama is a candidate of the future. For the sake of America and the world, when Americans make their decision about who should lead them for the next four years, they should choose Barack Obama, and I will join the hundreds of millions of people in America and around the world in hoping fervently that they make the right choice.

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