Thursday, September 11, 2008

How I choose

I'm going to try to lay out my personal criteria for voting for president. I list them in order of importance. It's rather long ...apologies, but maybe some of you could think about your own criteria (Jer and the other K, for example) and weigh in.
  1. - temperament Since the president is commander-in-chief with very broad powers to unilaterally deploy military forces and wage military actions if not official war, I want a president with a strong and stable inner core that he can rely on in times of stress. In my book Obama while the newcomer to the scene has consistently shown over the last eighteen months an almost preternatural calm and poise in the face of incredible media scrutiny and criticism. The president must also be able to use his bully pulpit to mobilize public opinion. Here Obama is potentially peerless but not just because he is a gifted orator. More impressively he has been fearless in his willingness to submit to interviews and inquiries and to engage in debate. He clearly relishes listening to disparate points of view and has shown again and again that he has a penchant for compromise (his endorsement of the bipartisan drilling compromise, his support for the revised FISA bill as two examples). Finally, he has shown remarkable discipline as a campaigner. His choice of VP reflected I think a mature and serious desire to find someone who can help him govern well. This latter choice seems a clear case of putting the welfare of the country ahead of political calculations. The same cannot be said of McCain's choice or of his process in making his choice. A final irony here. I feel that Obama, a political liberal to be sure, displays a conservative temperament in the way he conducts his life. His beliefs, especially with regard to culture always hearken back to traditional values, strong family, fathers's obligations to their children, community service etc.. McCain by contrast is a political conservative whose temperament is anything but conservative. I trust the conservative termperament much more than the impulsive one.
  2. competence - This job requires, I think, a special skill set. Regardless of what anyone says, I suspect that no one is ready to be president on day one. There can't be any other job like it in the world. Whoever sits in the Oval Office needs to be skilled in seeing the big picture, skilled in discerning what is essential from is merely extraneous, skilled in assessing the true nature of the challenges we face, skilled in mobilizing people and resources, and skilled in assessing our successes and failures. Bush to me epitomizes the hands off CEO model who delegates everything and immunizes himself from criticism while letting his policies drift in the hands of underlings. Jimmy Carter may represent the other extreme, the micromanager, the policy wonk, who is similarly cut off from the people by his immersion in small things. Here again I give Obama the clear edge. Neither man has much executive experience, but Obama has run a campaign machine or almost two years that has rewritten the manual on efficiency and effectiveness and enthusiasm. He has shown a tremendous ability to adapt, to learn, to take advantage of current tools, media and resources and to mobilize unheard of numbers of people. McCain has fired his campaign staff at least twice. Most recently he has handed it off to former Rove staffers who appear to have hijacked the campaign from the candidate and launched an all out culture war and misinformation compaign. McCain does not appear to me to be the man in charge either of his ads or of his message. His repeated posture of rising above his own campaign's tactics strikes me as disengenuous at worst and disorganized at best.
  3. legislative agenda - Here's where political agendas hold sway. I rank this last in importance for one simple reason. It's the legislative branch that writes legislation not the president. No question that the president if he is popular can influence and even set priorities but his greates power is the veto. His other great power is to nominate judges to the Supreme Court. If you think Clarence Thomas and Anton Scalia are the judges this country needs more of then your choice is clear. I understand the argument that a Congress run by one party and a presidency run by another is a kind of guarantee against legislative excess. I'm actually sympathetic to that argument. Whoever is president is going to have to deliver on a promise of a new spirit of bipartisanship. What are the big issues? Health care, the debt, the environment, jobs, and national defense. Who has the best shot of moving the middle toward something better? I don't see McCain even showing up on health care. Obama by contrast will pitch one plan and settle for something less. Neither candidate has much hope of doing much about the debt and here it's important to notice that McCain is not materially better on this than Obama even though he is supposed to be the fiscal conservative. Regarding the environment, McCain used to advertise himself as one committed to doing something about climate change (strange that he would choose a VP who has declared herself a skeptic on this subject). His support for alternative fuel research seems largely theoretical given that he's voted against allocating money to it on several occaisions. Still, there might be something there. I have environmentalist friends who think so anyway. He is for cap and trade policies, or at least he was last time I checked. So is Obama. Obama strikes a more grandiose pose on this issue, a call to arms in the style of JFK's Moon Shot. Again, I see Obama as a consumate deal maker. He'll push for the moon and settle for something that moves us forward. Jobs are impossible. Presidents always get credit they don't deserve and blame they don't deserve for rising or falling employment. Business and economic cycles are always out of phase with political cycles. I don't pretend to understand either. Both candidates have tried to get outside their respective boxes. McCain proposed the gas tax holiday and he criticized CEO salaries. Obama proposed eliminating the capital gains tax for small businesses. I'm not sure how to evaluate them as free traders. On job training and education, McCain curiously wanted to talk about education in his RNC speech even though he has no proposals anywhere regarding a federal role in education (years ago he even supported eliminating the Dept. of Ed). Obama has spoken of merit pay for teachers, and of rewarding national service with college tuition subsidies. Finally, on national defense Obama proposes taking off the training wheels of the Maliki government. He speaks of getting out more carefully than we got in. Interestingly, today General Petraus said that he would not necessarily envision using the word "victory" to describe the eventual outcome in Iraq. I find the general's words to be refreshingly candid and nuanced. Nuance is something utterly lacking in McCain's pronouncements on this war. Forgetting his multiple and embarrassing misstatements about the parties involved there, McCain insists on casting every policy difference as a debate between surrender and victory, patriotism and politics. I've yet to hear McCain describe in concrete detail what victory in Iraq means to him and how close we are to getting there. My biggest concern with McCain is his reflex for bluster and his seemingly unshakeable belief that wars are necessary and inevitable. Are we all Georgians? Think about that for a minute. I take McCain at his word. He wants us to take up arms in defense of Georgia, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. No doubt we'll also be occupied in other parts of the world, like Iran, and North korea. McCain seems unfazed and unperturbed by all of this. He speaks about "defeating evil" as if evil has an address and a name. Surely any serious Christian sees the folly of such a statement. It is not man's perrogative to defeat evil, only to wrestle with it. In other words, evil will always be with us; therefore a little humility is in order. His world view is way too simplistic for my liking. When I listen to Obama, I get the sense that he understands the power of humility and the power of example. I haven't the slightest idea what war awaits America, but I trust Obama more than McCain not to be carried away by delusions of grandeur or nostalgia for some nonexistent past glory.
  4. biography - maybe this shouldn't be on the list but I'd be lying if I claimed it doesn't affect how I judge a candidate. Both men have compelling life stories that they can be proud of. McCain's history seems to me to be marked by more privilege than that of Obama's. Both men have in their youth displayed a lust for life that I think humanizes them. Both men have nurtured personal ambitions for a long time. When it comes to biographies, it's like talking about novels or films. People like what they like. I like Obama's story more than McCain's although McCain's experience in Hanoi is more harrowing than anything I can imagine. Because McCain has lived so much longer, he has had time to tarnish the golden boy reputation. Obama may come to a similar fate. Only time will tell. K


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the Onion piece--LOL--seriously.

But I'm motivated to comment on your priority list. I believe you are vastly underestimating the power of the presidency. By stating that the power is limited to veto power and supreme court nominations, you ignore (1) how great veto power is (if McCain were elected, you can expect that none of the legislative agenda you are supporting would get passed), (2) the real power of the court system (the perspective of R judges and D judges is, quite different, having sweepeing implications over every aspect of our society from civil liberties to environmental protection--and most of these decisions are made at the Disctrict Court level with only one person deciding the case) and (3) the power of appointment over every other branch of government (for instance, the Bush Dept. of Interior sued a cattle ranch becasue the ranch was testing all of its cattle for mad cow. DOI argued that this was unfair to the comptition and won (probably in front of R appointees)--).

Temperment and competence are really shiboliths that candidates with unpopular policies use to sway people to vote agaisnt their interest. The president's real power is as stated above.

Thanks for reading my first blog posting ever.

Phil W.

12:22 PM  

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