…and Why I’m Not Voting For Either of Them
Whether intended or not, presidential elections are, increasingly, exercises in aggrandizement. Every challenge we face is supposedly unique, every set of circumstances supposedly unprecedented and America’s future is always on the line. Or, barring that, we’re perpetually reenacting the definitive moments of our past: Sept. 11 becomes the new Pearl Harbor, the recent economic downturn is suddenly Great Depression 2.0 and so on.
Amid all this (often groundless) puffery, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that our job as voters is to express our preference for the next president of the United States; nothing more and nothing less. We are not electing a king or a savior or a surrogate father or a drinking buddy. It is highly unlikely any choice we make will spell our ruin or bring about a golden age. The ebullient rhetoric of a bright new tomorrow will fade far more quickly than the gloss on many of the campaign signs.
Within those parameters, however, the choice we make can make a difference. The status quo can still be tilted and nudged if not truly shaken. And just as sickness exists between death and health, there is a whole spectrum of national well-being for our next president to intrepidly traverse. The objective for any voter, be it largely guesswork, is not to go with which candidate you “like” the most, but which candidate will screw things up the least.
This is a question I find myself continually straining to answer. After all, Candidate A might screw us up one way and Candidate B might screw us up another. How do you rate, for instance, paying more in taxes against paying more for health care? Is an expensive and unpopular war we’re now fighting “better” than an expensive and unpopular war we may fight somewhere else in the future? Do one party’s sex scandals merit more scorn than another party’s funding scandals?
The dilemma reached a rather maddening crescendo in 2004. Running on a record of abject failure, George W. Bush benefitted greatly from the Lincolnian adage about changing horses at midstream (the stream, in this case, being filled with casualties and tape recorded threats by bearded men). John Kerry, on the other hand, benefitted greatly by not being George W. Bush, but didn’t really bring anything else to the table save for uncertainty, a lack of charisma and a fondness for windsurfing. Not having the slightest shred of confidence in either of them, I gave my vote in protest to a third-party candidate who, in retrospect, was a few bricks short of a wall.
But – and in direct contradiction of my earlier point – this election is different. I can trust John McCain to do certain things and I can trust Barack Obama to do certain things. There are, for once, good reasons to vote for either the Republican or Democratic candidate, as opposed to voting against them.
Some of these reasons, it should be noted, really have nothing to do with the candidates themselves, but simply the positions they occupy. History has shown us, for instance, that federal spending is often held in check by divided government. Thus, a vote for a Republican presidential candidate facing a Democratic Congress is usually a vote for fiscal restraint because the veto pen is more likely to be put to use than if president and congress shared the same party. It has little to do with how fiscally conservative or profligate the individual candidate is or is not.
Further, as both Obama and McCain are sitting Senators, a win for either of them creates a vacancy. In McCain’s case, winning the election frees up his seat for Jeff Flake; aside from Ron Paul, the most libertarian member of the House (and, I can only hope, a future presidential candidate). In Obama’s case, you’re looking at possibly Jesse Jackson Jr. or another Chicago politician. If you’ve been keeping score, you’ll see that McCain is gaining some points by default. Whatever hits he takes running as the successor to an unpopular Republican president is more than offset by Obama running as a member of an even more unpopular Democratic Congress.
Another factor to be considered is each candidate’s choice of a running mate. For better or for worse, we’ve come a long way from the days of John Nance “not worth a bucket of warm piss” Garner. Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford have shown us that a vice president must be ready to occupy the top slot and Dick Cheney has shown us that vice presidential power isn’t limited to occasions when the president is incapacitated.
By the simplest measure possible, Obama succeeded in picking someone who is up to the job while McCain did not. Make no mistake about it: Joe Biden is a traditional Washington politician who undercuts Obama’s message of change. He also has an odious judicial philosophy and is ordinarily a walking gaffe machine (though, it must be said, he has done a better than expected job of keeping himself in check). However, Biden has the requisite experience and temperament, particularly in foreign affairs. It’s unlikely he would be a good president, but he could be president just the same.
GILF-itude aside, Sarah Palin picks up points for charisma and running the crooked Frank Murkowski out of office. That alone, however, is not nearly enough to offset her negatives. Not only does her inexperience render Obama’s inexperience moot, but she’s proven herself to be mendacious (see “Bridge to Nowhere stance”), condescendingly elitist (see “real Americans”) and abusive of the power vested in her (see “Troopergate”). Whining about media treatment – a curious stance given her open hostility to the very same media – negates none of this. Quite simply, she does not have what it takes to be president at this point in time.
Associations beyond the choice of veep tend to be a more tenuous matter. “Knowing” people and putting the people you know in power are two different things and only the latter possibility is really worth our consideration. Contrary to all the mudslinging, Obama probably has closer ties to Chicago School economists than he does to William Ayers and you aren’t any more likely to see the ex-terrorist in a cabinet post than you are McCain buddy/convicted felon G. Gordon Liddy occupying a spot in a Republican administration. Likewise, while the lobbyist/shady fundraiser connections native to both candidates undermine their images as agents of change, there’s little reason to worry unless those same connections are likely candidates for positions of power.
Another consideration often given too much weight is that of character. As stated, you are electing a president, not a best friend. Decent people don’t always make for decent presidents (see Carter, Jimmy and Bush, George W.), while untrustworthy or morally suspect people (see Clinton, Bill and Kennedy, John F.) sometimes make for decent presidents. The only time “character” should be a prime consideration is when it casts suspicion on a candidate’s ability to do the job (see Nixon, Richard).
Temperament, on the other hand, does matter. How a candidate responds to the demands of being president has big implications for his effectiveness. A president must be able to work with Congress, with subordinates, with world leaders, with the media, etc. The real “change” that Obama brings to this campaign is not in his politics (more on that below), but how he approaches being a politician. As he showed during the debates, he is able to make himself appear conciliatory even when he is on the offensive, a quality that appeals to those who may not share his views. McCain’s hard-charging style, on the other hand, makes him seem angry; a turn-off to voters who aren’t already in his corner.
Take the same characteristics to the foreign policy arena, however, and the dynamic changes. Even after eight years of “The Decider,” it’s worth betting that Americans want their president to appear strong and decisive when dealing with other nations (particularly the “bad” ones). McCain oozes leadership, while Obama’s more laid-back approach comes across as a liability (worse yet would be the ill-fated aggressiveness you can expect him to display to overcompensate for this).
Both candidates, it should be noted, have shown they are capable of working with the other side. Bipartisanship is not always a positive. It gave us campaign finance reform (McCain-Feingold), the PATRIOT Act and No Child Left Behind. However, it also gave us increased transparency in federal funding (Obama-Coburn-McCain) among other things. In general, it’s desirable to have a president who will sign or veto legislation based on something more substantive than party control of Congress.
The final pratfall to avoid is that of narrative. Come election time, candidates look to define both themselves and their opponents in terms they hope will resonate with the electorate. Obama wants us to believe he’s an agent of change and McCain is a Bush clone with the wrong economic priorities; McCain wants us to accept him as a maverick and Obama as an inexperienced liberal with terrorist connections. And while there may be a kernel of truth to all of these characterizations, you can count on more than a kernel of self-interested exaggeration. Fortunately, however, politics is not an art which rewards creativity. The farther you stray from that which is so, the easier it becomes to hammer you with it.
All that really remains at this point are the issues: where do candidates stand, what ideas do they propose, what will they do as president. In a perfect world, issues would dominate both the discourse and each voter’s decision-making process. As it now stands, however, issues play second fiddle to narrative, to perceptions of character, to countless other less impactful factors when we talk about elections. How much they actually weigh on each individual voter as the lever is pulled is anyone’s guess.
It is through this lens of issues that Obama loses much of his gloss. For all the rhetoric of change, his positions are indistinguishable from those of many other Democratic politicians. He is pro-choice, committed to multilateral interventionism, in favor of universal health-care and a “green.” While he does offer a few points of departure – he’s voiced support for merit pay for teachers and talked up personal and parental responsibility – he is, for the most part, a breath of stale air.
Obama’s Democratic orthodoxy is most troubling in the economic sphere. It should be said beforehand that Obama is not a socialist: not while he is running on tax cuts, not while he has so many associates in the business world. He is, however, a neo-Keynsian interventionist, which can spell disaster in its own right. By falsely framing the economic downturn as a product of unfettered capitalism, he seems intent on drumming up support for increased economic regulation. Considering that the regulatory excesses of the New Deal helped prolong the Great Depression, this is reason for concern.
McCain, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to pin down. To quote one characterization, he is, “conservative, but not a Conservative.” Ideology, in other words, takes a back seat to ambition and McCain’s stances on taxes, on the role of religion and politics, on repealing Roe v. Wade, have varied over the years.
Despite his capacity for periodically reinventing himself, McCain has shown a few constants. He has proven to be a consistent unilateral hawk; a firm believer in American military might to solve global problems. He has also been a consistent foe of pork barrel spending and government waste and a proponent of free trade.
McCain’s social policy has generally been conservative, tempered by varying degrees of federalism. His economic views are generally market-oriented, though he did support the recent bank bailout.
Given everything, each candidate brings enough to the table for me to at least give him the time of day. I like Obama’s temperament, for instance, and find myself in agreement with him on certain social issues. But his economic stance and the fact that he is a Democrat facing a Democratic Congress render him unpalatable.
McCain, on the other hand, botched the Palin pick, is running a generally inept campaign, and has disagreeable stances on some foreign policy and social issues. He is, however, closer to being right on the economic side of things than Obama, is a Republican facing a Democratic Congress and would be getting my vote…if there weren’t better choices available.
I am, much to my surprise, supporting Bob Barr this go-around. The same Bob Barr who made waves as a gun-toting, impeachment-craving right-wing partisan during the Clinton years. The same Bob Barr who tried to ban the practice of Wicca in the military. The same Bob Barr who has the affability of a Brillo pad.
And yet, unlike the 2004 vote for Badnarik, this is not a protest vote. I honestly believe Barr has what it takes to be president. He spent parts of his childhood in various parts of the world and has a ton of experience in international affairs. He’s been a congressman, a CIA analyst, a prosecutor and a member of the NRA board of directors and an ACLU consultant. With a résumé like that and all the right notes he’s hitting issue-wise (anti-bailout, strongly federalist, etc.) who cares if he isn’t Mr. Warmth?
Of course, being a former Republican congressman, Barr has some history to answer for. The once-proud drug warrior authored the Defense of Marriage Act and voted for the PATRIOT Act (albeit after adding sunset provisions). That, coupled with my skepticism toward political apostasy, should be enough for me to remove him from consideration. However, I am convinced that Barr’s move toward libertarianism is sincere. He has been a de facto libertarian since leaving office in 2003, several years before he emerged as a presidential candidate. Contrast this to Alan Keyes and Ralph Nader leaching onto third parties at the 11th hour for vanity campaigns.
Barr also benefits from having probably the best running mate of the bunch in Wayne Allyn Root. Root, who graduated Columbia in the same class as Barack Obama, has had success as a businessman/author/media type and brings a ton of charisma. Also, as a Las Vegas sports handicapper, he’s about as far removed from Washington politics as you can get.
Naturally, I don’t expect Barr to win. But if he can make enough of a difference in the final tally, he’ll force Democrats and Republicans to take more notice of libertarian ideas. That kind of nudge will ultimately do more good for the country than either a McCain or an Obama presidency ever could.