Archive for the ‘Election 2008’ Category
Election night reminded me once more what a crazy, wonderful country I live in. Barack Obama gave an incredible, uplifting victory speech to match his great accomplishment. John McCain’s concession speech was literally jaw-dropping. His eloquence, graciousness, and humility were inspiring; a few more performances that good and he may not have had to concede! For him, on the very night of the election, to refer to his opponent as “my president”, after an ugly campaign this year and such divisive elections in 2000 and 2004, blew my mind.
It made me think of just how unusual our political system is. Our presidents and presidential candidates have, again and again, given up the most powerful office in the world without coups, civil wars, violence. This is not how human beings naturally work. That we do so is an awesome achievement of our constitutional system, culture, and continued vigilance. John McCain did one better, giving up not only without violence, but without hard feelings.
In a democratic society, though, we cannot depend only on having great leaders; they will not emerge except from a great people. Ordinary Americans, using the latest greatest American technology, give the best showing of supporting democracy and being kind-hearted.
I give you 52 to 48/48 to 52, with love!
As I filled out my absentee ballot, I found myself deeply ambivalent- both about the local races I know nothing about, and the Presidential race I’ve been reading about for months and could talk about for hours. I wonder whether all these things I know about the candidates reflect what they know about themselves and their real plans; and further how future events will intervene to make the candidates act in ways they themselves don’t anticipate.
But the problem is bigger than uncertainty about the future; it is more a fundamental inability to judge people. I lack the experience, knowledge, and confidence to say that one person is better than another unless the evidence is overwhelming. College taught me how to evaluate position papers and speeches, but some time working HR, or working anywhere, would have taught me to evaluate people with more confidence (if not knowledge).
So why do I say that college taught me how to vote, if it left me unable to choose candidates? Easy, there’s more than names on a ballot! There are questions, direct questions about single issues. That’s exactly the kind of thing college is good for; these questions could blend into an exam in political science, philosophy, or economics. Except they’re easy; it is pretty straightforward to see which groups are hurt or helped economically, and how a single proposition fits with your political philosophy.
The ironic part of all this single-issue preparation is that while I feel I’ve learned well how to vote as a senator, I’m left clueless about how to vote for a senator.
As cynical Americans, we hardly expect our politicians to do in office what they promised to do on the campaign trail. But many presidents end up doing just the opposite of what they promised, speeding away from their original platform like an Olympian diving off the 10 meter- though rarely with such purpose or grace.
Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Within five months, he was asking Congress to declare war against Germany.
Franklin Roosevelt called President Hoover a profligate spender and promised to balance the budget and reign in spending. But once in office he quickly surpassed Hoover, increasing government spending and defecits to peacetime records.
On the campaign trail in 2000, then-Governor Bush criticized Clinton and Gore for their attempts at “nation-building”, and said he would never do such a thing. Less than a year after he was elected, President Bush had decided to give nation-building a try in Afghanistan, soon followed by a larger and less necessary attempt in Iraq.
Were these men simply lying to get elected? I don’t think its so simple; I suspect all of them, especially Bush, intended to follow through on their rhetoric. They changed their minds in response to changing circumstances- like unrestricted German submarine warfare, a persistent depression, or the Sept 11th attacks. There is a least a modicum of honesty and legitimacy in these actions.
But the fact remains that these men were given power by an electorate because of what they promised to do. Some of those who voted for Bush in 2000 in hopes of a less activist foreign policy were deeply dissapointed with his change of heart; some Floridians especially must have been driven to despair knowing what their hand had helped to wreak.
But what can we do as voters? How can we know what a presidential candidate would really do, when they may not even know themselves? Given the history just cited, it almost seems as if the best bet is to vote for the candidate with the beliefs most nearly opposite one’s own. But really, it is probably best to roll the dice given the information we have. Looking at the records and speeches of Obama and McCain, we can gain a little information. It may not cover everything; it may be contradictory already; it will almost certainly be contradicted later. But voters too must take the plunge, and hope the pool we are aiming for turns out to be where we think it is.
The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands purports to explain why LBJ-style liberalism no longer has any real influence on American governace.
He is right to note that its influence has faded away. No matter how many times Bill Clinton is labelled a tax-and-spend liberal, the facts remain that he balanced the budget, reformed welfare, and introduced no major government programs. The comparison to LBJ and even Nixon could hardly be more stark.
Brands’ main thesis is that liberalism is a political philosophy that puts enormous trust in the government, and that Americans are only willing to give that much trust to a government which is successfully prosecuting a war.
Most basically, Americans only tolerate the expansion of government power during wartime. Brands tells the story of government expansion during and after each American war. Each time the government takes on extraordinary powers; at the end of each conflict, the size and power of the government ebb- but never all the way back to prewar levels.
The Cold War allowed America to remain in a war mentality for decades, building a huge military and national security bureaucracy at the same time as it expanded domestic spending and policing abilities.
Vietnam and Watergate brought a loss of trust in the government, while detente meant a partial end to the Cold War. By the time Nixon resigned, the liberal era was over.
Brands thesis is fine as far as it goes. I get the sense that the heart of this book is about the wartime expansion of government power, in ways liberal or not; the title was probably chosen to sell more copies rather than to describe the contents. His writting is clear and occassionally compelling. He makes one prediction which is obvious in the abstract, but bracing given he timing: in a book published in early 2001, he states that the next major expansion of government would come only after a “national emergency.” The emergency, and the expansion, of course followed swiftly.
This made me wonder how far the government’s size and power will ebb when Americans perceive the “War on Terror” to be over. How many of us will outlive the Department of Homeland Security? Or Federal security and shoe removal at airports?
Mostly I wonder what a President Obama would do. His stated position of ending the war in Iraq, restoring many civil liberties, and also introducing major new government programs such as national health care, is impossible according to Brands. Major new domestic powers can only come in wartime. So will Obama continue the war in order to have a freer hand domestically? Will he end the war along with his plans for major new initiatives like health care? Or will he prove Brands wrong?
Given the New Yorker’s well-known political slant, its hard to imagine they meant to try to damage Obama; I find the cover delightfully over the top, with an American flag in the fireplace and a portrait of Bin Laden on the wall. When things get ridiculous enough, you’ve got to laugh- unless you’re thin skinned as a skeleton.
But behind the controversial cover is a substantive story, covering Obama’s rise to power in Illinois. The journalist managed to do the legwork to track down a lot of people who were involved in his career in state politics. The portrait they paint is largely one of just another ambitious American politician- not the most flattering way to describe someone, but an obvious juxtaposition to the cover which portrays him as a secret terrorist. The article gives the sense that he is just a man- obviously not out to destroy America, but not exactly the superman, the savior that many hope for.
They focus on the 9 short years it took Obama to become a lawyer in Chicago, get elected to the state senate, make a failed run for the US congress, then a successful one for US senate.
It is an inspiring story of rapid successes. The lessons that I see:
1) Work hard, work smart.
2) Make connections with people who have power, or money, or are just eager to help. Obama never ceased to seek out and befriend established politicians, donors, or potential campaign workers. My favorite example: his early support from Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy.
3) Learn from your mistakes- like what went wrong in a failed run for Congress
4) Don’t be afraid to be ruthless- whether it getting all your opponents (including the woman who helped launch your career) knocked off the ballot with legal challenges, allowing you to run uncontested; or redrawing your district to have a better chance at reelection. Victory silences many moral qualms. These somewhat shady acts may have tainted Obama’s sterling image, but if he hadn’t won those elections, he would have had no national reputation to taint. This lesson might be the least applicable to other, non-political fields of endeavor.
5) You don’t get to the top by being humble. Obama had the ambition and confidence to put himself forward for ever more important positions, using each as a stepping stone to get to the next. He never stayed in the same job for more than 4 years without trying for a “better” one (a record it may be difficult to keep up as president).
Seeing the details behind Obama’s meteoric rise may lessen the enthusiasm of his more ardent supporters. As a relatively neutral observer, I don’t think the knowledge makes me any more or less likely to vote for him. But knowing how quickly he rose, as a newcomer to Chicago with no rich or influential family, gave me a lot more respect for him.
Voting rights occupy a special place in the minds of Americans; no voting controversy can be settled, or even discussed, without some good doses of demagoguery from all sides.
The Democratic Party wanted to keep states from having their primaries a year ahead of the election; the state parties in Florida and Michigan moved theirs back anyway, fully aware of the consequences for breaking the rules. It’s beyond me how most people seem to blame the National party for making and enforcing rules rather than blaming Florida and Michigan for breaking them.
A compromise has just been reached to give half-votes to the delegates from Florida and Michigan. Now Clinton supporters and concerned citizens can complain about not only disenfranchisement, but make comparisons to the famous three-fifths slave-voting compromise!
Can you hear the Republicans chuckling on the sidelines? Rush Limbaugh himself last week, as part of “Operation Chaos“, suggested giving three-fifths of a vote to the delegates.
Parties can choose their nominees any way they like; the current system of primaries and caucuses is found nowhere in the constitution (for that matter, neither are parties themselves). We might even be better off with the traditional mechanism of party elites in a dark, smoke-filled room. But it sure is amusing to watch democrats with misplaced enthusiasm tearing their party apart. Seeing how well they run their own party, one can only hope they learn a lot before they have a country to run.