Monday, February 11, 2008

Barack Obama For President

"You drank the Kool Aid." That's what a couple of friends have told me when they found out who I was voting for tomorrow.

The Presidential Primaries in Maryland (as well as Virginia and Washington, D.C.) are tomorrow.

The Republican race is basically settled. Mike Huckabee has a barely breathing campaign, Ron Paul never really had a chance, and everyone else worth mentioning has dropped out. It appears that John McCain is going to be their candidate.

So that leaves the Democrats, a party with whom, conveniently enough, I usually identify myself. And, for a whole host of reasons I can get into later if anyone cares, there is simply no way that I'm going to vote to give more power to the Republican Party the way that it currently exists at the national level. And that their choice is John McCain, whose dislike by certain types of movement conservatives is a point in his favor, does not really change any of that. Just because I think John McCain is probably a better human being than George W. Bush does not mean I think he'd necessarily be better as President. Sure he sometimes takes moderate positions to make himself look good for the press; apart from a relatively ineffective campaign finance reform measure, most have little substance behind them. Perhaps most importantly, he will be selecting from the same pool as Bush for political appointees in general and judges in particular.

And at this stage, with all the other Democratic candidates having departed the Presidential hunt, we are down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Either way, the choice will be a momentous historical first.

How did I make my call?

I used to look at candidate websites extensively and compare the minor details of their various policy proposals until I concluded that substantive differences in micro-policy issues don't generally amount to much. They would matter a lot more if we were electing a dictator, but whoever becomes President is going to have to get his proposals through Congress and they're going to have their own ideas. Presidents don't, except in the most extreme circumstances, get up-or-down votes on their policy prescriptions. And in any case, there isn't a ton of daylight to be found in most of the differences between the stated platforms of these two Senators. I find much in their respective records that I like, and a few things about both that concern me.

I look at Hillary Clinton, and I see someone who is capable, sharp, and a good debater. If it came down to voting for her vs. John McCain, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the lever for her. She's had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her by the Republican attack machine, who probably have no new ammunition. She's been a fairly effective Senator by most accounts, able to work with members of both parties despite having been tagged as a "divisive" politican. There has been a lot of criticism aimed at her by Republicans and Democrats alike and not all of it is fair. I watched the Republicans turn John Kerry into a "divisive" figure, and having watched Kerry in action for nearly two decades, I can say that he if he can be pilloried that way so can almost anyone.

Hillary is in part selling herself as a sort of "bridge to the 1990s," harkening back to her husband's term of office. Which, to most people who aren't staunch Repuiblicans, looks even better thanks to the seven-plus intervening years of the administration of George W. Bush.
It was a more fiscally responsible administration, and one that pushed America's image in the world in a positive direction.

On the other hand, I see some causes for concern, particularly if we're talking about the Iraq War as an important issue. Likely opponent John McCain is even more enthusiastic about the ongoing conflict than the current White House occupant; the foreign policy neoconservative set was the only portion of the GOP establishment that preferred McCain to Bush in 2000. And what exactly is Hillary going to say when the topic is addressed? I look what happened to similarly compromised John Kerry, a combat veteran unlike Clinton, on this issue and I don't want a repeat. Yes, we all know that it was easier in 2002 for Obama, then a state legislator from Chicago, to take a stand against the Iraq War we all know was coming than it was as a Senator (even one with a safe seat) with an eye on the White House. But her subsequent hawkish remarks make such a plea for latitude ring somewhat hollow. Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Resolution, widely interpreted as the first stage of beating the drums for a war against Iran. Kerry by then had grown wiser, Edwards came out against the resolution (albeit he was no longer in the Senate.) However sympathetic one wants to be about the 2002 force authorization with respect to Iraq, a position taken by a large number of Democrats, the fact is that she has not only continued to defend that vote but in way repeated the blunder in 2007 with respect to Iran. Which makes her either a supporter of the Bush foreign policy agenda, someone still clueless about that agenda, or someone too frightened to take a clear stand against it. None of those possibilities reflects particularly well on her.

And the 1990s were not all wine and roses as far as Democrats are concerned. When Bill Clinton came into office, Democrats had at least institutional control of both houses of Congress, a majority of state legislatures and gubernatorial offices - and all that changed dramatically during his tenure. As masterful as Clinton was at playing himself off against the slash-and-burn Gingrich Republicans, the relatively ineffective (dare I say impotent?) Bob Dole, and the screaming banshees of AM radio - it did not ultimately help the party, who left the Clinton presidency disenchanted and rudderless. It made the unfortunate Bush Presidency possible. Clinton gained much of his goodwill among Democrats by fighting the Republicans more on style than on substance. We were so outraged by the nature of the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton and their overreaching that we sometimes forgot that he undermined his own Presidency with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Between that and his considerable charm, sometimes we even forgot that many of the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency - NAFTA and welfare reform in particular - were more the brainchild of Republicans than of Democrats. Now maybe Hillary Clinton is different, but if she has criticized any of these aspects of her husband's administration or stated that her Presidency would be a totally different story, I have yet to hear it. Their own manipulations and careful positioning have led many people to believe that the Clintons were far more liberal than they really are/were - and why on earth would we nominate a centrist whom everyone seems to think is a flaming liberal? (If we're going to go for the center, I would think we ought to at least get credit for that from swing voters.)

Don't get me wrong. If the 1990s are all I can have - if the alternative is more bellicosity, more make-the-well-off-even-better-off tax schemes, more Scalia acolytes on the federal bench - I'll be the first one to bust out the plaid flannel shirts. I'll refight the fights over a soundtrack of Better Than Ezra and Hootie & The Blowfish.

But if I see something that I think will be better, that's where I'm going. And I think I see something better.

When I look at Senator Obama, I see someone who looks more like where America is going than where America has been. I see someone I can point to and say "I guess anyone can become President after all." And there are a lot of people who don't believe that now, and I think we'd be far better off if they could.

I look at someone who has had life experiences that people my age and younger can relate to, someone who has not necessarily been gunning for the White House his entire life. I see someone has spent a good deal of time outside the United States, a good quality to have in someone whose decisions and statements cause ripple effects the world over.

When I listen to Senator Obama, I hear something that sounds different. I hear someone who can inspire people, even - to some degree - this somewhat hardened cynic, jaded by years of living in Washington and witnessing the whole sausage-making process at close range.

And furthermore, I see the same deftness and capabilities I see in Hillary Clinton, and without the baggage that comes with all the old wars. That's not entirely fair to Senator Clinton, who has a record of her own, but this is about who to vote for, not necessarily who "deserves" the nomination.

I've seen the game as it is now played up close - from the goalposts to playbooks. And it hasn't been all bad, but I think I'm ready to play a different kind of game. And that's why I am going to the polls tomorrow morning. Kool Aid and all.

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