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Gay electoral milestones in the US election

7 November, 2012 Leave a comment

Last night saw the re-election of the first US president to have declared their support for equal marriage for gays and lesbians while in office. During Barack Obama’s first time, he has had the best record of any president to date, overseeing the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, the end of the ban on travel and immigration based on HIV status, allowing transgender people get passports with their current gender. As far as foreign policy goes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made very clear that the US would promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across the world.

The clearest watershed for gay rights, though, were the votes on equal marriage. Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first places in the world to approve of equal marriage by popular vote. In all other places, whether other US states or eleven countries, the change was made only through the courts or the legislature. Thirty-three times before yesterday, in different US states, votes on marriage had gone against equality. Now we see that the popular mind-set is shifting. Voters now see our relationships as no different to those of any other couple who wish to marry. Voters in Minnesota also defeated a proposal to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

These votes sent a clear message to American reactionaries that the tide has turned. It will embolden those across the country seeking equality. Next step will be for the Supreme Court to rule on the offensively named Defense of Marriage Act, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has indicated will be considered soon, probably this spring. I think given the makeup of the court, it’s likely to be repealed, and marriages between same-sex couples in the eleven states which allow it will be recognized by the federal government. Meanwhile, the push state-by-state, through courts, legislature and polls will continue.

For us too in Ireland, these campaigns can serve as a model for us, as we’re likely to face a referendum on equal marriage in the coming years. Our countries are different, yet there would be still so much in common with such a campaign. We can look to Maine and compare a campaign that worked with one that didn’t.

Last night also saw the first openly gay Senator elected, with Tammy Baldwin for Wisconsin, who had served in the House since 1999. She beat former governor Tommy Thompson to the seat.

In the House, the long-serving Barney Frank retired this year. Frank served on the Massachusetts delegation since 1981, and in 1987 became the first openly gay member of Congress. Earlier this year, he became the first member of Congress to marry someone of their own sex.

Jared Polis, who has served for Colorado since 2009 achieved another first, who is raising a son, born last year, with his partner, another Congressional first for an LGBT member. David Cicilline was the first openly gay Mayor of a state capital, for Providence, Rhode Island, and served in Congress since 2011. Both were re-elected last night.

There were also some new LGBT members of the House. Mark Pocan succeeded to Tammy Baldwin’s old seat in Wisconsin. Sean Patrick Maloney won in New York and Mark Takano won in California. And while the race is still tight, Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona looks set to be the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

All the above are Democrats. One Republican I was hoping would be elected and take his name in that list was Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, but he wasn’t elected. He ran a good campaign, but it’s tough for a Republican to fare well in Massachusetts. The list of gay, lesbian or bisexual members is becoming numerous and closer to being proportionate, so that each one is less significant for that fact, and soon enough, we’ll stop bothering to list them off. But the milestone of a Republican openly gay on their election will be one to mark.

Moreover, the votes in the four states on marriage in particular will focus the minds of Republican leaders and strategists. Their accommodation to reality will be late, but is inevitable. This is of course but one of a number of issues where they will have to articulate views closer to the median voter to avoid being seen as dinosaurs, and losing winnable Senate seats, as occurred this year in part because of the comments on rape and abortion from candidates like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Rick Berg.

The views of the public of equal marriage are shifting so quickly that by 2016, I can’t see the frontrunner of the Republican candidates going anywhere near a National Organization for Marriage pledge. I could see them answering a question, stating a preference for civil unions but acknowledging that different states are finding different approaches, something not too far from Obama in 2008. And by 2020, I could easily imagine it not being an issue at all for the Republican candidate to be on record in favour of equal marriage, if a Supreme Court ruling doesn’t recognize it as a right across the United States before then.

In any case, last night’s results were definitely quite a step forward from four years ago, when the fervour Obama’s election was somewhat dampened by California’s support of Proposition 8.

Endorsements from abroad

6 November, 2012 Leave a comment

In considering who to declare our support in US presidential elections, even those of us who do not have a vote at all put ourselves in the position of a voter in the tipping point state, in this case calculated by Nate Silver to be Ohio. This is all-in-all quite a restrictive parlour game.

Like most others watching this election, I have a clear preference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to start a presidential term on 20 January. But this preference should not mean that we approach the given candidate obsequiously, nor that I believe that therefore all Americans should vote for that candidate. Let us judge the candidates fairly, and consider this a time for a review of Obama’s term of office to date. As foreign observers, who are not Democrats or Republicans, we should the question of which candidate we prefer more disinterestedly than I think becomes the norm. Even in our own countries, we shouldn’t end up thinking about our support for political parties in the way of a sports fan following their team, but there is much less of a cultural excuse for it watching from afar.

I supported Barack Obama ahead of the vote four years ago. What has occurred since that could lead me to change my view of him?

My criticism of President Obama is based on his policies in the conduct of war and the protection of civil liberties. While this is something that I have paid attention to from a number of sources over the last year, such as Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf, I recently read Gene Healy’s False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency, which catalogues the increasing powers of the presidency under President Obama. As the name suggests, Healy is not an alarmist who believes that this is in any way unique to Obama, but rather that this is a continuation of a trend he explored in great detail in The Cult of the Presidency, written towards the end of President George W. Bush’s time in office. For example, on the question of healthcare, why should we be surprised that Obama sought to do what every Democratic president since Truman also did.

But on the question of civil liberties in particular, Obama has not governed as he campaigned. Most prominently, he has not closed Guantanamo Bay. But while that may be ascribed to the lack of Congressional support, this cannot be said in other areas. Healy quotes New Republic legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen as predicting in February 2008 that Obama would be the “first civil libertarian candidate”. Yet by 2010, policy analysts of contrasting perspectives were admitting how things had changed from that perspective. James Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, described Obama’s security programs as Bush clones, while Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Union for Civil Liberties, was quoted as being disgusted by Obama’s policies on civil liberties and national security issues.

George W. Bush was rightly and widely criticised for instituting indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. Yet the voices of criticism have been much softer since it was revealed earlier this year that Barack Obama had what has been dubbed a ‘kill list’, under which people identified as terrorist combatants, including American citizens, have been targeted for elimination by drones. This involved the death of a 16-year-old American citizen, which a spokesperson for the Obama administration defended. Of course a state must protect itself from attack, but not at the cost of the abandonment of jury trial after centuries of practice. And Obama has bended the constitutional requirement to require Congressional approval for war, aside from a direct attacks. ‘War’ has been redefined to exclude situations where no American soldiers are at risk, so that a foreign country can be bombed without the need for approval. He approved a National Defense Authorization Act, considered worse than infringements on civil liberties than under Bush.

Given this glimpse into these abuses of his power, I find the continuing fawning attitude towards Barak Obama a bit much, especially from those watching from outside the United States. There is no need to us to view their foreign policy in any way but critically, or to fret fearfully that such criticism would lead to a worse alternative in office. It really isn’t a good enough excuse to point out that Mitt Romney would be worse.

Because there is no reason to expect that Romney would not worse in many such respects. The saving grace from the point of view of conduct of war with the likely re-election of Obama is that Democratic-leaning civil libertarians will feel more comfortable being critical of him, and if his record does not improve, and that it could start a movement that is not based around an individual politician as was the case with Obama in 2007 and 2008, but around a set of ideal and principles.

As well as his likely policies on civil liberties and the conduct of war, Mitt Romney would win the presidency as the standard-bearer of a Republican Party that isn’t at all shy about showing its nasty party, and while some like to imagine that he would govern as a moderate, he has made it very difficult to allow himself to move away from hard-line positions on social questions. He has donated to the National Organization for Marriage, which campaigns against equal marriage across the United States, and the group have charted his record on this count favourably. In his time as Governor of Massachusetts, he had a poor track record on a range of LGBT issues, whether in education or with families of gay couples. It would be a marked shift for gay people from the first president to have declared his support for equal marriage in office; as would Paul Ryan be a shift from a vice president in Joe Biden who recently described transgender discrimination as the ‘civil right issue of our time’.

Those who dream of a ‘Moderate Mitt’ recall his time as governor of Massachusetts, where he co-operated with Democrats. But there he had to, given the scale of their majority, and he was not working with a Republican Party driven at a national level with a particular agenda. We should expect the Republicans to retain their majority in the House, and there is no reason to expect that Romney as president would in his own right moderate their actions, tho this may occur with a majority-Democratic Senate.

Romney seems a comfortable leader of a party that tacks to extremes, which ostracizes those such as Indiana Senator Richard Lugar for co-operating with Democrats on standard bills, in favour of a candidate in Richard Mourdock who went on to discuss a pregnancy from rape as part of God’s plan; as well as the most famous incident of Todd Akin, there is also Rick Berg, Senate candidate in North Dakota, who proposed a bill that would give a life sentence to women who avail of abortion, whatever the circumstances; Romney also supports the tenor of many of the most extreme policies against immigrants, even if partially moderated during the debates.

I do think these things matter, even for us here, because of the United States position as a within the western cultural world.

While the jibes at Romney’s wealth during the campaign might have been amusing, they were not relevant to his ability to govern. What is relevant is the contempt he showed for those below a certain income by saying that the bottom 47% saw themselves as victims.

Could Obama have done a lot better on the economy? Probably, but on the one hand I don’t trust the instincts of a man looking for a trade war with China, and on the other, while it was disappointing that Obama didn’t embrace the reforms proposed by the Simpson–Bowles Commission, I do think that could be a likely outcome to the deadlock of an Obama second term with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

So what am I hoping for with tonight’s result? I would like to see Obama re-elected as president. Yet his record in foreign policy, the war on terror and related matters are such that I would also like to see a strong vote for decent third-party candidates outside of swing states. Most Americans do not live in a state that the candidates consider worth spending time or resources, such that MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who has lived in Massachusetts, New York and California, urged voters to support third-party candidates where it makes sense.

O’Donnell discusses here two issues which were covered in the debate between Dr Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gov. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Mayor Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, those of the drug war and indefinite detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism. On many such issues, the first three at least felt like they could have been comfortable in a debate between European political parties, and as a European observing the powers wielded by what is still the world’s most powerful country, I have no issue judging the election on such a standard, given that such voices do exist in the United States.

There are two of these minor candidates on the ballot in nearly every state, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Between those, I would favour Johnson. It is rare that a minor party candidate has significant relevant experience, and Gary Johnson served two successful terms as Governor of New Mexico, from 1995 to 2003. In economic terms, while I would not favour the extent of the swingeing cuts Johnson proposes, I would be happier to give a nod to that than to the skepticism to free trade of the US Green Party.

Were I an American, active in a Political Action Committee, this might be a hard stance to negotiate, to endorse Obama for president, but a vote for Johnson in most states. Not an impossible one, to be sure, but definitely one that it simpler from Ireland, as I’ll be watching results come in over the course of the night.

Other ballots and contests

And there will be other votes too. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about the 2009 vote on equal marriage in Maine, and what we can learn from it here. Maine is voting again tonight on the same question, and between it, Washington and Maryland, we are likely to see at least one state vote in favour of equal marriage. This will be highly significant, as they would be the first in the world to allow equal marriage by popular vote, and instructive for us here, as we are likely to have a campaign on it in the coming years.

Also from a gay point of view, I hope to see Tammy Baldwin elected as Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, defeating former Governor Tommy Thompson. She would be the first openly gay US Senator. There’s Richard Tisei, vying for a House seat in Massachusetts, who would be the first Republican openly gay on his election. And another Republican who I’d like to see in on similar grounds is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida, the only Republican member of the House to support the Respect for Marriage Bill.

In nearly all other cases, I’d imagine that I’d be rooting against the Republicans, tho I sure there are some honourably exceptions. I’m indifferent, for example, in the case of Linda McMahon, Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut. While not the best of them, I think the Republican caucus better for having some of the old Yankees within it. I might have classed Scott Brown in that mould before he named the reactionary Antonin Scalia as his model Supreme Court judge. And of course you’ll always find a smattering of races where the Democrat would be just clearly far worse, such as in Tennessee, where local Democratic party disowned their nominal candidate Mark Clayton, after his work with an anti-gay hate group came to light.

When should politicians lie?

15 May, 2012 1 comment

I was quite sceptical of Barack Obama from the time he announced his candidacy for the presidency in early 2007. I supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, tho did support Obama against John McCain. I was never quite convinced by his rhetoric, and his inability to manage expectations played a part in subsequent disillusionment with his presidency. For example, making a commitment just after taking office that he would close Guantanamo Bay within a year, something that has yet to happen, was an odd political move. I would have liked to have seen a very different, market-based to health care reform, which could have tackled long care costs better than the Affordable Care Act, and to be clearly constitutional to boot. He also exhibits brazen self-regard, more so than we usually see from politicians. So I’m a natural cynic when it comes to Obama.

But tho I began my post here on Thursday welcoming President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality by referencing his changing positions since 1996, as of now, I don’t see that it makes sense to critical of him. Let’s assume that Obama’s position since 1996 has been favourable towards allowing gay couples to marry, and “to fight all efforts by those who would stop this”. If to be the president who would during his first term in office endorse same-sex marriage, maybe he had to be a candidate who opposed it. His official process of evolution on the question mirrored the evolving views of the median American voter.

Some have been critical of Obama for not going further, and stating clearly that he would work to see change on a federal level. On KCRW’s Left, Right and Center this weekend, I heard Robert Scheer present the case that his failure of courage undermined the case he was making; to be consistent he should insist on immediate action. But that would be getting ahead of himself in a way that would be counter-productive. He has already ordered his department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purpose as only that between a man and a woman; he has given his support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would conversely recognise at a federal level any marriage legitimately performed at a state level.

While we expect political leaders to be ahead, the leadership on moral rights cannot all come from the head of the executive. We can expect them to play their part, but they lose their effectiveness if they are too many steps ahead, even if they are right.

The same panel on Left, Right and Center included David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who welcomed the move, and hoped the Republicans would see reason on this question sooner rather than later, but feared a decision at a federal level would lead to decades-long division as in Roe v. Wade. The pace of the demographic shift makes that seem unlikely to me, and I would welcome a Supreme Court decision that affirmed equal protection to gay and lesbian couples under the Fourteenth Amendment. But it is fair that President Obama wait to see how that judicial process is to proceed before publicly intervening again.

Consider that ten years, it was still criminal in 2002 for two men to have sex (and in practice, as Dale Carpenter recounts, simply to live together as a couple); to borrow a phrase used in the New Yorker Political Scene podcast, imagine trying to convince someone that year that President Barack Hussein Obama had announced that he supported gay marriage, and political analysts were not sure if it would benefit, hurt him, or make no difference. It would seem like something out of a Stephen Fry alternate history novel.

While writing this piece, I came across an historical analogy for Obama’s evolution on gay rights, that of President Abraham Lincoln on slavery. Steve Chapman on Reason.com makes reference to the great Frederick Douglass,

The former slave and black leader Frederick Douglass might have understood. What he said of Lincoln’s approach to slavery could also be said of Obama on same-sex marriage: ‘Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent. But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.’

With Chapman, I think Barack Obama is taking the right approach, and he will be deserve to be remembered in years to come as the first president to take a stand on what would later be assumed so obviously to be right. And he could not have achieved this without being coy about his true feelings on the matter.

<b>Edit:</b> I was asked on Twitter to clarify exactly when I think politicians should lie. It is specific to a time of cultural change on a within a country where the president would hurt the momentum of their own cause on a question. I’m not talking about Barack Obama pretending to be a sceptic about international trade during the 2008 Democratic primaries, or about Enda Kenny and James Reilly pretending to be committed to Roscommon hospital in the last general election.

Great News: President Barack Obama openly supports equal marriage for gay couples

It is great news that President Barack Obama again holds the position he held in 1996, saying, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” (with video here). Having publicly opposed equality in the intervening years, it is a major statement that he joins Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton on the side of equality. Whether or not this was prompted by Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Sunday, he is stating what most presume he believed, but it makes a difference that he sees it politically possible to do so.

 

With national opinion polls showing majorities in favour of equal marriage, there was no reason left for him to pretend not be on the right side of history on this question. Most imagined that a year or two into his second term, that he would announce that his position had finally evolved to support equality for gay and lesbian families. But he could reasonably have been accused of political cowardice; this way, he enters his second term clear on this policy.

Chris Cilizza in the Washington Post has analysed the political implications, predicting that there will be some downside for him on this. I’d broadly disagree. I think most Americans for whom opposition to equality in marriage is a salient issue would already be voting against Obama. He has made a commitment to equality for gay people part of his first term, from not defending the Defense of Marriage Act to his part in the end of Don’t Act Don’t Tell in the military. Some may point to polls against equality in swing states; what matters though, is for how many wing voters in these states is this a swing issue. Ultimately, no one should have been in any fundamental doubt about where he was on the spectrum.

For politically cynical among the Democrats, this will help his funding, bring out some voters, and stop others from who voted for him in 2008 casting votes instead for the Libertarian, Green or Justice Party candidates. But it will also force Mitt Romney to talk about this issue, which he really doesn’t want to do, but has signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, banning same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I think the advantage in this regard would have been greater still had Obama announced this during the primaries, while Rick Santorum would have been there do highlight the religious fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party. On the whole, I think the political implications of this are marginal, though Obama may lose North Carolina.

Someone remarked to me yesterday evening that Obama in 2008 will presumably be the last time a Democratic candidate for president to be publicly opposed to allowing gay couples to marry. Could we see 2016 as the equivalent election for Republicans? Given the strong trend which is only gathering momentum, it wouldn’t surprise me, though I would certainly say so in the case of 2020.

Again, back to Barack Obama last night, this is indeed great news. This is not just about the electoral cycle. It is about every gay person in the United States, particularly those in difficult situations because of their sexuality, who knows that the president is a clear ally, finally the fierce advocate he promised he would be. And this will change minds. There are people till yesterday who could say to themselves that domestic/civil unions/partnerships must be all right, as it was the position of even Barack Obama. Now they will have to think again. This will change culture, which is just as important as changes in the law, the one complementing the other. The United States is a good few steps away now from achieving proper equality for all its gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender citizens. But with POTUS on board, it has moved a major step in that direction.

Obama should support equal marriage in his State of the Union address

24 January, 2012 2 comments

This is not 2004. In that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the first US state to allow this. It was only a year after Lawrence v. Texas, in which the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. In that year’s presidential election, the Republican incumbent George W. Bush proposed a Federal Marriage Amendment to amend the US Constitution to define marriage as between a man and and a woman, prohibiting states from enacting laws to contrary effect. It would have been the second Amendment to restrict the freedoms of US citizens, the first being the 18th Amendment in 1919, introducing prohibition (repealed in 1933). President Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, a Senator from Massachusetts, supported civil unions, while opposing both equal marriage and any proposal to define marriage at a federal level. Referendums to amend state constitutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman appeared on the ballot in a number of states in November 2004, driving up conservative turnout, and contributing to the vote of Bush against Kerry, in what was a close election.

But a lot has changed in those eight years on the issue of gay marriage. Then it seemed destined to be a nice feature of certain liberal enclaves, whether in the US or in Europe. Now it seems an inevitability, only a matter of time across most of the developed world. Last year, public tracking polling by Gallup showed for the first time that a majority of Americans supported legal gay marriage, with 53% in favour and 45% against. The figures in 2004 were 55% in favour, and 42% against. The figures in 2004 were 42% in favour and 55% against, and they remained steady till last year. An annual tracking poll should be reliable, but in case it looks too sudden to be credible, it was corroborated by similar figures from the Washington Post (53%) and CNN (51%).

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Does it mean anything for 2012?

President Obama is clearly in a safer place in his re-election campaign after the killing of Osama bin Laden over the weekend. It removes the critique that he is soft on foreign matters, such as that of former Sen. Rick Santorum, who claimed recently that the president does not believe in American exceptionalism. As far as most Americans care about the war in Afghanistan, and even to a certain extent in Iraq, it was about getting bin Laden.

OK, Barack Obama is now quite likely to be re-elected, though there’s little chance he’ll keep the lead of 56 to 38 he polled yesterday. While he will have this in the background, the Republicans will soon begin to focus entirely on the economy. Compare this to George H. W. Bush, who seemed a shoo-in in 1991 after his Gulf War victory, but was beaten by Bill Clinton in 1992.

And what does this mean for who the Republicans are more likely to choose? Again, this isn’t clear. Tyler Cowen reckons that they will give up on trying to win from the centre, pick an extreme candidate and lose badly. Sort of like how they picked Barry Goldwater in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson seemed unbeatable. The Economist’s Democracy in America blog on the other hand that it will move them towards the centre, with former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman in the strongest position. It really is far too early to look at poll numbers for any of these to asses any such impact.

Possibly the biggest thing this will do for President Obama, if even at a subliminal level, is to enhance his reputation for being cool-headed, which was one of the things during the final months of the 2008 election that strengthened him against John McCain, in his reactions to events such as the financial crisis or violence in Georgia. People will remember that he kept a poker face on Saturday night while he was roasting Donald Trump at the Correspondents’ Dinner, throwing his attempt at a campaign completely out of the water. That he dealt with the serious business of the budget and possible government shutdown, with the frivolity of whether he would release his birth cert, all while knowing this was coming down the line.

 

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Debate on cannabis and other drugs

14 February, 2011 Leave a comment

Paddy Power are now putting Luke “Ming” Flanagan as one of those likely to get a seat in Roscommon–South Leitrim, behind sitting Fine Gael TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten. When he came to prominence in the 1999 European election, he was regarded as a fringe candidate, but is now a well-liked Mayor, and since the retirement of Michael Finneran, a Fianna Fáil Minister of State, it has become ever more possible that he could be elected. He can no longer be seen as a single-issue candidate, but if he is elected, there could be a worthwhile debate on the issue.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has taken online questions annually. On each of these three occasions, a question on the continuing illegality of cannabis came on top. In 2009, he laughed at the question, asking what it said about the online audience. In 2010, he ignored the question and answered the second most popular topic, on net neutrality. This year, when confronted with a question on the subject from a former police officer, representing Law Enforcers Against Prohibition, he eventually has had to concede that it is a legitimate topic for political debate, though he waffled in his response.

There is a large element of hypocrisy in Western politics on this question. Just as it is commonly known that during the US Prohibition Era (1920–33), public figures as high as Presidents, notably Warren G. Harding (serving 1921–23) felt free to privately drink alcohol, many public figures today will happily consume drugs quite a bit stronger than cannabis in high society. It is now almost customary for those seeking to lead their country to concede having taken drugs of one sort or other during the college days, from Bill Clinton not inhaling (actually because he took cannabis in cookie form), to Barack Obama, David Cameron and Brian Cowen more recently. Though somehow I doubt that Enda Kenny is carefully drafting a response to this question on his student days.

I fail to see how the current policy is either morally justifiable or effective in its aims. Those in favour of retaining the current regime of prohibition are arguing that all consumers of illicit drugs, however infrequently, should have a permanent mark on their criminal record. In a free society, we allow people take risks that do not harm others in the process. We allow people to go mountain-climbing or paragliding, despite the possibly fatal risks. We also allow people to smoke and consume alcohol, which are more harmful in some respects than certain prohibited substances. The effects of smoking a joint, leading a group at a party to mellow out, compare favourably the effects of drink which we see in the street violence in town on Friday night after closing time.

Freedom also has the record of working. I don’t seek to diminish the serious effects of drug addiction, particularly in drugs like heroin, but in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the negative effects of drug use have decreased. They took the decision because the drug problem had got to the stage where it seemed the only sensible way to address the problem, and ten years later there is no movement from any leading political party or group to reverse the change. Glenn Greenwald, in a report for the Cato Institute, outlined the effects of their decision. For all substances, deaths from drug use have diminished, or at most remained steady. For example, deaths from heroin and other opiates stood at 281 in 20001. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006. Decriminalization hasn’t eliminated these problems, but it has made it easier to address them. This wasn’t just part of a trend, problems from drug use were increasing until they took the decision in 2001. Drug users are no longer stigmatized as criminals, making it more socially acceptable to seek help. Resources that had been devoted to prosecuting addicts could now be devoted to helping them. Drug usage rates continue to be lower in Portugal than under policy regimes with greater degrees of prohibition.

Some emphasize the economic benefits of legalization, that the transactions would be taxed, but I would see the primary benefit as the reduction in the influence of criminals and the potential for improvement in the lives of those who suffer. While a policy that has worked in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be transplanted to another, at the very least, it should be treated as a respectable subject for debate, and that either decriminalization or legalization should be be on the table.

I’ll close here with a clip on the subject from the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. I would not be in complete agreement with Friedman, but he does present a clear case against prohibition. Among other things, he proposes the hypothesis that crack, possibly the most lethal of drugs, would not have been developed had it not been for the regime of prohibition.

Would Clinton have lost Massachusetts?

24 January, 2010 2 comments

During the 2008 presidential election, I supported Hillary Rodham Clinton as the choice for the Democratic nomination during the primaries, until the “Well that depends on what your definition of sniper fire is” moment. At that point, I thought it the most dignified thing for Clinton to do was to concede defeat what that continuing in a losing battle, though I did not become a fully-throated supporter of Barack Obama. Looking back, it was ultimately a good thing in many respects that she fought to the end, giving all states a chance to express their choice for the nomination, and giving Obama more opportunities to debate before the general. Had I been a Clinton supporter in South Dakota, I would have been pleased with her decision to contest to the end.

My reasons for supporting Clinton were that her experience in Washington as a Senator since 2001 had shown her ability to work with people in the skills of negotiating legislation. She had built up relationships with Republican as well as Democratic Senators. Of course, were she to be president, old partners as cosignatories on bills would become partisan, but that instinctive knowledge of where others stood would have been an advantage to her. Her experience as First Lady were also relevant. Something that would certainly not be true of all political spouses, she was an active political player during President Clinton’s term of office. In fact, she had had clear experience with the issue which was to be a major one during both the campaign and the first year of President Obama’s year in office, that of health care. Ultimately, what became known as Hillarycare did not succeed, but it did give her that background on the issue.
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Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall with Obama as President

16 November, 2009 Leave a comment

It is not really news that President Barack Obama is a little narcissistic. The only way he knows of being self-deprecating is by accentuating this, as seen in his speech at the Al Smith dinner last year. In a speech earlier this year on national security, he thought it made sense to see this through his life story, telling the audience of the uniqueness of his family situation, for the benefit of the nine Americans who hadn’t yet heard it, as if that gave him such a particular outlook.

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words — “to form a more perfect union.” I’ve studied the Constitution as a student, I’ve taught it as a teacher, I’ve been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

But courtesy of The Bugle, I heard an example that may have topped this. In his message commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, being too busy to attend the ceremonies, President Obama described the truly remarkable aspect of the change in the world since 9 November 1989:

Few would have foreseen that day that a united Germany would be led by a woman from Brandenburg or that their American ally would be led by a man of African descent.

So remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall is not about the political leaders of that time, or the many in civil society groups who had the courage to come together despite the real fear of oppression by their communist rulers. It is about him.

I understand that his speech writers are in awe of him, and that this worked during the campaign, but surely he could have had the humility to reword that particular sentence.

Categories: US politics Tags: ,

Why the defeat of marriage equality in Maine matters here

6 November, 2009 8 comments

This Tuesday, the voters of Maine repealed the decision of their legislature to allow gay couples to marry by voting Yes to Proposition 1. This is a disappointing decision, but not just because of the principles of the case. Those interested in politics might take sides in elections and issues in other countries, but in most cases on a small scale, it’s only a matter of preference, rather a belief in the effect it will have on them. But with an issue like this, the development in other countries matters here in Ireland and elsewhere. I think it’s inevitable that at some point, whether in five or thirty years, that there will be no restrictions on gay couples marrying. But the more other countries and states there are allow this, the sooner it will happen. We tend to catch up a little late on certain issues here after they have become a trend elsewhere.

As things stand, The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway and Sweden all allow gay couples to marry, with the change in law occurring variously since 2001. In the United States, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire do. The most significant of these is Iowa, outside of the traditionally more liberal states of New England. But in all cases where it has been put directly to the people, the electorate have opposed equality.

Personally, I dislike the idea of deciding people’s rights by a vote of the majority. But it is still perhaps time to stop and realize that however much this might be seen in terms of rights and equality, there are large numbers of people for whom it does not make sense that marriage should be anything other than a union between a man and a woman, however dictionaries might now define it. It’s difficult to know what it will take to change people’s mind on this, or how long it will take. But the political approach should take this into account.

What needs to be addressed is the question of how this affects children. The Yes to One campaign in Maine used an interview with a couple from Massachusetts, which had previously been used successfully by the Yes to Eight campaign in California, in which their son found out about homosexuality through a fairy tale read in class.

While I wonder about whether young boys would have any interest in reading lovey-dovey stories about princes and princesses, that would be my only reason to be cautious about a teacher reading such a story in class. Ultimately speaking, yes, if gay couples can marry, it would have to be mentioned in schools. Not in any orchestrated, “Now we’re going to talk about gay people” way, just as something that exists in society. Increasingly children will hear of prominent gay figures mentioned in the media, possibly referring to their husband or wife, while not referring to any big gay-specific issue. If a child were to ask his teacher about this, and is told, “Yes, they’re married”, they would probably just go back and play with their friends and not give it much thought other than that, where if the teacher were to say “I’m not allowed talk to you about that”, they would inevitably be intrigued. Where equality exists in law, there is no real reason to prohibit discussion about it. As to their son, chances are he won’t turn out to be gay, and if he does, something his teacher read to him in second grade will not have been the cause. So some of this problem, and of opposition to allowing gay couples to marry in general, is still due to the nature-nurture confusion about the issue.

Speaking of the defeat of Proposition 1, I would have to agree with those such as Andrew Sullivan who laid some of the blame for the result with President Barack Obama. During his campaign for presidency, he stated clearly speaking to Pastor Rick Warren that he believes “marriage is a union between a man and a woman”, and that he further believes that it is a sacred because of its religious origins.

Opponents of marriage for gay couples have used that quote on every occasion since, and it is gold dust from their point of view. It allows those who see themselves as moderate or liberal in many respects to oppose marriage equality, given that the man dubbed the most liberal President ever (though that is mostly due to his economic positions) feels that way. He did oppose Prop 8 in California, albeit it from the classical conservative stare decisis perspective. But some of that may have simply been political, to speak on both sides of the issue during the campaign. He claimed that he would be a fierce advocate for gay rights, that he would repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (prohibiting gays from serving openly in the army, which led to the dismissal of an Arabic translator earlier this year) and the Defense of Marriage Act (prohibiting the recognition at a federal level of gay unions as marriage), but he has failed to show any signs of movement on either. In this, he is letting down a group of Americans whose activists don’t feel they can turn elsewhere politically for support.

The fate of the Yankee Republicans

31 October, 2009 Leave a comment

People such as myself whose political views are moderate or liberal on issues of social and personal freedom while seeing the merits of capitalism see the large voice unions have within the Democratic Party and the considerable left-wing support there and like to imagine that there are still some chance that the more liberal forces within the Republican Party that would bring it back to its old ways of being very much the party of freedom, which Michael Steele likes to pretend it still is. I might hope that the lack of a lasting success after President George W. Bush’s presidency could convince them against such a focus on social conservatism. Ultimately, I’d like to imagine them to be a party where Arnold Vinick could be a leading figure and a possible presidential candidate.

The campaign for the special election to New York’s 23rd Congressional District, scheduled after Republican John McHugh resigned to become Secretary of the Navy is another blow to this illusion. The local Republican Party chose State Assembly member Dierdre Scozzafava, who favours marriage equality and the right to abortion, while the Democrats chose Bill Owens, who believes that New York’s current law on civil unions for gay couples are adequate. This is one issue where it would have been beneficial to have a Republican on-side, both as an influence within the Republicans, and so to put pressure on the Democrats who would feel less that they could rely on gay voters.

The the Conservative Party of New York, normally a minor player in New York politics, nominated Doug Hoffman. Hoffman had sought the nomination for the Republicans, but had trailed at all of the nominating party meetings. He received the support of the Club for Growth, the same pressure group that forced Sen. Arlen Specter out of the Pennsylvanian Republican Party earlier this year, leading to the Democrats reaching their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.

Hoffman also received the support of many leading Republican politicians, including Sarah Palin, current governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty and former candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination former Sen. Fred Thompson, and the most partisan of media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

As polls showed that this formerly safe GOP seat would be lost to either the Democrats or the Conservatives, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton’s chief political sparring partner (and on whom Jeff Haffley is loosely based), appealed for party unity, endorsing Scozzafava as the official Republican candidate, calling for a respect for the claimed tradition of local independence.

This was ultimately to no avail, as tonight Dede Scozzafava announced the suspension of her campaign. If Doug Hoffman is elected, he will be taken in by the Republican House Caucus.

If this tells us anything about the grassroots within the Republican Party and who their current leaders are willing to support in future, which it might not, President Obama should have little trouble when the time comes for his reelection campaign. Considering his approval rate in the current economic circumstances, despite the justified criticism of his leadership at times, he appears to be still convincing the public that he is doing what seems best. Those remaining within the Republican Party seem committed to ideological purity and compliance a wholesale endorsement of their party platform by party candidates wherever possible.

It’s difficult to see where this will lead them, how many presidential cycles will it take for them to nominate a candidate with a wider appeal than this. And how long will they hold the remaining moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, who would be very unlikely to leave, but has publicly expressed her disappointment that the party has failed to recognize the mistakes of recent years and risks becoming very much a minority party.

For my part, had I a vote in NY-23, I would go ahead and waste my vote and cast it for Scozzafava.

Quoting Mao

19 October, 2009 1 comment

I’m following up here on a story I initially posted on Facebook. Last week I posted a video which Glen Beck showed on Fox News of Anita Dunn, President Obama’s Communications Director, his Toby Ziegler, in which she quoted Mother Teresa and Mao Tse-Tung, calling them her favourite philosophers.

Ms Dunn has responded, saying that she got the quote from Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist in the 1980s.

Her response is not good enough. In the discussion following my Facebook posting, someone commented that people often quote historical figures, such as Caesar or Oliver Cromwell. Yes, Joan Burton, Labour Spokesperson on Finance, did quote Cromwell addressing the government a few months ago, saying “In the name of God, go!” But from that simple statement, no one claim that Cromwell was one of her favourite political thinkers. Ms Dunn does use that expression.

Her statement, presumably written after she quickly searched for any reference of Republicans and Mao, also makes reference to the fact that President Bush recommended a book on Mao to Karl Rove. Whatever about quoting someone, reading a book a biography does not make one an enthusiast. Indeed, if it was Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang, it might have been where Glenn Beck got his figure of 70 million deaths attributed to Mao.

Further, Lee Atwater, whom she quotes was party for one of the most insidious electoral strategies of twentieth-century American politics, the Southern strategy of the Republican Party, the effort to secure the votes of racists whose votes had previously been sought by the Democrats. Mr Atwater was an advisor to Sen. Storm Thurmond, a Democrat who left the party to run on a segregationist ticket in the 1948 presidential election, winning four states. Sen. Thurmond became a Republican in 1964, in what was to become the most shameful period in that party’s history.

Over the weekend, I also had occasion to listen to an episode of D.J. Grothe’s excellent podcast, Point of Inquiry. In it, Jeff Sharlett discussed his new book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The Family is a religious political group which preaches biblical capitalism and celebrates power, even to the extent that despite claiming to be a conservative group, they praised the methods of dictators such as Mao. Sen. Thurmond was himself a member of The Family. Ms Dunn says, “The Mao quote is one I picked up from the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater from something I read in the late 1980s, so I hope I don’t get my progressive friends mad at me”. They would clearly be justified in being so.

I don’t mean to praise the methods of Fox News, or to cast general aspersions on President Obama’s administration. My point here is that it is no defence on Ms Dunn’s part to point to some of the most despicable campaigners who also thought that we should “Fight our own fight” as Mao did, and she should be held to account her statement. She is either incredibly naïve and misguided, or truly has no problem praising the ideals of one of the worst tyrants in recorded history.

A lie, plain and simple

11 September, 2009 Leave a comment

The conventional opinion on Obama vs McCain is right

27 October, 2008 2 comments

Originally posted on Facebook
IN its November 1st issue, The Economist will endorse a candidate for the election the following Tuesday to the position of 44th president of the United States, as they have done most years since 1980. For the record, they endorsed Governor Ronald Reagan in 1980, had no equivalent article in 1984, refused to endorse either Vice President George H. W. Bush or Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, endorsed Governor Bill Clinton in 1992, Senator Bob Dole in 1996, Governor George W. Bush in 2000 and Senator John Kerry in 2004. So while we could assume that they would have endorsed President Reagan had they written such an article in 1984, they did not in any of these cases choose the incumbent party. Not merely on the basis of this trend, but on their coverage to date, I expect that they will and hope that they do endorse Senator Barack Obama this year.

In putting the case for Mr Obama, I’m aware that an endorsement of his candidacy has gone beyond the point of being notable and needing much explanation. In the past few weeks, among the articles I’ve posted on Facebook were endorsements by Christopher Buckley, a former writer for the National Review, a conservative magazine and son of its founder William Buckley, one of the icons of American conservatism, by Christopher Hitchens, who has supported the Iraq War from the beginning and has been strongly critical of Democrats including Mr Obama for their opposition to it, and by Colin Powell, former Secretary of State who argued for the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq before the United Nations. Others in a similar vein, dubbed Obamacons in this week’s issue of The Economist, include Kenneth Adelman who worked for President Reagan, and Senators Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who have all but endorsed Mr Obama.

I am also aware that of potential readers of this note, I came to support Mr Obama relatively late, having been a supporter of Hillary Clinton for most of the time before and during the primaries (I dropped that support after her liberal definition of “sniper fire” became clear). I was skeptical about Mr Obama’s true abilities outside the context of an election, in the proverbial 3 a.m. situation, and other situations that would similarly call for judgment. Even recently enough in two notes here, I outlined some complaints I had with him. But in the 20 months since he declared his candidacy, Mr Obama has been tested and has shown himself to capable. Certainly hanging around Washington, D.C., for another four to eight years would not have added to those abilities.

In general terms, between the two parties, I would feel more inclined towards the Democrats for what are termed cultural reasons, being strongly opposed to any breakdown in the wall of separation between church and state, concerned with infringements on civil liberties and supporting the decision of Roe v. Wade. Like any good reader of The Economist, however, I disagree with the suspicions that a lot of Democratic politicians and supporters express for the market and while I initially opposed the Iraq War, I believed that it was going well for a while after the time of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square early in the proceedings, and that with elections there in 2005 it was a worthwhile invasion, even if like many others I would now be less enthusiastically supportive of it. Overall then, it would not be impossible that I could be swayed by a Republican. But while the statements by Mr McCain that he would appoint Supreme Court Justices like Samuel Alito or John Roberts might on its own send me toward the Democrats, in this election my decision does not come down to the single issue of secularism.

Still the economy
Beginning with the most important current issue, the economy, Mr Obama seems far more capable than Mr McCain. By his own admission, Mr McCain needs to educated on economics. I give him credit for understanding the benefits of free trade and globalization and for arguing in its favour even when this stance has occasionally cost him politically. As a worldwide concern, and as it affects Ireland, free trade is a major issue for me. However, I don’t believe Mr Obama is as opposed as he has suggested publicly. While he attacked Ms Clinton for supposedly supporting NAFTA, this was probably no more than posturing and the real Obama was the one who contacted the Canadian Ambassador to let him know that they should not be worried and who later described his language during that time as overheated. It is by no means unusual for a Democratic candidate to swing left during the primaries to secure the nomination, but there is no reason to suspect that as president his administration would be less supportive of global trade than those of Clinton or Bartlett. The fact that Congress is also expected to be heavily Democratic has been raised particularly on this question, so that for the sake of balanced government it would be better to have a Republican president. But Mr Obama does have the ability to carry the Democratic party with him on this issue, particularly as a declared skeptic on trade policy.

On the more pressing concern of credit crisis, Mr Obama has taken a far more organized and cool-headed approach. Mr McCain had to suspend his campaign to get his head around the crisis, while Mr Obama stressed the fact that as president he would have to deal with more with more than one concern at a time. In the last few weeks, Mr McCain has acted much more erratically, so that for all his emphasis on experience earlier in the campaign (at least until the choice of Sarah Palin for vice president, of whom more later), he seems the riskier candidate. Neither candidate has iterated clearly how he intends to deal specifically with the credit crisis, knowing that it would make more sense to suffer any political disaffection only when in power. But we can tell something of what their approaches would probably be from what they have said so far. Mr McCain is right when it comes to trade, but the hands off approach does not work across the economy as a whole, something he and others who promoted widespread deregulation are now realizing. While my instincts in economic terms are towards less regulation and lower taxes, it it better that the president not take this view as a matter of ideological conviction. It is very much to Mr Obama’s credit that he is winning votes on his tax policies, something Democrats have failed for years to find support for. He would be more pragmatic and plans to readjust the tax burden is part of a general plan to reduce the deficit, where Mr McCain seems to be following the supply-side Republican line of Presidents Reagan and the Bushes, that taxes should be cut at the top rates at all costs, and to hell with the budget line. It is one reason we need a full change in party control in the Washington, in the White House now to follow the change on the Capitol in 2006, so that Republicans suffer for reversing the budget surpluses that they inherited from President Clinton to a massive deficit.

Appearances abroad
Mr McCain ran believing that his strong foreign policy credentials, rather than the little he can say on the economy, would serve him well. This was clearly not the year for him then. According to Gallup, voters still trust Mr McCain more on the war in Iraq (50% to 46%) and on terrorism (55% to 39%), but they have ceased to be priority issues. Mr McCain deserves credit for advocating the surge policy, which is working reasonably effectively since its adoption in 2007 (on January 10th, the same day as a Hist debate on Iraq). However, that does not mitigate the fact that it was relatively late in the proceedings of the war that he began to criticize it, and Mr Obama’s strong attack in the first presidential debate was apt. Mr McCain was wrong to believe that they would be greeted as liberators, to believe that they knew where weapons of mass destruction were or that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. I have always held that there should not be an untimely withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, as that would leave the situation much worse, but there is no chance of that happening on a serious scale regardless which candidate is elected. Both have indicated that depending on events on the ground, troops can start to properly withdraw from within 18 months of the new administration. There is no reason to believe that Mr Obama will be soft on international terrorism, given the emphasis he has put on fighting Al-Qaeda both in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan if necessary.

From a wider international context, after the Bush presidency, it would America better for Mr Obama to be elected than Mr McCain. In the same way that there was a benefit in Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel to succeed as president of France and chancellor of Germany respectively, as both were much more Atlanticist than their predecessors, the strained relations between Europe and the United States will be far better served if the candidate who is in a better position to improve these is elected. Mr McCain would certainly be an improvement on President Bush, and the United States and the Republican Party would be in a better position had he been successful in 2000, but from where things stand someone who clearly shares and espouses the common values between the two continents would be a large benefit.

Worse than Quayle
The main constitutional role of the vice president, other than resolving ties in the Senate, is to succeed to the presidency in the case of death, resignation or other permanent incapacity of the president. Most presidential candidates presumably pick their running mate with the assumption that such an event will not take place, but nine times since 1789 has this taken place, with Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Harry S Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford completing a term in the 20th century. The choice for vice president is perhaps the only decision made during a campaign that a candidate must continue with into their term in office if elected. The choices of Messrs McCain and Obama have typified their respective approaches to the campaign since securing the nominations. Showing that he is by no means a risky choice, Mr Obama chose the strongest but also the safest of those mentioned with Senator Joe Biden. He is knowledgeable and experienced in foreign affairs, even if he does have a tendency towards verbosity and gaffes (e.g., “The number one job facing the middle-class is a three letter word, jobs: J-O-B-S”).

Whatever can be said about Mr Biden, Mr McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin is probably the strongest mark against his campaign. Given Mr McCain’s age, his choice of vice president was a little more relevant than it usually must be. Further, under Dick Cheney the role of the vice president has increased, and while this may not be permanent, we cannot know this will develop under future administrations. In what may have been just a media stunt to kill the coverage of Mr Obama’s convention speech in the news cycle, Mr McCain chose someone who was vastly unsuitable. It was not simply a question of the length of her experience, or whether it was executive or legislative, these are not the sole relevant criteria who vice presidential candidate. She is representative of the wilful ignorance that has plagued the Republican party in recent decades as well as their alignment to the evangelical Christians. As mayor of Wasilla, she discussed removing books from the town’s public library, she could not isolate a newspaper she reads in her interview with Katie Couric and she recently denigrated scientific work, specifically on genetic research on flies, not appreciating that research in one area can have wide implications for our knowledge. She was raised a Roman Catholic, but joined the Wasilla Assembly of God in later life. It is often best to avoid bringing a candidate’s religion into discussion, but it is relevant when it has implications on policy. She is open to schools teaching creationism as well as evolution, she has an extreme anti-abortion view, that would also prevent stem-cell research. She is skeptical that climate change has been caused by humans, so she is out of touch with scientific thought on many of these current issues. That Mr McCain would choose someone of this nature as his running mate shows the length to which he would go to appeal to the worst sections of the Republican base. It shows poor judgement on his part, and if this is what his once-deserved claim to be a maverick now amounts to, it is damning indictment.

The choice for commander-in-chief
Ultimately, the choice between the two is one of leadership, and throughout the campaign Mr Obama has shown himself to be capable to take the reins on January 20th, 2009. To come from near nowhere on the political scene to be almost certain of becoming president next week is no small achievement. Eight years ago he could not even get a floor pass to the Democratic National Convention; this year he beat the strong Clinton machine, one of the most formidable in recent times. By organizing his campaign well, he ensured that the votes were where he needed them from the beginning, and all the time he managed to stay calm and in control. This contrasts sharply with Mr McCain, whose campaign has been erratic since the summer, and has not shown the leadership qualities he was supposed to have espoused. Mr Obama’s nomination was historic given his mixed race, but throughout the campaign race was rarely an issue. That was to his credit, and as president, he will not be there as a black president. But it will help to normalize race relations, for a generation of children to grow up with someone who is not white as their president. He has also managed to survive a worse charge in American politics, of being an elitist and out of touch. He would represent a real shift, and play a transformational role in American politics, and his victory would also represent a victory for meritocracy. He the brighter and the better candidate, and if I had a vote, would choose him.

In reply to Stephen on Obama

14 September, 2008 Leave a comment

It was nice to read to the reaction to the note I wrote on Sen. Obama last week, and in responding briefly to these, I want to follow up on Stephen’s lengthy response in particular.

I can accept your point about bipartisanship, that what matters is the actual policies and bills, not token bipartisanship for its own sake. But that cant be said of the two most prominent acts of bipartisanship from McCain. In both of the cases, McCain deserves more credit than Feingold or Kennedy respectively, because they were taking a more politically safe option from their own background. My problem with Obama’s sparse record of bipartisanship is that despite a lot of his talk, he hasnt acted in a way that would be politically dangerous for him. Obviously this was difficult for him during his time in the Senate, as he was planning on stading for president from the time he was sworn in, but that didn’t stop McCain advocating the unpopular surge in Iraq.

An issue he could have taken to stand out from accepted Democratic orthodoxy would be on trade. I dont mean to say it’s the only one, only that it’s one (as you must have gathered) that I’m interested in, and having mentioned it in the last note, it leads me nicely to my next point. I dont believe Obama is any more a protectionist than President Clinton was, or that he’s much more so than I am myself. He could well be less of a protectionist than the current President Bush. My problem with him on this front is his rhetoric on the matter. That he was promising in the primaries to renogiate NAFTA while letting it be leaked that he was reassuring the Canadians that he make no significant change so that those of us who understand the problem with tariffs as a policy will know where he really stands was a genuine Scanton-San Francisco moment. He could have told the crowds that the failing of recent administrations was opening up trade without the appropriate safety net and transitional programs for those who would lose in the short term, thus addressing the real and legitimate concerns with the pace of globalization you mention. The reason Americans are more concerned with opening up of trade than most Europeans is because of the stronger social services in countries here, so that a European who loses a job due to it being relocated does not become as close to destitution as his or her American counterpart. (Thanks for that link on his economic policies, it was quite interesting).

On the religious question, it is obviously very difficult to know what Obama believes. If he was an agnostic and isnt telling us, he wouldnt make it clear in his memoir. Perhaps both Hitchens and I simply have a biased view and think that a man of his intelligence, having been brought up by atheist parents, would not become a Christian. It is sentences like “And it was in search of some practical application of those values that I accpeted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs, and hopelessness in their midst” and “I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart” (p. 206) that made me think that Obama was a social liberal who found Trinity United to be the best way to connect with those who he was working with on the ground.

Given that, however, I will admit that I could be wrong. There is what I would call a Brideshead (and Hitchens, also a fan of Waugh, should know what I mean) moment two pages later, when he says “The questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me”. One way or another, you mentioned something that I’ve brought up with you before, whether the influence of Christian churches on Obama’s policy could be harmful. He has proposed expanding the current faith-based initiatives started under the current President Bush to a formal Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The more benign way of looking at this is that rather than have faceless bureaucrats dealing with those in need, they will get to meet someone in their own community who would probably be more in touch with their actual needs. Despite these good intentions, I worry about the precedent. While First Amendment violations could be rare in the one or two terms of an Obama presidency, that could be quite different under a religiously conservative president like Bush or Reagan. Those involved in churches could still be involved even without it explicitly in the title, so I believe the emphasis was an attempt to improve his credentials and lessen the impact of his clinging remarks (which was probably in turn an attempt to lessen the impact of his involvement with Trinity United).

I will give Obama credit for raising the depth of political debate, but my difficulties with him really come down to a gut feeling that he lacks honesty a lot of the time. Yes, you’re right that the hard-line position the Democrats have on abortion is ridiculous, my own views on the matter would probably class me as a conservative in their eyes. That whole discussion, however, just seemed to be another case of being economical with the truth, claiming to have voted against the Born Alive Bill because of it’s effect on Roe v. Wade, despite the proviso that bill had stating that it would not affect it.

A lot of this does come down to gut reaction, and many like you will say that at least on these counts, he is far better than most politicians America has had in recent times. But on what really matters, I’m with him. Were it simply a question of character, I’d favour Sen. McCain, but it is obviously about who I’d rather see implementing policy as President of the United States.

Thanks for the other comments as well. I had a feeling that other ex-Clinton supporters like Iain would feel the same way about him, but still on balance follow the Democratic ticket because of the issues. Then as to John, if I make a habit of these notes, as I hope to, I would like to come back to your argument that states should legislate for abortion, and why one way or other on the abortion question, with the Bill of Rights and other later Amendments, it should be determined at a federal level.

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