The conventional opinion on Obama vs McCain is right
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.
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.