the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
After the primary results in New Hampshire, we must all be reminding ourselves that opinion polls are not wholly reliable. Nonetheless, they are largely reliable; they have correctly predicted quite a bit, and if we allow them their margin of error we can theorize that the last New Hampshire polls were wrong only because they were conducted too early. It is not unreasonable to suppose that voters in the Democratic primary changed their minds in the hours preceding the election, just as rapidly as they had changed their minds in the hours following the Iowa caucuses. This deprives me of the narrative that I had been developing in anticipation of Barack Obama’s victory. That would have been a resigned lament, of the strange Obama bandwagon barnstorming across the United States. There are good reasons why Obama would make a good president eventually. He might even make one now. But those reasons are not motivating his followers. There is an explanation for their support; but I am not sure we should use the word ‘reason’.
According to the polls at the time, Hillary Clinton would have been the overwhelming choice in a hypothetical Democratic primary across the United States on January 3. She was ahead of her nearest challenger, Obama, by more than twenty percent. In some of the biggest states she would have gotten an absolute majority, more than her seven opponents combined. She would have outpolled Obama nationwide by two to one. She would even have won convincingly in New Hampshire.
Because that national vote did not happen as it should have, because the system is controlled by entrenched interests (the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire), Hillary Clinton for five days looked like a loser, and her support rapidly dwindled. Who wants to nominate a loser? Despite being “famously independent” (a common pander to their self-conception), New Hampshire voters lined up behind Obama as quickly as they did John Kerry. In 2004 they abandoned the perceived outsider for the establishment candidate; in 2008 they abandoned the establishment candidate for the perceived outsider. The only thing Kerry and Obama have in common here is that they both won in Iowa.
The Iowa caucuses are only open to those who can physically attend for a couple of hours on a weeknight ― no second-shift working class folks, no parents without babysitters, no one who has to travel out of state. Participants are not required to show proof of residency, or party affiliation, or even prior voter registration. For these reasons we can assume that the caucus vote does not represent Democratic sentiment in Iowa, just as Democratic sentiment in Iowa does not represent Democratic sentiment in the United States. The vote is conducted in an atmosphere that is at least conducive to herd behavior, and even social pressure. The state party does not release a head count of first preferences for candidates, or even final preferences for candidates. We have nothing better than entrance poll sampling of whom caucusgoers were professing to prefer.
That Barack Obama’s campaign was able to successfully manipulate this undemocratic system in a small state neither qualifies nor disqualifies him for the presidency. And yet it is one of two key reasons he nearly stormed to the Democratic nomination. The other is that with all the media attention to Iowa, voters outside of Iowa are overly influenced by the message of electability it sends. Voters saw the entire bizarre process boiled down to “Obama wins, Clinton finishes third”; Democrats want their nominee to win, and will choose accordingly. It is true that they might have looked at Obama’s advantage in certain head-to-head match-ups with potential Republican nominees and come to the same conclusion; but his dramatic rise in the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls appeared on January 4, and the timing reveals all.
The theme of Obama’s Iowa victory speech was that he and his supporters actually did what “they” said couldn’t be done. We can have “change” (repeat the word twenty times), as long as we believe. What exactly had been done, though? A bunch of college students convinced that a revolution is at hand? Fancy that. In general terms, we saw a presidential nominating contest won by a forty-six-year-old (been done) black man (been done) against a better-known opponent (been done). If he was being specific, then the historicity of it escapes me. For exactly how many decades have “they” been saying that Barack Obama could not beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and to what degree are we supposed to be inspired by the fact that he did?
Even if voting for Barack Obama were a particularly-bold move, we would better make history by doing what is sensible, not what is merely bold. We are choosing a chief executive for the government, not a national symbol, and we would be advised to consider whether Obama is the candidate best suited for the role. John Edwards’ résumé is equally unimpressive; Rudy Giuliani is equally dependent on the celebrity of a single moment. If they were capturing my fellows’ imaginations I would be equally dismayed. They are not, though; it is Barack Obama who is defying gravity, Barack Obama who is being canonized, Barack Obama who has people daring to “believe” again, as though ‘believe’ is best taken as an intransitive verb. Believe what, my friends?
Barack Obama has policies; but he seldom speaks of them. His policies would not significantly differentiate him from any of a thousand Democrats he might be competing against, including Hillary Clinton. There is, therefore, no policy reason to choose him in the primaries, or to prefer him for the general election; in those many cases where Republican policies are contrary to majority wishes, any Democrat would have the same advantages. Barack Obama is notably intelligent, I am convinced; but as I don’t know his SAT scores, I must conclude this from the fact that he is articulate and has a command of the facts. Neither of these things distinguishes him from his rivals, and certainly not from Clinton.
Hillary Clinton helped to run the country for eight years. It was illegal for her to hold a cabinet post under Bill Clinton, but he campaigned with an explicit two-for-one message, and it is clear that she was his chief advisor. Before that, she helped to run the state of Arkansas for twelve years. Had she not been married to Bill Clinton, she would have been an elected official in her own right. She would have been a natural candidate for the cabinet in 1992. She could have served eight years as Attorney General and still been elected to the US Senate as she was in 2000, four full years before Obama. Obama’s other experience in elected office was as a state senator for eight years, eight years in which Hillary Clinton was either serving in the US Senate, or, right, helping to run the country. Aside from our four living ex-presidents, Dick Cheney, and possibly Al Gore, there is no one with better experience. Obama has tried to dismiss Hillary Clinton as just another political wife, but he knows better, and the slander cannot have helped him with the women he lost in New Hampshire.
What would be the ordinary justifications for choosing someone of relative youth and inexperience? The argument from intelligence would be hard to make ― is there seriously no one of comparable intelligence but greater experience, or in Obama’s case, far greater experience? Of course there is; several such persons lost to him in Iowa. That leaves us with only his ideas. We would be justified in choosing someone young and inexperienced if his ideas were unavailable to us from his seniors. In most respects I myself would make a terrible president; but at the very least I could offer a unique set of thoughts and proposals, and could seek votes on the clear ground of difference. If you really wanted my ideology, there is only one place you would get it.
But Barack Obama offers us absolutely no new or different ideas. Naturally I don’t know that he has no new or different ideas; I only know that he hasn’t offered any, and that he is obviously not being chosen on the basis of new or different ideas. He is being chosen for Change, an elusive, amorphous Change. “Not amorphous change”, he recently protested, but then he failed to define it. And without the definition, which none of his followers can provide either, we are left to our imaginations. Change, in fact, is the theme even of some reelection campaigns; and virtually every non-incumbent will claim the standard of change. The anti-Washington campaign of change to unite the country is something we have been hearing forever, from left, right, and center. George W. Bush said it, for Christ’s sake. And change, at least, he delivered. George Bush changed the United States dramatically. ‘Change’ divorced from specific policy language can mean anything.
Is Barack Obama somehow more authentic as the standardbearer for whatever change is coming? He was raised by non-believers. It was only as an adult that he entered the Christian church, and a specifically-Afrocentric Christian church. Obama’s African heritage is his to claim, as is his experience as a black man in the United States ― though his image as a post-racial candidate will surely not benefit from association with his particular church. Christianity is an odd match for the self-conscious African-American experience, given that Christianity was introduced to blacks by conquerors and slavers; it should be apparent on its face to blacks, at least, that Christianity did not inspire righteousness in its most effective force for propagation. But Christianity is incongruous in countless ways. It is one thing to embrace it out of habit of mind, or to believe in some nebulous supernatural power and call it ‘God’, to embrace the spirit of charity and kindness and associate it vaguely with our Christian cultural substrate. It is quite another to decide, as a non-believing adult, that the best collection of beliefs are these particular beliefs, beliefs about the specific nature and intentions of God, the specific history of Palestine two thousand years ago, and the very specific intersection of the two as detailed in the book we call “the Bible”.
Obama’s key supporters seem to be college students, well-educated professionals, and political independents. While there are undoubtedly many Christians in those three groups, there are surely not a lot of evangelicals. I would suppose that even those who are Christians would be a little suspicious of someone who started out with no religion, claimed to be a critical thinker, and really couldn’t find anything better than orthodox Christianity. They should then ask themselves which of the two remaining possibilities they favor: that Barack Obama suspended critical thought on the most fundamental question of belief; or that he has been misrepresenting his beliefs for political reasons.
I think Barack Obama is a typical politician, so I have no trouble believing the latter. At least Hillary was raised a Methodist; even so, she is smart enough that she must have entertained plenty of doubts. Obama had every excuse in the world for doubt. But atheism does not make a successful politician, so it was awfully convenient that he found Jesus before he became one.
Also, if Obama is as smart as he seems to be, it is curious that he has adopted no extreme positions. I have yet to see a report of an Obama belief or position that would be remotely controversial, at least among Democrats and independents. I may be using myself too much as a model, overestimating my rational faculties, but I have found that an application of logic to the world yields an extraordinarily-high number of extreme positions. Even allowing for some error in my thinking, there should be plenty of topics on which Obama has come to a conclusion outside of the Democratic or liberal consensus. I am not saying that it would be politically smart to admit to these positions; but if Barack Obama is a new kind of politician, perhaps we should expect it of him. Michael Bloomberg supports gay marriage; Barack Obama supports civil unions and then calls it equal rights.
So, assuming that Barack Obama is so terribly bright, his Christianity is a political pose, as are his many boilerplate policy positions, as is his insinuation that Clinton did nothing significant during her husband’s administration. This does not make him worse than Clinton; it just brings him down to her level. Obama voters seem to think that he is drenched in integrity, the very thing that Clinton seems most to lack (and probably does). In reality, he and Clinton both show the unmistakable signs of intelligence, liberal values, and steely ambition. They both genuinely want to make positive change in the world, change that other liberals would endorse; but they also both very much want to be the agents of that change, to be credited with it personally, and they are willing to do and say quite a bit to make it happen. They are playing the political game so that they can be president. Yes, to do good, but also to reap glory. Obama is fronting as genuine, and this is itself disingenuous.
Hillary Clinton is just as smart, more knowledgeable, and a great deal more experienced. Michael Bloomberg is a real outsider who would be elected unbeholden to a single donor or even to a political party. They both share most of Obama’s policy positions and either one would be just as historic. Candidates of “change” and “bringing Americans together” are three for a dollar. Obama delivered a well-received speech four years ago and decided that it qualified him to be president, and he is building a movement based on the same dubious notion surrounded by a haze of platitudes.
Obamism certainly feels like a movement, in its fervor, in its messianism, and in its nebulosity. As far as I can make out, the movement is intended to unite the United States. This was the theme of his famous convention speech, and has been repeated often in his presidential campaign. Obama speaks of eliminating the distinction between red states and blue states. In older language, he talks about ending partisan gridlock in Washington.
Centrists talk a lot about partisan gridlock in Washington; in fact, a number of prominent centrists just met in Oklahoma to hit that point for the billionth time. I just don’t see it. I see honest disagreements that hold up legislation because compromise is often unacceptable. And from my perspective, gridlock in recent years has decidedly not been the problem. In countless cases I would have preferred that nothing get done compared to what actually did get done. The Republicans have spent the Bush administration refashioning the government and, where possible, the country according to conservative principles. These are not the moderate conservatism that most people evince, and they are certainly not the right-of-center principles Bush first campaigned on. They are hard right, a gift to the conservative wing of the GOP. The social conservatives have been granted their every wish, including control of the Supreme Court. The anti-tax conservatives have seen enormous tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts. The homeland-security conservatives have seen the Patriot Act.
What I want from this election is more partisanship. The voters of the United States are willing to elect Democrats at the presidential level, and the 2006 congressional elections showed that they are ready to end the Republican governance of the last seven years ― which they never voted for anyway. Democrats have a chance to govern by themselves for a while, a chance to correct some of the decisions of the Bush administration. While I don’t think that the parties are perfect representations of political ideology, they are getting closer, with northeastern liberals switching to the Democrats, and southern conservatives switching to the Republicans. And while I wouldn’t support everything that would come out of the realigned Democratic Party, it would be much better as a whole than what would come out the realigned Republican Party. Many of the Democrats’ positions have strong majority support, even as the Republicans have successfully blocked their implementation. To use the magic word, that can change.
Red states and blue states are approximate things, as we all recognize. But the United States is legitimately divided between rough groupings of values that ‘red states and blue states’ is shorthand for. I believe the US is getting more liberal, however slowly, and it has been a while since we tested just how much more liberal. We have been living under a government of, by, and for the red states for seven years. Obama, whatever his governing intentions, is rhetorically offering us something purple, and that is still a bit too red for me.
If voters are so set on a revolutionary centrist candidate, they should wait for Bloomberg, who was at the gathering in Oklahoma playing coy about his intentions. Bloomberg has only been the mayor of New York, but unlike Giuliani, he would be running on his real record, not on some imaginary leadership qualities. Bloomberg will pay for his own campaign, but unlike Ross Perot, he has political experience and will not flake out in the middle of the race. He is smart, successful, liberal, and seems comfortable with his positions. His election as an independent would deal a harsh blow to the two-party system. And it would be hard to find someone who could relate to Democrats, independents, and Republicans better than someone who has actually been all of these things, in the last decade no less. Obama can hardly be more post-partisan than that.
But post-partisanship is, I do not hesitate to say, crap. Political parties exist for a reason. It makes sense for people who want the same outcome in the political process to band together to achieve it. You can say that you really want harmony and cooperation, but it ain’t never gonna happen. Government is about real decisions on fundamental issues. There is too much at stake. If you really want to know what a post-partisan world would taste like, think about your most deeply-held conviction, the most important thing you believe in, and settle for half of it, forever. Ain’t never gonna happen.
Obama isn’t a bad person; but neither does he walk on water. He is being supported against better-qualified candidates in a terribly-flawed process for reasons that are, in the end, thoughtless and shallow. He is running a campaign not of policies or ideas, but of rhetoric. The rhetoric at the heart of his campaign is almost as old as politics itself: we need change; the capital’s politicians are corrupt and need to be replaced by someone who will do things differently; we can unite the country. Notice that if I don’t say ‘Washington’ it can apply to any polity at any point in history in any part of the world. And if I do say ‘Washington’, that just makes it more apparent that we have heard this song before. It is not much of a song, really; he keeps playing the same note.
Some of the more astute observations about Barack Obama, sadly all from conservatives:
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