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A Fateful Election

For an election in which so much is at stake, we asked some of our contributors for their views.
—The Editors

Russell Baker

The new century has opened with a pervasive sense of American decline, and for good reason. The history of the Bush years is anything but a tonic for the spirit: the nation deceived by official lies into endless Middle Eastern warfare, loss of America’s good reputation around the world, erosion of the middle class, astounding budget deficits, growing financial dependence on China, that sinister power-grabbing operation in the vice-president’s office, torture….

And now the collapse of Wall Street, home office of triumphant world capitalism, its famous masters of the universe forced to endure the humiliation of asking for government handouts. Serious people who understand these things speak of the worst calamity since the Great Depression.

The two men competing for the unenviable job of trying to reverse this decline present a classic conflict of generations. Obama is forty-seven years old; McCain is seventy-two, old enough to be Obama’s father. This unusual age spread between presidential candidates brings to mind a wide variety of familiar literary plots about father-and-son conflicts. In classical mythology the son must kill the father to allow for earth’s renewal; in the modern TV sitcom the son must overcome the father’s refusal to let him have the car on Saturday night; in soap opera, the father, decrepit and no longer roadworthy, must be made to surrender the car keys to the son; and so on.

Once popular comedies of the Father Knows Best school allowed the old fellow a bit of dignity and occasional homey expressions of half-baked wisdom, but the prevailing rule was that youth must be served. Something along this line seems to lie behind the intense Obama campaign to register legions of young voters. It assumes that youth is on Obama’s side, and, indeed, it is rare to hear a kind word for McCain from anyone under thirty.

McCain may take comfort from statistics showing that young people don’t vote in impressive numbers but old folks do. Whether his age will fetch masses of the elderly to his side is by no means certain. Despite his seventy-two years, McCain has a giddy, impetuous quality more commonly associated with youth than Obama’s pensive gravity.

Watching McCain is entertaining. He seems never to have got over being a bomber pilot and notorious bad boy of the Naval Academy. It was the giddy, impetuous, bomber-pilot McCain who gave America Sarah Palin as the best possible right-wing Republican to be the next president of the United States and thus—to the delight of leading political wordsmiths—galvanized, electrified, and energized his party’s famous “base,” its indispensable army of Christian churchgoers.

Though he has sometimes worked well with Democrats to get legislative results, McCain also has the amateur chess player’s weakness for making an impulsive move just to see what will happen: thus his eleventh-hour intervention in the Wall Street crisis negotiations. In chess what almost always happens after the impulsive move is doom.

Obama lacks impetuosity, giddiness, and the zest for demagogic combat, or maybe he has simply been too well brought up to talk back to a man old enough to be his father. Or perhaps he is just another one of those cool Harvard Law Review cats who can’t field-dress a roasted chicken, much less a moose.

Obama seems to me very much like the Jack Kennedy who ran for president in 1960. Kennedy was the young candidate speaking for a new generation, insisting that it was their turn, pressing the old to get out of the way and let the earth turn.

At first everything seemed wrong about Kennedy. His speeches were too short. His accent was funny. His tailoring was too elegant. Above all, he was simply too young for a nation that thought presidents should look like Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, or Hoover. He was forty-three years old. Many thought it amazing that a Catholic could be elected president.

The fascinating question this year is whether a black can be elected president. Should McCain prevail, the less than amazing prospect is for continuation of the elder generation’s favorite causes: bellicose efforts to bring democracy to the whole world and adding ever more conservatives to the Supreme Court. Ms. Palin could be the next Nixon.

David Bromwich

The United States is involved in two foreign wars, yet the 2008 presidential campaign has been preoccupied with domestic affairs. Even within the limits of such a debate, the arguments have been routine. John McCain runs on the Bush policies—the tax cuts achieved in 2001 and 2003, and the anti-environmental program topped by expanded drilling—while Barack Obama runs against those policies in a tone of injured common sense. It is an evasive election all around. McCain, the inheritor of George W. Bush, mentions the name of Bush as little as possible. Obama speaks against “four more years of Bush” but with a posture of “transcending partisanship,” as if the preceding years of Bush had nothing to do with the Republican Party.

Every Republican president after Eisenhower has been bored by domestic policy. Democrats, by contrast, ever since LBJ split the party over Vietnam, have cared mainly for domestic policy, and their quest has never varied much: to recover some variant of the New Deal coalition. Obama is true to this pattern. His beginnings in Iowa as an antiwar candidate turn out to have been a misleading clue to his political character.

Hillary Clinton, it is now clear, mistook her situation by pushing to the center and running a general election campaign in the primaries. Obama appears to be running Clinton’s primary campaign in the general election. So his statement that the US must begin to “withdraw responsibly” from Iraq is suitably hedged by masculine avowals of the utility of bombing al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan and the necessity of expanding the war in Afghanistan. Obama has in this way greatly impaired his value as an educator of public opinion. So long as he vouches for the War on Terror—the larger “war we are in,” as he calls it—he cannot possibly explain the hollowness of a war against terror-as-such, a war against a technique.

Obama’s conformity is the more dismaying because—as Andrew Bacevich has recently pointed out—the US military is promoting a dangerous consensus about the Global War. Where the Powell doctrine required the use of overwhelming force, a clearly delimited mission, and an exit plan, the new Petraeus doctrine licenses a general militarization of US foreign policy. According to this doctrine, violent instability of any kind in any country by definition threatens American interests, and is to be crushed or tranquilized by the methods of counterinsurgency. Where Powell had justified self-contained interventions, Petraeus’s doctrine can be used to justify war practically everywhere, all the time.

There is a good reason why we have heard nothing of this from John McCain. His advisers—Randy Scheunemann, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, James Woolsey, John Bolton, Max Boot—all come from the neoconservative war establishment. Indeed, these advisers, who pull the strings on McCain’s opinions from Georgia to Iran, are co-originators of the doctrine; and, since it is an exorbitant idea, which will cost the country blood and treasure, it is not in their interest to see it discussed. Obama’s silence is at first harder to understand. But look closely at his tacking and shifting and adjustments over the past seven months, and the fairest conclusion seems to be that he has no settled views on foreign policy.

In the September 26 debate, Obama partly offset this impression by an adroit and measured performance. He reminded voters that McCain’s definition of winning in Iraq has been changeable to an alarming degree. Less happily, he implied that the main distinction between their policies is the difference between a large commitment in Iraq and a large commitment in Afghanistan. He mounted a sharp defense of his willingness to negotiate with unfriendly powers. Yet he betrayed an unaccountable eagerness to concur with McCain that Georgia should now be brought into NATO: a dangerous conceit, and a provocation that could easily have been parried by mentioning the need for deliberate consultation with our allies.

It is possible that the mortgage and securities crash will yield a sharper contrast between Obama and McCain—with the former standing for cheated individual buyers and the latter for the heavy hitters of the commercial aristocracy. Since, however, the bailout from the Treasury Department was approved on October 2 by both candidates, it will take inspiration (thus far, not much in evidence in his campaign) for Obama to turn this disaster to his advantage without an appearance of opportunism.

Even so, the public has been allowed to witness, here again, the slowness of George W. Bush to recognize the proportions of a calamity: a want of leadership, and of competence lower down, that is reminiscent of the disorders in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 and the effects of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. One cause of the sheer magnitude of these catastrophes has been the cynical contempt shown by this administration toward professional competence. The names of Douglas Feith, L. Paul Bremer, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Brown tell us all that needs to be said.

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” The words of Burke’s Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents sound dissonant, perhaps, when placed beside the cant of “straight talk” and “change,” yet we are living in a time when bad men have combined and when the good—defenders of the rights of Guantánamo inmates, such as Stephen Abraham and Morris Davis; honest military officers such as General John Batiste and the late General William E. Odom; unintimidated lawmakers such as Senator Russell Feingold and Senator Chuck Hagel—must associate and leave no doubt about the cause they share.

Senator Obama has made it plain that in that cause, he prefers to be a follower and not a leader. But he said this year (and said it as if he meant it): “I have taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution when I am President of the United States.” For him to explain the meaning of those words would be an act of civic conscience that could not possibly hurt his prospects for election.

Mark Danner

Panning across the faces of the country’s leaders gathered in the Cabinet Room to confront the “financial crisis” in late September, the camera’s eye moves from the President—looking tired, shrunken, desiccated—to his Treasury secretary and other powerful advisers, and then slowly makes its way down and around the long Cabinet table, trailing over the familiar waxen features of the barons of the Senate and the House, lingering for a moment on the self-consciously resolute face of the white-haired Senator John McCain, and finally reaches the table’s end where it settles at last on the figure of a lean, solitary black man slumped in his seat. He seems relaxed, composed, self-contained—and strikingly, powerfully isolated. In how many such rooms holding how many such powerful people in the recent and distant past has his been the only black face?

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