We could argue over whether “intelligent design” should be taught in our schools as an alternative to evolution, and overlook the fact that the rankings of American schools have already dropped to twenty-first in the world in the teaching of science and twenty-fifth in the world in the teaching of math. We could argue over whether or not the McCain campaign had sufficiently vetted its candidate for vice-president, but take at face value the campaign’s description of that vetting as “an exhaustive process” including a “seventy-question survey.” Most people in those countries where they still teach math and science would not consider seventy questions a particularly taxing assignment, but we could forget this. Amnesia was our preferred state. In what had become our national coma we could forget about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch and AIG and Washington Mutual and the 81,000 jobs a month and the fact that the national debt had been approaching $10.6 trillion even before Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke mentioned the imperative need to spend, which is to say to borrow, $700 billion for securities backed by bad mortgages, a maneuver likely to raise the debt another trillion dollars. (“We need this to be clean and quick,” Paulson told ABC.)
We could forget the 70 percent of American eighth graders who do not now and never will read at eighth-grade levels, meaning they will never qualify to hold one of those jobs we no longer have. We could forget that we ourselves induced the coma, by indulging the government in its fantasy of absolute power, wielded absolutely. So general is this fantasy by now that we approach this election with no clear idea where bottom is: what damage has been done, what alliances have been formed and broken, what concealed reefs lie ahead. Whoever we elect president is about to find some of that out.
John McCain’s election would be a disaster for our Constitution. Conservatives have worked for decades to capture the Supreme Court with an unbreakable majority that would, in every case, reliably serve their cultural, religious, and economic orthodoxies. That goal has so far escaped them. Though Republican presidents have appointed seven of the nine justices now serving, only four of them—John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito—are dependably rigid conservatives. Four other justices—two other Republican appointees, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, and the Democratic appointees Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer—have voted consistently in favor of more liberal interpretations of the Constitution. The ninth justice—Anthony Kennedy—holds the crucial “swing” vote that has decided cases of capital importance, sometimes with the conservatives and sometimes with the liberals.
In recent decades another justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was also a “swing” justice. (She resigned in 2005 and Bush replaced her with Alito.) Our constitutional law would be very different if O’Connor and Kennedy had been conservative ideologues of the kind McCain has promised to appoint. They joined liberals, for example, in refusing to overrule Roe v. Wade and end constitutional protection for abortion rights, in preventing capital punishment of children under eighteen, and in protecting homosexuals against laws making sex between them a crime. O’Connor joined liberals to provide a 5–4 majority that saved race-sensitive admissions programs in state professional schools, a crucial decision that, had it gone the other way, would have ended what has proved an indispensable strategy for reducing racial imbalance in the professions.
When O’Connor resigned, Kennedy’s vote became even more crucial. He joined conservatives in some dangerous 5–4 decisions: approving a law banning so-called “partial birth” abortions, striking down sensible and nondiscriminatory plans to reduce racial isolation in public schools, and declaring that the Constitution’s Second Amendment gives private citizens a constitutional right to own handguns. Still, the opinions in these cases were all somewhat guarded because the conservatives needed his vote and had to make qualifications to secure it. In other recent cases he voted with the liberals to restrict capital punishment and—in probably his most important vote—to deny Bush’s appalling claim that any foreigner he designated an unlawful enemy of America could be held indefinitely without any form of judicial review.
If McCain wins, however, Kennedy’s vote would probably be irrelevant and his influence negligible because McCain’s first appointment would probably create an unstoppable rock-solid conservative majority for a generation or more. (Stevens is eighty-eight, Souter sixty-nine, and Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer in their seventies.) We cannot predict all the important constitutional issues that might arise in that long period. But it seems likely that a solid ultra-conservative majority would finally wipe away all constitutional protection for abortion, which Scalia and Thomas have repeatedly vowed to do. Such a majority would also allow a significantly greater role for religion in public schools and public displays and occasions; effectively end any form of affirmative action in employment or education; cut back on protections for accused criminals; and again broaden the scope of capital punishment.
Most frightening of all, it would likely embrace the Bush administration’s most extravagant claims of presidential power: the so-called unitary executive doctrine Garry Wills describes below, which allows the president dictatorial powers over all executive functions, including the power to wage war, spy on citizens, and detain and torture prisoners, ignoring any congressional constraint.
Obama’s promise is as great as McCain’s threat. His race and background would refute the charges of American racial arrogance that have helped recruit many angry terrorists. His remarkable and apparently near-unanimous appeal abroad—an appeal the insular Republicans scorn—would immediately help redeem our soiled international reputation. He has a striking, deep intelligence, and a gift for combining clarity and strong feeling in his writing and speeches; and he uses these qualities to expose and explain complexity rather than bury it under slogans. It is said that he lacks experience. On the contrary, he alone among prominent politicians has the experience that counts most in a threatening and densely interdependent world: the crucial experience of empathy. He has lived, and been poor, in both domestic and foreign worlds that few national politicians can even imagine.
We desperately need, most of all, a renaissance of international law and order. The Bush administration has nearly destroyed international law; it has debased our moral as well as our fiscal currency. America cannot face the growing terrorist threat effectively, or the equally menacing terrors of climate degradation, unless the world creates new institutions and doctrines of international law with genuine power and authority. That is an extremely difficult goal, but not impossible since the other great powers now have the same incentives we have to bring law back to the international realm.
The project cannot even begin, however, without a radical change in the mind-set of Americans, who should understand that we are no longer law-givers dictating to the world but partners who must accept compromise and risk as others do. Otherwise we will be pushed to history’s back benches. As the first debate made plain, McCain embodies the national illusion of self-sufficient go-it-alone power. We need a president who has the intelligence, clarity, and passion to dispel that illusion. Obama’s eloquence is among his most important qualifications, though Republicans mock him for it, because he can provide the mind-changing inspiration that democracies most need in times of crisis—what Lincoln gave us at Cooper Union and Gettysburg, and Roosevelt gave us in ending economic and then isolationist paralysis.
These reasons why Obama should be president make the stakes in this election even greater. Our economy is near catastrophic and worsening, unemployment and foreclosures are increasing, our foreign and military policies are disastrous, the Republican president is ridiculed and despised, the Republican candidate flails and lies. Even a mediocre Democratic candidate should win easily. If a remarkably distinguished candidate like Obama loses, this can be for only one reason. We Americans can do something great in November. Or we can do something absolutely terrible and then live with the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice for yet another generation.
When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, the leaders of the religious right were elated. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called it “a brilliant pick”7; Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s office for public policy, who had proposed Palin to the McCain campaign in August, declared himself “ecstatic”; and James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, who had previously threatened not to vote for McCain, said he was as happy as he had been the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.8
These men had reason to cheer. The choice meant that McCain had finally decided that he could not do without them. It meant that after a year of wandering in the wilderness, without a candidate, beset by challengers from within the evangelical community and by journalists predicting their imminent demise, the religious right leaders were back again.
Now, if McCain won, they could claim credit for bringing out the evangelical vote and demand the kind of power they had had in the Bush administration. As for Palin herself, she was almost too good to be true. Her positions on abortion, gay marriage, domestic partner benefits, stem-cell research, abstinence, and the teaching of creationism in the public schools were their own. She was for guns and low taxes, and, as she demonstrated at the Republican convention, she could reignite the politics of populist resentment. She was one of them in a sparkling new package. “Sarah Palin is God’s answer,” Dobson declared.9
The enthusiasm of religious right leaders for Palin had its incongruities. Eight years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention, under the leadership of Richard Land and other conservatives, had for the first time adopted the positions that women could not serve as pastors and that wives had to “submit” to their husbands. Then, too, many religious right leaders—James Dobson most prominently—had spent most of their careers insisting that working women, along with permissiveness toward children, had led to the decline of American civilization.
No matter. Palin was a walking advertisement for “pro-life” policies, and, for reasons somewhat mysterious to them, she thrilled the women in their churches. “They were absolutely giddy,” Land said of the women in his office. “There’s something going on in the conservative independent sisterhood that I can’t tap into. I can’t comprehend it, but it’s there.”10 Like other women, many of these sisters were struggling to raise families and to make ends meet with low-paying jobs. Palin, the baby-juggling hockey mom, was both someone they could identify with and the fulfillment of fantasies: a beauty queen who took power by bucking a corrupt male establishment. Here was the new American Idol—and the solution to a problem religious right leaders did not know they had.
Since her run for lieutenant governor in 2002, Palin has attended a non-denominational evangelical church, called herself simply “a Christian,” and refused to discuss her religious beliefs.11 However, Wasilla Assembly of God, where she worshiped for three decades, and the Juneau Christian Center, which she attends when in the state capital, are Pentecostal churches; both of them, plus her current home church, Wasilla Bible, are all solidly associated with the religious right.
David Cook, "Perkins: Palin a Brilliant Political Pick," The Christian Science Monitor, September 10, 2008.↩
Lisa Miller, "With Palin, the Religious Right Is Reborn," Newsweek, September 6, 2008.↩
Ellen Goodman, "Sarah Zamboni Clears the Ice on Working Mothers," The Boston Globe, September 12, 2008. Most of the leaders of the religious right did not support Mike Huckabee in the primaries.↩
Sarah Pulliam, "Richard Land Glows over Palin Pick," Christianity Today, September 1, 2008.↩
Randi Kaye, "Pastor: GOP May Be Downplaying Palin's Religious Beliefs," CNN.com, September 9, 2008.↩
David Cook, “Perkins: Palin a Brilliant Political Pick,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 10, 2008.↩
Lisa Miller, “With Palin, the Religious Right Is Reborn,” Newsweek, September 6, 2008.↩
Ellen Goodman, “Sarah Zamboni Clears the Ice on Working Mothers,” The Boston Globe, September 12, 2008. Most of the leaders of the religious right did not support Mike Huckabee in the primaries.↩
Sarah Pulliam, “Richard Land Glows over Palin Pick,” Christianity Today, September 1, 2008.↩
Randi Kaye, “Pastor: GOP May Be Downplaying Palin’s Religious Beliefs,” CNN.com, September 9, 2008.↩