For an election in which so much is at stake, we asked some of our contributors for their views.—The Editors
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.
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.
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?
The radicalism of Barack Obama lies not in his policies but in his face. It is a radicalism not just of color but of emergence, for scarcely a year ago that face was utterly unknown to the overwhelming majority of Americans. Not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has a major party put forward as nominee a candidate so little known to the country. Just as the obscure one-term governor from Georgia owed his victory to the intertwined disasters of Vietnam and Watergate and the profound crisis of legitimacy they brought in train, so Obama as national political phenomenon was born of the Iraq War, the War on Terror, and the failed economic radicalism of the present administration.
Obama has arisen out of a plain of scorched earth, a longed-for rebirth at the logical limit of an exhausted politics. Seven years after September 11 the “wartime president” has brought his War on Terror to a dead end in the bloody stalemate in Iraq, where American dollars now fund both the Iranian-allied Shiite government and the former Baathist insurgents, and on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, where $10 billion of US aid now buys the bullets that Pakistani soldiers fire at US special forces hunting a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda. At home the President turned huge surpluses into vast deficits, more than doubling the national debt, and pushed the deregulatory zeal of the Reagan administration into a frightening near-collapse of the entire financial system.
This astonishing record has made the only president brought to power by the Supreme Court the most unpopular since modern polling began, leading more than eight Americans in ten to conclude that the country is “on the wrong track” and millions to change their party identification from Republican to Democrat.
Obama’s miraculous rise is inexplicable without that shrunken pale figure in the Cabinet Room, whose waning shadow still looms over this election. Though Obama evokes the theme of a new bipartisanship with great eloquence and power, he promises the bounties of a traditional Democrat: a middle-class tax cut, health care for nearly everyone, investments in roads and bridges, money for early childhood education and job training. Behind the eloquently intoned mantra of a new politics of hope lies a movement fueled by a deep-seated sense of rebellion—against “politics as usual,” against “experience” as a political value (and the older generation that holds it as such), against “Washington” and all the evils that that word evokes. His populism is brilliantly engineered and inspiring in its eloquence—and, for all that, in its essence deeply familiar.
And yet there is the radicalism of that face. It supplies the obvious answer to the obvious conundrum of this election: Why, given “the fundamentals”—the historic unpopularity of the incumbent party and the tottering economy, which should make certain an opposition landslide—is the contest so close? What differs here, and differs profoundly, is the unspoken centrality of race, the ancient sinful fulcrum of American politics. As Lyndon Johnson foresaw, the Democrats’ belated championing of the civil rights revolution of the mid-1960s, in moving the “solid South” from Democrat to Republican hands, enabled the Republicans to dominate the White House for two generations. After 1968, Republicans won seven in ten presidential elections. (Before it, Democrats had won seven of ten.)
It is no accident that the largest single polling disparity between McCain and Obama voters, apart from race itself, is age. Obama’s candidacy is in large part a rebellion of the young, for whom race has much less saliency, and one of the great indeterminacies of the election is how many young people will turn out to vote. Another is whether the increase in those who will vote for Obama in part because of his race—most notably, African-Americans, who are registering in large numbers—will offset or exceed those who will vote against him in part for the same reason. This immensely complex question, which goes far beyond the debate over the so-called “Bradley Effect” (the disparity between what voters tell pollsters and what they actually do in the voting booth), turns at its heart on whether race can be used effectively as a kind of “ignition switch” to make of Obama, for a critical subset of voters in a handful of critical states, a figure too culturally “different” and “foreign” and “elite” to seem in the end a plausible leader.
The potential is certainly there, for one sees persistent signs of it in everyday life. “I could never vote for Obama”—I’ve heard variations of this line a great many times over the last few weeks, most recently from a waiter who noticed me paging through the newspaper’s political coverage. “I could never vote for a Muslim,” he went on, smiling apologetically; and what struck me about the ensuing exchange was my inability to convince this man, whom I’ve known for years, that Obama is Christian—“He only converted when he was twelve,” he insisted—or that he hadn’t “changed his position, on everything, almost every day.” Whether or not such disinformation is planted or actively encouraged, and however much its persistence might owe to race, it is clear that it flows like a subterranean stream through much of the country and the extent and depth of that stream are impossible to quantify.
What is not in doubt is that this substratum of concern or discomfort about race, and complementary worries about Obama as a foreigner or outsider for whom a vote would thus become a perilous gamble, have provided a prime target for Republican political and media operatives. Their delicate task in the weeks ahead will be to blend race with more traditional Republican “hot-button” “culture war” themes—worries about patriotism, elitism, sex education, abortion, gay marriage—and construct out of this mix a series of potent images and symbols intended to peel off from the Democratic coalition so-called “Reagan Democrats,” conservative, often “ethnic” urban and suburban working- and middle-class voters.
Voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado and a handful of other states will likely hear much about Reverend Wright and his call to “God Damn America!” and about Senator Obama’s supposed support for “teaching kindergartners about sex before we teach them to read.” These thirty-second pieces of political art, whether produced by the McCain campaign itself, the Republican National Committee, or “independent” groups, will be aimed at a subset of the 12 percent or so of voters who remain undecided, and are intended to lower the numbers of those who say they look positively on Obama and “identify” with his “values and background”—numbers that, as I write, have been declining even as the candidate’s national numbers are rising.
That such ads will be denounced as distortions and lies will not necessarily blunt their effectiveness, for they are directed at a narrow audience that tends to distrust or ignore the “mainstream media.” They work, when they do work, according to a logic of powerful symbols and images which tend to overwhelm facts, particularly when those facts come from a world of reporters and commentators viewed as inherently biased and “elite.” And they are directed at an audience—the so-called “beer-drinking” or “lunch-pail” Democrats—which, having largely favored Hillary Clinton in the primaries, especially in the critical old industrial states of the Midwest that Obama lost, may be more than usually receptive to their appeal.
Whether or not John McCain’s campaign will be able to exploit this vulnerability turns on whether, among these several million critical voters, fear of an unfamiliar African-American “elitist” can be made to overwhelm fear of an extension of Republican governance that few can now doubt has proved catastrophic for the country. Obama has hammered away on the latter theme, declaring at every opportunity that “the country cannot afford four more years of the same Bush policies”—and then the financial crisis, striking like a bolt of lightning, illuminated for all to see the ruins of the economic landscape. McCain, who has been struggling to present himself as a populist (and, implicitly, anti-Bush) “maverick” who would lead the country on a very different course, understood the danger the crisis posed for him but fumbled badly in his attempt to exploit it. Even as Republicans unleash a new onslaught designed to increase his opponent’s “negatives,” McCain must somehow make his “maverick” argument credible, not least by joining it to a positive economic vision for the country; only thus is he likely to persuade enough voters who are disgusted with Republican policies and deeply worried about the economy—but who still fear, or can be made to fear, a President Obama.
It is a truism that given the political “fundamentals”—the anger at Bush, the fear of hard times, the disquiet over the country’s direction—the election this year should bring overwhelming Democratic victory. Perhaps, given the vast increases in voter registration and the shift in party identification, that is precisely what will happen. But we are beyond models here. It is the very unpopularity of Bush and the atmosphere of profound disillusion and crisis that helped produce a Democratic challenger whose election—however remarkable his talents, however stirring his eloquence, however bright his promise—would constitute a true revolution. That this is so stems from the unspoken shame of American politics. That that shame might finally be overcome is perhaps the most precious promise of the “politics of hope.”
It’s been sixty years since the Dixiecrats walked out of the 1948 Democratic convention, more than forty since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and twenty since the elder George Bush ran his Willie Horton ads—but the race card, as Andrew Hacker pointed out in these pages not long ago, is still in the deck. A recent AP–Yahoo News poll, conducted with Stanford University, confirms that racial prejudice remains a factor for many voters.1 Ever since Senator Obama became a credible candidate, the elephant in the room has been his race, and the Republican elephant knows it.
At their almost lily-white convention they worked the theme. Mike Huckabee mentioned racism as a “shameful evil,” then went on to explain, “I’m a Republican because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to rescue me.” Whether or not he used it knowingly, this language comes from the same lexicon as the old term “welfare queen.” For many who heard it, it was code for black people.2 Then—from Rudy Giuliani to Sarah Palin—they piled on, mocking Obama for working as a community organizer on behalf of people living in the inner city. Having once praised community organizing in his 2002 book Leadership, Rudy joined in the mockery: a “community organizer…what?!”3 He shrugged, he smirked, but he never said that the people Obama once worked for were mostly black. He didn’t have to.
Obama’s opponents, including Senator Clinton during the primary season, have always tried to make the campaign all about him—charging him with rootlessness (not so long ago, it was Jews who were “rootless cosmopolitans”), with having the wrong friends, with admiring a fiery black pastor, and so on. And in what might be called the underground campaign, questions have been raised about whether his middle name (“Hussein”) means that he is a Muslim rather than a Christian.4 Almost everything about Obama has been used against him except—overtly—his race. But if he ever alludes to the fact that he is black, as when he made the offhand comment that he doesn’t look like the faces on our dollar bills, the Republicans pounce, amplifying the remark by repeating it with loud indignation.
Writing in The New York Times, Brent Staples put the matter succinctly: “Republicans are fighting on racial grounds, even when express references to race are not evident.”5
The strategy has had some effect. Lately, Obama has become cautious about his tone and even his body language. He sometimes seems hampered, drained of some of the energy that excited so many young voters early on. When his speeches start to soar as if from the pulpit, he brings them down to the studiousness of the lectern. Yet regardless of how he modulates his style, some people (not just black people) will vote for him because he is black, and some will vote against him because he is black. His opponents—not aloud, but with whispers and winks—have been betting that the latter group is the larger.
I’m betting they’re wrong. For one thing, the choice of Sarah Palin to “energize the base” seems increasingly bizarre every time she opens her mouth. Even among evangelicals, to whom she was meant to appeal, younger voters especially show rising concern about such issues as poverty and the environment, about which Palin cares not a jot; and a growing number of black students attend evangelical colleges, where over the last decade the percentage of blacks has in some cases tripled or quadrupled.6 The old “Christian right” is showing signs of change.
And then, of course, there is the imponderable political effect of the chaos in the financial markets and the recrimination between, and within, both parties in Congress. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fire sale of Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia, the bailout of AIG, and something that looked very much like a run on the banks, the shameless spectacle in St. Paul seems a sideshow that happened a long time ago. What little is left of the campaign will surely include many questions for Obama and Biden, McCain and Palin (if the press can get to her) on subjects such as regulation, public investment in private capital markets, limits on short-selling, CEO compensation, and the like.
In this utterly new context, deriding Obama for having once worked as a community organizer has become petty and beside the point. Yes, he is vulnerable on other fronts—as a chastened liberal whose domestic policy plans can seem vague; as an untested multilateralist in foreign affairs—but the financial crisis has made McCain sound blustery (heads must roll!) and erratic (no debate! OK, debate!) while allowing Obama to demonstrate savvy and calm. The first debate seems to have been more or less a draw, with a slight edge to Obama; and the good news within the economic bad news is that the Republican strategy of racial innuendo has been, for the moment, blunted if not neutralized.
And yet, in another sense, it is regrettable that the matter of race has been pushed off the table. Both candidates talk a lot about change, but the really momentous change in this election year is something that almost no one is willing to speak about except gingerly. Bill Clinton (who had earlier likened Obama’s chances to those of Jesse Jackson and who has been sporadically disloyal since his endorsement speech in Denver) was the only major figure at the Democratic convention to acknowledge, even obliquely, that the party had just nominated the first nonwhite presidential candidate in American history with a real chance to win.
The fact is that Obama, by virtue of being black, has already changed our culture, and changed it profoundly. His opponents, one hopes, overestimate the negative effect of his race. They certainly underestimate its potentially positive effect on America and America’s standing in the world. Let me be personal. In my own teaching, I try to tell the story of American history as a story in which the ideal of universalist individualism has sometimes been traduced but sometimes translated into laudable practice. Over the last few years, the positive side of this story has been a tough sell. Race is still regarded by many professors and students as an omni-explanatory category and an insurmountable barrier to opportunity or even respect. Yet when Obama emerged as the Democrats’ likely candidate, and especially after he gave his remarkable speech about race last March, the atmosphere in my classes changed: there was suddenly a sense that one could believe in a “post-racial” future without being a dupe or a chump.
My daughter, who teaches in a charter school in Harlem, had a similar but more significant experience. Last spring, she felt a surge of excitement among her mostly African-American first-graders, whose young lives are terribly short on hope and shadowed by fear. Suddenly, their sense of the future was enlarged by an eloquent black man whom they saw on TV and whom they heard adults talking about all the time. The grandmother of one six-year-old said to her grandchild, “this time the White House will be the Black House.” She didn’t mean it as a threat of usurpation. She meant that now the American promise might be extended through a black president to black children who could look up to him with pride and a new sense of possibility.
At least till election day, I’m keeping my copy of Democracy in America open to the page where Tocqueville says that while “people often manage public affairs very badly,” when they get genuinely engaged, the engagement “is bound to extend their mental horizon and shake them out of the rut of ordinary routine.” A great many people are engaged in this election, and if ever there was a time for extending our horizon on issues that matter—climate change, an unraveling economy, entitlement spending, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism without destroying civil liberties, and “cultural” issues such as welfare, affirmative action, and abortion—it’s now. Soon enough we will know if Tocqueville was right.
Midway through August, before the Democratic and Republican conventions, Chris Matthews made an offhand judgment on MSNBC that pretty much summed up the political mood in which the country found itself: “I’ve seen this election before, I think it was 1988.” He was referring of course to what was supposed to have been the certain 1988 victory of Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush, and to the ways in which a political party, most reliably the Democratic, can get overtaken by its own enthusiasm for being victimized; but what he said resonated beyond the concerns about Senator Obama’s candidacy just then beginning to surface.
It resonated because what seemed striking about the long and impassioned run-up to this election was not how different it had been—but precisely how similar it had been to previous such seasons.
We had kept talking about how different it was, but it wasn’t.
On a single mid-September morning these phrases would appear on the front page of The Washington Post : “stocks plummet,” “panic on Wall Street,” “as banks lost faith in one another,” “one of the most tumultuous days ever for financial markets,” “giant blue-chip financial institutions swept away,” “banks refusing to lend,” “Russia closing its stock market,” “panicked selling,” “free fall,” and “the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen.”
These were not entirely unpredictable developments.
For at least some months it had been clear that we were living in a different America, one that had moved from feeling rich to feeling poor. Many had seen a mandate for political change. Yet in the end the old notes had been struck, the old language used. The prospect for any given figure had been evaluated, now as before, by his or her “story.” She has “a wonderful story” we had heard about Condoleezza Rice during her 2005 confirmation hearings. “We all admire her story.” “I think she’s formidable,” Senator Biden said about Governor Palin a few weeks ago. “She has a great story. She has a great family.”
Senator Biden himself was said to have “a great story,” the one that revolved around the death of his first wife and child and taking the train from Washington to Wilmington to be with his surviving children. Senator McCain, everyone agreed, had “a great story.” Now as then, the “story” worked to “humanize” the figure under discussion, which is to say to downplay his or her potential for trouble. Condoleezza Rice’s “story,” for example, had come down to her “doing an excellent job as provost of Stanford” (this had kept getting mentioned, as if everyone at Fox News had come straight off the provost beat) and being “an accomplished concert pianist.”
Now as then, the same intractable questions were avoided and in the end successfully evaded. The matter of our continuing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and our looming engagements throughout the region had been reduced to bickering over who had or had not exhibited “belief in the surge.” “Belief in the surge” had been equated with the “success” of the surge, and by extension of our entire engagement in Iraq, as if that “success” were a fact rather than a wish. Such doublespeak was rampant. The increasing destabilization of the economy was already clear—an average of 81,000 jobs a month were lost all through the summer—but discussion of how to resolve the bleeding still centered on such familiar favorites as tort reform. This word “reform” kept resurfacing, but the question of who exactly was to be reformed was left to be explored mainly on The View, by Barbara Walters.
The leading candidates duly presented their “health care solutions,” not one of which addressed the core problem, which is the $350 billion a year it costs, according to a Harvard Medical School study, to cut in the commercial insurance industry. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we were assured, had run into trouble not because of the systematic deregulation of the financial industry, the delinking of loans from any imperative to get them paid off—but because, according to Governor Palin (who had apparently missed the briefing at which it was explained that neither entity received government funding until the recent necessity for bailing them out), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “too big and too expensive to the taxpayer.”
Time got wasted in the familiar ways. The presence of Barack Obama in the electoral process allowed us to talk as if “the race issue” had reached a happy ending. We did not need to talk about how the question of race has been and continues to be used to exacerbate the real issue in American life, which is class, or absence of equal opportunity. Instead we could talk about what Barack Obama meant by “lipstick on a pig,” and whether it was appropriate for him to go off on vacation “to some sort of foreign, exotic place.” The “foreign, exotic place” in question was of course Hawaii.
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.
These churches clearly shaped her views on social issues, so it is fair to ask how they have shaped her views on foreign policy. All three, after all, adhere to an eschatology known as dispensationalism: the belief that the world will end in a cataclysm during which Christians will be “raptured,” nonbelievers destroyed, and Christ will return to earth. Dispensationalists look to current events for signs that End Times are approaching, and since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948—the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy of the return of the Jews to the Holy Land—many have found such signs in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Ed Kalnins, the pastor of Wasilla Assembly of God since 1999, recently told a journalist, “Scripture specifically mentions oil instability as a sign of the Rapture. We’re seeing more and more oil wars. The contractions of the fulfilment of prophecies are getting tighter and tighter.”12 Larry Kroon, pastor of Wasilla Bible, preached last July that God could destroy the earth as soon as this autumn by raising up “a revived, prosperous and powerful Communist Russia with a web of alliances across the Middle East.”13 The Juneau Christian Center, also dispensationalist, last year played host to John Hagee, the Christian Zionist pastor whose endorsement McCain had to repudiate because he preached that God had used Hitler to drive European Jews to Palestine.14
Many Pentecostals believe that spiritual warfare between godly and satanic forces underlies all earthly conflicts, and that those battles are a part of God’s plan for the end of days. Kalnins, for one, has preached, “What you see in a terrorist—that’s called the invisible enemy…. What you see in Iraq, basically, is a manifestation of what’s going on in this unseen world called the spirit world,” and he has called the war on terrorism “a holy war” between Christianity and Islam.15 Palin herself seems to believe that warfare can be holy, for in June, standing next to Kalnins on the stage of her old church, she asked a graduating class of young missionaries to pray that “our national leaders are sending [US soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”
Out of church, she may be able to take a purely naturalistic view of international conflicts. Still, she has spent much more time in church than she has studying foreign policy, and the habit of mind these churches instill has little to do with diplomacy or peacemaking. “We need to develop as believers the instinct that we are at war, and that war is contending for your faith,” Kalnins concluded from his remarks on terrorism. “I believe that Jesus himself operated from that position of war mode.”
Timothy Garton Ash
From my observation perch in Stanford, California, an English European turned 24/7-cablenews-Webcast junkie, I notice that many Americans still suffer from a touching delusion that this is their election. How curious. Don’t they understand? This is our election. The world’s election. Our future depends on it, and we live it as intensely as Americans do. All we lack is the vote.
The world may not have a vote, but it has a candidate. A BBC World Service poll, conducted across twenty-two countries this summer, found Barack Obama was preferred to John McCain by a margin of four to one. Nearly half those asked said an Obama victory would “fundamentally change” their perception of the United States. And it certainly needs changing. Over the two terms of President George W. Bush, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of worldwide public opinion surveys, has documented what anyone who travels around the world knows: a substantial fall in the standing, credibility, attractiveness, and therefore power of the United States.
In the American context, Obama is “black” or “African-American.” His candidacy exposes yet again how that thing anachronistically called “race”—meaning the legacy of slavery and segregation—is the hidden warp and woof of American politics. In the international context, Obama is three other things. Firstly, he’s one of us—the child of an increasingly mixed-up world, now aspiring to be the most powerful man in it. A true cosmopolitan: not just African-American but also a little bit each of Hawaiian, Kenyan, Kansan, Indonesian. Secondly, he’s not Bush. John McCain is not Bush either, but a lot less not-Bush. Finally, he personifies everything that foreigners still love about America.
Back in Oxford, and traveling around Europe, I constantly meet young people who who have grown up furious at the United States. “You know, I’m very pro-European,” one British student informed me. Stirred by this rarity—a pro-European Brit—I asked why she was pro-European. “Oh, I guess mainly because I’m anti-American.” But she wasn’t really anti-American. I would bet my bottom euro that she’s an Obamaniac now.
Culturally, socially, and aesthetically, he represents the America that is deep in young Europeans’ everyday imaginations, transported there by the soft power of American films, music, literature, and television series such as Friends, ER, The West Wing, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and even Star Trek, together with serial abuse of the word “like”: you can hear it at any coffee shop in Oxford, and the speaker may be Slovak, German, or Chinese. That someone from Obama’s modest migrant background can make it this far also revives a potent, positive image of the United States as a land of opportunity—an American self-image which much of the world has internalized, however little it corresponds with the statistically recorded facts of limited social mobility.
Were he elected, we would discover within a few months how much of the worldwide hostility loosely tagged “anti-Americanism” really was anti-Americanism, and how much was just a violent allergy, shared by many Americans, to a particular president, a specific set of policies, and a certain version of Americanism. Yet this very popularity of one candidate raises the stakes in this election to an alarming degree.
Just because international hopes have been raised so high, the disappointment if Obama fails will be devastating. The shock will be even greater because of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin—who, like George W. Bush, reinforces every European cliché about the otherness (cowboyness, hickiness, wackiness) of Americans. This disappointment might be unfair to the likely content of a McCain foreign policy, but in international politics, as in financial markets, the perceptions are a large part of the reality. If Americans were to choose McCain-Palin, after reelecting Bush in 2004, I don’t think it’s too much to say that a lot of Europeans would feel like giving up on them. Of course European governments wouldn’t, and couldn’t afford to, give up on Washington; but they would have to operate within the constraining reality of popular disillusionment.
This would matter to the United States at the best of times. It will matter a lot more in these times. Even before the financial crisis, the list of problems piling up for the new president’s in-boxes (both the one marked Urgent and the one marked Important, to recall John F. Kennedy’s distinction) was already formidable. Even before this crisis added perhaps a trillion dollars to an already staggering national debt, the relative power of the United States to achieve its goals on its own—unilaterally—had significantly diminished over the last eight years, not least because of the renaissance of great powers such as China and Russia. Somewhere around 2000 may be marked by future historians as the zenith of American power. In such a world, the need for allies and international credibility is greater than ever.
A year ago I thought I knew what would happen in this election: it would be a referendum on conservative economic policies, leading to a big Democratic victory and a fundamental change in the country’s direction. Then, for a few agonizing months, it appeared that I might have been completely wrong. But at this point, a little over four weeks before voters go to the polls, I’m back to my original prediction.
In my last book, The Conscience of a Liberal, I argued that the conservative movement that now dominates the Republican Party has pursued policies that foster inequality and insecurity, and have made the large majority of Americans worse off. The GOP has nonetheless been able to win elections through identity politics—above all, by exploiting white racial resentment. But, I argued, identity politics were losing their effectiveness, because America has become more tolerant and, not to put too fine a point on it, less white. As a result, the era of conservative dominance was over.
The 2006 election, which abruptly ended the supposedly permanent Republican majority, seemed to confirm my thesis. That election gave Democrats a larger majority in the House than Republicans ever achieved in their twelve-year reign. Moreover, this new Democratic majority is much more solidly progressive than the pre-1994 alliance between Northern liberals and Dixiecrats. And I expected the 2008 election to continue and cement that power shift, leading in turn to a transformation in federal policies—a new New Deal.
For a while, however, Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular, seemed to have lost the plot. Instead of running against the Republican economic record, Obama spent the primary season and the first few weeks of the general election campaign portraying himself as a “post-partisan” politician, someone who transcended the traditional party divide. In his speeches, he tended to hold both parties equally culpable for the country’s woes, denouncing the failed policies of right and left equally. And when talking about economics, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid scoring political points: as late as early August, he was still talking about how incomes had risen “during the 1990s” and fallen “over the last several years,” somehow failing to mention that the good years had taken place under a Democratic president and the bad years under a Republican.
The lack of a forceful economic narrative from Obama allowed John McCain’s campaign, now run by disciples of Karl Rove, to do two things. First, they were able to blur the question of who offered “change”—because if change wasn’t defined clearly as a rejection of conservative economic policies, McCain could claim to be a change candidate too. Second, without economics front and center, there was room for a new version of the old identity politics. Never mind the policy details, was the McCain message, Obama isn’t one of us—he’s a celebrity, not like Sarah Palin the hockey mom.
And McCain’s tactics were effective. By early September it looked as if the seemingly impossible might happen: a Republican victory in a year in which everything—the short-term state of the economy, the longer-term stagnation of working Americans’ incomes, and the public’s disgust with the Bush administration—overwhelmingly favored the Democrats.
But all of that has changed in the past few weeks. Part of what has changed is, of course, the intensification of the financial crisis—the fall of Lehman, the panic in the markets, and the Bush administration’s admission that a huge government bailout was necessary—which has focused the electorate’s mind. But some credit should also be given to Obama, who responded to his sagging poll numbers by becoming much more effective at delivering the Democratic economic message. These days, Obama doesn’t try to place blame equally on right and left, he denounces “an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” and describes the crisis as “a final verdict on this failed philosophy.” He sounds, in other words, a lot like Bill Clinton in 1992. And that’s a good thing.
So the election will be a referendum on conservative economic policies after all. And while nothing in politics is certain, the odds are that this referendum will indeed produce a big victory for Obama and his party. What they’ll do with that victory is another question, but for now, at least, the prospects for a new New Deal are looking bright again.
Hillary Clinton tripped herself up last May, in the waning days of her candidacy, by staking a claim to broad support among “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.” At a reasonable guess, based on expectations of a high turnout, more than 65 million Americans—mostly white, many hard-working—will cast their votes in a few weeks for the first nonwhite presidential candidate with a chance to win. That may not be enough to put Barack Obama over the top in what figured to be a Democratic year even before the Wall Street debacle. If he snatches victory, we’ll be drenched with self-congratulations on having passed a cultural and political milestone. If he loses by 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the vote, it will still be a milestone but many will then say that Clinton was right, that it had been “too soon,” that latent bigotry made the difference.
Either way, political scientists will have a field day designing studies to determine whether racially motivated votes against the Democrat were more or less offset by racially motivated votes for him. How can every black vote be considered racially motivated when any Democrat would have gotten most black votes? Similarly, in failing industrial areas where blue-collar voters have trended Republican since Ronald Reagan, how can every McCain vote be classed as racial? It’s a discussion that we can’t stop having but one that we’d do well to tune out in the short time that remains. Perhaps this is as good a moment as any—before he’s canonized or picked apart—to acknowledge that Obama has proven, up to the beginning of the home stretch at least, to be a remarkably sturdy, consistent, well- informed, and even far-seeing candidate. Some would even say inspirational but as a journalist, I’m ready to be practically anything—amused, persuaded, surprised, disgusted, impressed—except inspired. When others are inspired, I take note of the fact.
Early on, it was hard not to take note of that fact, especially after Obama aced the Iowa precinct caucuses with a turnout that was more than 90 percent white and included a considerable leap in the percentage of young voters. In those days, Obama could be forgiven for confusing his campaign with a “movement.” But we crave newness in this media age, and the revivalist “Yes we can” chanting seemed a little tired, even empty, by the time the grinding primary schedule got to Ohio. It became clear that Obama was not only a cool customer but a politician with a game plan that he was following in a disciplined way. The plan gained him the nomination but nervous supporters wanted more bite—more sound bite, that is—in his debate answers, more fire in his careful comments on the imploding financial system. Enough with the thoughtfulness, they seemed to be saying.
What they got was smart, balanced, and too obviously risk-adverse. Maybe now is the time to acknowledge that such qualities could wear well in the White House; that the candidate’s refusal to be stampeded by breathless commentary and advice on the blogosphere and Op-Ed pages suggests that maybe he really is a grounded, serious person who’s not just playing a part; that he would never have gotten this far, heading a well-managed national campaign without obvious fissures or strategic lurches, if he lived, like so many of our would-be leaders, only in the media moment where almost anything a candidate says will be instantly drowned out and written off.
He was patronized as inexperienced and naive when more than a year ago he started calling for cross-border raids into Pakistan on al-Qaeda targets if there was “actionable intelligence” and our supposed ally declined to act. The idea may yet backfire but it recently became Bush administration policy. Ditto for his calls for a shift of forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. John McCain pays him the highest compliment by stealing his campaign themes. McCain is now the candidate of “change” who wants to reform the financial system and its legions of K Street lobbyists, which is where the supposedly inexperienced Obama began. I’m not contending that Obama is a seer, only that he seems to have read our time and the country’s mood more intelligently than any of his rivals. We’ll now see how well the country has read him.
Obama hasn’t based his political identity on race, at least not since he established himself on the South Side of Chicago and published his memoir. Nor has he asked people to be colorblind. Cautiously but unmistakably, he presents himself as a figure who can get past old divisions, that the accident of birth that made him half black and half white may have given him an inner balance and wide-angle set of intuitions that now make it possible for him to bring people together. It’s an idea he frequently alludes to but seldom dwells on in racial terms. You might call it the unbearable lightness of being biracial; it’s not, however, an idea to be scoffed at. No doubt it has real appeal to many voters in the age of Oprah. If it didn’t, tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have to be poured into attack ads rebranding him as a celebrity elitist, not like you and me. His problem may be less race than invincible skepticism. Obama is not, after all, the first candidate to present himself as a healer, not a divider.
Campaign positions are straws in the media wind, frequently blown away by hard events. Eight years ago, after nine judicial votes were tallied in Washington, the country discovered it had more or less elected a candidate who also promised a “humble” foreign policy and opposed “nation-building.” Look where it got us.
We have to believe that Obama is prepared for how ugly things are going to get. Sarah Palin may have aroused the Republican Party, but she won’t attract a meaningful number of Hillary supporters. She isn’t going anywhere near Whoopi Goldberg and The View. The independents Palin is said to have won over weren’t going to vote for Obama anyway, but had been looking for a socially acceptable reason to cover up why they weren’t. There are white people out there, lying to pollsters and to their children, who just are not going to vote for a black man. But the polls concern those most likely to vote, meaning, according to the FEC, the 60.7 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls in the last presidential election. Last time is not this time. This election will be decided by voters we have not heard from before.
Mainstream television is no longer a window on America. In this election, we will hear from that other America that’s been busy trying to get by and is ambivalent about messages from the mainstream. They were watching television the night of Obama’s acceptance speech, and, lo, television was showing us something real—the invasion of the mainstream by people from an America that maybe isn’t as racist as it used to be. If Obama’s candidacy is historic in what it says about how far black people have come, then it is also history-making in what it tells us about how white people see themselves in relation to the wider world, especially now that white guilt is mostly associated with the past.
Obama is a ruthless politician. He has demonstrated that he can’t be rattled. His organization is a crucial reason why I’m not freaking out. The Internet is still Obama country. One page of his Web site asks for lawyers to help monitor the polls, suggesting that his campaign is remembering Ohio and Florida and will be ready. But Obama showed in his generosity toward McCain during the first debate his determination to wage his campaign on his own terms and on his suitability to be an effective international leader.
Look how, since the Democratic convention, the Latino vote that Obama lost to Clinton two to one is going to Obama over McCain, 66 percent to 23 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Obama will take much of the West, and this new bloc will break the hold that the Solid South has had over presidential elections since Nixon.
The Obamas are as attractive as the Kennedys, and why shouldn’t there be an echo of the New Frontier in Obama’s calls for America to rededicate itself to a common purpose? But I’m not thinking of the Kennedy–Nixon race so much as I am of Robert Kennedy’s bid in 1968. Kennedy was on his way to the nomination and if he had survived the country could have taken a different path. This election has the same feeling, that sense that we are at a fork in the road, and must go one way or the other. It feels like a chance to go back and make up for what did not happen because of the political violence of the 1960s.
Obama’s candidacy is unprecedented. Maybe it is calling forth new forces in politics that—to use Jacobo Timerman’s phrase—make the semantic adventurism of the Republicans futile. I don’t know how many voters there are under thirty, but there are eight million between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. If they are watching Fox, then they are also watching The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, and everything on YouTube. The mainstream can’t keep up with them and they aren’t dependent on the mainstream for their information.
I am not saying that the young are uniformly progressive. I teach black history at a small liberal arts college and I am to the left of my students. They say, “I’m a conservative.” I say, “Good. Obama is a social conservative, too.” And he is. Even so, Obama won the largest share of the youth vote of any candidate in the primaries. We have been waiting for the youth vote since 1972. This time they must show up, because the young make the paranoid style of politics irrelevant.
The big task facing the next president will be cleaning up the mess left by the last president. How big the task may be is not yet fully appreciated. There is the economic mess and there is the mess we call “the war.” Included in the larger mess of the war are active military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a semiclandestine war of increasing intensity in the Pakistani tribal areas; and continuing military tension with Iran that could open a new theater of active warfare more or less at any time.
Who got us into this mess? The answer is the Republicans, and more particularly the Bush Republicans, who had control of both Congress and the White House for six years and did as they pleased. The Bush Republicans have no one else to blame and neither do Barack Obama and the Democrats. You would think that a presidential campaign could be built around this fact but so far it does not appear to have happened. The change Obama seeks remains oddly bloodless, as if the mess were a found object, not something that someone had done.
But the architects of the mess could not be plainer. The credit crisis, like the savings and loan crisis of twenty years ago, was the predictable result of changes in regulation of banking and financial markets. The rollback of regulations was driven by free-market theories put into effect mainly by Republican presidents. More than seven hundred S&L institutions collapsed during the first crisis and it cost the American public more than $120 billion to clean up the mess. The price of cleaning up the current credit crisis is going to be a lot higher than that. For this money, the public gets nothing but the bitter solace that still worse calamities have perhaps been avoided.
In both cases the government bailout undermines the bedrock discipline of markets—mistakes are supposed to hurt. Shoring up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has the effect of insulating mortgage buyers from the consequences of stupid speculations, and encourages future speculators to count on friends in Washington for a soft landing when the next frenzy begins to heat up. The Bush Republicans stuck to free-market theory while their friends were making zillions, then abandoned free-market theory when the whole financial system threatened to collapse. The bailout in itself condemns the policy of deregulation which made the bailout necessary. But who is holding the Bush Republicans to account?
The cost of the ever-growing credit bailout is no longer pocket change, and may equal the cost of the war when it is all totted up. Figures for Iraq have reached the trillion-dollar range; Afghanistan is heading in the same direction. All of this money, like the money for the credit bailout, and the money for the taxpayer rebate stimulus intended to soften the recession triggered by the credit crisis in the first place, is borrowed money. Some of it is borrowed from Americans, some from foreigners, all of it from future generations. What happened to the Republicans of yesteryear who preached a gospel of fiscal responsibility? Many years ago when the Reagan Republicans were setting the stage for the savings and loan crisis, my speechwriting friend Tom Lewis, an astute observer of politics, summed up the ethos of the Republican Party in a single word: more.
But the biggest legacy of the Bush years is not debt. It is the idea that the United States must, and can, control the political landscape of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The American military is waist-deep in the first two, knee-deep in Pakistan, and threatening to wade right into Iran as well if the Iranians don’t accept our demand to dismantle their nuclear program.
John McCain intends to press the attack on all fronts. Barack Obama, if elected, could march us back out of this suckhole but it will not be easy. I fear he would find himself trapped by our national need to appear to succeed in any contest where Americans have shed blood. It somehow fails to matter that we are trying to do what no country can ever do for long—force strange people in distant places to reshape their politics and society more to our liking. The effort passes as nation-building at the outset, but in the long run counterinsurgency always comes down to the same self-defeating strategy—killing locals until they stop trying to make us go away.
In seven years of war, public debate has never managed to get out in front of events, and it is still trailing behind. The thing to keep in mind is that this all can get a lot worse. The American presence in the greater Middle East is large, unwelcome, and disruptive. We have shattered an equilibrium that kept Sunnis and Shiites from each other’s throats for centuries. We have conceded to Turkey the right to send its military into Iraq at will. We have disrupted the understanding between the government of Pakistan and its tribal areas; and we have granted ourselves leave to chase after our enemies in Pakistani territory, an intrusion no government can tolerate for long. Over time the number of our enemies in this expanding arena of conflict and the cost of trying to control them will grow until we are half-crazy with frustration, are on the brink of something dangerously like civil war from arguing at home, and have run out of places to borrow money.
Americans have an odd way of arguing about politics. We don’t like plain talk about matters that call for harsh judgments or recognition of failure. But some things are too big to hide or explain away, and so in the end I think voters will decide by a whisker for change.
It depends on how you measure these things, but it seems fair to say that the “24/7” news cycle has been with us since the 1992 presidential campaign. The year before, CNN had supplanted the traditional networks as the go-to information destination during the Persian Gulf War.
By the time Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush, we were, tentatively but ineluctably, leaving the “news age” (dominated by print and by serious television reporters named Cronkite, Chancellor, Wallace, Schorr, etc.) and entering the “media age,” in which information was delivered and discussed by “personalities” on networks that now found time to broadcast events like Gennifer Flowers’s press conference during the day, and then spent the evening dissecting their “meaning.”
In each presidential election since, the media age has grown ever more encompassing. MSNBC was launched in July 1996, and the Fox News channel that October. The Drudge Report Web site first appeared in the following year. By 2000, a few posted remarks called “blogs” offered commentary on the political news. By 2004, bloggers were receiving credentials for the conventions. YouTube made its mark in 2006, as a camera captured Virginia Senator George Allen’s “macaca moment.” This year, of course, the truly informed political junkie constantly streams sound and video and has a dozen or more blogs bookmarked, surfing obsessively through them all and giving each perhaps nine seconds in which to hold his interest whenever a major (or often a minor) development occurs.
Presidential candidates have responded to this development by organizing their campaigns around it. George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry all had “war rooms” devoted to monitoring the old and new media and trying to influence their coverage. John Edwards wined and dined important liberal bloggers. Hillary Clinton hired one. All these candidates met with varying degrees of success. But what united them is that they all agreed on the overwhelming importance of triumphing in the media culture, winning that day’s news cycle.
One of the most fascinating things about the current election is that Barack Obama’s campaign is less concerned about coverage by blogs and television than any other presidential campaign in the short history of this media age, and that John McCain’s operation seems utterly consumed by it. And it’s not merely that this is fascinating: each side’s attitude toward its media coverage may well determine who wins the election.
Obama’s campaign is based on its field operation. It has opened dozens of regional offices in important states. In August, the campaign spent $2.8 million on payroll compared to McCain’s $1.2 million, suggesting a vast disparity in the number of paid organizers in the states.
And that leaves out entirely the battalions of volunteers. All these volunteers are contacting friends and neighbors and co-workers, and one of the core beliefs of the Obama campaign is that people will trust hearing from their friends and neighbors and co-workers that a vote for Obama is a safe and sensible one. Unlike Clinton and Edwards, Obama never hired a high-profile blogger to join his campaign. Instead his volunteers were invited to start blogs on his site. The leaders of the liberal “netroots” (a word combining “Internet” and “grassroots”) seem a little cranky about the fact that Obama hasn’t made a big priority of currying their favor.
The McCain campaign is organized entirely around daily news cycles—the belief that winning the media war will win the election. The two defining decisions of his campaign make this obvious. First, Sarah Palin was selected as his running mate to shake up the conversation on cable television and in the blogs. The selection was announced the Friday after the Democratic convention to deny Obama a prominent place during the next two or three days of news cycles.
Second, McCain’s cynical decision to “suspend” his campaign (which he did not in fact do) and return to Washington for the bailout negotiations was solely about his recognition that he was losing attention in the news cycles and he had to do something to staunch the bleeding. Virtually every major move McCain has made has been about trying to win that day’s headlines.
Obama has tripped him up, and no doubt confounded him and his handlers, by not playing the game. Even in Obama’s post–Labor Day nadir, when he slipped in the polls and liberals everywhere were panicked, Obama didn’t resort to stunts or grandstanding hyperbole. Indeed, many of his supporters wanted to hear more hyperbole. During the bailout shenanigans, one thought he might have taken a jab at McCain’s stunt. He would have gotten big headlines by doing so, and the liberal blogosphere would have loved it. He never came close to such rhetoric.
On September 26 in the first presidential debate, Obama deliberately eschewed several opportunities to hit McCain with a zinger of the sort generally thought to define winning these affairs. McCain offered several such one-liners and was on the attack more often than Obama was.
Can a strategy of sidestepping the media defeat a campaign that’s organized around the media in the media age? A good field operation is typically thought to be worth perhaps three percentage points on Election Day. For that to matter, of course, the candidate has to be within three points when Election Day arrives. It will be instructive to study the final pre-election polls in a handful of key states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and North Carolina) and compare them to the actual vote to get a measure of what Obama’s field operation was worth and whether his gamble—of deemphasizing efforts to score daily victories in the short-term news cycle—was the right one.
The next president will undoubtedly nominate one or more Supreme Court justices—which, justifiably, makes some worry about the fate of Roe v. Wade. But there should be even deeper worries about the Court. Even if Roe is reversed (and that is no certainty, even with new justices), some states—perhaps many—will legitimize abortions, and others may find a ban unenforceable (more so than Prohibition). But a new justice appointed by a Republican president will with certainty create results more drastic than any affecting Roe.
When Dick Cheney was vetting the last two candidates for the Court, he did not really care about their views on abortion. He concentrated on their attitude toward the many executive usurpations of the Bush administration, and he was satisfied on this account with John Roberts and with Sam Alito.
When Charles Gibson was questioning Governor Palin, he should not have asked about the Bush Doctrine (a wavering concept, and touching only one matter, war). He should have asked for her views on the unitary executive—the question Cheney asked the Court nominees. That is what matters most to the Bush people. It affects all the executive usurpations of the last seven years—not only the right of the president to wage undeclared wars, but his right to create military courts, to authorize extraordinary renditions, secret prisons, more severely coercive interrogation, trials with undisclosed evidence, domestic surveillance, and the overriding of congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health services.
All these policies were driven by the unitary executive theory of the Constitution, which emanated from David Addington in Vice President Cheney’s office. Charlie Savage has documented that four Supreme Court justices are already enthusiastic supporters of the unitary theory—Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas.16 It takes only a fifth justice to solder that theory into place for the foreseeable future. This would be the most thorough reworking and distortion of the Constitution in all our history.
The stakes are staggering. That is why the Republicans are so desperate to win this year. If they fail, not only will their previous encroachments be endangered, but the investigation of illegal acts will be removed from protection by presidential veto. Nothing short of wholesale pardons by the outgoing president can give many people cover for acts they undertook on the assurance that the unitary executive was exempt from congressional action. This prospect is so terrifying that John McCain has taken over the thuggish tactics that defeated him in 2000. The Republicans have everything to lose.
The unitary executive theory was elaborated in Edwin Meese’s Justice Department under Ronald Reagan. In its first form, it asserted that Congress can have nothing to do with an agency once it has set it up. Everything after that is an executive task, and only the president can determine executive personnel and conduct.
Whatever one thinks of the theory in that first form, Vice President Cheney, relying on the advice of the extremist law professor John Yoo and on that of David Addington, has stretched the theory far from its early formulation. One of its first formulators in the Meese office, Federalist Society founder Steven Calabresi, now writes:
The cost of the bad legal advice that he received is that Bush has discredited the theory of the unitary executive by associating it not with presidential authority to remove and direct subordinate executive officials but with implied, inherent foreign policy powers, some of which, at least, the president simply does not possess.17
There is something terrifying in the fact that a sweeping presidential power that is rejected even by an early advocate of the unitary executive is now accepted by four of the nine Supreme Court justices. Add a fifth justice to them, and the Constitution will be under the severest siege in its history. There can be no higher stakes.
—October 7, 2008
Andrew Hacker, “Obama: The Price of Being Black,” The New York Review, September 25, 2008. The AP-Yahoo- Stanford poll was reported on the Stanford University Web site (www.stanford.edu) on September 20, 2008. ↩
Many respondents to the AP-Yahoo-Stanford poll used the word “lazy” to describe black people, and said they should “try harder.” ↩
In 1994, having worked with community organizers to defuse racial tension in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Giuliani honored them with a party at Gracie Mansion. See William Douglas, “Community Organizers Protest Mocking by GOP Speakers,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 4, 2008. ↩
Nicholas Kristof (“The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama,” The New York Times, September 20, 2008), citing a Pew Research Center study, suggests that “religious prejudice,” reflected in the widespread belief that Obama is a Muslim, has become a “proxy for racial prejudice.” ↩
“Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race,” The New York Times, September 21, 2008. ↩
See Amy Sullivan, “Are Evangelicals Really Sold on Palin?” www.time.com, September 6, 2008; and Elizabeth Redden, “Christian Colleges Grow More Diverse,” InsideHigherEd.com, August 15, 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. ↩
Alexi Mostrous, “Sarah Palin, the Pastor and the Prophecy,” The Times (London), September 10, 2008. ↩
Max Blumenthal, “Palin’s Pastor: God Will Damn America,” The Nation online, September 5, 2008. ↩
“The Rev. John Hagee…Will Speak,” Juneau Empire, June 15, 2007; Sarah Posner, “Palin’s Juneau Church to Host a Hagee ‘Night to Honor Israel,’ in March,” The American Prospect online, September 2, 2008. ↩
Nico Pitney and Sam Stein, “Palin’s Church May Have Shaped Controversial Worldview,” The Huffington Post, September 2, 2008; Suzanne Sataline, “Palin’s Faith Is Seen in Church Upbringing,” The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2008; Manya A. Brachear, “How Religion Guides Palin,” Chicago Tribune, September 6, 2008. ↩
Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little, Brown, 2007), pp. 250–278. ↩
Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, The Unitary Executive: Presidential Power from Washington to Bush (Yale University Press, 2008), p. 429. ↩