Tuesday, October 28, 2008
There's a fascinating book from 2004 called "What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives won the Heart of America" by Thomas Frank that explores the irony of how middle class, blue collar Kansas became a solid red state, consistently voting for conservative policies that are contrary to its own best economic interests. By using such "hot-button" issues like gay marriage and terrorism and abortion, the Republican Party was able to capture the hearts of Americans who didn't stand to benefit economically from fiscal policies aimed to appease the wealthy.
As this momentous election draws to a close, I find myself in the same position, only for opposite reasons. My wife and I are both physicians. Our combined income will put us in that subset of wage earners who will have to pay the piper with an Obama victory. You know, because we're "rich" and have to "spread the wealth". Even though we didn't start to make anything until we were in our thirties and have a mortgage and owe close to $300,000 in school loans and reimbursements are tumbling and the threat of malpractice always looms, we're the "lucky ones". That's the perception. There's not much I can do to change it. So why on earth would I consider voting for the candidate who aims to take more money out of my pocket and spread it around throughout various aspects of an expanded byzantine federal bureaucracy?
By nature, I have conservative leanings. I believe in individual responsibility. I believe that individuals need to be held accountable for their actions. I believe that increased government involvement in our daily lives leads to stagnation, complacency, and mediocrity. There's a reason this country has led the world economically, politically, and morally for the past one hundred years. Free markets and free exchange of ideas leads to an environment conducive to innovation and creativity. Granted, such a system is susceptible to greed and intransigence but for every Ivan Boesky or James Cayne, there are a hundred more like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs and Sergey Brin. Government intrusion in the form of higher taxes and increased regulation may help to "spread the wealth" but at the cost of hindering risk taking and innovation.
That being said, the Republican Party, ostensibly the steward of conservative principles, has lost it's identity. The past 8 years has witnessed a party hijacked by a fringe contingent of righteously indignant social crusaders. Somehow, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt became the party of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum and Karl Rove. Politics trumped policy. Instead of proposing reality based solutions to the nation's ills, they resorted to meaningless, abstract, somewhat menacing (in an Orwellian way) stock phrases like "country first" and "patriotism". Extraneous right wing causes like gay marriage and gun control issues assumed a prominence in Republican discourse above more substantive concerns. Republican support for the Medicare reimbursement reduction this summer further alienated the party from a reliable ally in physicians.
The Bush administration, moreover, has been an unqualified cataclysm. An ill-advised war prosecuted under false pretenses and conducted with an ineptitude of historic proportions. The prodigal expenditure of American moral authority and international influence through arrogant unilateralism and third world torture tactics at Guantanomo. The Katrina disaster and the delayed, inadequate response. And now, the financial crash on Wall Street, with the inevitable trickle down effect to Main St. George W. Bush has clearly demonstrated that he is a man who lacks intellectual vigor and curiosity. Under his watch, the country has gone from being the unquestioned hegemonic leader of a post-cold war world to an isolated pariah, marginalized in the world's eyes by the failures and embarassment of financial ruin and the debacle of Iraq. His claim to fame was national security. But Afghanistan is spiralling out of control and the Taliban lurks, waiting to pounce on the power vacuum developing in nuclear armed Pakistan. Are we really safer than we were 8 years ago?
Now I like John McCain. But I liked him a whole lot more in 2000. He was the independent, moderate Republican back then. The Straight Talk express. But that campaign was sabotaged by unsavory, deceitful insinuations made during the North Carolina primary by the Bush apparatchiks. The McCain of 2008 is now 72 years old. He made a move to the right, assuaging the Christian Coalition of Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell. His thinking on issues such as the economy and national security seem very regimented and partisan. I don't sense that McCain, for all his personal valor and strength of character, is much of a consensus builder anymore. And the ludicrous selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate has to be one of the more short-sighted and cynical moves by a candidate for the Presidency in the history of American politics. Her bumbling performances over the past 6 weeks raise serious doubts about McCain's decision making and judgement.
Barack Obama leads this race confortably with less than a week left. He's going to be our next president. But he will ascend to that position despite having a resume thinner than pretty much anyone else who's ever run for the high office. He has no experience in an executive capacity. He is the junior senator from Illinois who has passed no legislation of note. Who has proven to be one of the most liberal voters in the Senate. Who slithered his way through the Chicago political machine unscathed, betraying allies along the way and doing absolutely nothing to clean up one of the most corrupt political establishments in the country. Barack Obama the factual man is extremely unimpressive. His record is sparse. Based on the facts, all we can predict is that he will raise our taxes and implement policies to increase government intrusion into our lives. His campaign is built on vague promises and empty appeals. Change, he says. What's going to change? And how?
And this is the essense of the election. Obama the man has become irrelevant. Obama the concept, however, has swept into the hearts and souls of this country and has attained an unstoppable momentum. This country is hungry for something fresh. The anticipation of his anunciation is a palpable thing. There is an energy and lifeforce to his campaign that is solely lacking from McCain's. He is youthful and a first rate intellect. He presents himself as a man who is guided by reason and fairness. His thinking is refreshingly non-dogmatic. His nuanced reply to the Reverend Wright controversey this summer was one of the most impressive things I've read from a politician in my lifetime. There is a curiosity and intellectual humbleness to Obama that we have not seen from a President in a long time. For some reason, I don't see Obama approaching the Presidency with a strict liberal "agenda". For some reason, I can see him paradoxically acting more moderately than everything in his history would suggest. If he wins as resoundingly as is predicted, I'm willing to give him that chance. The question remains though: are these reassuring qualities by themselves predictive of a successful Obama Presidency?
I still haven't made up my mind. A part of me thinks that maybe it would be a good thing for McCain to lose. Perhaps a resounding defeat would send a message to the Republican Party loud and clear that we have truly entered a new era. Out of the shambles of defeat, hopefully the party could regroup and find itself again. Voting for Obama would be an act of insanity for me, financially. But it's kind of like rooting for your favorite team to lose when the season is already lost, because a worse record will net you a better draft pick. The Cleveland Cavaliers pretty much tanked the 2002 season. The following year, they chose a local kid named Lebron James with the first pick in the draft.
Obama will be inaugurated with a clear majority, an unquestioned mandate to govern, and a legislative branch accomodating to his liberal stances. Time will tell. After all, 2012 is only 4 years away....