Can it be? On Tuesday November 4, 2008 – less than three weeks from now – we get to choose the next president of the United States. As Bob Herbert notes in The New York Times (read: The Mask Slips):
“The lesson for Americans suffused with anxiety and dread over the crackup of the financial markets is that the way you vote matters, that there are real-world consequences when you go into a voting booth and cast that ballot.”
Along those lines, I strongly urge you to watch the excellent FRONTLINE documentary, ‘The Choice 2008,’ running on PBS this week. The documentary offers a surprisingly fresh narrative on the men behind the run for the presidency, tracing the paths that Obama and McCain took to get there, their motivations, crisis’/setbacks, adjustments, and equally important, their organizational and managing strategies, and the core philosophies that drive them.
No candidate is perfect, to be sure (as the documentary underscores well, showcasing Obama’s crisis with Reverend Wright, McCain’s status as one of The Keating 5, etc.).
But, we also have no right to expect our government to be better than we hold it accountable to be, an essential truth worth ruminating on next time you try to calculate the real cost of unilateralism, partisanship, secrecy and the 'ideology over prudence' mindset that have been the hallmarks of the George W. Bush era.
With that as a backdrop, in choosing the next president we have some choices:
- Should the litmus test of the next president be likeability (i.e., the man or woman you’d most like to hang out at a barbecue with) and Joe six pack regular guy-ness? Or crispness of vision, grasp of policy specifics and ability to organize and lead? The GWB period was marked by a decided slant towards the former, especially fascinating in how it manifested in the GOP’s ability to persuade so many voters of modest means that, as NYT’s Herbert puts it, “its wrongheaded, favor-the-rich, country-be-damned approach was not only good for working Americans, but was the patriotic way to go.” Would-be voters should note that the analog that stands out here is, ‘first time shame on you, second time shame of me.’
- Is McCain’s choosing of Sarah Palin, a cynical, singularly political decision that is a statement of his penchant for recklessness and a cancerous growth that must be excised from the Republican party or a sign of his maverick brilliance, choosing a promising young wine from the conservative vineyards, a recognition that star power matters a lot. In light of the Trooper-gate inquiry that concluded that Palin abused her powers, it seems that her shelf life as a ‘maverick and an ethics reformer who has taken on special interests and fought for average residents’ may be limited (excerpt from the article: “The report says she knowingly ‘permitted Todd Palin to use the governor’s office and the resources of the governor’s office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired.’ Further, it says, she ‘knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda.”)
- In grading the experience factor, what counts most? Years of service, voting history or something else? I personally believe that the best proxy is to look at how each has run their campaigns, as these are essentially big businesses, with a core cabinet of key advisers, multi-million dollar monthly budgets, thousands of paid and unpaid organizers spread out across the fifty states, and lots of data of how their approaches have worn and evolved over time. Here the data seems to suggest that the junior statesman, Obama, not only organizationally and operationally outflanked the more senior McCain, but the battle-hardened Clinton machine before that.
- How much do we tar McCain for the Bush years? This is a tough one since ideologically, McCain is clearly not a Bush clone. That said, it is hard not to conclude that he was a politically motivated Bush enabler from 2004 on when it seems clear that his desire to be his party’s anointed choice for president instigated a very pronounced shift away from Straight Talk Express and towards Bush lackey (the PBS documentary captures the specifics very well here). This goes back to the experience factor question; namely, McCain’s penchant for political expediency over principle, which seems reasonable to damn him for given his decision making process these past four years. What have you done for me lately, John?
- Does the tortured state of the economy and our financial markets meltdown make it all a moot point, such that it’s time to turn the page away from the party in power (i.e., vote for the dem candidate because he's not a republican)? History suggests that people vote with their pocketbooks, and their pocketbooks are in pain right now, meaning that McCain, barring a game changer, is a cooked goose. A note aside on this topic, a great article called, ‘The Real Great Depression’ argues that the depression of 1929 is the wrong model for thinking about the risks associated with the current economic crisis, arguing instead, that the Panic of 1873 is the better analog. Here is an excerpt: “If there are lessons from 1873, they are different from those of 1929. Most important, when banks fall on Wall Street, they stop all the traffic on Main Street — for a very long time. The protracted reconstruction of banks in the United States and Europe created widespread unemployment..The post-panic winners, even after the bailout, might be those firms — financial and otherwise — that have substantial cash reserves. A widespread consolidation of industries may be on the horizon, along with a nationalistic response of high tariff barriers, a decline in international trade, and scapegoating of immigrant competitors for scarce jobs.”
Netting it out: the choice that we will soon make for the next president is about whether details matter; whether accountability matters; whether hope and unity and vision matter; whether consistency, organizational execution and a culture of learning and growth matter; and whether i'ts time for our political system to be re-tuned for the 21st century. As noted above, this 2+ year campaign cycle has provided a fairly clear window into how each candidate will lead, and we do wise now to remember that what we sow is what we reap.
I am obviously biased on this one, as an Obama supporter, but I will leave you with a quote I recently read in an op-ed piece from Thomas Friedman called, ‘Why How Matters’:
“I have a friend who regularly reminds me that if you jump off the top of an 80-story building, for 79 stories you can actually think you’re flying. It’s the sudden stop at the end that always gets you. When I think of the financial-services boom, bubble and bust that America has just gone through, I often think about that image.”
For many of us, our life experience is limited to the first 79 floors so it is hard to make decisions with an eye to the painful splat that occurs when you hit bottom. My only guidance here is to pick the president with the clearest measuring stick, a healthy respect for data and deliberation, and coldly rational understanding of the laws of gravity.
UPDATE 1: The Washington Post endorses Obama as its choice for President. Here is an excerpt:
"Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment."
UPDATE 2: David Brooks of NYT assesses Barack Obama as President. Here is an excerpt:
"His instinct is to flee the revolutionary gesture in favor of the six-point plan. This was not evident back in the “fierce urgency of now” days, but it is now. And it is easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president. He would be untroubled by self-destructive demons or indiscipline. With that cool manner, he would see reality unfiltered. He could gather — already has gathered — some of the smartest minds in public policy, and, untroubled by intellectual insecurity, he could give them free rein. Though he is young, it is easy to imagine him at the cabinet table, leading a subtle discussion of some long-term problem."
- Obama and the Dems: Are they just wimps? On whether Obama is prepared to take off the gloves and go for the kill.
- Why Experience Matters: On Palin, Putin and Prudence.
- Rhetoric - Why it matters: Obama's acceptance speech and where free markets and government meet.
- Base motivations: The Matter of McCain v. Obama.
- The Politics of Fear and Division versus Unity and Hope: The underlying narratives in Obama v. McCain.