Torn Between Obama and McCain

Torn Between Obama and McCain

By Dane Stangler - October 18, 2008

I suspect that there are many voters like me, in this city and around the country, wavering in their choice for president. This doesn't necessarily mean we fit the caricature of the "undecided voter" often derided as either lazy or unthinking. It means instead that we find the entire campaign--the debates, the commercials, the press coverage--counterproductive to making a decision.

After nearly two years of ceaseless campaigning, how can this be? Surely we all have relatively clear pictures of the type of president Senators Barack Obama and John McCain will make?

There is, however, an almost mind-bending surreality to the substance of the campaign. As parts of the economy appear to melt down around us, the candidates debate the finer points of their tax proposals, the merits and demerits of Roe v. Wade, and whether or not Joe the Plumber will have access to health insurance under their administration.

In all likelihood, very few of the policy proposals that Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain now proffer will ever make it out of a Congressional hearing room. And while the appointment of Supreme Court justices is undoubtedly important, the emphasis placed on abortion obscures the reasons why. As a matter of jurisprudence, Roe v. Wade was a terribly constructed decision, yet I find it hard to believe that it will ever be overturned simply because of the politics now surrounding it. There are more pressing issues the Court will consider--free speech, the regulatory reach of Congress--that don't easily fit into old categories of "strict" or "loose" constructionist.

The tired rituals of politics continue to force public discourse into such anachronistic boxes, and neither candidate is immune. After his defeat in the 2000 Republican primaries, Senator McCain learned how to put his "maverick" reputation (an odd label for anyone examining the totality of his voting record) to good political use. Senator Obama, notwithstanding "post-partisan" language (a claim belied by his actual behavior in the Senate), seems not to depart very far from standard Democratic policies.

Here we come to what I think is the crux of the difficulty that I and others like me have in deciding how to vote: this election has become a referendum on Barack Obama. He's the new candidate on the block, the one wowing millions of new voters and voting blocs, declaring an end to Vietnam-era fights. Many, however, are quite torn when it comes to a President Obama.

I fall smack dab into Senator Obama's target demographic: white professionals under age 40. (If you, too, fall into this category, then I regret to inform you that you are not part of a generational revolution, but a cog in a political campaign.) What are the reasons Senator Obama has offered for us to give him our vote?

As a matter of policy, I have great philosophical disagreements with Senator Obama. I and many other Americans do not think the tax code is or should be a vehicle for pursuing fairness. On health care, I tend to stand with Senator McCain in thinking that we may finally need to sever the link between health insurance and employment. McCain has consistently supported free trade, and while I can't believe that a man as intelligent as Obama would disbelieve the benefits of free trade, he has continuously made protectionist noise during the campaign.

But because of fiscal constraint and political reality, it is unlikely that either candidate will enjoy free rein to put his favored policies in place. So where should we look in evaluating what type of president Obama will be? One of his most frequently cited attractions is "hope" - a broad, vaguely defined notion suggesting that he will usher in a renewed era of American history. This strains credulity and I have to think that plenty of voters around the country are similarly skeptical.

There are two main problems with "hope" as an electoral justification. First, it seems to imply that we as a country are so desperate that we can only hope Obama can save us from collapse. This indicates not hope in Obama, but an astonishing lack of hope in ourselves, something no president can remedy.

Second, many voters in my cohort see Obama more as a symbol of hope: whether because of his mixed-race heritage, his age, or his rhetoric. This is a comforting illusion, and probably among the worst reasons to vote for someone. Have we reached the point in American politics at which symbolism has become an explicit voting reason? Politics is politics is politics--always and forever. Anyone who doubts that Obama is a standard politician--albeit a very good one--should read Ryan Lizza's portrait of Obama's years as a Chicago politician in the July 21 New Yorker.

But this cuts both ways. Maybe the fact that Obama is a good politician is a good reason to vote for him. Many of you will protest: surely you wouldn't be so cynical as to cast your vote for a politician who actually held himself out as one? Not so fast. Having talent in politics means you have smarts--both street and book--and are likely intuitive about other people's thoughts and feelings. It probably also means you will shed stubbornness to get something done, and that you won't be afraid to stand up for a principle, even symbolically, when the time comes.

Whether those are enough reasons to vote for Obama remains in question. It certainly appears preferable to have someone in office who has proven to be a shrewd thinker. And what of McCain? He wouldn't be here running for president if he wasn't a practiced politician with good judgment developed over the years. But doubts about Obama don't automatically move me to McCain's camp, even if I agree more with his policy positions. Obama's past associations--Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Acorn--even if purely political, give me pause. But I and others remain absolutely mystified by McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

If Obama's "hope" campaign represents the degeneration of American politics into pure symbolism, then Palin's place on the ticket, as David Brooks has persuasively argued, represents the final refutation of anything resembling intellectually-informed politics. It's sad that the modern Republican Party has devolved from its 1950s intellectual roots to a rejection of those roots today. Even sadder is the fact that the intellectual bankruptcy of one party usually augurs a similar fate for the other (and Nancy Pelosi's stewardship of House Democrats shows that this has already begun to happen).

So who will I and the other Americans like me vote for? I'm not sure: I can only say that the choice will likely have little to do with specific tax proposals or subsidy programs, and much more to do with the ways in which we see ourselves as citizens and voters.

Dane Stangler works at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Foundation.

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