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Why I am a Swing Voter

September 9, 2008

The Democratic and Republican National Conventions which ended last week were strikingly similar.  Both featured pomp and distortion, with tributes to the heroic lives of their nominees and relentless attacks on their opponents.  Both extolled the simple wisdom of the American people, whom they reminded us this election is all about. 

Yet, in spite of my eyes welling up, my heart strings being strummed, and my occasional yelps of “Yeah!” following a really clever put-down, I remain a staunch swing voter, undecided and unenthused.  I see a long list of people arguably more qualified to be president than the nominees (go to the end of this piece for that list). 

Feel free to convince me via email of the merits of your candidate, but allow me first to tell you with what lens I view this decision, what organizing principles I bring to the task. 

            Many people I talk to have their checklist of policies.  For them, it’s not about the person; it’s about the policies.  My friends who lean left (who are most of my friends) check off the following: supports reproductive choice, gun control, a fairer tax code, activist social policies, more diplomacy and less unilateralism.  I agree with much of this checklist. 

However, I look at this decision through a lens that ruthlessly prioritizes this checklist as well as a candidate’s qualifications.  I acquired this lens through my reading of history, which suggests two organizing principles.  First, human history has been dominated by war, oppression and poverty; and America’s brief influence in the world, as well as the influence of Western civilization more broadly, has helped alleviate these ills.  So, I ask myself which candidate, which party, and which set of policies will do the most to advance American power and the success of the West and its institutions, including through the anchoring of China and Russia in these institutions.

Second organizing principle: at certain points in history, critical issues, key historical fault lines if you will, emerge which determine the future course of the planet.  In the 19th century it was the industrial revolution and world trade.  Great Britain blazed a trail toward a nearly hundred-year dominance of the globe.  Those nations that chose not to reform their societies were left behind. 

Today’s fault line is a “green” one.  Nations must begin to find green solutions to the world’s problems.  We have to alleviate poverty and provide prosperity for the world’s 6.7 billion people, but we must do so in a way that halts the rapid depletion of our resources and destruction of our environment.  America is among the most guilty of creating this mess.  It is America’s not-so-rugged, but rather, comfort-loving individualism that is at fault; it is the American Dream writ large that threatens the planet.  2.3 billion Chinese and Indians wish to mimic our culture of gas guzzling, smoke stacks, disposable paper-or-plastic, air-conditioning and heating of large homes with lawns in the suburbs and skyscrapers in the cities.     

Yet ironically, America is the best poised to lead the new “green” revolution.  As demonstrated by the Obama campaign itself, America has an intrinsic capacity to reinvent itself, short of bloody wars and revolutions, in a way that less flexible, less dynamic societies cannot.  We must re-engineer our economy without destroying the prosperity market capitalism provides.  Ultimately, the development of green technology will spur economic growth itself.

This re-engineering is a major challenge.  Human ingenuity has risen to such challenges before.  Al Gore has taken a lead in this effort.  Along with his broad experience in government, this makes Gore probably the most qualified person today to lead this country.  Alas, it is not to be. 

How about the two nominees?  How do they stack up along these two organizing principles?  I won’t analyze this exhaustively in this note, as I myself will be studying this question in the coming weeks.   

Ideology aside, John McCain is eminently more qualified to be president than Barack Obama.  Sorry, liberal friends, but I don’t buy your argument that, for the highest office in the land, basic job qualifications can be waved for the right ideology and good advisers.  Democrats, stop nominating flawed candidates!

On the other hand, John McCain’s personality and positions can be a bit scary…he reacted impetuously and incorrectly this summer to the challenge from Russia.   He is old, rough and crude.  One wonders how diplomatic he can be.  He won’t do much to address America’s widening wealth gap.  His grasp of economics is not deep.  His choice of Sarah Palin, while perhaps brilliant from a political standpoint (it will bring out the Republican base in Rovian fashion), was unsound.  On the other hand, McCain is experienced in government, overflowing with character and strength, and (unlike Obama) has reached across the aisle to do deals on immigration, campaign finance, and court nominations.  Finally, for a Republican, McCain has a pretty good record on the environment, though now, with his running mate in tow, he is backing offshore oil drilling.   

As for Barack Obama, he would represent a new day for America.  If he is elected, this would be the final nail in the coffin of an historic injustice, the stain of slavery and Jim Crow.  Don’t underestimate how this would advance the cause of America in the world.  In Barack Obama, you would have a vigorous, talented, charismatic, inspiring young president in the mold of JFK.  Be careful though.  We venerate JFK because he was assassinated.  He inspired us with his words, it is true, but he was pushed around when he took office, bullied by the defense establishment (remember the Bay of Pigs), by conservatives in Congress, and most disturbingly, by the Soviets.  JFK caused then solved the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Krushchev would never have placed offensive missiles in Cuba under Eisenhower and perhaps not under Nixon.  The biggest risk of an Obama presidency is that he will be perceived as weak, as JFK initially was, and as Jimmy Carter eventually was. 

Barack Obama’s brief record in government is rather left-wing, and he has boxed himself in with a stance against free trade and a commitment to an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, both of which would have negative repercussions for American power and the success of the West.  Hopefully, Bob Rubin and his ilk could rescue Obama’s economic policy.  Obama’s association with Pastor Wright, which everyone glosses over, still deeply disturbs me.  Wright called Zionism a form of white racism.  Barack stayed too long in that church, got too close to that pastor.  This speaks to the issue of character.

On the environment, Barack Obama has been no leader and has actively backed ethanol producers, increasing carbon emissions and intensive farming. Likewise he has been in bed financially with one of the largest nuclear power providers in the country.  As a Democrat, he may be more inclined toward environmentalism than his opponent.  Yet the Democrats remain close to Labor, not noted for environmentalism, and they have gone too far in demonizing corporate America.  Green solutions will come from these dastardly corporations, prodded, it is true, by government.  Public policy must seek to put the costs of pollution and resource depletion onto the corporate Profit and Loss Statement, and then we’ll be in the business of getting green. 

So, I will be studying this election through this lens – the lens that asks two questions: Who will enhance American power?  Who will do the most to re-engineer the global economy along green lines?  The jury is still out for me.  And you?    

Feel free to send this around…



List of people more qualified to be president than the nominees (the first four being my favorites):  Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Jon Corzine, Steny Hoyer, Joe Lieberman, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, Michael Bloomberg, Chuck Hagel, Evan Bayh, Susan Collins, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Russ Feingold, John Boehner, and Carl Levin. 

List of people who outshine the V.P. nominees, Joe “I got C’s at Syracuse Law School but still sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee and flash a really white smile” Biden and Sarah “Not sure Darwin was right” Palin:  Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, Norm Coleman, Olympia Snowe, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar, Elizabeth Dole, John Warner, Jim Webb, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Charles Crist, and David Petraeus.