Archive for September 6th, 2008
I hate the fact that my blogs have gotten overwhelmingly about American electoral politics lately, since I aim to write about world affairs, culture, philosophy, science, and my own spiritual reflections. But the blogs go where my mind is at the time, and with the political conventions and a really interesting race — one that reflects cultural change as well as the political issues of the day — lately I’ve been drawn to writing about it.
Time to step back. It’s really easy to get drawn into the partisanship, to get angry with one side, enthralled with another side, and give in to the emotion of a political campaign. Elections are won more on emotion than on intellectual analysis, and in a year like this where the public wants change, things are in a bit of turmoil.
One thing I’m struck by as the conventions end is the parallels between Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Obama was born in 1961, Palin in 1964. Both are extremely attractive, articulate, and non-traditional. Both lack experience, yet voters forgive that, because in a climate where change is desired, both offer something new. Experience is not a biggie for a Presidential election anyway, witness the elections of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Both Obama and Palin can be viewed through partisan lenses as just more of the same dressed up in a new package. To the right, Obama is a ‘tax and spend’ liberal who wants more big government and is naive about foreign policy. To the left, Palin is an out of touch conservative who talks good on fiscal discipline but doesn’t deliver, is anti-choice, and has radical and dangerous social conservative views. All the war talk at the GOP convention, which given my own background in studying German politics and history was something I found very disconcerting, fits in to the narrative of the GOP as the party willing to go to war in places far away, unnecessary for American security.
Yet those partisan perspectives, while certainly justifiable, don’t capture everything. Obama is a pragmatist, and shows a willingness to engage in a different kind of politics, something even his style of campaigning demonstrates. Palin fought corruption and is critized by the Alaska GOP for working too much with Democrats, and taxing oil companies too heavily. Both politicians are somewhat of an enigma. They can look like the old partisan image one party has of the other, but that’s in part because they have no choice — that’s the party and the game they’re now a part of. Can they each break out of it and redefine politics for the future? Are Palin and Obama similar agents of change, a foreshadowing of the next generation of political competition?
Palin comes off like an attack dog, while Obama seems above the fray. Biden comes off like an attack dog, while McCain seems above the fray. That may be less due to the individuals, but to the role they are playing — the Vice President is meant to go on the attack, and each VP candidate seems adept at doing so. Palin and Obama are also more about the image and the narrative than the substance. In “The Selling of the President” I noted that Obama’s marketing campaign was impressive, as he built a narrative and an operation around a candidate without much experience. This led Jonah Goldberg to label him the first “post-modern” candidate, though one could argue Ronald Reagan had a similar sort of appeal 28 years ago.
Palin is similarly ‘post-modern.’ No one can argue that her experience as a mayor (who got her town pretty severely in debt) and a few years as Governor of Alaska give her much experience or a track record. Indeed, it’s less than Obama’s. But arguing about the experience of Obama vs. that of Palin is a fool’s task, since really they both are similarly inexperienced. And arguing that one will be VP and the other President is also misguided, since a Vice President could be called on to lead at any point. Both are there because of their narrative, and the way they can energize a new generation of voters and create a sense of change.
That is probably good. Given how screwed up Washington has become because of the experienced politicians over the past thirty years or so, I frankly desire inexperience. In that light, better Barack than Hillary, better Sarah than Kay Bailey. Both McCain and Biden have narratives that put them a bit outside the mainstream of Washington politics, while still knowing and understanding the ropes. Both tickets then are similarly balanced. Despite the differences, there is a symmetry in this race which is compelling.
At this point, it appears still that the race is Obama’s to lose. He has the money, he has the ground game, and he is far ahead of the Republicans in using the new media to organize. I am on the e-mail lists of both the McCain and Obama campaigns and, well, to put it bluntly, there is no comparison. Obama’s team knows marketing, and since most of those who get their e-mails are predisposed to like the product candidate already, it means they can get $10 million on a night when Obama is attacked. The McCain e-mails are shrilly partisan, and obviously meant to inspire true Republicans to donate, and not to reach out and attract new voters. The GOP will learn, and their next product candidate will certainly emulate the Obama campaign.
But while this talk of products, marketing, and selling of candidates is a bit cynical and disconcerting, I can’t help but remain relatively optimistic. McCain-Palin vs. Obama-Biden is a good election choice. These two tickets are both amongst the best possible for each party this year. They may be marketing, but it appears at this point that they are marketing quality products. You just have to choose between the Mac and the PC (this year Obama represents the Mac, McCain the PC). That sounds glib, but it’s also a bit comforting. Because, after all, as both McCain and Obama have stated, despite the emotional differences on some divisive issues, they have a lot more in common than they have differences — and that’s true for the partisans in Denver and St. Paul, even though many would be loathe to admit it.