When I was 16 years old I volunteered on election day for Gerald Ford, driving voters to the polls, and then going to the Republican “Victory” party at the downtown Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls, SD, where I stayed until almost 3:00 AM watching the returns. When it finally became clear that Carter had defeated Ford, I recall seeing a couple young women weeping, and those left in the room had a sense of depression. All that work for naught. I found myself more curious about the reaction than upset. Was losing an election really worth crying over? Why get so upset over something over which one has no control? How much does it really matter who won?
During Carter’s Presidency events outside the control of the President put the entire western world into recession. Governments in Great Britain, France, the US and Germany would change hands by 1982 due to the economy. If Ford had won that election, we likely would have had a Democrat, perhaps Ted Kennedy, win in 1980 instead of Ronald Reagan. That got me wondering about whether or not the real consequence of who wins might end up being very complex. Republicans, in retrospect, should be happy a Democrat was in power during the upheavals of the late 70s.
Similarly, if John Kerry had defeated George W. Bush in 2004, Iraq would have likely still moved towards civil war in 2006. However, the Republicans would then have been in a position to say “if we had kept Bush this wouldn’t have happened, look at Kerry’s mismanagment,” and now in 2008 the Democrats would be in trouble over Iraq and the economy. It would be the Republicans poised to win big! Should the Democrats then be more thankful than the Republicans that Kerry lost? Partisans might be tempted to say Ford could have avoided the late 70s mess, or Kerry would have successfully ended the Iraq war, but if you dig into the issues involved, it’s unlikely the President could have altered the way history was unfolding at those times.
As I watch McCain try to claim that Obama is weak because he’s willing to talk with the Iranians, I wonder if it might not be the case that, just as only Nixon could go to China, maybe only McCain can go to Iran without a domestic backlash. Similarly, if McCain starts slashing spending, he’ll find himself stopped by the Democrats in Congress. If the Democrats put together a big win, they might, faced with the reality of economic conditions, embrace spending cuts that one would expect from the GOP. Maybe only the Democrats can cut entitlements and other government programs.
As one delves into the political realities, the limits of Presidential power, and the nature of the crises before us, it gets extremely tempting to say it doesn’t matter who wins. However, I think it does — but with a caveat.
First, forget about the policy positions, promises, and debate stances. What politicians say in a campaign is based on focus groups, energizing their base, and appealling to various sub-populations. Once in office, especially given the current economic crisis, they’ll say “given the realities, we need to alter our priorities,” and within months the campaign promises will be a vague memory. So if you’re gathering up campaign information and going issue by issue to see who you think you agree with, you’re probably going to be disappointed. What they say in a campaign doesn’t matter much.
Second, ideology has only a minimal role to play. The social welfare system in the US grew the most under Nixon and Ford, and was cut the most under Clinton. Debt and federal spending grew more under Reagan and Bush the Younger, then under Johnson, Carter or Clinton. Carter actually started the arms build up that Reagan continued against the USSR; Reagan ended it early because he came to trust Gorbachev. Going back farther John F. Kennedy came to power saying Eisenhower had been soft on communism. JFK wanted to spread democracy and use American power in the world, Nixon and Ford brought realism back and wanted to talk with countries like the USSR and even the hated Mao Zedong in China. Presidential governance really can’t be predicted by considering the political party or ideology.
The good news in all of that is if your side loses, don’t fret. The other side probably won’t do the things you fear, and may even do what you’d prefer anyway. And years down the line you might look back and say you’re glad the ‘other party’ had to take responsibility for certain events.
Yet obviously, that isn’t always true. Few would doubt that Gore would have taken a more internationalist approach to Iraq and the post-9-11 world than President Bush. For some of us, this makes the Bush victory in 2000 something we profoundly regret. But even that is the exception that proves the rule. President Bush had eschewed ‘nation building,’ and called for a ‘humble’ foreign policy. If not for the unexpected terror attack and uncertainties afterwards, he may have had a very different (and perhaps even a successful) Presidency. It again shows that you can’t really judge by the campaign what kind of leader someone will be, you can’t know what events will shape a Presidency.
Therefore you have to vote for the person. Do you trust him or her? Do you think the person has the intelligence, temperment, judgment, and integrity for the job? You also have to look at the advisors. Does the person have good, competent, trustworthy advisors? Do they represent diverse views, are they political cronies, or true experts? Obviously, one can only take this so far. For me, I’ve often voted third party when neither major candidate could pass that test — or I may have thought one was indeed personally qualified, but their views and ideology were so different than mine that I simply could not in good conscious vote for him.
In this election, I think the choice is clearly Obama. McCain has seemed erratic, a bit of a ‘shoot from the hip’ guy. He suspended his campaign and vowed not to debate unless the bailout was agreed to, then changed his mind. He shifts plans about buying mortgages in a confusing way, and has seemed a bit out of touch. I don’t really trust him to be a good leader, I think he’s intellectually a bit lazy and too likely to take chances (his gambling history suggests as much as well). Obama is untested, and I do worry that he may be a better candidate than a President. The weird reaction on the right concerning stuff about Ayres or Reverend Wright doesn’t bother me. Guilt by association is lame, and in this case it’s clearly meant to try to create the impression Obama is “strange” (read: BLACK!) Obama does seem very intelligent, he works well with others of both parties, seems even tempered, and has outstanding advisors. One reason I ended up really hoping Gore would win in 2000 was that I thought the advisors around Bush were too dangerous. I liked Rice and Powell, but Wolfowitz, Cheney and others scared me. Those fears turned out to be well based. In all, I believe Obama can be trusted to show good judgment, something I personally don’t feel with McCain. That’s just my subjective call, I know others think very differently. But we vote on our personal views, not anything we have to prove or justify to others.
Yet, if McCain pulls it out, then fine. Life goes on. It does matter who wins, but it’s hard to know how or why it matters. Losing can be a blessing in disguise. So my advice to all the political junkies out there — take it easy this next month. It’s just an election, and we’ve had quite a few of those! And as serious as the stakes are, things will get along one way or another. Yes, it matters who wins. Yes, one should take ones’ vote seriously. But it’s really not worth getting upset or depressed about if your side loses.