|2,566 Words About Why I Would Probably Vote for Barack Obama, or Call Me "Maybe"
||[Oct. 25th, 2012|05:28 pm]
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”|
It took me a little while to warm up to it, but I finally like Twitter, strictly as a joke- and link-delivery system. I don’t think it works as well for other purposes – as a medium for dialogue, as public memoir, as a tableau for philosophical argument – because there just isn’t enough room. Not enough room for nuance, or caveat, or even pauses to let things sink in.
And when time and space are at a premium, people are forced to assert things confidently, without equivocation. They appear certain. And nothing drives me more furiously crazy than rhetorical certainty.
Faith is one thing; faith is not a substitute for reason but I still admire the faithful. I pity the certain, because one must be awfully stupid to think themselves that smart. No one is that smart.
When people who don’t live and work in Washington, DC, learn that I live and work in Washington, DC, they invariably ask me about politics. I suppose this is natural. If I met an Italian, I would ask him or her about Italy; if I met Justin Bieber, I would ask him about shitty music.
And I can speak competently about the general mood within the corridors of power here, and in some cases the assumptions underlying that mood. For a city with so many secrets, there sure are a lot of people talking. You can’t help but be at least a little bit of an expert. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Washington is the only place in the universe where sound travels faster than light.”
But when people ask me what I think of the presidential election, I’m always at a loss for what to say, for two reasons:
First, on a short-term, practical level, I don’t think it makes much difference who wins. For better or worse, I don’t expect very much to change, because Obama and Romney are more alike than they are different. While grand pronouncements and bedrock principles are ostensibly what get a president elected, I think both of these guys are closet pragmatists. It’s the most apt description of Obama’s approach to domestic and foreign policy, in which he has repeatedly sought (if not necessarily found) consensus. It also explains why Romney appears to vacillate between conservative firebrand and avuncular moderate.
Even if there were stark differences between the two men, I’m not sure it would matter, because the presidency just isn’t that big a deal. The bully pulpit has devolved into a bulls-eye. As Michael Lewis writes in a remarkable Vanity Fair piece on Obama:
He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said.
It’s really rather remarkable that we’ve gone so quickly from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who assiduously worked to expand the reach and power of the executive office, to Barack Obama, who seems to have abdicated most of it. And I can’t figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, or if it was intentional or inadvertent, or if he had any agency in it at all or whether it was starved by obstructionist opposition.
There are really only three things over which the President has any control, anymore. But I’ll get to those later. The point is that no matter who wins, we’re probably screwed/OK (depending on your point of view) either way.
Second, on a grand-design, philosophical level, all political campaigns are pretty much bullshit.
I look at elections the way my wife must look at professional football – a noisy ruckus, enamored with its own esoteric complexity and arcane rules, populated by an endless hierarchy of coaches, coordinators, cross-checkers, specialists, statisticians, Davids, Goliaths and glamor-boys. It’s a closed society, with its own language and traditions, and famously nepotistic. There is a dedicated media-entertainment complex built around it, with the seemingly contradictory mission of building mythology while exposing hypocrisy. Fanatic true-believer nutjobs abound, with vulgar invective and sudden violence a persistent threat. Issues of race, drugs, crime and health care occasionally flare up and threaten to overwhelm the game itself. Economic inequality seems to be a constant problem, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there is such a shitload of money at stake – such that if it were its own company it would be one of the largest in the world. And yet it does nothing, produces nothing but winners and losers, year after year, before wiping the slate clean and immediately starting all over again.
At the center of all that, there must be something noble and pure, perhaps even inspiring. But I’ll be damned if I can see it anymore.
I happen to enjoy watching professional football very much. But I have the luxury of knowing that the NFL is a transparently upfront transaction: my money and attention in exchange for action and entertainment. The NFL wants as many viewers as possible. Political campaigns, however, only need so many votes and are free to disregard the margin. Why would they bother giving me anything?
So I’m not sure if I’ll vote at all in the 2012 election. Given the statistical insignificance of my individual presidential vote, it seemed like a relatively pointless exercise even when there was another actual state or local lawmaker on the ballot.
I’m going to have to paraphrase an excerpt from A. Whitney Brown’s The Big Picture: An American Commentary, because I can’t find it online anywhere and I long ago lent my copy to my 11th grade American History teacher (Mr. White), who never gave it back. Anyway:
It used to be that the United States was up to its frilly collar in quality presidential candidates. You could go to the ballot box, check one name or the other, and you knew you’d be okay for the next four years. Then, sometime around the time of John Quincy Adams, it came to be a distinct choice between the better of two options. Soon voters were voting for the guy they disliked the least. Eventually voters began voting against the guy they disliked the most.
It’s easy to posit that the forests of presidential timber have been barren for a while now. But I think it’s easier to lay blame at the feet of a political system that has cravenly synthesized candidates and commoditized voters. “Political science” has always been a misnomer, because – as I described before – politics isn’t a science, it’s a bloodsport.
At best, politics is an exercise in the Heisenberg Uncertainty (there’s that word again) Principle, which states that any experiment is spoiled by your participation in it. Which brings me back to voting.
As a resident of the District of Columbia, I pay federal income tax. But my elected representatives are denied voting rights in Congress. If my opinion as a taxpaying citizen is to be heard on a federal matter of interest – a bill, or law, or a regulation, or a statement of administration policy – the most effective strategy would literally be for me to shout it from my balcony.
That’s a problem. Obviously there is a basic constitutional roadblock to the remediation of the issue – D.C. is not a state. Many strategies have been proposed, from D.C. statehood to retrocession of the district by Maryland. Others have suggested the contrapositive approach of exempting D.C. residents from federal income tax. I confess that I don’t really grasp the specific practical or constitutional challenges presented by each proposal. I don’t really have a preference between any of these approaches and I have little confidence that anyone will ever do anything about it. There is too much investment in the status quo.
But the Democrats get my support on this matter if only because I believe their self-interest – the D.C. delegation, if it ever existed, would constitute a reliably Democratic voting bloc – is parallel with my own desire for congressional representation. Of course, even then – given the district’s political history – it would probably come down to a choice between entrenched corrupt Democrats, which would make me cynical about voting all over again.
But if I was voting this year, I think I would probably vote for President Obama. My reasons are noticeably less lofty than they were four years ago:
As I mentioned above, there are really only a few things that a president can really control anymore. One of them is foreign policy, where I think Obama has acquitted himself appropriately, if imperfectly. It worries me that Romney emulates George W. Bush’s “Buckaroo Diplomacy.” I’m not a geopolitical expert but I’m pretty sure that the reality in Asia and the Middle East is incredibly complicated, even more than you or I could possibly know, and the way to quell that sort of brinksmanship is not to go over there and start slapping people with your dick.
Another thing the president can control is the judicial nomination process, particularly for the Supreme Court. People like to chirp a lot about judicial activism and judicial restraint, but it seems to me that the real danger is the intrusion of policy preferences and party orthodoxy into jurisprudence – for the Democratic and the Republican appointees. Given the rapid desiccation of left-leaning Justices Ginsburg (age 79), Breyer (76) and Kennedy (74), it seems preferable to maintain ideological balance on the court. (Justice Scalia, at 76, is in no danger of exiting the court, as vampires have been known to live for many centuries.)
And the other thing the president can control is his cabinet and executive branch agencies. If there’s a failing grade on his report card, this is where I would mark it. His attorney general and secretary of energy have stumbled embarrassingly, and his secretaries of labor and HHS haven’t always acquitted themselves gracefully, either. While the Obama Administration’s legislative strategy has been largely conciliatory, its regulatory attitude (with the notable exception of Treasury/IRS) has been openly hostile toward the regulated. A second term probably won’t be any better. But a Romney Administration could well swerve sharply toward deregulation, which might be just as bad.
If, however, we continue with the premise that the presidents are, individually, largely ineffectual, we have to consider the partnerships they forge. Inevitably, at least to some extent, every moderate is held hostage by the radical elements of their own party. I have no more love for the far-left fundamentalist wackos than I do for the far-right fundamentalist wackos – I blame both for totally screwing up the health care bill, not to mention immigration reform, the stimulus bill, etc.
But ultimately, if the president is going to be hamstrung by the extreme wing of his own party, it might as well be the extremists who care about people, rather than the ones who don’t believe in evolution.*
*Then again, if I spent any significant amount of time listening to Ann Coulter, I might come to doubt evolution, myself.
And finally we have to consider what each person’s election would represent. The image of Barack Obama as a transformative, post-racial, post-partisan political figure no longer exists, of course. That “high road” has been obliterated. So I look for other messages my vote could communicate.
A strong argument could be made for electing Mitt Romney as a way of holding Obama – and all lawmakers, by extension – to higher standards of responsibility and accountability, as if to say “you have to do better.” I mean, things are rough out there. Really rough. I'm not blind to that; Mitt's right, sometimes you have to fire people. But this message really only resonates if you oust all the incumbents, and for some reason that ain't happening.
But I think the better way to make that statement is to make clear to Republicans that attack and obstruction is not an advisable strategy for scoring political points, just as the 2004 presidential election chastened congressional Democrats and created an atmosphere more conducive to cooperation. Whereas a vote for Romney would be the equivalent of buying ice cream for a pouting child, a vote for Obama could be the broccoli they need to eat if they are go grow healthy and strong.
Biden is Laffy Taffy.
Mostly though, I just get the impression of Obama as a man who isn’t “certain.” You can knock him for that, if you want. Maybe you find something more reassuring about a president who is sure he’s right. Not me. I need a guy who considers all the possibilities. Who appreciates dissent. Who knows how smart he is, and isn’t.
I think Romney is an OK guy. I’ll let his words speak for him here:
“Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.”
There has been a demonization, of late, of the Undecided Voter, as if it’s a terrible thing to take every single word into consideration before making a choice. I realize this sort of contradicts my earlier argument that all campaigns are bullshit – “what’s the point in waiting for more information if campaigns distribute nothing but hogwash,” you may ask – but my point is that no one should be under any public obligation to make up their minds early. Besides, you never know when a candidate is going to screw up and accidentally say something honest.
People especially hate the “low-information” undecided voters, the ones who probably work hard all day at thankless jobs and don’t want to spend their precious leisure time watching two exquisitely coached men try to come up with creative and thoughtful new ways to call the other guy an asshole. I can’t really blame them for eschewing the news, which has its own depressing institutional defects, in favor of something less “real,” like the Kardashians.
I would vote for Obama, if I were voting. But I can admit that I’m not certain about it. I have friends and family, very smart people, whom I admire and respect – and who may be reading this – who I know support Mitt Romney. I know they have good reasons. This makes me nervous.
I have other friends and family who love their country and mean well – and who may be reading this – who despise Obama (and his policies, but mostly the man himself) so stridently and venomously, so reflexively and with such uncompromising conviction, that I feel compelled to retrench in opposition to their visceral hatred.
And I have other friends and family, whose compassion and patriotism are beyond reproach – and who may be reading this – who support Obama with such cock-eyed fervor and certitude that I kind of wish they didn’t agree with me. And I start to second-guess myself all over again.
Democracy is hard, man.
So you can call me undecided, but I prefer “uncertain.” #Obama2012