Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching— that’s the quadrennial cliché, as expected as the balloons and the bombast. And yet when has it ever felt so urgently true? When have so many Americans had so clear a sense that a Presidency has— at the levels of competence, vision, and integrity— undermined the country and its ideals?
The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages. The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction...
You're free to believe that, of course, but I don't. Not that the Bush's presidency has been the worst in 140 years, nor that the upcoming election is the most important in 80 years (that's Jan Assmann's definition of living memory in his seminal book Das kulturelle Gedaechtnis).
The issue was barely discussed in last month’s foreign policy debate. But in recent interviews with The New York Times, the two candidates made clear that they would confront the challenge in starkly different ways.
In the interviews, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain offered conflicting visions of how to shrink the American military presence in Iraq, the best way to encourage further political progress there and what it would mean to succeed after more than five years of war.
They also provided telling clues about how much flexibility the next commander in chief would grant to his generals...
Alas, I don't believe a word of that analysis, either. It's not that Gordon is out of touch with reality, as the editors of the New Yorker apparently may be. Rather, I don't see how anything the candidates have to say these days can be much of an indicator of what they'll do when they find themselves behind the desk where the buck stops. As a voter, I've been watching Israeli politicians for decades as they spend a lifetime saying whatever they say, with or without conviction, and then they do otherwise once they're prime minister. As an historian, I've been watching that happen for centuries, you could say. It's not that circumstances always force leaders into decisions irrespective of where they came from, but it's very often so; to a degree, it's almost always so. And some of the more obvious exceptions - Hitler is at the top of the list, but Lenin is on it also - are the kinds of leaders you'd rather not be living under.
So what's a chap to do? Unfortunately, it seems the best place to go these days is The Economist. If you want cool-headed and dispassionate analysis, that is. They offer large portions of it, most noticeably this week in a very long special report, here if you're reading online, in which case you need to keep on clicking at the end of each page, or here if you want to print it out and read off dead trees. They'll endorse a candidate on November 1st, and I get the feeling they'll endorse Obama, but I could be wrong. Their report is calm, balanced, nuanced, and informative. A-Mechaye, as they say in Yiddish.
Personally, I have decided to sit out this election. I always vote in Israeli elections, as a matter of principle, since it's my society and country. Although I'm a tax-paying American citizen, I don't live there, don't understand many of the issues, and won't pay the price for being wrong, so it seems a bit unethical to cast my vote in local or state-level ballots. Especially as I'm registered in California, where I've never ever lived. Presidential elections are different, however, especially the ones where foreign policy are central, so sometimes I do vote in them. But only when I feel strongly. This time I don't.
Why don't I, in spite of what the New Yorker tells me? First, because as I've said often enough, both McCain and Obama seem honorable men and worthy candidates. It's a choice between two good options.
Second, because of the Amotz Asael criteria. Asael, an Israeli journalist who went to school one year below me, he has suggested that from an Israeli perspective the single most important thing about an American president is that he (or she, someday) keep America powerful. And confident, I'd add. Does anyone know who'll do that better this time?
On the narrow "How would he relate to Israel" question, by the way, there's no discernable difference between the two, so far as I can see. On Iran, which is a crucial issue, I also can't see who will be better - we'll have to wait and see what happens when that buck comes to the Oval Office.
The economic issues I don't understand and rather doubt either of the candidates do, either. So it's a question of which of them will put together a better team of advisers, and then have the intelligence to overrule them. The only way to know that is by electing one of them and hoping.
Some of the cultural issues are beyond me and irrelevant to my life. Gun control, for example. The Swiss and Israelis both prove that you can have an armed populace with little violence, and the periodic rise and fall and rise of American crime doesn't seem much affected by the availability of guns, but I'd never vote for president based on such an issue, which has no connection to my life. I wouldn't vote because of same-sex marriages, either, even though I'm against them. I like the Israeli solution, which gives wide legal equality and freedom to homosexuals, and even recognizes partnerships for all sorts of purposes, but doesn't tamper with the institution of marriage, an institution which goes beyond the legal construct of two people living together.
Abortions are likewise not an issue I'd vote on, though I'm mostly against them but not always - which is the Jewish halachic position. Incest, rape, the real health of the mother (but not her "feelings"), these can all be reasons to abort what will otherwise become a living human being. Framing the issue as one of "choice", however, seems like a cop-out. It's a question of responsibility. If you don't want the responsibility for launching life, keep an aspirin pill between you knees, or whatever other system you prefer. Once it has happened, however, it has nothing to do with "a woman's control over her body", or her choices about what to do with it, since it's the child's life, not hers.
Anyway, the real issue is probably quite different anyway: who decides such matters, the (supreme) court, or the voters? I'm a staunch supporter of democracy, and don't think courts should decide such things. We've got this same question in the Israeli public discussion, with the same groups on each side: those who think they know the truth better than everybody but need the courts to decide because the voters just don't get it, versus those who want the polity to decide.
Yet before you write me off as a die hard Republican, I must add that when it comes to that other major issue in American politics, health insurance, I'm far to the left of them all. No matter what's going on with the economy right now, seen with historical perspective the United States is one of the richest societies in human history, perhaps the richest alongside Western Europe, which has been free of the costs of defending itself for decades because the Americans do it for them. There is no possible defense of the fact that millions of Americans don't have reasonable medical insurance. I don't care how it happened, who's to blame, or even which precise mechanism is chosen to rectify it, nor by which candidate or party. It has to be rectified. But I wouldn't vote on the issue because I don't understand the mechanics of fixing it, and anyway I mostly won't be paying for it nor using it. (Israel has a reasonably good universal health system).So since I vote on foreign affairs, and have the feeling but not the certainty McCain is a safer bet, why not do what I always do in Israel: focus my attention on all the available data until I can make a decision? Because Obama is black.
On October 16th 1901 - that's 107 years ago next week - President Theodore Roosevelt invited Dr. Booker T. Washington to join him for dinner at the White House. Washington was black, it was an unprecedented event, and Roosevelt drew so much public ire for his audacity that he never repeated it. More than 60 years later, President Lyndon Johnson, he who was hounded out of the White House because the Baby Boomers couldn't stomach his foreign war, was braver than Teddy Roosevelt, and did more than is reasonable to expect from a politician. Barack Obama needs to be qualified enough to do the job; the color of his skin isn't a reason to vote him into the most difficult job on earth. Since I'm not convinced he's qualified enough, I'm not going to vote for him. But then again, I'm not convinced he isn't qualified enough, and actually think that after a disastrous 18-24 months he may learn to do it well; add his race to that and I don't see how I could vote against him.
PS. There is one twist that could make Obama far the better choice. If, as I rather expect, his foreign policies will be closer to what I think they should be, and further from those the Guardian is so fervently praying for, this will have a salutary effect on the way the world operates. McCain can't do that, because he'll always have at least 45% of Americans and 80% of everyone else against his foreign policy.