23 June 2008

For Whom Should I Vote?

Recently, the Economist had a cover claiming that the primary process had, for the first time in years, given the U.S. two good candidates for the presidency. I agree. I like both McCain and Obama. I think they're both basically decent people whom I'd probably enjoy knowing (in contrast to Bush, Clinton, Kerry, and Gore, none of whom I'm pining to have dinner with).

But, as usual, I'm still uncertain how to vote because each candidate seems to me to have a fatal flaw.

Barack Obama has never really worked in the private sector. His experience is wholly in social service organizations and government, and I fear that he believes those institutions are the true source of most of what makes us better off. He seems to have no conception that the free market is the source of most of our well-being, including the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the computers on which we blog, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat. I worry that in an Obama presidency, the government will continue to assume more and more responsibility for our individual well-being. In addition, he has no experience in foreign affairs, which means Obama will almost certainly focus predominantly on domestic matters until foreign affairs force his attention--this has been the pattern for presidents who couple a dominant interest in domestic matters with a lack of foreign policy experience, from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. Why is it so hard for candidates and the public (and the media, but I never expect anything useful from that source) to recognize that the Constitution makes the President almost solely responsible for foreign affairs, and Congress primarily responsible for domestic affairs? If Obama were to face a Republican Congress I would be less concerned, because the partisan opposition would keep him in check domestically. But givent the pent-up frustration of Democrats (from their failure to accomplish social goals under Clinton to the 8 years of regulatory rollback under Bush) and their likely gains in Congress this year, I worry about a return of Johnson's "Great Society" programs, nearly all of which were costly and dismal failures, and a rollback of the Carter/Reagan economic deregulation which helped lead to the strong economic growth of the past three decades.

John McCain has the foreign policy experience I like, and for the most part I don't care too much where he stands on domestic policy matters. For example, I'm pro-choice and he's not. But even though I know I have unrealistically high standards for presidential candidates, I'm willing to trade off those issues for a candidate with good foreign policy credentials, especially since McCain isn't a fanatic about those issues. (The fact that the religious right despises him is good enough for me.) But what I can't accept is wholesale disdain for the Bill of Rights, and McCain doesn't seem to share my (fanatical) support for the ideals embodied therein. I only on occasion find myself in agreement with Justice Scalia, but I fully agreed with his dissent in McConnell v. FEC, in which the Supreme Court upheld McCain's First Amendment gutting campaign finance law:

Who could have imagined that the same Court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon such inconsequential forms of expression as virtual child pornography,...tobacco advertising, [etc], would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government.

And this week he has attacked the Supreme Court for ruling that the Guantanomo Bay detainees have the right to habeus corpus. The ruling does not mean they get to go free, it simply means that they have the right to demand their day in court--and even then it will be up to the courts to determine if their demand will be fulfilled. The Bush administration has employed the authoritarian tactic of putting people outside the reach of the law, a vicious attack on our Constitution and the ideals embodied in it, and has been repeatedly, and correctly, rebuffed by the Suprme Court. But McCain finds the rule of law distasteful--an odd position for someone who was a prisoner of war--and I have a hard time voting for someone who doesn't stand up for the rule of law as our supreme political ideal.

I would have no problem voting for Obama because he's black. I think breaking the color barrier is a good enough reason to vote, assuming the person is otherwise qualified, and based on the qualifications standard set by some of our recent presidents, it would be wholly disingenous to argue that he's not qualified enough. But our experience with presidents inexperienced in foreign policy makes me shudder at the thought of yet another one. And yet McCain, so qualified in so many other ways, has such a cavalier attitude toward the Bill of Rights--much like our last two presidents--that I'm not sure the country can afford him. Our devotion to the Constitution is hanging by a thread these days, and I'm not sure how many precedents of presidential abuse we can suffer before it simply becomes the accepted norm.


James K said...

I can see your dilemma, I don't know who I'd vote for either. I was leaning toward Obama, but now his cumulated utterances on economic matters have offended me to the point where I doubt I could vote for him. McCain is a free trader, which is important to me, but congress won't let him have his way on trade matters anyway. And I find his attitude to military action troublesome (I supported the Iraq war, but I now recognise this was stupid on my part).

I do have one reason to want Obama to win though. A couple of people at work have suggested that Americans are simply to racist to vote for a black president. It would bring me no small amount of pleasure to see them proven wrong.

James Hanley said...

Congress may not let McCain have his way, but the U.S. already has ratified the WTO and NAFTA, so if we didn't progress with free trade, we at least wouldn't retreat. Given the sour economic climate right now, Democrats traditional opposition to free trade, and Obama's clear lack of understanding on this issue, I worry that with unified party control we may actually go backward.

As to Americans being too racist to vote for a black president, I think we're about to prove your friends wrong, and the fact that he trounced the white candidates in his party is a pretty satisfactory counterargument to me.

And if I wanted to be nasty, I'd ask them how many Maori PMs New Zealand has had.

James K said...

That would be a good riposte (I have no problem with nasty), except we have a weird quota system in our parliament that ensures a minimum Maori representation. Plus Winston peters, arguably the second most powerful (and most obnoxious) person in parliament is Maori.

It really is remarkable how much bigotry I see directed at Americans on a regular basis. I always get a little warm feeling at the thought of such bigotry being deflated.