Saturday, October 11, 2008

No sale for Obama...yet.

After watching the presidential “debate” on Tuesday last, three things became glaringly apparent. First is that Senator Obama is a better speaker than Senator McCain. But we already knew that. Second, Senator McCain knows little about how one makes an effective attack against a political opponent. He left opportunity after opportunity on the board, and on those occasions when he went after Sen. Obama, the attacks were clearly scripted and had no follow up prepared. And, third, the national media is in the tank for Sen. Obama. Period.

And yet? Given all of that, as well as an election year that has been trending Democratic since 2006, presidential approval ratings that rival Nixon’s at the depths of Watergate, the worst financial meltdown since the mid 1930s, and virtually unlimited ability to raise and spend tens of millions of dollars, Senator Obama is: 1) still under 50% in ANY poll; 2) only two to nine percentage points ahead, depending on the poll; 3) still a month from the election against a candidate with a criminally dreadful political organization; and 4) clearly not finalizing the sale.

Why? On CNN that same night, David Gergen posited that the polls might be anywhere in the neighborhood of six percent inaccurate due to Senator Obama’s race. He speculated that while many people are attracted to the candidate and his manifest abilities and say so openly to pollsters and the like, when push comes to shove in the voting booth, they will decide against him for no other reason than pigmentation. Of course, this does not take into account the numbers of people who are planning to vote for him in large part because of his race…and what it says about the wonderfulness of those voters. No less than his running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, commented early on in the campaign to the New York Observer about Sen. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” But not a word…until he was chosen as a running mate…that there might be some substance to the story.

People compare Senator Obama with JFK, noting the shared youth, the theme of generational change, and the manifest ability to give speeches rife with eloquent and elegant language. But that analogy can be taken entirely too far. At a similar age, Jack Kennedy had commanded a PT boat in the Pacific Theatre in WWII with manifest heroism; had won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage; had served six years in the US House of Representatives and seven years in the United States Senate; and had been under serious consideration by Adlai Stevenson and the 1956 Democratic National Convention as a vice-presidential candidate. In the immortal words of Senator Lloyd Bentsen to the hapless Dan Quayle in their vice-presidential debate in 1988, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

Then, too, Kennedy’s opponent in the 1960 election, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, was a far more focused, resolute, and able politician than Senator McCain has any dreams of being. Nixon was equally knowledgeable on either domestic issues or foreign policy, and was a capable debater. He was no pushover, and fundamentally was out to WIN…and very nearly pulled it off.

So there has been no sale yet. Both of these gentlemen are flawed candidates with flawed records and spotty accomplishments over the years. Senator McCain obviously has a more heroic biography, but what that says about his ability to lead as president is debatable. Similarly, Senator Obama has shown that he is a gifted politician, but whether he is sufficiently pragmatic to set aside his liberal predilections and look for reasonable solutions and compromises in the future is debatable as well.

The truly interesting thing about this election is that the only individual on either ticket with actual executive experience is Governor Palin (who the press has been working overtime to marginalize), while the person best qualified in terms of experience and breadth of knowledge is Senator Biden. As conservative as I am, I would be far more comfortable with Joe Biden in the Oval Office than either Barack Obama or the man whom John McCain has become. Is Biden liberal? Absolutely. Unabashedly. But he is also funny, smart, engaging, and definitely not a programmed candidate. He is always interesting to listen to on questions of policy, because even when I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions, I can always trace the thought trail that led to them. His personal story is extraordinary, and there is something to be said for a man who has not gotten rich in the service of his country.

But he ain’t running for the top job; the other two are. And I suspect that a fair amount of the country is going to wait this one out and decide very, very late. Possibly, they will make up their minds in the voting booth. And maybe they will go “Eenie, meeney, miney…” and vote for “Moe.”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Another Lion of the Senate

Here is a “for the record” disclaimer: I doubt that you could find many points of agreement with my politics and those of Senator Edward Kennedy, but I know of one point that is huge and telling. His record shows that he understands the difference between ideological purity on the one hand and the necessity of finding common ground in order to govern effectively on the other, and he nearly always comes down firmly on the side of effective governance.

In the initial news reports following the announcement of the Senator’s medical condition, the appearance of commentary from across the political spectrum was immediate and concerned…if not heartbroken. What is it about this man, deeply flawed as he may be, that evokes the obvious and evident regard of people as dissimilar as Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Patrick Leahy? Simply put, Senator Kennedy learned the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Politics is important business, but it is not a campaign between good and evil. People of good character and fine intentions disagree about how one might best achieve optimal results in a democratic society, but there is far more that we have in common than separates us. Men like Senator Kennedy understand that you should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and so you find those points of agreement and agree on them. Then you compromise to allow each side to get some more of what it wants. And, finally, the majority will get a slightly larger say just because it can, and then you have a bill. It will not be perfect, but you can always fix the parts that don’t work, and, in any event, you are addressing a problem with legislation that a broad spectrum of representatives can support.

A few years ago, I started digging into Senate history and discovered what was, to my mind, an astonishing truth: in the course of his public career, Senator Kennedy has been one of the most effective legislators in United States history. There is scarcely a major piece of legislation since 1962 that does not have his fingerprints on it somewhere. And it isn’t just the result of excellent staffwork (though his senatorial staffs have been consistently top notch). He works at it conscientiously, and apparently loves the give and take that goes into the process. Even more important in a collegial body like the Senate, he apparently refuses to hold a grudge.

I find I cannot hold one either. The good he has done in his life far outweighs the sins and flaws in my estimation, and I wish him Godspeed and good luck.

And there was this from the Democratic National Convention in 1980:

“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again.

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

"I am a part of all that I have met....
Tho much is taken, much abides....
That which we are, we are--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
...strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”