Monday, October 27, 2008

A Bay Area acquaintance of mine called Scott Pinkmountain recently penned a piece on the election which I thought was quite good. It goes a little something like this:

Present V. Absent, or Reduxio ad Absurdum ad Infinitum

The highly publicized issue of Barack Obama casting "present" votes versus John McCain's under-publicized practice of simply not showing up to vote is central to the current political landscape. Obama's vote of "present" is a common voicing of a soft negative for contentious legislation such as the redundant Illinois abortion bill, BAIPA, which contained wording that would have undermined Roe V. Wade and came up in the final presidential debate. McCain had eight no-shows in the past year alone (presumably for similar motivation?) for a vote to extend tax breaks for renewable energy development, which he claims to support.

On the one hand, Sen. Obama has built a campaign around acknowledging complexity and contradiction in controversial issues such as gun control and abortion (often to the frustration of the far left) and on the claim that we will need to find comprise and reconciliation in order to move forward as a country. On the other hand, McCain has steered his campaign further and further from the subtlety he has shown at points throughout his career, into what has become an all out assault on nuanced discourse. These are not just the empty gestures and poses of a presidential campaign, but fundamentally different mind frames being expressed under the extreme conditions of a lengthy, taxing endurance test requiring all the same advice-taking, policy analysis, decision-making, staff deployment and populace-mobilizing skills necessary to run the White House.

After lauding Barack Obama's deep calm and reassuring presence in a recent OpEd in the New York Times (Oct 17, 2008), David Brooks questioned whether this quietude would make him a pushover among his more experienced cabinet. Month after month Obama has maintained a clear, singular vision and a nearly impossibly focused, unflappable campaign. This is the result of a highly disciplined candidate acting from strong core beliefs, not the random acts of someone chasing votes, motivated by whatever voice is loudest in his immediate proximity. This distinction explains the formerly scrupulous McCain's behavior as he fires off shot after shot into the dark: a reckless and unqualified VP pick whose track sheet of vendetta politics, secrecy, intimidation, cronyism, lack of interest in the rest of the world (until a month ago) and prideful ignorance of Washington rings devastatingly close to George Bush; an outwardly unbalanced, attention-grabbing approach to the financial crisis; and his recent descent into fear-mongering, jingoism and anti-intellectualism.

The real danger in McCain's move away from a nuanced and textured world view is not the immediate effect of lowering the level of discourse in the election, but what a presidency with such an approach would bestow. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we do not have to work too hard to imagine. We have seen its corrosive, divisive and ultimately destructive effects over the last eight years under a president who, genuinely or not, played ignorant on crucial national security issues (including sending us to war) and frequently invoked "bad guys" and "evil" in a world that is far too complex and interconnected to reduce to such childlike perspective.

We are seeing it again in John McCain. The incessant hammering at Obama's relationship with William Ayers demonstrates McCain's reluctance to show up and be "present" for the kind of subtle discourse we so desperately need now in this country. Ayers, now a highly regarded citizen by people with ties to both parties, was once part of a resistance movement against the most unpopular war this country has ever fought, (a war responsible for more than 58,000 American deaths), at a time when the U.S. government was responding with violence against protesters that we can scarcely imagine in this day and age, including the killings of unarmed protesters at Kent State. Governments are labeled "regimes" and appropriately criticized when they behave as such in the world today. This does not excuse the actions of the Weathermen, but it does cast them in a context which undermines McCain's attack and his attempt to essentially equivocate Ayers with the likes of Timothy McVeigh - a dangerous and false equivocation but a distinction far too nuanced for a smear campaign with robo-calls.

Then there's the issue of socialism. Playing on the assumption of people's political ignorance, xenophobia and greed, McCain has taken up the button-pushing claim that Obama is a socialist due to his suggestion to Joe Wurzelbacher that were Joe to make over a quarter of a million dollars a year, he ought to consider shouldering a 3-4% tax increase to support his great nation. That McCain has labeled the paying of income taxes socialism, (income taxes being the primary source of revenue for our country so that it may continue providing military, education, roads, entitlements, veteran benefits, etc..), is yet another assault on the nation's presence of mind. Never mind the fact that by "socialist" standards McCain has established, his $300 billion dollar mortgage purchase plan and capital gains tax advocacy are aimed at "sharing the wealth" upward. Then of course there is the histrionic and inflammatory depiction of ACORN as "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." How low do we need to drop the bar of conversation until we can meet McCain's disembodied rhetoric? Will it stop at questioning which parts of the country are "pro" or "anti" American? Apparently not. This is what McCain is offering to the country? A no-show vote on depth and realistic perspective. A view of the world that is so compromised, so diminished as to cast it in with us or against us terms. This is what we had with Bush and it has cost us dearly.

All this in stark contrast to the measured presence of Obama. He is a realist who will openly consider options such as expanded drilling for oil and increased forces in Afghanistan even if they are unpopular with his supposed leftist base. Obama has repeatedly sacrificed sound bite oratorio in order to elaborately acknowledge the complexity of challenges he may face in office, as opposed to offhandedly dismissing and oversimplifying these challenges as McCain has done with social security, nuclear waste, and "winning" the war in Iraq (whatever that yet unexplained qualifier might mean). In Obama, we have a candidate who seems willing to absorb multiple perspectives and seek a nuanced path through charged issues to find a solution. A balanced negotiator with an intellect broad enough to allow contradictions to exist alongside one another, just as they always will in the real world. This should come as no surprise from America's first presidential candidate who is a true citizen of the world. Someone raised with multiple perspectives from different geographic, socioeconomic, cultural and religious influences. This overwhelmingly positive attribute - one which can easily be argued is the single most important quality an American president in today's utterly intertwined global community must embody - has somehow been twisted into a negative by the inwardly-turned, antagonistic, nearly alienationist McCain. One candidate is present on a global level, and the other is aggressively absent. This is not a coincidence or a metaphor. This is a very real, very important distinction.

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