Perhaps the only silver lining to the twin catastrophes of Ike and Lehman is that the media dust is finally settling on McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for running mate. With that in mind, I’m going to try to look at both tickets with as strong a hype-filter as I can muster.
First of all, I should say that McCain made a risky but brilliant move in picking Palin, for a variety of reasons: she’s young and fresh; she’s attractive and charismatic; and she’s a member of a “minority demographic”. These three things collectively neutralize a massive piece of Obama’s media advantage, while also giving McCain some much-needed credibility with the less moderate elements of his base. Many of the nation’s “likely Republican voters” care about a candidate’s views on only three things: guns, gays and God. To which Palin gives them a longed-for yes, no, and hallelujah.
Obama, in choosing Biden, has made a sensible choice, but one which is too safe, too pedestrian, to fire the imagination of today’s news junkies. Living as we do in the era of the ever-shortening news cycle and 24-hour coverage, Obama’s choice still barely made a splash compared to the hype preceding it. Joe Biden has strong economic and foreign policy credentials, both areas in which Obama needed bolstering, but he still went with what is being perceived as a boring option. After the weeks of “will they, won’t they” regarding an Obama/Clinton ticket – the suspense almost reaching Mulder and Scully levels – the press were rather more disillusioned than they would have been with Clinton, Kaine or Sebelius.
McCain has, with his choice, largely abnegated his own attacks on Obama’s lack of experience. Obama, with his, has severely damaged the credibility of his message of overthrowing the Washington establishment. With both of these central thrusts rendered impotent, it is hardly surprising that of the two now-completed tickets, the favorable coverage has predominantly been on the more audacious – and more glamorous.
Of course, none of the above even begins to address the question of anyone’s fitness for the position to which they aspire. Swiftboating aside, there are of course pros and cons to both of them.
The Vice-Presidency of the United States has in many cases been a position of great prestige and little actual responsibility. The President has a chief of staff, a communications department, a wide-ranging and experienced Cabinet, an Attorney General, a Surgeon General, the Joint Chiefs and the various intelligence agency heads from whom to draw information. Amongst all of this, the opinion of a single person, even a Vice-President, does not necessarily carry much weight. Historically the role has often been to perform largely ceremonial duties, staying out of the way while the actual governing gets done. These have been Vice-Presidents whose sole purpose has been to continue sucking air longer than the President, should the need arise. However, it is this last function which is perhaps the most terrifying of all; it is simply flabbergasting to think of some of these people being thrust into the position of running the country should that “heartbeat’s distance” abruptly shorten. I imagine that very few people were thrilled with the notion of a President Quayle, and I confess to great trepidation regarding the possibility of a President Cheney.
While other Vice-Presidents have executed their offices laudably and very much to the nation’s benefit, I would not wish to lose sight of the fact that the primary duty of a Vice-President must be to step in and fulfil the constitutionally appointed duties if the worst should befall a President. A Vice-President should be someone solid, reliable, just as much “ready to lead from day one” as the President; what happens if on January 19th, as the President-elect jets into DC, the plane has an accident? I, for one, have to trust that at any moment, the second-billed actor in the great play will be in the starting gate and ready to run the same race. Mixed metaphors aside, I believe that Biden would be the more capable President of the two VP candidates, were anything to happen to Obama. Given the continued existence of white supremacist movements in this country and others, this possibility cannot and must not be ruled out, sickening though it seems to civilized people. In a crisis of such magnitude, America needs someone with the experience to act as the nation’s guiding hand. A fresh face still finding her expensively-shod feet would be a catastrophic backup should McCain’s advancing age get the better of him, saddening though that prospect is.
So with the question of the Vice-Presidency taken care of, who would make the better President? As I mention above, I believe that the vice-presidential choices ultimately put a point in Obama’s column, but that is merely one point among a great many. How do they stack up?
There are a number of deciding factors which will make or break the election for a candidate. The American public’s willingness to vote based on race or gender alone is a worrying one; a reading of online political forums quite clearly shows that there is a small but vocal subset of the population who intend to do just that, regardless of the issues. This, however, cannot be gainsaid by any words or actions by the candidates, and I can only hope that these particular groups cancel each other out enough to leave the rest of the playing field level. The deciding issues, I believe, will be Iraq (and the broader “war on terror”), the economy, and religion.
Yes, religion. Let us admit here and now that the idea of separating church from state is a myth. The new President will be sworn in on a Bible, the Pledge of Allegiance he speaks will refer to “one nation under God”, and it is inevitable that the very convictions that have shaped his views for much of his life will carry over into his actions as President. It will take at least another generation for there to be a paradigm shift of such magnitude that a candidate will be elected without any scrutiny of his or her religious beliefs, and many of the voting public want to know that the country’s top dog believes in their God just as ardently as they do themselves, in order to be able to put any trust in his decision-making. And this is what will guide any talk of same-sex marriage, of abortion, of any of the political issues where we are splintered by religion. Republicans have an edge here, since the more “conservative” positions tend to be better aligned with the Christian viewpoints. But there is a broader issue here: typically, those of us who are non-religious simply roll our eyes and try to logic our way through questions of religion. Those of us who are religious stand firm in the sure knowledge that Holy Scripture has already provided the answers. It is not hard to see that the latter angle inspires more passion in its adherents. At most, the former resent the intrusion of religion into their political arena, but the latter fear its removal from theirs – a much more powerful motivator. Many of these people will vote for the candidate who appears to most closely follow the guidance of the Divine, and this is a sufficiently large group as to significantly benefit McCain.
On Iraq, the candidates will inevitably be pigeonholed into the “bring ‘em home” and “stay the course” boxes. The soundbite-driven news outlets will not allow any room for nuance and subtlety. As such, this part of the vote will come down to the gap between those who believe we are doing more good than harm in the Middle East and vice versa. The debates will allow them to say more, of course, but even those will be restricted to mini-speeches of pre-determined length and content rather than a frank and equal exchange of ideas; there’s no such thing as a real political debate any longer, merely a fencing match between two advertisers. However, short of a major event in the war on terror, I believe Obama has the edge here. A lot of us are sick of this war. Sick of hearing about it, sick of paying for it, sick of their country being viewed with suspicion and contempt by other nations. Truman once used the metaphorical line “Don’t spit in the soup, boys – we all have to eat.” America has been spitting in the international soup for too long now, and I believe Obama will be considered less likely to continue the spitting.
Discussion of the war, and the resulting drain on the US Treasury, will bring us to the economy. This is of course among the most complex issues that anyone faces; there are three hundred million people in this country who want their government to do more for them but still leave more cash in their wallets. This dichotomy is the core around which such phrases as “big government” and “fiscal conservative” orbit at breakneck speeds. Ultimately, though, despite the plethora of small things which make up economic policy, the intricacies of the federal budget and appropriations processes, this will boil down to which candidate does the best job of selling their policy: the one who’s trying to give you bang for your buck, or the one who’s trying to reduce the buck in the first place. Generally I would say that McCain would have an edge here, but Obama has a convenient Republican administration to blame for a national debt spiraling out of control and for gross budget deficits, and that accusation may stick.
On the whole, then, I think Obama has what it takes to make it through. Not necessarily in the landslide which some Democrats have optimistically predicted, but without having to worry too much about hanging chads.
Is he, however, the better man for the job? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think he’s perfect by any stretch, but I do believe that America needs the kind of change he purports to stand for, and I do think he can pull it off. I have a fair amount of respect for McCain (certainly more than for certain other noteworthy Republicans), but I can’t bring myself to trust in him as much as I can Obama.
You’ll notice that I left health care and education out of the big-issue list. These are important issues, but I personally believe that they will be more in the nature of tie-breakers when Super Tuesday rolls around.
I’m sure I can find more to say on all of the above, but I think I have at this point been loquacious enough to get at least an implicit “tl;dr” from pretty much all of you, so I’ll stop here.
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