I generally like to avoid discussions about politics, but lately it seems impossible. It fact, lately I can’t help thinking that the general public’s avoidance of politics is the root cause of some of our biggest problems. Through our inaction, we’ve allowed the war in Iraq to continue; we’ve allowed the oil companies to keep pumping us for money; we’ve allowed Wall Street to irresponsibly gamble with the future of our economy. Still, it’s difficult not to remain cynical and uninvolved when our two presidential hopefuls won’t even talk to us about the details of the major Wall Street bailout plan or their thoughts on curbing government spending. In the first presidential debate, Obama failed to specify budget cuts and McCain deferred the question to his future Secretary of the Treasury before foolishly proposing a spending freeze on everything except the military and veteran benefits.
Frustrated by the news soundbites from these two guys, I recently read their books – John McCain’s Worth the Fighting For (Random House, 2003) and Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope (Random House, 2006). I came away from McCain’s book with a genuine respect for the man’s integrity and his sense of duty to American ideals. I was no less impressed with Obama’s intelligence and his empathy for his fellow human beings. I’d be honored to know either of these men in real life, but only one of them can have my vote.
People cast their votes for politicians based on a wide variety of issues, but obviously a lot of people are going to be focused on the economy this year, so I can’t help noting that John McCain doesn’t devote one single sentence in his book to economic policy. Barack Obama, on the other hand, spends an entire chapter laying out his economic proposal – and if you don’t read or listen to anything else this candidate says during the remainder of the presidential campaign, you should check out “Chapter 5: Opportunity.” In it, Obama (writing in 2006, mind you) says that we are facing the most “disruptive economic transformation” since the Great Depression. Unlike President Bush’s press conference a few days ago, Obama’s message is not purely alarmist. He sees hope in that parallel to the Great Depression, noting that “FDR led the nation to a new social compact – a bargain between government, business, and workers that resulted in widespread prosperity and economic security for more than fifty years” Working from the model of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Obama proposes that we focus on investments that can make America more competitive in the global marketplace: namely, education, science and technology, and energy independence.
It seems that John McCain would rather put all our eggs into one basket: namely, war. The spending freeze idea is a drastic stop-gap measure, but in all fairness it's not as short-sighted as it may seem... it simply illustrates the difference between McCain's vision of the future and Obama's. McCain’s book helps to explain his position: he believes that American “exceptionalism” – our place on top of the world – is secured by our superior resolve. If we back out of Iraq, we send a message to the world that we don’t have the stomach for war – a message of weakness that McCain says we conveyed decades ago by surrendering in Vietnam. McCain believes that such a move will validate the effectiveness of terrorism and lead to anarchy in the Middle East. So, in the final analysis, he believes that the future of America – and the future of the free world – depends largely on our saving face in Iraq. Think of it as the “domino theory” of terrorism.
I’m skeptical of this theory, and I’d rather put my tax dollars into investments in 21st century domestic policies than into 20th century foreign policies. At the end of the day, this election is largely about America's image. The world wants to know: Are we moving forward or are we moving backward? In his book, McCain laments the outcome of the 1996 election, in which his good friend Bob Dole lost the presidency to “a man who seemed to understand the times better than he did.” I think John McCain deserves a lot of respect, but I believe that this is precisely the dynamic we’re faced with today. Barack Obama simply understands the times better.