Café Sentido’s first official editorial endorsement of a candidate for public office
Renewal is the keyword for this election. Change is the bridge that will take us to the place of renewal, but the intent behind the change message, must be renewal. It is vital to examine the candidates’ proposals for the direction of our nation, in this light. Who can best harness what is best in the American system of laws and in the landscape of American values, to effect an historic renewal of faith in our institutions and of commitment to civic responsibility and prosperity and dynamism in our society, generally?
Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, is the candidate that is best positioned to offer this solution to our nation, in these troubled and challenging times. His positive vision of a dynamic American society, capable of innovating to combat a global energy crisis, principled in defending Constitutional law and human rights, combines the open and dynamic nature of American democratic culture with an energetic commitment to tackling new challenges, motivating a resurgence of the kind of major projects that will help rebuild and spur our economy.
The distinction between the two candidates’ visions, in this respect, has become even more evident due to the destructive and hollow campaign tactics adopted by Sen. McCain and his party. In a vicious attempt to smear Sen. Obama with some vague responsibility for the actions of individuals over whom he holds no actual responsibility and whose views he has denounced, the campaign of Sen. John McCain has sought to poison the electoral process, distract the minds of voters, and obscure what appears to be an inability to compete in the realm of ideas.
That sort of campaign of distraction is destructive to the healthy functioning of democracy and ignores the basic right of the electorate to govern its elected officials with the advantage of reliable information, firmly in hand. Fudging the truth for political gain can lead to ill-conceived policies that undermine the wellbeing of the nation (the 2003 WMD policy debacle, and ensuing war, are just one example).
Sen. Obama’s approach to domestic and foreign policy is consistently principled and pragmatist, rooted in an understanding of our system of laws, its founding ideals and the nature of our liberties. His policies hint at an underlying philosophy that seeks to do what is necessary to achieve the highest goals of our practical ambition, yet always uphold that essential allegiance to the “better angels of our nature”, work together with those whose collaboration we need and be firm about the rule of law and the fundamentals that give us a moral high-ground in dealing with the broader world.
The Supreme Court
Perhaps the single most important outcome of the next president’s tenure will be his effect on the make-up of the Supreme Court. It is estimated that 3 of the 9 justices may retire in coming years. Those 3 justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens, are considered firmly “liberal”, while the Court already leans toward the conservative Republican side of American political ideology. What’s more, 7 of the 9 justices were named by Republican presidents.
Sen. Obama has said he would not use ideology as a test for nominating justices. While considered liberal by many on the conservative side of the American political spectrum, Sen. Obama has been seen as a pragmatist moderate by many who have worked with him (the “most liberal senator” label comes mainly from one conservative group’s analysis of his positions on Iraq and Roe v. Wade). And, he was actually a Constitutional law professor. He has said his standard for nominating judges would be to place judges on the Court who have devoted their careers to upholding the Constitutional rights of individual Americans, and who consistently apply the legal protections afforded by the Constitution, respecting and upholding the balance of power between the three independent branches of government.
But whether he would nominate overtly liberal judges is almost unimportant —this point will be of interest to any conservatives who believe there should be balance on the Court—, because the fact that the 3 justices likely to retire are considered liberal means that an Obama presidency would essentially leave the Court as it is now, with 3 liberals and 6 conservatives, and 4 of those far to the right of most mainstream conservative viewpoints (more on this below).
Though he also says he rejects an ideological litmus test as “wrong”, Sen. McCain has suggested he would consider ideology, saying he would nominate judges with a notable conservative record and that opposition to Roe v. Wade was a “qualification” in his mind. He referred to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito as “recent favorites”. Both espouse a radical legal philosophy known as the “unitary executive”, which baselessly interprets the Constitution as granting the president near absolute power, based solely on the notion of perpetual war and the president’s right to disregard written law.
Philosophically, the unitary executive is a tautological pure-power doctrine, rooted in the use of power as the legitimizing factor in power’s use, an idea against which the whole of American law is constructed. The Constitution provides citizens with specific rights and grants them any not named, while it provides the government with limited powers and denies it any not named. The unitary executive, as interpreted to grant the president permanent commander-in-chief status, and with it permanent near-emergency powers, ignores the role of the courts and the Congress in limiting executive power, their principle responsibility.
In this respect, Roberts and Alito are far to the right of nearly all justices to sit on the Court in recent decades, and some Constitutional law scholars have suggested their views are a wholesale rejection of representative democracy as a form of government, let alone as the law of the land. They have taken the principle of a president having “authority” over all areas where federal money is spent or federal laws enforced.
The Constitution grants Congress both the “power of the purse”, the ability to dictate to the Executive what money can be spent to what end, and formal oversight powers, the ability to investigate, judge and punish the Executive, where violations of law occur. Courts can adjudicate specific details of specific instances, but cannot strip Congress of these powers, nor can the Executive.
A McCain presidency would likely push the Supreme Court far to the right for a generation to come. If Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens all retire, and McCain nominates 3 “conservative” justices, there will be 9 “right of center” judges out of 9, on the Court, 8 of whom were named by Republican presidents, with possibly a majority young enough to stay on the court for another 20 to 30 years.
Justice Clarence Thomas is 60 years old, while Alito and Roberts are 58 and 55, respectively. They are, by far, the 3 most conservative judges to sit on the Court in a generation or more. Adding only 2 more relatively young justices could easily create a “hard-right” majority that will rule more or less uniformly for 20 years or more. The lack of balance on the Court could radically limit the individual liberties of American citizens, and reverse decades of civil rights legislation.
If Sen. McCain were to become president, he would likely —if his campaign promises are sincere— have a radical and one-sided impact on the Supreme Court. His guidelines for naming justices could eliminate any left-of-center dissent on the Court, and even minimize the voices of moderates. His penchant for Alito and Roberts could mean the unitary executive doctrine would gain force, reducing the checks and balances that allow Congress and the Courts to rein in executive power, a fundamental requirement of American constitutional democracy.
Economic Issues & Environment
On economics, the two candidates differ in somewhat traditional, if unique and interesting ways. McCain wants expensive tax cuts for higher-income earners, while Obama focuses his cuts on driving a resurgence of the embattled middle class and reversing the widening of the wealth-poverty gap. 100 million Americans, on the lower end of the income ladder, would likely see no expansion in net income, due to Sen. McCain’s tax plan, while 95% of “working families” would benefit from cuts or credits under Obama’s plan.
Sen. Obama’s proposed plan is fiscally conservative and disciplined. Sen. McCain calls it a “socialist” redistribution of wealth, which it is not. All changes to the tax code are technically a “redistribution of wealth”, as are taxes as such, but so is all spending, all market activity, all trade of any kind. It is inappropriate and inaccurate to compare Sen. Obama’s tax policy to “socialism”, because it does not seek to centralize economic power in the apparatus of the state.
Obama’s plan is generative, aiming to stimulate economic growth by letting consumers and small businesses animate the market by spending according to their needs and priorities. McCain’s plan is constrictive, in that it does transfer wealth to the wealthy, away from public services and away from those who need them: it narrows the scope of opportunity by focusing not on most businesses or households, but on the largest businesses and wealthiest households.
Obama’s generative economics redirects spending to vital social programs that help build the fabric of community and afford a wider range of opportunity to all, treats education and infrastructure as the high-return investments they are and offsets new costs with money already in the budget, so the deficit doesn’t explode, as it did after both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s supply-side tax-cut plans were implemented.
Sen. Obama’s plan wisely treats assistance to encourage the coming revolution in clean energy and related infrastructure as a way to unravel the financial burden of sending $700 billion per year to foreign nations for oil, an economic and security imperative. Energy independence is vital, and Sen. Obama’s plan gets us to a sustainable clean-energy future more quickly and more deliberately than Sen. McCain’s plan.
His vision is dynamic, comprehensive, workable, and deadly serious about getting the optimum results for the good of the nation. That combination is the rarest thing in modern politics, and having crafted such a vision —ripe with all the specifics needed to make it viable— demonstrates an unusual talent from which our civilization and our democratic experiment can benefit greatly.
His leadership throughout the financial crisis has been deferential and steady: he is committed to responsible, sustainable action to prevent the collapse of major financial institutions and restore prosperity to the middle class, and appears ready to hear the best suggestions, pool the most able minds, and navigate among them to craft the best policy for the nation. There is a stark contrast in Obama’s responsible, generative approach and Sen. McCain’s at times haphazard, self-conscious attempts to intervene.
That we need a “green tech revolution” is now more than self-evident. To combat global warming, by reducing carbon emissions to natural background levels, and protect vital ecosystems, weather patterns, and water resources, we must aggressively pursue the building of a vibrant, clean energy economy. Sen. Obama is more comprehensive and more environmentally-minded, focusing on achieving each of these goals, without further putting our environment at risk from dirty technologies or over-dependence on high-contaminant energy sources —in case of seepage or massive release— like nuclear.
We have heard often not only in this election cycle but over the last 8 years that “people are blind”, or they “hear only what they want to hear”. A big part of this is that our educational system has provided both too little information and to little training to seek, judge, place and relate information, in other words: to think.
My grandfather —a conservative Republican politician, who taught me that citizenship was about being a thinking actor in society, an intellect with a civic conscience— was fond of the proverb: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. A timeless truth, no doubt, but all the more true of those who have too little information about realities other than their own to choose a better way. We need to reinvigorate our test-score-obsessed education system with real intellectual curiosity.
Sen. Obama’s proposals for education reform draw from successful programs and aim to help build community, get parents involved and get us back to that mentality wherein a citizen must be a thinking person. A brief summary:
- For children aged 0 to 5 years: universal opportunity for preschool —if desired—, quality child-care for working families, expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start
- Reform No Child Left Behind, so that 1) it is funded; 2) it helps students acquire knowledge, develop intellectual curiosity; 3) its standards help struggling schools instead of punishing them
- Double charter-school funding, reward states that do the most to improve charter schools, close charter schools that fail “chronically” to perform as intended
- Prioritize math and science, recruit Masters-level academics in these fields to teach, provide for strong science curriculum “at all grade levels”
- Combat chronic absenteeism, provide for enriching after-school activities, motivate students to work for eventual entry into colleges and universities
- College funding: provide expanded grants and credit options so that every student can pay for college, simplify the financial aid application process
- Recruit, train, reward and retain teachers, all with concrete programs aimed at improving the quality of teaching broadly and recognizing the great efforts the best teachers put in
- Mentoring programs that help new teachers learn from experienced ones, with pay increases for qualified teaching mentors, so the program is more effective
Today’s minds must be imaginative and adaptive, because global society and information technology advance so quickly one must constantly be able to learn and adapt. This is, as Sen. Obama has said, a matter of national security, because a lag in adaptive intellectual capacity translates into a lag in economic dynamism, and no military power can maintain primacy if its economy falls into a cycle of endemic decline.
Diplomacy & Security
The most fundamental characteristic we need in a commander-in-chief, in the fluid and extreme security environment of the 21st century, is judgment. This means not just a military mindset, not just awareness of what occurred during the years of the Cold War and its denouement, but the ability to distinguish between good choices and perilous diplomatic pitfalls. It also means the judgment to know how our system of laws fits into the international legal arena, including the defense of human rights, and a respect for the strengths and virtues of international law.
Article VI of the Constitution of the United States of America states that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land”. It further states that judges shall be bound by those treaties, except where the Constitution specifically provides the contrary. This means that laws like the Geneva Conventions —in large part crafted to fit the values of American democracy and the principle of the rule of law— are in essence part of our Constitutional law.
To uphold the oath of office, a president must understand this, and serve the Constitution and our democratic system, by respecting our treaty obligations under international law. John McCain has been inconsistent at best in adhering to principle in the face of radical positions taken on war and peace and the rule of law, by the current administration.
One example, after vowing to oppose any form of prisoner abuse, and doing so for a year, Sen. McCain voted to give the president the authority to order the fake drowning of detainees, along with other —some undisclosed— “enhanced interrogation” methods. This violates the Geneva Conventions, and ignores several American laws on prisoner treatment, but beyond that, the apparent political calculation is morally incomprehensible.
He has, to a great extent, limited his foreign policy discourse to warning of Cold-War type future threats and attacking his opponent’s judgment. In fact, Obama has shown insight and judgment, and not just on the question of Iraq war WMD intelligence. His call for engagement and diplomacy with countries like North Korea and Iran has been followed by the example that North Korea has again reversed its course toward nuclearization, due to successful negotiations, and the Bush administration, at the urging of several former secretaries of State, has engaged Tehran diplomatically in an effort to find a path toward denuclearization.
Sen. Obama’s proposals for Defense would rebuild the American military to operate effectively in the 21st century, whose threats are categorically different from the 20th century’s. They would also seek to guarantee the freedom of space, so that no military power is exerted there or becomes a threat to the US from Earth’s orbit. They would cut wasteful and ineffective weapons programs, focus on much needed armor, UAVs, cost-effective and technically viable missile defense, and provide better funding for veterans, so they get the best possible medical care, long-term, and have the opportunity to study and advance after service.
Obama’s diplomatic worldview is one in which the United States projects its will and serves vital national security interests through aggressive diplomacy, actively working to provide a path toward political solutions in otherwise intractable problems, with the knowledge that an agile and overwhelming military force underlies all negotiations. Proof of strength is not the resort to military force, but the ongoing demonstration that success can be achieved without it.
He understands that threats to third parties —Iran, Syria— will not fix the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but worsen it, and that a sustained prioritized diplomatic effort to build a peaceful two-state solution will allow Israel to live in peace and security, always with the US guarding its security, but not provoking its less friendly neighbors to paranoid or aggressive action.
Using diplomacy as a tool for broadening and improving the view of the US around the world, Obama plans to re-open “shuttered” consulates in the “tough and hopeless corners of the world”, so that much needed aid and services provided by American aid workers, can be seen to originate directly from the US political system, as an expression of the basic values of American democracy, which have been so poorly communicated over the last 8 years. This is a vital part of any strategy to make us all safer from random threats of terrorist or rogue-state activity.
The executive leadership of a national political campaign is an essential read of an individual’s character, and mettle as a democratic political leader. John McCain used to ride a bus called the “Straight Talk Express”, and it was a media phenomenon. On that campaign bus, he used to give very candid interviews to reporters, in which he expressed his genuine opinions and talked a big game about reform to fight corruption in Washington. That was 2000.
His candidacy was derailed by some of the most inhuman, racist smears seen in modern politics. He was embittered, and nearly left his party as a result. Now, to defeat Barack Obama, who simply does not use such tactics, he has hired the same Machiavellian hacks that killed his campaign for honesty and reform and gave us 8 years of George W. Bush, in which we’ve seen unprecedented extralegal domestic spying, suspension of habeas corpus, a trillion-dollar war, and economic mayhem.
John McCain likes to say he’d rather lose an election than lose a war, that he puts his “country first”. But in fact, his campaign tactics seem to demonstrate that he sees himself as exempt from the principles of ethics and honesty that he has always proclaimed to be his guiding vision. Somehow, it would be better for the nation to lose out on those values, than for John McCain to lose an election. The unsavory tone and the sometimes hateful rhetoric that has emanated from his campaign has elicited mild protests from the candidate, but ultimately, he has refused to stop the smears.
He has done this against an opponent that has never once engaged in such tactics against him, and even some of the most aggressive political operatives in his party have said what is taking place is possibly the ugliest smear campaign in recent decades. He has failed utterly to take responsibility for “robocalls” seeking to imply Sen. Obama “worked closely” with terrorists, which even sitting senators in his own party have said are unethical and must be stopped, and has even defended them as accurate and principled.
Sen. Obama’s vision of leadership is very different from that sort of gutter politics, and it is a major national asset to have a leader who can campaign in the midst of such vitriol and contempt, who can face such smears with aplomb, and say that “I can take three more weeks of John McCain’s attacks, but what this country can’t afford is four more years of failed economic policies.”
He has his finger on the pulse of the nation’s needs and values, and his campaign is about that. His campaign has persuaded millions of small donors to give what they can, and in the month of September, he raised $150 million, campaigning ethically, laying out his vision, and traveling to even remote areas of supposedly hopeless “red states”. That speaks volumes about the quality of leadership we can expect of such a candidate.
So, with all this in mind, having weighed the real options, having searched for the old John McCain, at least as a counterweight to what seems the spirit of the times, a period of reform and renewal under Obama’s leadership, I have come to the conclusion that Sen. Obama’s vision is the one we need to embrace as a nation. He will be a transformative president in a time of transformation, and he provides the opportunity for citizens to collaborate in the shaping of the future of this nation, a democratic leader to restore democracy to our process and prosperity to our communities.
- Originally published 21 October 2008, at CafeSentido.com