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Archive for the ‘McCain’ Category

Fouad Ajami contrasts Obama’s wishful thinking internationalism with McCain’s American-exceptionalist neo-imperalism:

[During the Nixon-Kennedy election of 1960] The national consensus on America’s role abroad, and on the great threats facing it, was firmly implanted. No great cultural gaps had opened in it, arugula was not on the menu, and the elites partook of the dominant culture of the land; the universities were then at one with the dominant national ethos. The “disuniting of America” was years away. American liberalism was still unabashedly tethered to American nationalism.

We are at a great remove from that time and place. Globalization worked its way through the land, postmodernism took hold of the country’s intellectual life. The belief in America’s “differentness” began to give way, and American liberalism set itself free from the call of nationalism. American identity itself began to mutate.

The celebrated political scientist Samuel Huntington, in “Who Are We?,” a controversial book that took up this delicate question of American identity, put forth three big conceptions of America: national, imperial and cosmopolitan. In the first, America remains America. In the second, America remakes the world. In the third, the world remakes America. Back and forth, America oscillated between the nationalist and imperial callings. The standoff between these two ideas now yields to the strength and the claims of cosmopolitanism. It is out of this new conception of America that the Obama phenomenon emerges.

The “aloofness” of Mr. Obama that has become part of the commentary about him is born of this cultural matrix. Mr. Obama did not misspeak when he described union households and poorer Americans as people clinging to their guns and religion; he was overheard sharing these thoughts with a like-minded audience in San Francisco.

Nor was it an accident that, in a speech at Wesleyan University, he spoke of public service but excluded service in the military. The military does not figure prominently in his world and that of his peers. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention, as was the case on the campaign trail, he spoke of his maternal grandfather’s service in Patton’s army. But that experience had not been part of his own upbringing.

Ajami seems to think Americans like McCain because he’s the more competent imperial administrator.  While that is true of some, I think the fact that he wraps his imperial vision in the rhetoric of nationalism is why he’s effective.  Between an anti-American cosmopolitan, and a bellicose ideological neo-imperalist, Americans, particularly Americans of a conservative bent, will choose the latter.  Why?  Because for conservatives who are uneasy about imperialism, it is still better to be in charge, even if the endeavor is self-defeating than to let other people, with similar but opposing imperial visions, to be in charge of us.

The standoff that Ajami speaks of is a tragic one, an unfortunate consequence of the domination of the Republican party by the neoconservative vision of foreign policy, a vision that demands intervention, the continuation of American power, and the erasure of distinctions of the nation and the foreigner. 

Missing from both candidates’ views, and the political scene generally, is a true nationalist voice that is neither excessively indebted to nor overly influenced by the rest of the world.  A humble view that is aware of our limitations and jealous of our advantages.  A view that does not seek to manage or influence world with the exception chiefly of providing a good example to others and protecting what is ours. 

This tradition, stretching from George Washington and James Monroe, to the so-called Know-Nothings, and more recently to Charles Lindbergh, Robert Taft, and Pat Buchanan has been the abiding idiom of American conservatism.  It’s absent from both parties, yet it finds support in what is likely a numerical plurality of working class ethnic whites, business-oriented conservatives, many Vietnam veterans, as well as a swath of anti-war Americans who come from a variety of traditions.

The nationalist is against the continuation of the Iraq War not because it is wrong or an evil to the Iraqis, but because it distracts us from our chief concern, which is our own flourishing as a people and the protection of that people and our way of life.

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McCain often identifies America’s problems in moral terms as opposed to ideological differences on policy. Is this really the root of political friction? Liberals of good will justify most of their proposed impositions on the market economy with the same language of community, sacrifice, and public spiritedness. For them and McCain too, America is a cause and a project, not just a place, a people, and an extended family. McCain’s defenses of free markets and limited government stand uneasily alongside rhetoric like this:

We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington.

The — the constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not for you. . . .

Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.

This rhetoric is reminiscent of Ross Perot’s. He was a similarly self-confident figure and an old-fashioned patriot who thought our policy differences could be easily resolved if only people of would abandon their blinders of self-interest. This is a natural enough instinct about personal vocation from McCain, whose entire life has involved government service, including honorable service in the military. But as a diagnosis of what’s wrong with our politics and how to solve them, this formulation seems wrong.

Bush, Clinton, and McCain’s triangulation obscures that there are deep disagreements since the 1960s about core values on issues ranging from free trade and abortion to immigration and the Iraq War. People’s disagreements on these issues, as often as not, do not flow from narrow self-interest so much as disagreements about policy, history, identity, and priorities. After all, self-interest is not why white males like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden support affirmative action or massive destruction of our economy to combat the alleged crisis of global warming.

McCain’s rhetoric, in spite of its superficially unifying character, invites greater conflict and acrimony. His confidence in his own pure motives and the call of history invites crude put-downs of his opponents, which he has indulged in repeatedly, as if folks what want to keep America’s population and demographics stable for cultural reasons are merely a selfish faction.

It’s true, the Democratic Party’s rhetoric often invites narrow self interest: join us and take money from the rich people! But Republican rhetoric does in some respects too: you should keep your money and do what you want with it. It’s better kept with you than the government. While pork barrel spending offends McCain’s sense of national interest, large and expensive government projects, such as “transforming the Middle East” or “defending democracy in Georgia,” do not. He seems a bit blind to the ways even well-meaning government programs can harm our collective interest in being able to pursue our individual goals, plans, and concerns. He also seems not to realize that one man’s pork barrel interest is another’s necessary local project to benefit “his community.” In other words, McCain’s lack of principled conservatism leads to a kind of dissonance in policy and does not equip him to resist calls for grand historical government projects that are exceedingly expensive. Prosaic, but necessary, big cuts in spending on entitlement programs do not appeal to his sense of grandeur and historical mission. For example, nothing in McCain’s view of the world would find anything wrong with the New Deal or the Great Society.

An authentic conservative political vision must acknowledge a few things about our times. While government is not the only problem, it is an impediment. The government has become too big, and its goals are often hostile to civil society’s institutions like private enterprise, religion, and the traditional family. Government is out of control only partly for reasons of narrow self-interest. Indeed, grand altruistic projects based in the “selfless” goal of equality like social security and Medicare cannot be easily reigned in through rooting out corruption. Their problems are structural; we need to make tough choices about priorities and spending and the purpose of government, and those tough choices will require shrinking government rather than expanding its commitments in the name of concern for the public good. McCain’s shown little appreciation for these difficulties the redistributionist agenda imposes on the private sector, partly, no doubt, because he is completely insulated from economic worries and the suffocating impact of taxes and regulation. Finally, in our ethnic politics, everyone is playing by the rules of power and self-interest except for whites.  What, after all, is the meaning of groups like the National Council of La Raza or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  McCain, however, to show his own bona fides is silent on affirmative action and repeatedly supports massive amnesty as a grand historical gesture.  Unfortunately, amnesty and continued mass immigration will an opening for greater disunity and stress our over-generous welfare state and public health resources.  The diminution of America’s traditional majority and leadership class will ultimately lead to a cruder, more Balkanized ethnic politics that we see in corruption-ridden places like Los Angeles and Chicago.  If McCain truly cared about America and could somehow connect the dots, he’d realize that keeping this country populated with native-born Americans is part of the formula for having the kind of national political culture he desires.

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The inveterate muck-raking of Sara Palin’s daughter’s personal life, particularly her unremarkable decision at 17 to have a baby and marry the father, is that it is not about her or her daughter.  Instead, it’s supposed to be a sign of McCain’s reckless decision-making and an implication that other skeleton’s lurk int he closet. 

That may be true for some, but that’s just a ruse.  It’s a cover, an alibi.  It’s obvious the collision of an evangelical Republican woman and her family’s ordinary problems is supposed to make us all despair.  No one’s good! Everyone’s a hypocrite! It’s like the thin tissue of relevance surrounding the Jon Benet Ramsey killing. In that case, we were all invited by the media to look in horror at her over-sexualized beauty contest performances.  The media claim they show us these images to demonstrate their awfulness and as part of the story.  But then they repeat the glamour shots ad nauseum. 

McCain should be judged on his merits.  If he rushed to pick her that should not be a surprise. This guy rushes to antagonize Russia, rarely knows the facts of any important issue, and is a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy.  He always has been. This is not news.  This is part of his appeal to some.

But even if he discovered Palin’s daughter was pregnant, should that have disqualified her?  Should he have not nominated her?  Hardly.  The Left’s cynicism and despair are a far cry from the moral realism of social conservatives, who are well aware that stuff happens, kids get pregnant, and that it’s far more admirable in this day and age to allow that unexpected child to live than to abort it, as Obama has implied he’d encourage his daughters in a similar situation. 

Palin’s daughter’s human weaknesses are far less of a commentary on either her or her mom’s character, whereas Obama’s admission that he’d encourage his daughters to have an abortion rather than be “punsihed witha  baby” shows him to be a callous, overly image-conscous human being. 

This will backfire on the Democrats.  There may be other legitimate concerns about Palin, such as her flirtation with the Alaska secessionist movement.  But things like her husband’s 20 year old DUI or her daughter’s pregnancy will only make the Left look mean-spirited and judgmental, traints which they project upon evangelicals without understanding in the least the basic vibe of Christian churches, which is very much the opposite.  Tales of lives gotten off track are not new to such people; any set-back is rightly seen in today’s Christian churches chiefly as an opportunity to get back on track and honor God going-forward.

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Sara Palin changes the race considerably.  She is by all accounts a decent woman, a principled pro-lifer, and a real conservative.  The problem is that she’s running with a guy that is impulsive, difficult, anti-conservative, pro-immigration, and foolish on foreign policy.  It’s hard to vote for McCain simply because he’s picked a solid running mate.

Further, she has been a conservative in a place where it’s easy to be conservative.  How will she fare when accused of helping the rich, being in the pocket of “Big Oil,” racism, “hating the poor,” and all the other typical charges of the media against principled conservatives?  Will she embrace McCain’s interventionist spirit which defines events in Georgia and Sudan as indistinguishable from those in Afghanistan or Mexico?  So far, she appears already to have backed off from the charge she was a Buchananite in ’96, as if that were disqualifying. It reminds me of my ambivalence about Harriett Miers, who sounded decent enough, but didn’t appear too sharp and obviously had no stomach for the name-calling one must endure as a principled conservative.  Further, any beef on her experience is kind of ridiculous considering Obama’s mediocre record and permanent candidate status in his two years in the Senate.  Moreover, Palin’s actually cut spending, cleaned up corruption, and made executive decisions when she was not out hunting Caribou and winning beauty contests.  This is more than Biden, Obama, and McCain can say for themselves.

McCain and Buchanan are about as far apart as two candidates could be in the Republican Party, and it is a bit of an idle hope that someone so young and devoid of a power base as Palin could turn McCain and DC in the right direction.  The opposite appears far more likely.

Nonetheless, her addition is a great positive for the Republican Party and as a purely political matter has reinvigorated McCain’s hitherto listless campaign.  Even if McCain loses, she would be well positioned in 2012 to lead the party back to its small government, self-reliant roots.

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I think Obama’s talk about McCain’s houses will not fly.  The usual implication of wealth in a political campaign is that someone is out of touch with and indifferent to the sufferings of ordinary people.  But as a former military man and POW, McCain will always have “street cred” with the working classes as someone who has suffered in his life, and, better yet, suffered for his country. 

These charges won’t stick.  It’s part of a general odd tone of the Obama campaign, as if any attack is equal to any other.  There is no narrative unity.  Consider Obama’s whiney argument that McCain (and his surrogates) should not question his patriotism, and in return he won’t question McCain’s.  Huh? McCain’s commitment to the country is undeniable. He might be wrong-headed and embrace a liberal version of open-borders, but his subjective intent and life experiences count for something.  Obama, by contrast, spent much of his life affiliating with people highly critical of the country and its core institutions, people like Jeremiah Wright and terrorist Bill Ayers.  Coupled with symbolic acts like his resistance to rituals like the national anthem, frankly his patriotism is questionable.  Either way, he should stay off the topic.  It is as if McCain were to say in pseudo-magnaminous fashion, “I won’t question my opponent’s commitment to civil rights.”  No shit.

By contrast,the Rezko stuff and Obama’s shady housing deals are easily coupled with Obama’s prep school years and Ivy League alma maters and occasional resentment of America to show him as a guy who thinks he is so smart and so worthy that the rules do not apply to him. Instead of reflexively suggesting that McCain’s snobbery is extant and equal to his own, Obama would benefit by contrasting his native smarts with McCain’s pig-headedness and bad judgment.  This character debate is a dead-end for Obama and ultimately helpful to McCain. 

Obama has another challenge. He has boxed himself in by campaigning like this post-political voice of reason.  Every time he strikes or strikes back, even if it’s reasonable on the merits, it hurts his main narrative and marks him as indistinguishable from every other politician.  You at least knew that Clinton played hard-ball the minute he got rolling in 1992.  Of course, this “post political” narrative should have been deconstructed a long time ago.  This charlatan rose through the ranks of Chicago politics and has played the race cards about as frequently and obnoxiously as McCain appealed to his POW credentials.  We have too power-obsessed biography candidates who avoid ever being clear about any real policy matters. 

In the end, this stuff is only of mild academic interest to me.  I find this campaign boring beyond belief, not least because I don’t plan on voting for either of the two front-runners, and I find them both to be slaves to political correctness, unserious in their treatment of our nation’s problems, and both represent different variations of consensus liberalism.

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Obama’s flip-flopping is more dangerous than it is for most candidates because it cuts against the central theme of his campaig:  that he was a new kind of politician who would speak plainly, deliver bad news, and work in good faith with both sides to address persistent long-term problems that are politically costly to address.  It’s not just a question of inconsistency or whether he is a closet liberal.  He is and inconsistent but quite obviously open and avowed liberal, when you listen carefully.  It’s a question of whether he is a coward, exemplified by his numerous “present” votes in the Illinois legislature and federal Senate.

Consider his latest statement on Iraq:

As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces. That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.

Talk about triangulation.  This 95% draw down of troops coupled with training cadres may be a good compromise.  But it does not match his primary rhetoric, which was explicitly against any involvemetn in Iraq.  Leaving troops to fight al Qaeda and train Iraqis is a huge exception that could easily metastasize into logistics support, force protection troops, etc.  Let’s not forget, Vietnam began with training troops and the addition of U.S. Marines to protect airfields in Danang, something I doubt Obama is too familiar with. 

I would ordinarily applaud the prudence of Obama on something like this, but I don’t think his more ardent anti-war supporters would.  And I’m reluctant to see anything all that encouraging, as I think on Iraq, as on everything else, his domestic political goal of accruing and keeping political power drives all of his decisionmaking, including on sensitive matters of foreign policy.  If McCain is driven by the politics of honor and grand historical gestures, Obama is driven by the small politics of popularity.

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Obama excited the Democratic base for several reasons.  He is young, obviously smart, thoughtful, a good speaker, and charismatic.  He is black, which excited blacks who are unusually tribal in matters political, but he also excited younger whites indoctrinated in multiculturalism since their infancy and unimpressed with the GOP’s conventional choices.  FInally, and most importantly, he was forthright on the war, an issue that seperated him dramatically from the cynical Hillary Clinton.  Even anti-war conservatives have given him serious consideration on account of this stand.  Now he’s damaged his credibility on this issue after weeks of damaging his credibility in general by making a move to the center. 

Daniel Larison remarks:

[I]t seems to me that the charge that Obama committed a first-class political blunder going into a long weekend is basically right.  Having already given substance to the idea that he will abandon important pledges made during the primaries with his flips on the FISA legislation and public financing, and having apparently reversed himself on at least a couple other questions in the space of a few weeks, it was an unusually poor time to be “inartful,” as they like to call it, about one of the central policy questions of the day.  Even if Obama’s remarks were completely consistent with past statements, which I think is not the case, he had nonetheless set himself up over the last few weeks to be attacked for yet another shift on a major policy.  If the McCain campaign has a problem coming up with a coherent message, Obama’s campaign has its own problems with message discipline.  Having just shaken the confidence of many of his supporters over the FISA bill and having opened himself up to being portrayed as opportunistic on something as fundamental as constitutional protections, this was hardly the time to start talking about “refining” anything.  The Obama campaign wants the candidate to display thoughtfulness, but they don’t seem to think very much about how the candidate’s phrases will be interpreted by supporters and critics alike. 

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