Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Conventional fiction

Poor Anne Applebaum.  A columnist for the Washington Post who specializes, according to her, in foreign affairs, Applebaum reluctantly concludes in her Op-Ed piece this morning that she cannot, as much as she would like to, vote for John McCain. Instead, Applebaum, unless she decides to take a pass, will vote for Barack Obama, whom she calls the "least experienced, least tested candidate in modern presidential history."

Applebaum is not unique among the Post's stable of Op-Ed foreign affairs specialists, such as Fred Hiatt, Jackson Diehl, David Ignatius and Jim Hoagland, all of whom, at one time or another, have paid tribute to John McCain's superior knowledge of military and national security matters and have praised him, as Applebaum describes him, as a "foreign policy intellectual."  Seriousness about foreign affairs in Washington is defined, first of all, as beginning with Republican assumptions about toughness and force while acknowledging that diplomacy and multi-lateralism, the twin pillars of the Democratic foreign policy, have their place -- and never the other way around.  Bi-partisanship and its virtues, of course, reign supreme over any other qualities that a serious thinker must possess to earn the designation as a serious thinker by Washington opinion-makers, who themselves are serious thinkers because of their own commitment to bi-partisan solutions. And, for reasons that will forever remain mysterious, John McCain is considered by those who trumpet themselves as "foreign policy intellectuals" as the ultimate serious bi-partisan problem solver.  McCain might be able to recite more names of more leaders in foreign countries than many of his colleagues and even identify more countries on a globe than most geographically-challenged Americans.  But that doesn't make him an intellectual, as four qualities I would never associate with John McCain are thoughtfulness, skepticism, deliberateness or open-mindedness.  

So what's new, right? A broken-hearted member of the Washington Establishment who can't bear to reconcile the image that John McCain has manufactured for himself over the years with the John McCain that votes and behaves as he does.  Applebaum cites McCain's opposition to torture and his willingness to call the White House's plan to establish military commissions exempt from any laws whatsoever as an example of using uncivilized means to achieve goals related to war (as if the barbarism that is war can be called civilized).  But then forgets to mention that McCain gave in to the White House on torture when the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which permitted the Bush Administration to go right on ahead doing what it was doing in Guantanamo Bay and wherever else it has prisoners locked away.  Presidents can't torture alleged terrorists held in lawless detention facilities; only Congress can authorize the president to torture alleged prisoners and attempt to deny them their constitutional rights. Too bad the Supreme Court, which consists of seven Republican-apointed justices, doesn't agree.

McCain's brilliance, sense of honor and, best of all, bi-partisan spirit aren't the only pieces of fiction that Applebaum's column perpetuates. Worse, in some ways, is her conclusion that Barack Obama is the "least experienced, least tested" presidential candidate in modern times.

And that conclusion begs this question: when did the "modern presidential" era begin? Did it begin with John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 after barely one term as a United States senator and three terms as a congressman who was not known for his diligence and hard work? Did it begin in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president after just one term as the governor of Georgia, a term he spent mostly campaigning for higher office? Did it begin with two-term California governor Ronald Reagan, the first president elected since Dwight Eisenhower not to have ever held a federal elected office? Or Bill Clinton, who, yes, had served as governor of Arkansas since what seemed like his 12th birthday? Neither Carter, Reagan nor Clinton had any foreign policy credentials, Carter's early, promising and brief career in the Navy aside.  And there is, of course, George W. Bush, who spent most of his life at the children's table in his own family before his Daddy's friends got him elected governor of Texas in 1995.  There he served for slightly over one term, most of which, like Carter, he spent campaiging for the presidency. 

Four of the last five elected presidents (not counting Gerald Ford) had no other "credential" prior to taking the presidential office than a term or two or 67 (in Clinton's case) as governor. Going all the way the back to 1932, when, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the modern presidency is considered to have begun, the "experience" factor wasn't much different than it was when Jimmy Carter became the first governor elected president since, well, F.D.R. The man considered the greatest president of the 20th century and perhaps ever by most presidential historians (and Ronald Reagan) had two years in the New York state senate and a partial term as New York governor before he brought the New Deal to Washington and revolutionized everything about American politics.  In case you need a reminder of F.D.R's legacy, look at the response of the Bush administration to the current financial crisis.  From the power of government to intervene in the "private sector" to the proposed plans to bail out this peculiar economic oligarchy of failed capitalists from themselves, the actions of the Bush administration owe everything to the New Deal and nothing to the Reagan years.  Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke could have pointed to the Reagan-era rhetoric of free market magic and self-correction and simply let the bodies pile up on Wall Street and beyond. But that was never a possibility . . . no, not with the New Deal legacy alive and well.

Barack Obama, just like every person who has ever run for president, has his flaws.  And like every person who has served as president, he will disappoint his most devoted partisans and confirm the suspicions of those who opposed him and/or secretly hope to see him fail.  His successes and/or failures will be the result of many factors within his control (his appointments to the Cabinet, the courts, his judgment and decision-making in times of crisis) and plenty more beyond it (another 9.11, Russia, too intimidated by Sarah Palin's anti-moose artillery battery, skips Alaska and attacks Canada, Wal-Mart goes bankrupt or the Cubs win the World Series and he's pushed out of office in favor of Lou Pinella).  Perhaps the Anne Applebaums of the world will point to his "lack of experience" and insufficient "testing" as the reasons for his inability to scale the heights of greatness that a less snookered version of John McCain (circa 2000) may well have reached.

But, as with most everything else that passes for conventional Washington wisdom on matters of weighty and serious importance, their collected wisdom is closer to fiction than reality.

1 comment:

Rob Kimball said...

Professor,
I agree with you to an extent that Ms. Applebaum's piece, which I just skimmed over lunch, perpetuates a few inaccuracies about both candidates. However, she also makes a valid point about McCain. He really has presented a different candidacy than we saw in 2000. Gone is the willingness to buck the party line on issues when he saw fit (I refuse to use the "M" word).

McCain must have been so frustrated by his loss to Our Fearless Leader that he was powerless to resist the poison apple Rovian campaigners dangled before him in 2008. In his struggle to win over an electorate with which he is increasingly out of touch, he outsourced his judgment to an attack machine that America has seen enough of.

We will look back on this election as a great moment for America regardless of the successes or failures of an Obama administration (how's that for prognostication). The greatest gift the interminable '08 campaign has had is the shift in voters like Applebaum, people I do not agree with but who have as much as a vote as I do. They still frustrate me with their sound bytes, but they are even more frustrated with the crumbling platform of their party.

When Karl Rove's Republicans implode violently on Nov. 4th, people like Applebaum will be ready to re-create a party that the we can disagree with, but at least respect.

Wall of text over. Hope all's well.