Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flip-floppery, Pots, and Kettles

It seems, of late, any time the Obama campaign puts out a policy statement, whether it's on the war, on FISA, on guns, or what have you, the McCain camp finds some nuance of difference between it and some earlier statement to pounce on to portray Obama as flip-flopping, insincere, pandering, politically expedient, etc. The mainstream media always seems all too ready to buy into these talking points as fact. It simply isn't true though. Obama has not fundamentally shifted his position on any issue. To be sure, he may be emphasizing different aspects of his position to appeal to a general electorate than he did during the primaries, but all candidates do this. By saying his troop withdrawal plans could be updated due to the facts on the ground, he wasn't abandoning any pledge to have all troops out within 16 months. He's said his goal is to have combat forces out within 16 months, but he's said all along there could be variations on account of changing circumstances. Only George Bush insists (and thinks it demonstrates courage) on stubbornly plodding along with his original plan regardless of the actual facts on the ground. The major difference between Obama and McCain with regard to the war in Iraq, is Obama sees withdrawal of combat forces as a short-term goal, and McCain does not. Whether the actual withdrawal will take place is 14 months, 16 months, or 18 months is immaterial at this point.

On the FISA bill, I happen to disagree with Obama. I would have voted against the bill, but that does not make his position unprincipled. He made it clear that while he opposes immunity, he views this bill as the best compromise he could get. I don't agree. I think he could have pushed for better, but his judgment on the matter is still entirely consistent with what his position has been all along. The art of compromise, of knowing when to give up on getting something you want in order to get something else you want, is invaluable to any successful politician.

Regarding the supreme court cases about the death penalty and the right to bear arms, his support again represents no shift in his position. While he's spoken about limiting the usage of the death penalty, and making sure it's applied fairly, he's never been for abolishing the death penalty altogether. Furthermore, he's on record from his days as a law professor as believing the second amendment conveys an individual right to bear arms.

So what's actually going on here? It's a two-step process. First the McCain campaign and their accomplices in the mainstream media convert all of Obama's positions into some bizarre absolute. They find the least sensible way one could possibly frame the liberal agenda and pin that on Obama. Now, having successfully convinced everyone of his extremist positions, when he expresses the sensible, moderate positions, he's expressed all along, it follows that he must be flip-flopping. Makes sense, right? If you're as confused as I am, you just may be smarter than the mainstream media.

What really bothers me about this charge is not merely its fallaciousness. Political campaigns always distort the records of their opponents. That's to be expected. What bothers me the most isn't even the way the mainstream media complicitly goes along with it, reporting campaign talking points as if they were facts. The media's always had a love affair with John McCain. I'm not surprised. What bothers me the most is the sheer audacity of the charge. If ever there were a perfect instance of "The pot calling the kettle black," this is it. If you're going to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping you damn well be the textbook model of ideological purity. But John McCain has flip-flopped more than any candidate in recent history, taking whatever position was most politically convenient at any given time over the past 8 years. And these are not minor nuances of different or mere shifts in emphasis. He's been on both sides of many major issues, often at the same time. This includes for and against tax cuts. For and against torture. For and against the religious right. For and against FISA. For and against immigration reform. Frankly, the only position I'm sure John McCain believes in is that he really, really, really likes war.

Personally, I've never believed ideological purity is the best measure of a politician. It takes a lot more than ideological purity to get things done, and it's better to have an impure good ideology than a pure bad one. Minds do, and should change with time. It's far better, I think to judge a candidate based on what they're campaigning on now than on real or apparent inconsistencies with what they've said in the past. However, if the media insists on looking at the candidates through the prism of ideological purity, it's about time they turn it around and look at the candidate they love so dearly.

As a final note, the only good, I think, that can come of this excessive harping on flip-flopping is that if the electorate becomes convinced that both candidates are just typical politicians, this year typical Democrat ought to beat typical Republican by a landslide.

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4 and True American Patriotism

In honor of our nation's Independence day I wanted to reflect on what it really means to be an American patriot. It seems that in the political arena, most of the time we hear talk about patriotism, it's coming from the right, specifically in the form of questioning the patriotism of those on the left. Ever since 9/11 (really ever since Viet Nam, but in a particularly intensified form since 9/11) the Republican party has tried (often successfully) to portray anyone who does not throw their full support behind their president in whatever he decides to do, as somehow unpatriotic, disloyal or siding with the terrorists. But while Republicans may talk about patriotism a lot, I often wonder if they have any idea what really means. For them, it seems to be about wrapping yourself in the flag, being prepared to die for you country good or bad, and having unquestioning trust that George Bush can keep us safe. I don't think John McCain is lying when he says he loves America, but what does loving America mean when you are preaching the same blind jingoism that runs counter to everything America was founded on? What does in mean to say you love America, when at the same time are preaching that the president should violate and shred the Constitution of the United States with impunity? Faith in one's country without any logical reason has been seen before in history, and typically bears the name fascism. Real patriotism is about a love of the values this country was founded on, and a desire to constantly force the country to be even truer to its own values. This of course, includes criticizing America when it deviates from them. Under President Clinton, America used its army with moral purpose. We were a respected leader in the world. Since Bush took office, America is seen as greedy and imperialist, with only its narrow self-interests in mind. The Republican party has stripped America of its moral standing and moral authority, and McCain preaches nothing but more of the same. How would we plausibly be believed to be promoting freedom and liberty abroad when we're actively trying to undermine it back home? How can we tell other countries about government being accountable to the people when our own government has done everything it can to avoid accountability? Yes, I think the crimes of our current government amount to no less than treason, and John McCain, for supporting them, is an aider and abettor. It's about time Democrats stop responding to attacks on their patriotism, with meek "We're patriotic too," defenses. We should go out on the offense, tell people what the flag really stands for, and remind people just how unpatriotic the Republicans have been. Is Barack Obama the perfect candidate? Of course not. But at least he knows what it means to be a patriot.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wesley Clark, Military Service, and the Presidency

The latest media-contrived controversy du jour seems to be surrounding Gen. Wesley Clark's comments on Face the Nation this past Sunday that supposedly impugn John McCain's patriotism and seek to discredit his military record. Even the Obama campaign has already started to distance themselves from the comments on the grounds that they would never question another candidate's patriotism. However, looking at the comments, Gen. Clark did nothing of the sort. All he said was that getting shot down is not a qualification to be president, and that being in a non-decision-making position in the military does not indicate you have a better understanding of foreign policy. He didn't call him a babykiller. This wasn't a Swift-Boat type attack that tried to undermine his valor in uniform. He acknowledged that McCain is an American hero. He just reminded us that it takes more than being a hero to be a good president. There ought not to be anything controversial in his comments. I've been saying these things for months. Of course we respect and honor what McCain went through in Viet Nam, but serving with valor does not qualify you to be president. As the McCain and Obama campaigns criticize these remarks, what are they trying to say? That they feel being shot down is a qualification to be president? If that's the case, Obama might as well drop out of the race and endorse McCain.

The funniest thing, I think, about Gen. Clark's comments is that he seemed to be offering more of an explanation for him to be president, than for Obama to be president. After all, for all of McCain's lack of real foreign policy credentials, Obama doesn't exactly have them either. Neither candidate has ever been in a decision-making position when it comes to foreign policy. I suppose Clark was probably trying to do this as a clever ploy to get himself picked as vice president. Judging from the Obama campaign's reaction, it seems to have backfired, though unfairly so. I've already given my opinion about a Clark vice presidency in the last post and I won't say any more about that now.

Four years ago, John Kerry tried to play up his valiant service in Viet Nam as giving him strong foreign policy credentials. Let's hope this tactic works as well for McCain as it did for Kerry. The fact is, military people have a mixed record as presidents, just like non-military people. After all, all of McCain's so-called experience gave him neither the clairvoyance to appreciate the dangers of the war in Iraq, the intelligence to understand who our enemies are and how they think, or the judgment to know when to use force and when to use diplomacy. Obama has shown himself smarter and better prepared on all of these issues despite his short resume. The last 4 elections have each pitted a candidate who served in the military against one who didn't. Each time the one who didn't one. This time around, at least, let's hope that trend continues.