[The Doc asked me a question over email; I'm pretty sure I stand behind my answer (not having reread it, even before sending it on), so why not do so here? So, here.]
Good morning Doc -
So it seems the question at hand is, 'Why Obama over McCain?' With associations implied: 'McCain has been tested as a man in ways Obama hasn't. McCain has long years of experience in federal gov't, whereas Obama's political career began during the first Clinton administration. Leaving aside domestic concerns and policy differences re: taxes and such, whose finger do you want on the blinking red button, and why?'
One way I can keep myself from writing all day is to split this up into bullet points, at least initially.
Domestic politics. I can't actually leave this aside: McCain is in favour of permanent disastrous tax cuts, will surely roll over for antiabortion activists and other right-wing groups when it comes to appointing judges, has no plan for health care, etc. I think Obama's in the right on these issues as on others. In the next eight years we could see a radical expansion of civil union contract rights that would supersede marriage rights; Obama shares my wish to enshrine a broad contractual approach to civil unions, and my skittishness about extending the rights and privileges historically accorded childrearing couples to those with no such intent - skittishness about valuing love over responsible parenthood. I think he'll find a sensible middle way on an important moral issue.
Taking diplomacy and cultural power seriously. McCain's rhetoric on diplomatic communication is worrisome: he treats it as a way of displaying and consolidating power. I don't think the villainous Ahmadenijad can be negotiated with - but I do know that the people of Iran will respond to secular democratic outreach, to leach the power of politicized Islam from their government over time. That's not going to happen if we rain bombs on them. McCain and others (largely but not exclusively on the Right) seem to think that we've come to the end of a diplomatic process, that Iran is secretly at war with us, and so forth. The power vacuum in Iraq has emboldened and empowered Iran, by all reports, but we created those conditions (not the imbecilic beasts in power but the opportunities they've enjoyed this decade), and it appears that we haven't even begun to respond to them. I believe Obama is right that we are at the beginning, not the end, of a period of cultural and diplomatic engagement with Iran.
As for Iraq: Iraq will never be post-WWII Japan. That was true in 1991, and in 2002, and it's true today. Violence is decreasing throughout Iraq by all accounts. But we can't sustain our military posture there (by all reports), and moreover, we have a responsibility not to. If we went to Iraq to bring freedom from Hussein, what we owe the Iraqis now is freedom from occupation. The Iraqi government faces a lot of challenges when we leave and the U.S. can help the Iraqis deal with them - our government at its best is an extraordinarily effective engineering and planning organization with a huge security force and that's how we can best serve the Iraqis - but our war in Iraq has been a disaster for this country.
Torture. I know McCain's biography and I admire him; he knows something of himself that few people are ever forced to learn, and I'm willing to cut him a lot of slack because of the horrors he's experienced. The fact remains that America's most famous torture victim authorized torture in the Senate, and fought back long after the government's vile programs of murder, deportation, torture, and thuggery were well underway in military installations around the world. I can't pretend to know what that vote was like for McCain, but at some point, the biography of his youth is less important than the record of his actions as a leader. His main qualifications for entering the Senate in the first place were his war record, his atrocious educational record, his money (inherited), and his vibe (necessary to take Goldwater's seat!). Obama's qualifications are something else, starting with: he was right about Iraq (read the passages on the war in 'The Audacity of Hope,' they're chilling, and can be taken at face value), he's been right about the U.S. government's willingness to torture and murder, and he's right about the importance of turning those actions around as best we can.
McCain is with him on the third score - but McCain also wants to expand U.S. military intervention abroad. No matter what he says about torture and human dignity, he wants to capture and imprison thousands and thousands more people. We'll have to do something with them. Something would surely be done.
Lobbyists, etc. Of course McCain is beholden to lobbyists in ways Obama isn't - Arizona isn't exactly defense-contractor free, and the upper levels of his campaign have been leaking lobbyists lately. That's not an enormous concern on its own, but Obama is very clearly in the absolute right on this one: no lobbyist money, no PAC money, a dogged commitment to popular outreach. I think McCain's probably too old and too old-fashioned to fully grasp the way technology can enable new kinds of democratic engagement and outreach - which isn't his fault - but the fact remains that Obama is simply doing an end-run around traditional Washington power brokers and sources of donations. It was reported this month that the Obama campaign has reached out to groups like MoveOn and other such Democratic interest groups and asked them to direct fundraising inquiries toward the Party itself - to Obama's team. Cynics see this as consolidating power; I think it's an effort - foretold by his writing, his speeches, his political principles - to starve the powerful interest groups that prevent the Democratic Party from growing, that tie up technocratic liberalism in identity politics and culture-war diversion. I'm surprised to find myself applauding his plans for the Party.
I'm not a Democrat; I find the Party loathsome. I'm glad that Obama is trying to change it (by insisting, for instance, on constant outreach to Republicans - to push back against the popular but untenable and self-defeating dogma that tax cuts are an appropriate end in themselves, and to educate Dems about the concerns of the tens of millions who for various reasons, some but not all admirable, won't join their party). McCain doesn't represent any kind of break with Washington traditions; his campaign-finance reform crusade was and is important; I think he was right on the farm bill (one of our worst bills every time out, as I understand it); but his pandering has been both astonishing - because of his reputation - and yet utterly traditional. His 'gas holiday' talk is nonsense and shows economic myopia (at least Clinton threw in a windfall tax to pay for it - McCain's plan would simply give the oil companies a bonus). He's in favour of expanded immigration, yet panders aggressively to the 'nativist' Right (cf. his 'Immigration Reform' webpage, which contains zero content). He talks about Obama's willingness to enter diplomatic talks as 'appeasement,' agreeing with Bush's low-class attacks at the Knesset. He criticized last week's California marriage ruling, which was made by popularly elected judges, as a breach of federalism, 'judicial activism'!!
All of which comes down to something pretty simple: McCain has a reputation for 'straight talk,' and in some ways he admirably lives up to it. He seems like a Good Man, and has proven himself a hero. But I don't think his governing principles are particularly admirable; indeed I think there's plenty of evidence that he's far less principled than his supporters would like to think. He vacillates on almost everything except the talking points required to hold on to legitimacy as a Republican candidate, because he's yoked his wagon to the Party, and the Party is beholden some truly fucked up impulses. (e.g. Tax cuts as end in themselves, enshrinement not only of Christian 'values' [loosely and selectively defined] but of certain Christian practices and beliefs ['intelligent design' etc.], war on reproductive freedom and civil rights for homosexuals, suicidal insistence on primacy of automobile infrastructure, etc.) This isn't to say that all GOP members and voters hold these beliefs; it's that they support them, roll over for them, even agitate for them, because that's the Party's common currency right now.
McCain, who purports to represent a radical break with 'old-fashioned Washington' ways, may well be excited to suspend federal spending, but he won't say what he'll cut; he may believe in the power of the states, but he also believes in throwing more and more money at the military-industrial complex; he may want to restore dignity to government, but he's playing dirty pool with Obama, a candidate whose dogged insistence on comity and principle is what got him in trouble with the Wright and Ayers controversies, who has refused to play the partisan attack dog unlike his primary-season opponent, whose campaign has devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, and money to bringing new participants into American politics. In practice, McCain represents a continuation of Bush's style of governing.
The weird thing is, I think he's playing his specific policies close to the vest because some of them are sure to piss of Republican voters. And while I admire his willingness to step off the party line, I wish he'd confront the GOP directly (on sustainability and anthropogenic climate change, for instance - an issue on which he's one of the few top GOP guys with a real plan, whatever its merits). That makes me more sad than angry.
The next attack. So that's the biggie for a lot of voters, I suppose: Whose finger should be on the button? I think Obama's the more temperamentally stable candidate; he's a supporter of the U.S. military but a realist about its ability to bring positive change abroad (which is extremely limited for a variety of reasons); throughout his Senate tenure he's shown a willingness to work with Republicans and Democrats in a meritocratic way, rather than Bush's childish bullying style or McCain's pinballing approach; he's shown a willingness to talk tough, in line with the lamentable foreign-policy establishment, but has shown a sound and important reluctance to push the new isolationism (Bush has earned us many enemies and lost us many friends; on balance we're much more alone than we were on 9/10/01, his militarism-dressed-as-'internationalism' notwithstanding). Obama has been an educator, a civil rights lawyer, and a community organizer on Chicago's benighted South Side; McCain has been a soldier and a politician.
In other words, maybe the best reason to want Obama's finger on the blinking red button is that he's not looking forward to pushing it. He doesn't see that as the highest calling of a president, and McCain, for a variety of reasons (many out of his control), seems to see things just that way. Do I think Obama will 'fail to protect us' in some way? No - I think bad bastards will find new ways to hurt and kill Americans, as ever, and Obama will look for solutions that don't damage the fabric of human relations the world over. I think McCain won't even look. It's crazy to assume, as many seem to, that the country will be 'less safe' in 2009 because its leader is less bellicose than the last guy. He's much, much, much smarter than the last guy; knows how to get a deal made; knows how to drum up popular support without demonizing and lying; knows better than most the fragility of our civil rights and liberties and won't throw them out the window the moment things look scary. Like John McCain, he's lived a life that's known states other than absolute privilege; unlike McCain, he's never demanded respect at gunpoint. Yet here they are: and we risk much if, in the shadow of the old soldier McCain, we see a young pup where a young lion waits.
[I ended up cutting my first attempt at a closing line, but I like the casualness: 'All this and he's a young black guy.' Which is a big deal but I wouldn't want it to be interpreted the same way as, say, 'A vote for Hillary is a vote for all women,' which is laughable nonsense.]