Sunday, October 19, 2008


During the last debate I couldn't help being struck by how at ease Obama seemed, while McCain seemed off-kilter, grasping at loose ends. In fact, the impression I received several times, especially with that split screen effect, is that I was watching two U.S. senators trading shots, but one of them, the old guy, who was trying to appear more knowing and experienced than the younger senator, at one point seemed to realize that he should be taking notes: that this new guy knows what he's talking about and how to talk to people, and what's more, he's going to be president. If in the future I ever have to think back to when I recognized Obama as the legitimate president, it will be that debate. My feeling was: better take some notes, John, and if you want to fight this guy you better go back to the Senate to do it. This other fight is over. Or, put another way: recall how, after Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, everyone started using the phrase "getting medieval" on someone. I think, after Obama's performance, we can talk about "getting presidential." Back off, John, don't make me get presidential on yer ass.

Which is all fine as entertainment goes, but the question I've been thinking about recently is: what's wrong with a Democrat president? In my lifetime there have been four: JFK (elected once), LBJ (elected once), Carter (elected once), and Clinton (elected twice). Why is that, one might ask. The answer seems to be, as I've been looking more into what the conservatives in our country have to say about it, that the Democrats can't be trusted with power because that means government will run our lives. The socialist state will dictate everything from where we send our kids to school, to which doctors we can see, and it will also tax us shamelessly (especially the rich of us) in order to redistribute wealth to a hoi polloi of have-nots who won't even be grateful and obsequious for the handouts but will just mouth off louder about their "right" to everything under the sun. The only way to avoid this, it seems, is to give power to people who have no real interest in fair play and who don't think twice about shafting the general population for the sake of those at the top of the heap -- and the only way for them to stay at the top with something like impunity is by letting the market dictate everything under the sun, so that those with money can make more money and by such vigorous economic activity (hindered by no more tiresome regulations) those at the bottom will be better off too.

In general, the conservatives decry "big government" (except that many of them think the deficit can get as big as is necessary to "defend our interests abroad" which usually translates into a blank check to the military . . . for some reason I can't grasp, money to the military, even under Reagan, is not perceived as "spending," only money for social goods like health, education, welfare, and environment are "expenses"; also, some conservatives, those to whom the ways of God are clear, are apt to profess that, while it should get out of the way of business, the federal government should simply outlaw certain things -- like abortion and gays, or, at least gay marriage . . . for some reason I can't grasp, it's God's will that a child be born, once conceived, but it's not God's will for abortion technology to exist (that's all man's or the devil's doing, I guess), nor is it God's will for people to be gay (again God's loyal opposition must be involved, somehow). In other words, it seems that to "frustrate the ends of nature" is to go against God's will, but only in these two areas having to do with sexuality. The ends of nature are frustrated all over the place otherwise. Maybe God intended for all that crude oil to remain below ground forever. In which case we are all most assuredly damned eternally.

Anyway, I've never been one for explaining the ways of God to man. At this point I'm even too confused to explain the ways of man to myself, thank you. I do recognize one trend in American voting, which is to say that maybe there is some kind of collective will that has pretty good common sense: it's generally better, all things considered, to have a Republican president and a Democratic majority in the Congress. In other words, it's dangerous to give either part a full majority in Congress AND the presidency, and if you're going to have to split it, that's the best way to split it. In other words, keeping executive and legislative as separate as possible seems to be the way in which the founding fathers' vision is maintained.

In fact, it seems to me that the various Republican revolutions of my lifetime have been efforts to undo the time when Democrats controlled both the executive and the legislative branches. It was called The Great Society and when it didn't work, LBJ terminated his political career prematurely and left his party in a shambles from which it never really recovered. If you think it recovered because it managed to get Carter elected, well, that's pretty naive because his election was simply an expression of dissatisfaction with what Nixon had become -- a housecleaning of "the crook." Carter took it as a way of saying "new blood in Washington," but didn't work with Washington enough to be effective, and things were tanking too quickly for the kind of learning curve he apparently needed. The Reagan revolution was, for many of us, simply business as usual. Reagan being, in many ways, the negative of FDR, which, it was perceived, was best for the highly competitive Cold War world which, after all, FDR never had to deal with. Fine, but even Ronnie had to do his repeal of the Great Society with only a marginal majority in the Senate, and Bush the 1st had to deal with Democratic majority, as usual.

That situation changed with Clinton, which is when, one might say, the Democrats (in a much more moderate and chastened version when compared to the late '60s) came back with a vengeance, with control of executive and legislative. Yes, and that's one reason why Clinton was hounded mercilessly once the Republicans with their "contract with America" took over the Congress in 1996. That, it seems to me, is the second worst of all possible scenarios: Democrat president with Republican Congress. The worst is what we had with W., for most of his time: Republicans in control of both and, worse, a renegade Republican in the executive trying to wield absolute power. Because one of the problems with the "no big government" angle when it is wielded by our top executive is that it tends to equate "government" only with the legislature. So that leaves the executive to be as "big" as he wants. But because W. has been such a fiasco, it seems we might have to go back to Democrats in charge of both to sort of stanch the bleeding, try to get the body politic stat.

But there is still cause for concern, if we judge by former Democrats in that particular seat: LBJ and Clinton, especially. One might liken the situation of immigrant labor to both the labor and civil rights issues of the '60s, with the unpopular war of Iraq doubling Vietnam, in which case, suddenly we're back to 1964 or, worse, 1968. And, on that front, the "togetherness" of the Democratic party (even the Clintons have been contained!) is a good thing, seeing as how it might actually win this time.

So, speaking of Clinton: as the most conservative of Democrats, Clinton really wasn't to be feared by the conservatives of this country which is why, to my mind, his presidency exacerbated the naked battle for power of the two party system: it wasn't that the Republicans could strongly disagree with Clinton's politics because he was much like Ronnie, Phase II, but younger and thus able to talk "touchy feely" rhetoric rather than that paternalistic fireside chat stuff. So the animosity against Clinton was at his preempting the Republicans, keeping them out of office by not pissing off the public through some lame-brained Democrat stunt (like getting us into a military debacle -- as JFK and LBJ did). So they went after him with everything they had, kept him swatting flies all through his second term, then managed to saddle us with a Republican leader more lame-brained than the most lame-brained of Democratic leaders ... and the rest, as they say, is infamy.

I guess what all this is trying to say is: I've never been sympathetic with the Republicans because they just ain't my people, but I've never had as much to fault the party with as now, after giving us W. and making us take it. (My personal feeling is that if McCain was such a god-damned "maverick," he should've muscled up and taken the party and the executive away from Bush in '04. The part in the debate that made me chuckle was when McC snapped "If you wanted to run against George Bush you should've run in 2004" -- no, YOU should've run in 2004, John, and what's more you should've done what was needed to beat that little jerk for the nomination in 2000, but anyway . . . "lots of water under the bridge, lots of other stuff too," as Dylan sez.)

But the other thing I'm saying is that the amazing thing about Obama is that he actually makes me trust the Democrats. OK, I admit I voted for Clinton in '92, but that was simply a necessary attempt to end the twelve year sweep of a Republican president. Time to give the other side a chance and, what's more, Clinton was the first electable person they'd come up with (I don't care what kind of case pollsters made for Mondale or Dukakis, they never really had a chance, though I will say that it's hard to imagine an election with less interest than when your choice is Bush Sr or Dukakis. That's definitely one to sit out, and a good example of the notion that the person who should be president is whatever stiff you can saddle with the task.)

But Obama's different than all that stuff and I don't base this statement on his programs or his voting record in the Senate (which doesn't tell you much, given the way the Senate works), but simply on the fact that I've never heard a political candidate speak so intelligently. And without talking down, which was Gene McCarthy's problem -- he truly was speaking only to the East Coast elite. Obama speaks with clarity and authority but without condescension and without folksy blather. I mean, of course, for the most part (this is a politician we're talking about here).

It also occurred to me, hearing everyone talk about McCain/Palin and their appeal to Joe Sixpack and Joe the Plumber and Rosie the Rivetter and whoever, that times have changed. The most successful personality in the history of television is a well-dressed, well-spoken black woman named Oprah who clearly must appeal to lots of white middle America in order to have the clout she does. And she doesn't wink at you or act like a caricature of a "soccer mom" and yet apparently she does speak to such demographics, if not necessarily for them. I think McCain's folky "my friends" act misfired, sounding more like the snake oil salesman of so many films ("I've got the solution for you, my friends, right here in this little black bottle") than the trustworthy man of intelligent deliberation and well-chosen words and deliberate action we could use now.

Shine your shoes, light your fuse
Can you use them ol' U.S. Blues?
I'll drink your health, share your wealth
Run your life, steal your wife
--Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, "U.S. Blues" (1974)


Andrew Shields said...

Not only do I feel like I could sit down and chat with Obama--that's probably something I could have done with Clinton or even with George H. W. Bush and Carter.

But I also feel like I could have an *intellectual* discussion with him!

That's one thing I like about him.

And as you imply: he's the first candidate that I can vote for who I really think could do something. Clinton was okay, but I certainly never found him exciting.

Donald Brown said...

I never thought about having a conversation with any presidents or candidates, but I see what you mean.