Sunday, October 19, 2008

Election Choice 2008

It has always been my intent that this blog be politically objective and as non-partisan as possible. Sometimes that is hard to do when discussion has to confront the actions of an individual. In those instances, I have tried to focus my commentary on the ethical and/or spiritual principles illustrated by those actions.

Tonight, I have to confront that same delicate dilemma. But there is a very important, if not critical, presidential election coming up in two weeks. Perhaps not THE most important election in our history as some have inappropriately called it (think Washington, our first; Lincoln on the eve of our country’s attempted dissolution; FDR on the eve of WW II). But certainly critically important in setting tone, priorities and directions for the next four to eight years after the disaster of the last eight.

So what should guide us when we enter the voting booth and try to make that important choice? Health care delivery is in desperate need of wholesale surgery. Our educational system needs a major re-schooling in how we communicate knowledge and inspire learning in students of all ages. The financial industry requires new insurance policies against greed and folly. Alternative energy solutions need a jump-start. Our overall economic environment needs to find a new delicate balance between regulation and control without stifling the incredible creativity of American entrepreneurs already waiting in the wings with new innovations. Ending our “first-strike” war and its attendant runaway unfunded costs while still enhancing our national security must be accomplished SOON.

Yes, these topics are all very important issues for voters these days. They are the principal grist of speeches and debates and position papers being thrown at the public in a never-ending stream each day. Yet as important as they are at this particular moment, I do not believe that they are the fundamentals on which our votes should turn. They are today’s alarms. Tomorrow, there will be others screaming for attention. And next month others still. Our 1-day vote has to therefore turn on a longer view of more fundamental criteria. And for these I would suggest the following as the truly critical needs for our country:

The first fundamental need is to restore our Rule of Law. In the past eight years, our Constitution has been trampled by politicalization, partisanship, prejudice over process, secretive decisions, official disinformation and factual distortion, and the loss of individual freedoms tending to a new “guilty until proven innocent.” Our Constitution and the laws derived from that are what keep our system of governing whole. Losing that framework sends the country ever closer to spinning out of control. The litany of specifics and examples is too numerous to list here, but has fed a steady stream of news reports to an increasingly fearful and cynical public. Restoration of governmental respect for law and its impartial administration is a first-order priority.

The second critical need is to reclaim our role as a True World Leader that we squandered after the special opportunity presented to us after 9-11. Ending the unilaterally-acting bully that we have become, lecturing the world on its conduct while ignoring the shortcomings of our own. In spite of all the difficulties we read about every day, the world is in fact poised to do some great things IF brought together in concerted actions without demonizing and finger-pointing each other. Without separating us into two absolute good guy/bad guy demarcations. And without insisting that every country and every people think the same, act the same, govern the same. This will only happen with fresh thinking about world views, conciliatory and respectful interactions with all peoples, embodying humility instead of arrogance, and providing the leadership of quiet demonstration of our values instead of empty rhetoric about values not truly lived.

The third critical need is to provide Competence in Governing. Winning elections may be a necessary first step to governing, but the supposed purpose in winning is to enable one to then govern competently and fairly across the broadest sweep of the many conflicting constituencies and positions of the American people. After 8 years of mediocre performance delivering critical needs, after 8 years of legislative stalemate or pandering to one narrow constituency, after 8 years of financial irresponsibility by both parties, talented competent people with technical skills for their jobs along with big-minded thinking (instead of small-minded parochialism) is necessary. “Shaking things up” is NOT what is needed; things have already been shaken up so badly they are completely broken. We need to put all of Washington’s Humpty-Dumpty parts back together again in a way that they work together as a whole, not instigate more fighting and arguing and shouting. This rebuilding will not happen with someone who continually criticizes and cannot deliver his own base party; one cannot claim bipartisan leadership if he cannot even show effective leadership of his own partisan party.

These are the three key criteria. Put these cornerstone changes of attitude and method into place, and all the detailed issues that will certainly come and go will have a chance to be properly resolved. Without those cornerstones, it will be more of the same that we have already experienced.

When I look at these two completely distinctive candidates, only one appears to have a chance to achieve these changes. We do not need a twin set of would-be mavericks to “kick butts” in Washington, we need a person who can listen to all sides and find a workable middle ground that moves us forward. We do not need a shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness, we need a thoughtfulness that thinks through actions to their probable conclusions. Given two candidates neither of which comes from an executive/administrator background, we can only look at how each has run his campaign for clues as to how he might govern; only one has demonstrated a well-managed campaign across the country for the duration of this campaign using innovative 21st-century techniques while surrounded by top-quality advisors that have stayed steady yet adaptable and responsive to events throughout. Only one has shown the capacity to look at old issues from a new perspective. In these times, we do not need a person with a legendary temper and petulance, qualities that are now on full public display.

For this important election, it is as much about repudiating where we have been as it is about talking an informed risk in casting a hope for tomorrow. One candidate is simply from a past time, a different era, and time has moved on. It is time this country moves on with the other candidate. The resume may be shorter, but it is the RIGHT resume. It is the resume of Barack Obama.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

McCain's Lost Way

“For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Jesus, Mark 8:36)

For many years I was an admirer of John McCain. The story of his imprisonment in North Viet Nam was a compelling statement of his character and strength of will. He continually talked about a willingness to decide political questions on their own merits, regardless of political party position or any popularity contest. He seemed willing to work with Senate colleagues of either party to accomplish the country’s legislative needs, as we often used to see in Congress in the 1950s/1960s. He was warm and accessible to news reporters, credited with being a “straight talker.” It was my belief that throughout this time he genuinely acted from a firmly held core value of “honor” that drove his actions.

Then eight years ago, he ran for president. He did well for awhile, until he went to South Carolina for its primary election against Bush the Junior. Here he ran into the new Republican attack-dog politics, and he lost. John McCain was never the same thereafter. The navy man who is the son and grandson of admired and successful naval admirals had come up short; failed and unsuccessful. He was forced to watch his rival George go on into the presidency that he had seen as belonging to him. “Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned,” but ambition is never so fueled as by the failure to live up to success expectations one perceives on him-/herself.

So after 4 years of lying in wait until his next opportunity could arise (preparing for the 2008 election), a very different John McCain emerged. One we did not recognize at first, until our slight confusion gradually gave way to a clear view of this new persona. John McCain had learned the “how to succeed” lesson all too well. Like the based-on-reality fictional Willy Stark who was beaten down by the entrenched political machine in the 1940s movie All The King’s Men, John took the devil that had beaten him and made that devil his new campaign platform.

So began the turnaround. He served as a commencement speaker for the evangelical preacher that he had once (accurately) denounced as a purveyor of hate and intolerance. He suddenly was a new forceful advocate for a Republican right agenda that he supposedly had always supported, albeit apparently not for public view. Ronald Reagan was now revealed to be his model and hero, though McCain has neither Reagan’s oratory skills nor his vision, and he glosses over Reagan’s true legacy of expanded government and bloated deficits from giving tax cuts on upper incomes. And after years of pronouncing himself to be a true-blue (true-red?) Republican supporter of free markets and deregulation, one Wall Street meltdown later he is all for “strong oversight and regulation of the financial industry.” Having for years understated his war experiences (as most war veterans similarly do), he now rolls out those stories at every opportunity in a play for the nobility / sympathy vote. (Notwithstanding that being a captive in war does not in/of itself make one either inherently more patriotic nor any more qualified to be Commander in Chief!)

In short, it is now a strategy of do and say anything and whatever is needed to get elected. George Bush and his team were singularly all about being elected; they had no clue about subsequently GOVERNING this country. John McCain is now about winning at any cost. The man who last spring promised to run a “respectful” campaign has so far done anything but. He is almost universally seen as the dirt-thrower this go-around, moving beyond the “stretching the truth” to outright and undeniable lies approaching “swift boat” demagoguery. Interestingly, he even uses a new campaign tactic of accusing his opponent of exactly his own weaknesses before they can be used against himself. The man who helped to write the current rules that try to limit the influence of lobbyists and their money in politics is now shamelessly surrounded by same. The man who thankfully protested against political sleaze in 2000 has become the poster boy for that very sleaze. Not surprising given that his campaign team is led by former Bush team players. And he caps this reversal of character by choosing an increasingly obvious incompetent running mate whose only qualification was to be a philosophical bone to the political party who doesn’t really trust (or like) McCain as their own candidate in the first place. This rather than truly considering “country first” and selecting a highly credentialed associate capable of leading this country if and when necessary.

The sad part is that I actually do not write this blog item as a specific criticism of John McCain the political candidate. Rather, I write it as a commentary about what happens when one loses sight of who she/he is, when the push of our inner demons and self-perceived inadequacies cause us to forget who we are truly about. It is what happens when winning by any means replaces integrity, and ambition trumps honor. In these incredibly difficult times, this country needs some hard, thoughtful discussions about the issues that face us. The opportunities that are possible, and the choices that we need to make. The ways we can find some common ground that has been missing, so that we can move forward instead of spinning in do-nothing circles.

This is a time when we need conversations among a wide variety of thoughtful and experienced persons. This is a time when we could benefit from the contributions of John McCain’s thinking and dialog. But not this erratic John McCain who we no longer know. We need the John McCain that we thought we knew in 2000. The one who seemed to speak from core values of honesty, integrity, and fairness. Unfortunately, that John McCain who once acted from a personal place of deep honor is now nowhere to be seen.