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Sun, 31 Aug 2008

Tickets Please

In case you happened to be away on vacation over the last several weeks and somehow managed to miss it, presidential politics has been front and center in the news. The Democratic party's convention has just completed, and the Republicans' festivities are shortly to get under way. And John McCain has (finally) just announced the name of his running mate, so now the presidential tickets are complete. 2008 has already been a very interesting political year, and now it looks like the fireworks are only just beginning.

(Disclaimer: It's an unfortunate fact of timing that the Republican convention will be starting only after this month's deadline, so I won't be able to comment on any of the goings-on there. Perhaps that's another article, if anything interesting is said or done there.)

Thanks to the choices made by the primary voters and the candidates themselves, the election of 2008 will turn out to be one for the history books -- one way or another, we will either elect a black man or a woman to one of the highest offices in the country. (Of course, the Democrats will point out that they'd "been there, done that" years ago: remember Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984? And the sincere (albeit quixotic) presidential campaigns of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson?) In a little less time than the proverbial biblical lifetime of threescore and ten years, the United States has gone from a deeply segregated society, one where a woman's place was more or less exclusively in the home, to one where a person's race or gender are no longer predominant concerns, and instead the primary focus is on how well he or she can do the job in question. And that is no small thing.

(And yes, I understand that, even today, not everyone in America is holding hands and singing "Kumbaya". In a nation of three hundred million, there are always going to be some percentage of people who are unabashedly and unrepentantly racist or sexist. But things like "Whites Only" signs are long gone, and overt sexism has been banished from much of the public and commercial sectors.)

One of the big discussions in the punditsphere during the run up to the Democratic Convention surrounded the "Clinton factor": would Hillary Clinton get the VP nod? What sort of face-saving compromise would the Obama and Clinton camps be able to engineer to recognize Clinton's successes in the Democratic primaries? Would Bill Clinton deliver a more whole-hearted and less tepid endorsement of Barack Obama? At times it seemed like the convention was going to be more about Hillary Clinton than the presumptive nominee.

But the Obama campaign was playing things very close to the vest, and their convention choreography did not put a single step wrong the entire time. Hillary gave a fine speech supporting Obama, and Bill did the same. The Clintons both clearly realized that this was not the time to split the party and bring about a rerun of the schisms between Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey that resulted in the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Senator Clinton is no doubt thinking ahead -- should Senator Obama lose the presidential election, she would be, with all due deference to Nancy Pelosi, the titular head of the Democratic party, and encouraging party unity is always a critically important leadership responsibility (not to mention the fact that she will be up for reelection to the Senate in 2012 if she decides to not take another shot at the presidency, so again, it would not do for her to alienate the pro-Obama portion of the party, even in New York).

The selection of Delaware's Joseph Biden as Barack Obama's running mate was not entirely unexpected. If Obama was not intending to select Hillary Clinton as his running mate, then choosing one of the stronger runners-up from the Democratic primary contests was certainly a sound strategy -- and after John Edwards took himself out of the running with his recent revelations about his personal life, Joe Biden was probably the strongest VP candidate left among the other contenders. He has served six terms in the Senate, and is liked and respected by members on both sides of the aisle.

Some people have compared his age and political experience with Obama's relative youth and inexperience, noting that President Bush's selection of Dick Cheney as Vice President resulted in Democrats carping that Cheney was the éminence grise of the administration; now Obama should expect similar claims to be made about himself and Biden. I believe the circumstances are slightly different for Obama and Biden than for Bush and Cheney. While Bush was, by his own admission, an "average" student, Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and taught at the University of Chicago; he seems unlikely to be intimidated in any sense by Biden's greater political experience. I think a better analogy to the Obama-Biden relationship was that of John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson. When asked why he had chosen Johnson as his running mate in 1960, Kennedy rattled off a list of all the usual "political" considerations, and then added, "and besides, if Lyndon were still in the Senate as Majority Leader, it wouldn't be worthwhile being President." Obama and Biden seem to get along well personally and politically, and I believe Obama will pay attention to Biden's advice and counsel.

Another charge leveled at the Obama-Biden ticket is that with his decades of Washington experience, choosing Biden as VP is hardly emblematic of the "change" Obama speaks of frequently. Yet despite his long tenure, Biden is hardly what one would call a "Washington insider". Unlike many of his colleagues in the Senate and the House, Biden returns home to Delaware nearly every evening to be with his children. His strong desire to put his family first means he spends little time on the DC social circuit. Compared to many of his colleagues at the Capitol, in this regard, Biden is certainly a "change" from the status quo.

Like anyone else Obama could have chosen, Biden has his own lot of political baggage and potential downsides. Because he ran against Obama in the early primaries, many statements Biden made about why he would be a better President than Obama will now be trotted out to be used against him on the grounds of inconsistency: how could you be against Obama then, and yet run with him now? This chestnut is as old as the American political landscape, and people generally understand that saying, "I would be better than So-And-So," does not necessarily imply that "I could never work with So-And-So," or "I could never support So-And-So." Anyone who thinks otherwise should recall the early days of this country, where the Vice President was the person who got the second-largest number of electoral votes, regardless of political party -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were bitter political rivals, yet Jefferson wound up serving as Adams' Vice President.

Biden also has a tendency to be more than a bit loquacious, rarely settling for a few simple words when there's an opportunity to prattle on and on. (In fact, one of the memorable moments from the Democratic primary debates was Tim Russert asking Biden if he would be able to cut down on his infamous verbosity, to which Biden paused, smiled, and simply said, "Yes".) And Biden has still to live down the gaffe from his presidential bid in 1987, where his stump speech borrowed sections from that of Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party in the U.K at the time; the gaffe was doubly unfortunate because Biden apparently had been attributing the passages in question to Kinnock when giving speeches earlier in the campaign, but failed to do so during one of the candidate debates.

In all honesty, you need only compare Biden's occasional mistakes and goofs with these pearls of wisdom from an earlier Vice President -- "Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as earth]....Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe." -- to realize that all of this is really fairly trivial in the bigger scheme of things. Biden is well qualified to be Vice President, and will be a formidable opponent for the Republican ticket on the campaign trail.

For weeks, even while the Democratic Convention was underway, there was a great deal of speculation in the pundit universe regarding who McCain's choice for Vice President would be. Many of the usual suspects were rumored to be on the so-called "short list": Mitt Romney, one of McCain's opponents in the Republican primaries and the former Governor of Massachusetts, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. A lot of speculation centered around Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat often at odds with his own party, and who would no doubt enhance McCain's "maverick" image. Perhaps one of the more unusual names being bandied about in the run up to the VP announcement was that of Meg Whitman, until recently the CEO of eBay (she was involved in Mitt Romney's campaign during the primaries, and is now one of the co-chairs of McCain's presidential campaign). Instead, McCain selected a true dark horse to be his running mate, first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

(As an aside, there is an interesting contrast between the Democratic and Republican tickets in terms of political roles: the Democratic ticket consists of two Senators, while the Republicans will nominate a Senator and a Governor. Somewhat surprisingly, given its more "senior" constitutional responsibilities, it's actually fairly rare for someone to move directly from the Senate to the presidency. The last person to do so was John F. Kennedy, and before that, the only other Senator who was elected President in the 20th Century was Warren G. Harding. Over the last thirty or so years, voters have been more inclined to favor Governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the current President) over Senators, perhaps reasoning that experience in the Executive branch of government is a better preparation for the presidency than legislative prowess gained in the Senate or the House. Of course, we will be electing a Senator this time around, but perhaps McCain is expecting Palin's gubernatorial experience (such as it is) to give the Republican ticket an edge in the general election.)

Sarah Palin brings many positives to the Republican ticket. First of all, she's a woman. The McCain campaign made a great deal of noise during the Democratic Convention about Obama's possible choices for a running mate, expressing its own seeming "disappointment" at the VP nod not having been given to Hillary Clinton. This blatantly transparent attempt to both sew discord in the opponent's camp and to court the female vote was probably also a signal about who McCain would eventually choose, a signal that apparently flew under the political pundits' radar screens. While many women would say that they are no more likely to vote for a candidate just because of the nature of her internal plumbing, the McCain campaign obviously sees something larger in play here, possibly reacting to the energizing experience of Hillary Clinton's campaign in turning out large numbers of women voters. Also, taking a "we can too" position on having a woman on the ticket vis-a-vis the Democrats removes one potential wedge issue from the campaign.

Second, Palin is a state governor, and so has the executive experience discussed earlier. (She also does have a smattering of legislative experience, having served two terms on the city council of Wasilla, Alaska.) Palin ran for Governor in 2006 on a clean-government, fiscal conservatism platform, defeating the current Governor in the primaries, and a former Governor in the general election. Her policies have been something of a mixed bag: on the one hand, she made a point of selling (for $2 million) a jet purchased by her predecessor, and canceling work on the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere"; on the other hand, her 2007 budget ($6+ billion) was the largest in Alaska's history. Palin has made energy development in Alaska a cornerstone of her administration, and has wound up taking positions that differ to some degree from those of John McCain -- for example, she strongly supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, which he opposes.

Perhaps McCain is willing to overlook differences like these in view of Palin's third strength: her Republican/conservative bona fides. She is a wife and mother of five (including one son in the military who is due to be sent to Iraq shortly), a lifetime NRA member, an evangelical Protestant, and an anti-abortion crusader who became a hero to the cause when she decided to have a baby who was likely to be born with Down's syndrome. (Despite all the yakking in the chattering classes about the advantages that Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman would bring to the Republican ticket, in the end the McCain campaign probably concluded that Lieberman's moderate-tending-to-liberal social views made him an untenable choice if McCain was to have much hope of retaining the moderate-tending-to-convervative Republican base.) The polls I have seen so far (with as much faith as one is willing to put into these "flash" surveys) show a rise in Republican support for the McCain-Palin ticket; there has also been a sudden and welcome infusion of financial support in the days since the announcement. How much of that would have happened anyway regardless of who McCain chose is anyone's guess, but the "buzz" over Palin is certainly a plus.

Is Sarah Palin another Jimmy Carter? Carter was a fairly unknown one-term Governor of Georgia, who emerged suddenly onto the national political scene in 1976 and went on to capture the party nomination and the presidency. (McCain apparently hopes for something of the same to happen with Palin this time around.) Like Carter and most governors of non-border states, Palin has no foreign policy experience to speak of. (The fact that Alaska borders with Russia across the Bearing Straits doesn't really count -- as Jon Stewart has pointed out, Alaska also faces the North Pole, so is Palin going to claim diplomatic experience with Santa?) Despite a promising start, Carter's presidency never really managed to achieve a great deal at home; the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, and the SALT talks with the Soviet Union were its key foreign policy achievements; and Carter's administration ended under the cloud of the Iranian hostage crisis. So perhaps being the rising star of the party and capturing the presidency "out of nowhere" is more a formula for a meteoric flash of a political career. McCain and Palin clearly hope not.

Once elected, which team will work better with the Congress? The Democratic team clearly has more Washington experience, and the fact that the next Congress will have the same or a larger Democratic majority ought to bode well for them. McCain has a lot of Washington experience as well, but Palin is an outsider's outsider, and adds almost nothing to the Republican ticket in terms of relations with Congress. McCain himself has a history of alienating some of his fellow Republicans to a greater or lesser extent, and he still has a way to go in terms of getting back in their good graces on Capitol Hill.

But having the President and the Congressional majority both from the same party is by no means a guarantee that political life in Washington will be nothing but fair skies and smooth sailing. In fact, it could be argued that more widely accepted and substantial work gets done when the two branches of the government are divided between the parties. When the same party is in power, sometimes the President and Congress wind up at loggerheads trying to compete with each other, each stymieing the other's efforts -- this happened in the Truman, Kennedy, and Carter administrations; Lyndon Johnson was more successful in working with a Democratic Congress mainly because he knew how to twist arms and work the levers of power there, and even still he eventually wound up in a kind of stalemate with Congress over the conduct of the Vietnam War.

In a divided government, in the absence of a veto-proof majority in Congress, both sides must of necessity compromise if anything substantial is to be accomplished. This generally means acting more towards the political center and marginalizing the extreme wings of both parties. "Divided" governments often accomplish more -- because almost nobody agrees with either party's platform on all the questions facing the nation, both sides seek a middle ground. While electing a Democrat means, at the margins, somewhat more government spending a regulation, and electing a Republican means policies more generally favorable to businesses, neither side acting alone would be likely to get everything they want (the ongoing expenditures for the "War on Terror" in Iraq in spite of concerted Democratic opposition are evidence of that). Hence working together to keep the Congressional wheels turning is the best way to secure any legislative accomplishments at all.

So where does all that leave us in this election? The Republicans are just gearing up for their fan-fest in St. Paul in the first week of September. McCain and Palin were already campaigning together in Ohio and Pennsylvania earlier this week. Obama and Biden are on the road as well. The primaries are over, and the general election campaign is well and truly joined. Both tickets are interesting blends of youth and energy with age and experience. The Obama campaign has a substantial war chest, but the McCain campaign took in nearly $7 million dollars just on the day he announced Palin as his running mate. Now comes the real test of the candidates' mettle -- the general election campaign tests each person running for stamina, for discipline, for the ability to think on their feet, to rally voters, to avoid gaffes (remember Gerald Ford's unfortunate remark about Poland "not being under Soviet domination" in 1976, or Michael Dukakis' cool demeanor in 1988 when asked a hypothetical question about the death penalty if his wife had been the one raped and killed), to raise funds, to inspire voters, to ask the quadrennial American question, "Where should we as a nation be going, and how should we get there?"

It's a question I'm looking forward to hearing a lot more about over the next two months, before I go into the voting booth and make my own small contribution to a much bigger event in American political history.

Posted Aug 31, 2008 at 19:58 UTC, 3141 words,  [/richPermalink

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