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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Bordeline: Demand something better

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: Opinions

The real contest in this year’s presidential election is not between Obama and McCain, but between Obama and Obama. On its surface, this may not sound like the sort of contest in which anyone but Barack Obama and his psychiatrist can participate. But, in fact, there is both an opportunity and a need for us to take part. I propose that we do, in a very concrete way.

Democrat Obama no longer faces a serious challenge from John McCain. Admittedly, this is not the conventional wisdom reflected in the media. That font of always-true-because-we-say-it-is knowledge posits that McCain has made inroads into Obama’s early lead because, inter alia: his canards about Obama’s plans to raise taxes on everybody have proven convincing; his unimpeachably logical support for continuing to spend money killing people around the world in the name of support for the troops who we pay to do the killing is, in fact, broadly popular; and his choice of the governor of a national park, Sarah Palin, as his running mate has greatly broadened his base of support.

The media harped on the advantage that supposedly accrued to McCain from Obama’s vacation in August, which journalists characterized as an error of political judgment. They have presented Obama’s efforts to convince voters of his plans for progressive tax amendments as a failure, while suggesting that McCain’s plans to continue to cut taxes most sharply for the rich has had little effect on his support from the broader public. Also, journalists have made much of McCain’s post-convention bounce, a phenomenon that strategists expect to occur after each major party convention.

But even after these supposed McCain triumphs, Obama held a lead of a few points over McCain. His lead has been larger than the margin by which our Fearless Leader and Mr. Big defeated their campaign-challenged Democratic challengers John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004. While it may be too soon to pronounce Obama’s lead totally insurmountable, McCain faces long and growing odds against him that will require him to make much more than the temporary gains from the short-lived post-convention boost in poll numbers that every presidential candidate expects.

Obama’s lead inconveniences journalists by threatening to deprive them of a story that, in their view, should remain very big and very easy to report straight through to the first Tuesday in November. They have reacted with an attempt– successful thus far– to stave off the day of reckoning when the public turns its attention elsewhere. So, while the smart money in the Republican party probably knew from the day that its support coalesced around the barnacle-encrusted, baggage-loaded McCain that it was nominating a placeholder candidate not unlike Bob Dole in 1996, journalists have kept in the public eye a mythical (and newsworthy) image of a fight to the finish.

A more ambitious news media might consider two ways in which the real locus of competition has moved. First, Obama can only be defeated by himself or those in his camp. With McCain consistently trailing, it would probably take a serious, visible, unforgivable mistake on Obama’s part– or a sudden and unexpected load of very dirty laundry in his hamper– to bring about an Obama defeat. This seems unlikely: if Obama is hiding bad secrets of some kind, one would think that the press’s eager beavers who enjoy simulating a long and hard-fought campaign would have produced the damning material already and made the race that much closer.

More important is the contest to decide what Obama will do in office. For the media, this is tomorrow’s news, not today’s– and, in any event, it is harder to report. Many Democrats, too, view this as a question to be decided in the future. Obama’s mandate, they tell more independent-minded Obama supporters, should not matter now; rather, they say, the present need is to ensure that their man wins.

I suspect that many of the Democrats repeating this mantra had cast their votes for Hillary Clinton in the primary. For these voters, the general election campaign has been an opportunity to mold Obama (who remained awfully malleable even into the summer, especially during a primary in which both candidates took a seemingly substance-free approach to many issues) into a conservative Democrat after the image of Hill and Bill. The notion that some of their co-partisans and other potential Obama supporters might get it into their heads to call for the Democratic candidate to endorse positions that involve a bit of creativity rather than slight recalibrations of Republican policies and rhetoric strike people who were hoping for four more years of Clinton as naive sentiments. They seem to those people to belong to prehistoric times– before 1992, when Bill calculated at the national level that the left wing of his party could be safely ignored as a captive group with no one else to turn to.

That calculation is still generally accurate, but in the current election, there is reason to think that a candidate whose skillfully advocated progressive change in a host of domestic and foreign policy areas would emerge victorious. Any pollster will tell you that most Americans no longer think highly of Bush. Many are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of a host of issues, with the war or wars figuring prominently among them, and with the belle of the ball– the economy– looking drop-dead gorgeous to any opposition candidate needing something to help him make the case for serious reforms.

Former– and, dare I say, current– Clinton supporters can thus identify closely with McCain’s backers in feeling fortunate that neither Obama nor his supporters have been particularly vocal in their support of reforms that go beyond what a Clinton might do. For McCain’s people, this helps to ensure that defeat will not be too hard to swallow. For Clinton’s people, it amounts to a substantial victory, both because it ensures that the Democratic candidate will be able to claim a mandate to do no more than what they’d like him to do, and because, in the absence of open debate and disagreement within the party, there exists no risk that the mainstream of the party might recover its conscience and idealism and walk away from them.

Obama, for his part, has followed a Clintonesque strategy. For example, he supports Republican plans to allow offshore oil drilling, with the insubstantial caveat that it must be part of a “comprehensive energy policy.” He uses the same table as Bush– the one done up in war paint with “no options off” of it behind which the president likes to sit and threaten new savagery– in dealing with Iranian nuclear development. He hopes to offer another economic stimulus check, or “rebate,” as he terms it– as if Bush’s policy of giving a little beer money to the masses while federal taxes become little more than a bad memory for the rich has done much to solve either the country’s or individual Americans’ economic problems. To his credit, he would make federal tax rates more progressive, but those of us making pittance wages from which the deduction of any taxes is especially painful would apparently see no change. He advocates a “responsible, phased withdrawal” from Iraq, but sets the end of his presidency– potentially, January, 2017– as the date by which he promises to “end the war.” Even at the war’s “end,” he anticipates that a “residual force” of indeterminate size will remain in Iraq– and he proposes to expand the war in Afghanistan.

Obama has had good and un-Clinton-like things to say, too. I like his plan to raise the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security taxes, although I’d also like it if he articulated specific numbers or spoke of eliminating the ceiling altogether. He’s also unafraid to express the need to increase federal social spending in several areas, although he has carefully avoided making that the focus of his campaign. But there is a lot of unrealized potential in the positions he has taken.

Where do you and I fit into this? We are players with leading roles, but we have thus far chosen to play bit parts. Obama says what he says and does what he does because we allow him to. Like Clinton, he sees young people who still have ideals and consciences as safely in his camp, unable to desert it for want of any alternatives. (The only threat is that we might not show up on election day; thus, we can expect that Obama’s main outreach to college campuses will take the form of simple get-out-the-vote drives just prior to Election Day.) Never mind what those consciences and ideals might imply about what we might want in a candidate; they would impose higher standards on a victorious Obama than he, or any other candidate placed in his shoes, would like to be encumbered with when taking office. If the very low profile and inaudible voices of the young people thought to hold these views are any indication, they can be safely ignored.

The script Obama is reading from has us coming out in droves to vote for him on November 4. My script says the same thing, but it has something more on it. It has us standing up publicly not only for a candidate, but for a mandate, a program of action which that candidate will be authorized– and expected– to pursue upon taking office. Like other politicians, Obama would probably prefer to take office with as little expected of him as possible. If we follow his script, that is just what he will do; if we can collect ourselves and find our voice, however, we can direct events more to our liking.

Our opinions, expressed volubly and collectively, must tell others not who, but what we will be voting for when we cast our ballots. We must catch the public eye and reveal to it what a vote for our candidate means. That sense of expectation and public will is the stuff of which presidential mandates are made. Public demonstrations of our opinions constitute our best means– in the circumstances, our only serious means– of influencing the content of President Obama’s mandate.

As you can see, I have begged the question of what constitutes “our opinions.” I will not pretend to know of some holistic program that I imagine commands widespread support among young people. Instead, I will single out one issue that I think many of my readers will agree is one which demands that our candidate take office with a clear and well-defined set of expectations as to what he must achieve.

The war in Iraq has deserved the criticism it has received since most of the public turned against it a few years ago. It deserved criticism before then, too. Today, it deserves to be ended. Obama says he wants to “end this war,” but his policy statements are equivocal about what that means and when he will get around to accomplishing it. It would not be inconsistent with his campaign’s current formulations on Iraq policy for a “residual force” as large as the one present in Iraq now to stay on there indefinitely (but not “permanently,” as he is careful to say) as “peacekeepers” or “trainers” or “advisers” rather than as “combat brigades.” He has also been quiet as to his plans for the mercenary army that our country has hired to keep the headline number of troops stationed in Iraq down.

I think that it’s fair to demand something better on this issue from our candidate– indeed, from whoever wins in November. We can’t ask politely or expect good faith negotiation, for Obama doesn’t fear losing votes already safely in his pocket. What we must do, then, is influence the content of the mandate he takes with him to the White House by convincing members of the public at large that a vote for Obama is a vote for what we support. In the case of the Iraq war, I cannot believe that this includes support for a large, long-term US presence under any auspices. I suspect that many of us would support a program that would end the fighting and return all American personnel except those whom one would find in diplomatic missions to friendly countries as quickly as this can be safely accomplished.

So we need to pick a day. How about October 19? It’ll be a nice one for taking to the sidewalks. I can tell. We need to pick a day on which to go beyond the confines of our little campus and tell the world what it is that we’ll be voting for. Otherwise, the world will never know, and our vote will mean something less than we might like it to. If students elsewhere cannot rise out of their torpor, we should still do what needs to be done. Our own irresponsible complacency is a key ingredient in the malaise affecting our country and our world. Waking out of it will not defeat Obama. Instead, it will help him to live up to the true progressive potential of a candidate running against a record of eight years of tragedy and shame.