WASHINGTON – Senator Barack Obama has a clear theme to draw appeal to his quest for the White House: the recreation of economic fairness in a society in which the current Republican leaders have taken care of those on the top and failed to do the same for those in the middle or lower. And this is the latest variation on a philosophy that proclaims that all should have a “fair share” of the pie, whatever the going perception of “fair” may be. This is not exactly a socialist program; but it is an aspiration to a more egalitarian society. While there is more than just wealth redistribution in this plan, the raw political message is: “Given growing unfairness, tax the rich and give more to the struggling middle class and the poor”. Reasonably appealing to begin with, in the midst of the current severe financial crisis, Obama’s message of “I’ll take care of you” has had an even stronger impact. The disoriented and frightened voters now lean decisively towards the Democratic contender and his reassuring message of a benevolent government that will finally take care of all those who have been left behind.
On the opposite side, Senator John McCain may have an economic and social agenda. Certainly he has articulated some thoughts about retooling America, about a new energy policy etc. But there is no “Grand Plan” founded on a policy program . His fundamental message is about ethics. It boils down to a vision of politics as ethical mission in which the first order of business is to clean up the mess caused by corruption and lax morals. Overall, today’s problems, according to McCain, are not so much the outcome of flawed, bad policies but of bad, unethical people who ultimately have corrupted the system. Whatever the political affiliation of unethical office holders and business leaders, their choices, whatever the ideological disguise, are inspired by personal greed and favoritism. And so the Common Interest is lost.
Hence the paramount importance of personal character in politics. Policies that look good in principle do not mean much in practice unless implemented by an Ethical Leader. And this Leader, once in office, will pursue the bad people, he will expose them and he will get rid of them. This action, in an as of itself, should cleanse the system and make it more responsive to the needs of the larger society.
Fine. But what about everything else? Well, for everything else, for governing that is, the Good Leader will rely on good judgment founded on ethical foundations coupled with seasoned experience. These qualities will tell him what can be done to get a consensus on this or that and get something “done” in the interest of the People.
With the exceptions of a few general principles, such as the need to maintain a vibrant private sector based economy, the need for reforms that would increase the level of skills, the need for a new less carbon based energy policy, the need to make America more competitive and –in foreign policy– the need for vigilance against old and new threats, to be achieved also through rejuvenated alliances and coalitions of democracies, there are not that many more specifics that define a carefully crafted “McCain Plan”.
McCain’s basic political message is about a Moral Crusade that will restore the preeminence of the Public Interest. And McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate is a way to underscore this point. Whatever her moral conservative credentials that energized a dispirited Republican Christian wing, with this choice McCain wanted to create the “Maverick Team”. There is the lady from Alaska who rose to the top of her state’s politics mostly because of her record as the brave crusader against entrenched interests. She is portrayed as the classic anti corrupt establishment leader who will fight the good fight to restore confidence in a discredited political process by finally acting in the interest of the people.
So, Sarah Palin is a younger, female version of Senator McCain. By choosing her he also wanted to show that this ethical approach to politics is not just his own pet project but a real broad based plan that can have wide appeal across geography, demographics and gender. Of course, we now know that the appeal of the “Maverick Team”, significant after Palin came on stage, has waned. The initial questions about her thin credentials have turned into a broadly shared conclusion that, whatever her crusading record in Alaska, she is really not well qualified for high office.
Still, even assuming no questions about Palin’s resume, is this all there is in McCain’s message? Throw the rascals out and then do what is sensible by creating bipartisan coalitions in passing reforms such as immigration, energy and medical services?
Well, this stripped down approach that fundamentally says to America: “Trust me because I am moral and I have experience and I am pragmatic enough to find non partisan solutions for complex problems” is certainly not the joy of policy wonks who want to analyze complex platforms replete with multi-layered, interconnected policy solutions. This looks pretty thin, doesn’t it? Can this be the basis of an electoral program for someone who is running for the highest office in the most complex industrial democracy?
Well, yes; at least in principle it could be. It all depends on the quality of execution which rests on the (assumed) good instinct of a leader in terms of broad direction and the actual policy choices made under the guidance of his (assumed) ethical pragmatism. Let’s explain a little more. In American politics, with very few exceptions, complex political programs supported by ponderous policy briefs labored on by hundreds of experts in the end amount to not much, as these complex policy programs are soon disregarded, correctly judged to be impractical, unless substantially watered down and modified.
For example, who remembers that then candidate Bill Clinton centered his electoral message in 1992 on the need to craft a “National Economic Strategy” for America, a strategy to be fashioned following the (then winning) models of Japan (yes, Japan) and Germany? Well nobody remembers any of that, because the whole thing was quietly abandoned as soon as Clinton came into the White House. By the same token, Ronald Reagan’s pledge to abolish the Departments of Energy and Education, viewed by him as examples of unnecessary government meddling, went nowhere after he became president. Likewise, the partial implementation of Reagan’s agenda to shrink government and lower taxes led to the cutting of taxes without managing to achieve commensurate cuts in public spending, with the ensuing huge structural budget deficits that characterized his presidency. So, the frugal Republicans turned out to be the kings of the deficit and fiscal irresponsibility. Which is to say that Grand Plans, whatever their electoral appeal, do not work very well in America.
In this very fragmented, if not fractured, institutional system it is not easy to fashion strong and lasting coalitions that can lead to the implementation of radical change. In this inherently balkanized framework with multiple centers of power, the complete victory of one clearly defined ideological view point over another is next to impossible. And even when sweeping victories of one point of view occur, they are short lived. They are easily undone by a different coalition, usually within a short period of time.
Which is to say that, whatever the pristine visions offered to followers in the primaries and in the general election campaign may be, in the end there are not that many revolutions in American politics. On balance, the country is governed from the center, via non ideological compromise. Individual politicians may get attention by clamoring for radical positions on this or that (Congressman Tancredo: tough on immigration; Congressman Kusinich: end the war, impeach Bush), but the country is governed from the middle by people who, regardless of their political affiliations, agree on basic principles.
To the extent that a president is or appears to be strident and uncompromising on whatever issue, (think of George Bush) his leverage dwindles and, along with that, his popularity and his ability to present himself as the symbol of national unity. By the same token, a legislative branch guided by a majority with a strong, uncompromising program, will not go very far. The Republicans stunned Washington with their surprise victory in 1994 under the guidance of the extremely sophisticated and articulate Newt Ginrich. And that victory sprang from a platform of radical change. Well, despite some promising beginnings, the whole enterprise soon unraveled and Ginrich in the end resigned in defeat. Worse yet, the same Republican party that marched to victory in 1994, ten years later was a spent force with no distinguished leaders and a lot of corrupt members in jail; while it had completely abandoned its core principles of limited government, unleashing instead an era of unrestrained public spending.
Which is to say that McCain’s notion of a government of “good people” who would do “sensible things”, while thin on details, is frankly quite alright for America. If, in a centrist, non ideological, environment a New Leader would forcefully reinstate healthy principles of ethical behavior, fighting corruption and the influence of special interests, while pushing ahead sensible middle of the road reform, we could get a great deal more accomplished. So, John McCain, a seasoned Senator who has anti-special interest credentials, who is not an ideologue and who has a credible record as a maverick coalition builder should have a fair shot at the White House.
In principle, may be. But this is not the likely outcome of these elections. The country is frazzled and tired. The unfolding of the financial panic on top of an eeconomic downturn just weeks before the general elections have reinforced the idea that America now does not need someone with an “Ethical Government Plan” but someone with a “Rescue Me Plan”. Beyond the current tempest, the perception is that the troubles of the battered middle class spring from the mean spiritedness of the outgoing Republican president. While a maverick, John McCain is still a Republican and thus guilty by association of George Bush’ sins. Senator Barak Obama, the Democratic candidate promising fairness (translated into English: “more money to you”) to the exhausted middle class, has more direct, practical appeal than the candidate promising to fight corruption and special interests in order to restore the notion of government as selfless action in the name of the Public Good.
McCain’s promise of an ethical crusade may sound nice. But “money talks”. And when the distribution of aid, subsidies and help is also presented as ethical, as the need to reintroduce fairness, this is most likely a winning combination. Says McCain: “I shall do the right thing for you”. Says Obama: “I shall do the right thing for you; and, incidentally, here is the list of what I shall give you”. In these extremely difficult times, a vision of new ethical fairness accompanied by goodies is most likely preferable to new ethics without tangible presents.