Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Jim Leach On Our Troubled Times

While the tone of the Democratic Convention's opening night was pretty predictable, there were some surprises. Ted Kennedy's capacity to deliver a rousing address on the heels of his brain surgery, and the rhetorical gifts of Obama's wife, family, and in-laws were displayed. Former Republican Congressman Jim Leach provided a lesson in history and civics.

I focus on Leach's speech, not because it was riveting - it definitely was not that - but because his perspective represents an honest assessment from a practical politician who is no longer in the game. PBS pundits were quick to dismiss him as an anomaly among Republicans. But among Republicans in my own family and circle of friends, I see important chords and connections. Our political process has been poisoned, and people of vastly differing ideologies can agree about that, even when they agree about little else.

As quoted in the Iowa Independent Leach said
“In troubled times, it was understood that country comes before party,” Leach said after listing several examples of bipartisanship in U.S. history.

“Little is riskier to the national interest than more of the same,” he continued. “America needs new ideas, new energy, a new generation of leadership.”

“Hence I stand before you,” he concluded, praising both his own party and the party whose delegates he was addressing, “proud of my party’s contributions to America’s history, but, as a citizen, proud as well of the good judgment and good people of this party in nominating a transcendent candidate, who I am convinced will recapture the American dream and be a truly great president.”

The great irony of the 2008 election to this observer is that BOTH presidential candidates seem painfully aware of how our poisoned process constrains politicians time and again from acting in the public interest, even when as individuals that would be their first choice. I believe both Obama and McCain genuinely want to reform the process, yet as Senators and as Presidential candidates both are themselves trapped to a large extent within the poisoned process. Once elected, Presidents have more latitude to act independently, but still face enormous inertia in the machinery of government, pressure from their party, and during first term, concerns about being reelected.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of real policy differences between McCain and Obama, that will result in different choices being made. It is an error to assume that just because your party's candidate takes a position different from your own that it is a result of their failure to stand up to some powerful interest. Sometimes they genuinely have a different opinion. But there is no denying the enormous influence that the power establishment has on our policy, regardless of which party is in power.

On Iraq policy, I expect either McCain or Obama to follow through on their campaign promise, and in both of those cases I believe they genuinely believe in their own plan. Obama will change the mission and McCain will not. Ironically the practical effect may be little different, as neither will withdraw precipitously, but both are likely to withdraw all but a residual force within their first term. On foreign policy generally, I think Obama is more likely to seek diplomatic solutions, while McCain will be quicker to resort to military solutions. Either will employ both tools, but the tipping point will be different.

But on other issues, both candidates have bent to the pressure of their parties and/or powerful corporate interests. McCain's stated commitment to uphold all of the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, in spite of having derided them in the past, is certainly a case in point. I really don't believe McCain has truly had a change of heart, but his party demands he stay in lockstep with their anti-tax dogma. I suppose that as President he may move to his more natural position, but at this point that would be a broken promise.

Obama capitulated on giving telecoms immunity for their role in Bush's surveillance program. He painted his reversal as a practical political compromise, so there is no implied promise that future decisions around surveillance programs or corporate accountability will be reflected in that decision.

In a McCain Presidency it would be telling to discover whether his "maverick" inclination to support environmental causes will be seriously compromised by his indebtedness to corporate polluters who might balk at policies they consider bad for their bottom line. In an Obama Presidency it would be telling to discover whether he enacts the bold structural changes [many outlined in this multipage pdf] that are needed to create real opportunity for the working poor and transparency in government, or if they will take a back seat to political expediency and corporate pressure.

There is no crystal ball to tell us just how much either man might succeed in breaking out of the "politics as usual" mode. Cynics will tell us not at all, while dreamers may imagine transcendent change. I may be a registered Democrat, but I am an American first, and it is my hope that some significant transformation will take place regardless of the winner this November. Clearly Obama's vision as laid out in The Audacity of Hope and his speeches is more aligned with my own. Many Americans, such as Jim Leach, who may not agree with some of the particulars are nonetheless inspired by his aspirational message.

In the next two weeks we have the opportunity to hear these two candidates address their conventions and set the tone for the election. As flawed as the process is, I believe we have a better choice this year than we have in quite a long time. It's a good thing too, because we certainly live in troubled times.