February 29, 2008

Dem. Primary: A Case for Obama

I figure I might as well toss my political opinion on the upcoming primary out there, since it's the easiest - and possibly the most effective - way for me to be involved in the campaign.

Since I'm crazy enough about politics to fly up to New Hampshire in frigid January to observe the first primary, the '08 election and preliminaries have been on my radar screen since the beginning. Considering how early the campaign started and how unpredictable it's been, that's given me a long time to examine the candidates. About eight months ago I started to mildly gravitate toward Obama, and have since then continued to back him, although my support has fluctuated between very mild leaning and strong preference. With the moment of decision finally upon us, and after a bit of digging around, I think Obama is the much better nominee and somewhat better president (two different things). I'll present my reasons and observations here on both the politics and the policies.

Since I can't expect everyone to suffer through the torment of reading an entire long post on politics, I'll start with the 3 points I would most like to highlight. I recommend reading those for sure. Also, for those on the more libertarian side of the left, I'll recommend you start with this.

And for those who disagree, feel free to reply: I might reply back, but I won't argue or be angry. Both sides is a good thing!

1. In the long run, Obama helps the Democrats much more. Current polls show that Obama does better against McCain in the general election than Clinton does (source). It's true, though, that polls can change rapidly, and many people probably haven't 'tuned in' yet. So for the moment, let's assume chances of victory are equal. But an Obama victory would help the Democratic party (and liberal causes) much more than a Clinton success.

First, in the short term a lot will depend on what margins the Democrats have in Congress. Obama's strong appeal to independents would be a substantial boon to downticket Dems, while Clinton hatred might well scuttle any hope of Democratic gains in red states or counties. On a more theoretical level, the 'change' and 'hope' themes - which are broader than any particular candidate - carry over much better to the rest of a party's candidates than an 'experience' theme, which is necessarily grounded in the individual with experience. Furthermore, once in office it would be much easier for moderate Republicans to break with their party and overcome the 60 vote filibuster in the Senate if they were siding with Obama than if they were siding with Clinton. Assume the Dems pick up 3 Senate seats in '08 (reasonable assumption: source); that still means they need 6 Republican votes to ensure passage of a contested measure. That won't be easy for either candidate, but once the election stirs up both old and new rancor again, it will be particularly tough for Republicans to work with Clinton.

In the long term, I think the outlook is even more heavily weighted in favor of Obama. Pretty speeches and connecting with voters do, in fact, create an actual, measurable impact: they shift the terms of the political debate and the center of the political spectrum. Reagan did this quite effectively for the right, and if Democrats don't want to be 'playing defense' for many more years they need a candidate who can shift it back instead of just cobbling together a win out of dissatisfaction with Bush.

2. Clinton sole Democrat co-sponsor of bill to outlaw flag burning. This probably seems like a minor issue, and also one the Democrats dare not argue over in the primary for fear of sounding unpatriotic. But on not only substantive but procedural grounds, this sponsorship deeply undermines my faith in Clinton. First, the issue: flag-burning is essentially political, dissenting speech, and so at the very core of the First Amendment. Yes, it's also an action, and can be threatening when done by tens of thousands protesting outside US embassies abroad. But within U.S. borders, does anyone ever feel their physical safety is violated by some college protester burning a flag? Despite being no physical danger, it elicits a very strong negative response in many people - myself included. Why? Because it's political speech, and political speech we disagree with. It's protected under the First Amendment.

Senator Clinton went to law school, and taught law school. She must have taken Constitutional Law, and had to know the bill was unconstitutional - even Justice Scalia called it unconstitutional (source). Despite this, she signed on to the legislative bill, while opposing a constitutional amendment that would have specifically banned flag burning - the path to take if she sincerely believed it was a problem. Not just voting for but co-sponsoring (far beyond just basic political cover-your-ass) the legislative measure is base pandering, pure and simple.

But does it matter, if the law was unconstitutional? Maybe it was a cynical political maneuver, but she knew it wouldn't actually hurt anyone, right? Actually, no. You see, the law would be enforced in between the time it passed through Congress and a court invalidated it. A lot of people would be punished in the meantime, for as Cohen notes in the column I linked to, "not many cops belong to the ACLU."

This wouldn't be as serious an issue if Clinton hadn't gone to law school. But she had the training, and must have known how this would play out. Ignorance is one thing; to intentionally ignore your knowledge, knowingly violate constitutional principles, and pander to score political points while fully aware of what harm you are causing is very different indeed.

3. A Clinton vs. McCain general election would be about Vietnam again, again. Clinton often says that she's been tested, that all the dirt the Republicans can throw at her has already been tried. But facing McCain in the general opens up a whole new line of attack, one that has previously been highly successful for the Republicans - Vietnam. McCain and Clinton are emblematic of that generational divide. John McCain was a soldier who requested a combat assignment and was a Vietnamese POW through much of the war. Hillary Clinton was a campus protest leader during the same time frame. She has two things going for her: she is credited as being responsible and restrained - keeping the campus from descending into chaos or becoming inoperable - and she worked on Civil Rights issues. But this will be bypassed, and McCain will evoke the same visceral generational divides and deep-imprinted scars, not cite specific instances.

I don't think this would scuttle Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and she might well still win (though after Kerry, let's not be hasty). But the worst facet of the 2004 election by far was how we debated the issues of 40 years ago instead of what was relevant to the present. If Clinton is the nominee, a vast slice of the campaign is going to be taken up reliving the Baby Boomers' teenage traumas again. That means time taken away from presenting a case on actual issues, and more disillusionment of young voters.

Obama, on the other hand, neatly sidesteps this via his youth. Yes, McCain will still use his military experience, but as a means of boosting himself up, not a cudgel to smash the Democratic candidate with and sow division.

Next up: the more 'wonky', detailed issues. Yes, I know this is running really long, even more so than usual. But I think it's an important enough election that it's worth looking at everything.

4. Health care proposals. This has been consistently cited as the primary policy difference between the campaigns, and hit upon constantly in the debates and in various mailings. It's actually far from the only one, and the practical difference is less than you would think, but it touches on a more substantial philosophical divide.

First, on the practical side, both candidates have engaged in heavy bait-and-switch, comparing their plan to its rival only when advantageous, and otherwise making comparisons between their own plan and the current system. Both involve wide-ranging government provision of health insurance but not directly of health care [CORRECTION: Reading back over this, 'government provision of health insurance' implies something like a single-payer system, which is incorrect. Both would mean substantial government involvement in health insurance, but it would not be run by the government.]; both subsidize low income individuals' purchase of insurance; both claim similar cost savings (plus both can't really be calculated at their current level of vagueness); both give the general population access to the plans available to Congress; and even on 'mandates' both would mandate health insurance for children, with Clinton extending that to adults as well (source).

The big difference is over whether we force everybody to buy health insurance to create a common pool (Clinton), or offer coverage and access to everyone but don't sanction those who refuse (Obama). Despite my philosophical instincts, Clinton probably has the slightly superior plan. A lot of people do underestimate their risk, and some healthy people - especially young adults, biologically and psychologically primed to think themselves invulnerable - would choose not to buy into the plan, meaning a smaller risk pool and higher costs when some of those people inevitably do become sick. This is akin to the free rider problem. A plan based on choice would be much easier to sell to Congress and American voters, though, while a mandatory plan (and the mechanisms to enforce it) creates a risk of political resentment that would hurt more than some people opting out of the system.

More abstractly, I think this represents one piece of a philosophical divide on the role of government. Obama's perspective is more along the lines of the state offering services to those who want them, providing a resource, and opening doors. Clinton has a much more communal view, in which the government makes more decisions in place of individuals, and citizens contribute to the decision-making process but that final decision is then commanded top-down for everyone - more akin to the title of her book, "It Takes a Village" (though all this is relative compared to even other democratic mixed-economy states' politics; both are to the right of and more individualist than leftist parties in much of Europe). One of many discussions of this - with links to a few of the others - is here.

As a side note to this, Clinton sent out hundreds of thousands of fliers displaying a line of men and women with the words "Which of These People Don't Deserve Health Care?" and, on the back, "Barack Obama's Health Care Plan Leaves 15 Million Americans Without Coverage. Will It Be You?"

This ad is mind-bogglingly deceptive since, under Obama's plan, anyone who wanted health care could have it. The only reason you would be without coverage is if you chose not to have it. I don't really mind Clinton attacking Obama on being 'style not substance' and so forth, since at worst it prompts him to talk more about policies. But willful distortion and misrepresentation of a policy really outrages me.

To be fair, Obama also sent out mailings attacking Clinton's health care plan by saying it would "force everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it," without mentioning that Clinton would heavily subsidize the cost of insurance. But I don't think that massive omission can possibly live up to presenting a choice as an imposition or a judgment that people are undeserving. Technically, doesn't Obama's plan say that not only does everyone deserve health care, but they also deserve to be able to make their own choice about it?

For more on that mailing, and links to further "fact checks" over health care, go here.

5. Comparison of legislative accomplishments & experience. For this I'll point you to a wonderful and thoughtful woman who has done the grunt work on this. First, here is her broader endorsement, a quick discussion of the issues he's worked on. (Incidentally, she also takes on the question of experience and managerial ability, using the campaigns as examples, here.)

But if you want to roll your sleeves up and do a full comparison, check here:
Bills sponsored that passed.
Bills co-sponsored in 109th Congress.
Bills co-sponsored in 110th Congress.

It is true that Clinton has a quick command of foreign policy facts and realities. The time I came closest to supporting her was when, in one of the debates, she quickly responded to a question on striking Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan by outlining how the Pakistani government would still have to be informed once missiles were in the air, lest they mistake it for an attack from India. That's a good catch - unlike the US and Soviet strategic commands during the Cold War, the Pakistani and Indian militaries are completely in the dark about the other's doctrine, leaving vast room for misunderstanding. But the evidence that she plans to use that knowledge to make smart decisions is pretty scarce; see the Cuba embargo point below.

6. Obama would do a better job of rebuilding America's image in the international community. This is likely to be the most important issue for the new President to address. Not that there aren't other critical issues to deal with, but most of those will require cooperation between Congress and the President. Foreign policy is where the President has the most discretion and leeway, and foreign country perceptions tend to focus almost exclusively on the head of state: quick, name three members of another major country's legislature that haven't been/aren't candidates for the top spot!

At present, the balance of foreign perception is strongly in favor of Obama. He is much more a break from the 'old', W, and the Iraq war, and has experience living and traveling abroad as a 'regular person', not just as a political leader being feted.

Domestically, Obama has mostly tip-toed around race, rarely bringing it up except by subtle references, and some have argued the idea of a "post-racial" presidency is an illusion, one that appeals primarily to upper class whites. Race is such a taboo subject for forthright American discussion that it's unlikely we can draw many conclusions about what the impacts here would be.

The impacts abroad are a different story. Part of the image America has always tried to project - true, false, or true but only in the "they're worse" sense - has been that of a welcoming, multi-cultural nation of immigrants, a beacon to the other peoples of the world. One of the biggest blotches on that image is our history of slavery and racism toward African-Americans, something our opponents in international 'image wars' have often hit on. The peaceful democratic election of a minority candidate would simultaneously start to erase that damage, greatly revitalize our image, and be an internationally historic achievement. Domestically, the United States needs a woman president some time soon, but internationally that will be nothing new; electing an ethnic minority from a group that has suffered substantial racial animosity is still pretty rare. I'm not going to state it would an absolute first, since ethnic minority is such a fuzzy term - does it have to be vastly different ethnicities, or just two different groups with a history of conflict? does a lower caste leader in India count? - but it would be very noticeable.

Finally, one of the truths that we don't like to discuss, for fear of not sounding "tough", is that the most important question for our long-term security in the Middle East is what image of America is forming the minds of young men and women in those countries. Keep in mind I have a shirt in my closet with a B-52 bomber forming a peace symbol and the words "peace through superior firepower"; this is a matter of sober assessment, not pacifism. All of the same factors that Democrats fear will be targets of Republican smear campaigns - father was foreign born, middle name Hussein, last name sounds like Osama, some of father's side of family Muslim - are the most powerful assets America could ask for in international diplomacy right now. While I think he would do much more, even as a pure figurehead Obama would probably do more to heal America's image than any of the other candidates would (assuming he doesn't scuttle it over unilateral trade demands - but that's another issue). Check here for one perspective on this.

7. Clinton has failed to release her family's tax returns, or provide details about her husband's financial dealings, at the same time as she uses a $5 million dollar loan of that money to fund her campaign. This might be just a red herring - I'm not saying there's something truly sinister here. But Clinton has repeatedly failed to disclose this information, only conceding in the most recent debate that she would 'after she was the nominee'. That is, of course, too late for the primaries, and too late for the Democratic party if there's anything damaging there. If part of her selling point is that she's "pre-vetted" and all avenues of attack have already been tried, she should be able to come clean and prove that nothing new has come up in the past eight years, especially with all of her husband's post-presidential dealings (see this from the NYT).

One can legitimately ask what Bill Clinton's business dealings and investments should have to do with Hillary Clinton's campaign. They are not, after all, one entity. True, but even beyond the political attack angle I think they come legitimately salient when a good deal of the money is then used to aid the presidential campaign (source). Other candidates, like Mitt Romney, have also used their own money to fund the campaign, but Romney's money was not derived from previous political positions. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect extra scrutiny when private money earned as a direct result of one political office is then used to run for another - or for a different member of the family to run for the same office.

8. Obama has an excellent economic adviser team; Clinton's economic policies are ideological, pandering, and poorly thought out. Some of my problems with those policies are actually problems with the Democratic party more broadly: I won't really go into trade here, since I disagree with both candidates' stated positions, except to note the irony that each time one attacks the other on trade, my faith in the attacked goes up. Obama has a few questionable plans, such as the "Patriot Employer Act" (any bill with the word "patriot" in its name should die a slow, painful death), but his economic advisers are skilled, respected, and diverse (source).

On the other hand, Clinton's pandering housing/mortgage crisis plan is a disaster waiting to happen, based on the economic illiteracy of voters. Her plan is a massive government intervention into the market, rewriting contracts, freezing interest rates, and forbidding foreclosures. Why this is a bad ideapart 1, part 2. In contrast, Obama's plan focuses more specifically on victims of fraud and on people who will see their house prices go down as 'collateral damage' of foreclosures, and preventing a downward spiral in those neighborhoods, plus some funds to help bail out lower middle class home owners facing foreclosures. There are bits of it I disagree with, but it won't send long-lasting shock waves through the market the way Clinton's proposal would, nor does it pander so heavily by also offering to bail out the irresponsible.

I'll try to offer a very quick explanation myself. There are (at least) 2 problems facing a mortgage plan: creating moral hazard for borrowers and banks, and creating uncertainty/risk in the market for lenders. The former means that, if you think the government won't let you lose your house (or, for the banks or investors, won't let you go insolvent from faulty investments), you'll feel much more free to take risks, as the rest of society - through subsidy via government - picks up most of the cost. The latter means that if lenders, mortgage brokers, and such fear that their contracts will be rewritten by the government, they'll charge much steeper prices for bearing that risk - actually compounding the problem. Obama's plan creates some moral hazard, but that's almost unavoidable at this point, and some of it is actually helping those coping with externalities of neighborhood foreclosures. Clinton's creates more moral hazard - her plan is a much more explicit promise to 'salvage' near everyone, even if the mortgage was total recklessness - and also makes the whole market look incredibly risky. Even people who would have been satisfied with their previous contracts would presumably be included, another example of how Clinton's plans are "if you want it or not", and Obama's much more voluntary.

There's also a strong difference in rhetoric: Clinton talks much more about people being aggressively kept down, and finding people to pin blame too; Obama talks more about the failure to offer help to those who are struggling, and granting opportunities. Obviously some may disagree with me on this, but I much prefer the latter to the former. Anger and scapegoating leads to emotional policy making and little appetite for nuance, plus a thirst for punitive negative-sum measures.

9. American unilateralism and 'looking tough': Cuba embargo, and negotiations. I mentioned before that Obama has much more appeal than Clinton abroad as a break from the 'old order'. Now we get to the old order positions that Clinton still supports and promotes in the current campaign; the foremost examples are the Cuba embargo and negotiating with hostile nations. We'll get to the specifics of why those positions are wrong on their own merits soon, but first let's see why they are damaging abroad and unnecessary at home.

My impression is that Clinton would like to say something along the lines of, "We're really sorry for Bush. We screwed up. We'll try to fix it. But don't worry; we're back to the '90s now, with the same Clinton foreign policies." The problem is that, after Bush, I doubt other countries want to go back to the '90s status quo. Our policy in the '90s - US as mostly unconstrained but cooperative, benign power - was possible because of the accumulated good will coming out of the end of the Cold War, and the time it would take for alternate power structures to coalesce. We can't get that structure back: there's no guarantee there won't be another Bush type in office in ten years, so other countries won't be as willing to let us operate "above the law". We'll have to show some demonstrable commitment to a longer-term doctrine and international institutions to get credibility back, and stop acting like if we make the right decision on our own instead of the wrong one, everyone should back us.

Domestically, if there's a chance for a change in foreign policy to a more practical, less pander-based stance, it's now. There's doubtless a risk in this: McCain is a good Republican nominee for fighting this foreign policy front, since he almost exemplifies the 'look tough' approach (bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran...) and has the military creds and personality to not sound like a phony chickenhawk while doing so. Nonetheless, I think the circumstances are generally right for this change, and McCain is likely to go overboard in the other direction during the general (this primary hasn't been a very good vetting process for the Republicans, as the other candidates kept knocking each other out with McCain last left standing).

As for specifics, most in the news recently has been Cuba, after Fidel Castro stepped down in favor of younger brother Raul Castro. Obama has been the candidate most willing to remove some of the ridiculous sanctions and embargoes placed on the tiny island nation (and called them a failure), while Clinton has defended old policies, saying we should only relax restrictions if Cuba commits heavily to democracy.

Unfortunately, the US so completely snubbing Cuba is a big part of what keeps the Castros in power: some ties with a country gives us leverage; no ties with a country removes all our leverage and offers the US as a convenient scapegoat. Ultimately, lifting the embargoes probably wouldn't make a huge difference in the Cuban standard of living - and let me take a moment to note the irony that a country based on an ideology saying trade is exploitation blames US trade embargoes for its poverty - without domestic reform, but domestic reform is much harder when a small country feels embattled and under siege. We can debate what's the best means of pushing a country toward greater economic and political freedom I suppose, but at least from my perspective the Clinton line is just to look tough.

Then there's the broader issue of meeting with foreign leaders and re-opening diplomatic relations. This has been a point of periodic conflict between the two Democratic primary contenders since last July, when Obama said he would consider meeting with even leaders hostile to the United States; Clinton blasted him as naive. Again, here's the problem we don't want to confront: not talking to other countries really isn't much of a punishment right now. In fact, standing up to the United States is a pretty good vote getter in a substantial majority of the world's nations, and will continue to be so until we improve our image close to its pre-Bush levels. When we were seen as leading the global foreign policy agenda, not talking to America meant being cut out of much of the global political 'loop'. But now there are plenty of alternative sponsors or power structures, and even more countries taking at least a few steps back from the United States, so there's no longer a 'lock out' element to it. Refusing to consider direct negotiations or normalized relations (with countries much of the rest of the world recognizes) just looks petty and removes our ability to avoid misunderstandings or perceive internal fissures and weaknesses in their governments.

I actually suspect - hope - Hillary Clinton does understand a fair amount of this, but I think it's telling that she's still willing to fire broadsides at it. It both suggests that it's not high on her list of concerns and that she's quite willing to pander away from it to look 'tough' if that's where she thinks the political winds are blowing.

Speaking of pandering, look tough lines, check this out. A bit worrying after having already had eight years of an administration that cavalierly considers trials and the legal system an inconvenient burden, no?

10. Pork barrel spending. This is going to be a substantial issue in a race against McCain, who will probably make it one of his primary attacks. It's also an immoral and harmful thing for politicians to be excessively involved in, the political calculations of it aside. Clinton is among the top 10 senate recipients of 'earmarks', under-the-radar federal funding for home state projects tacked on to unrelated bills; Obama is in the bottom 25%, while McCain has refrained from earmarks altogether (source).

Also note this devastatingly effective ad McCain already used to bash Clinton during the Republican primaries; he can even take this a step further and connect it to the Vietnam point, having said in one of the Republican debates something along the lines of "I'm sure it was a wonderful cultural and pharmaceutical event, but I was tied up at the time."

As a conclusion, a final word on experience and character. Clinton has recently compared Obama's experience in 2008 with Bush's in 2000, saying that both ran on personality and affability, and equal disasters will result. This is misperceiving the real flaw that led to the disasters of Bush's presidency. The problem was not that voters wanted someone who was an outsider or charismatic, but that they wanted an "average guy". Bush's lack of any record of good judgment, achievement, intelligence, or introspection didn't matter: after all, that resembles a lot of voters. As one senator said in defense of an (unsuccessful) Supreme Court nominee with a lackluster record (Carswell): "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"

Obama doesn't dare stress it, because the same attitudes are still there, but he's nothing of the sort. Obama was an effective president of the Harvard Law Review - which, for those outside the law world, means juggling and keeping in check dozens of gigantic egos and tempers - and has shown a great capacity to listen, learn, and reflect through his books. Sure, people may like Obama because of 'character', but it's the character of intelligence and decision making, not the 'character' of "guy I'd like to have a beer with", the characterization of W. in 2000. There's a fair amount of uncertainty with Obama, but I feel most of the possibilities go in the positive direction: perhaps Clinton is a known quantity and Obama is a roll of the dice, but if so Clinton is a known '2' and Obama is a six-sided die. You're much more likely to get better than you are worse.

Thanks for reading.


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