Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Choices Americans Face in 2008

The 2008 presidential election contest offers American voters the chance to choose among the most remarkable field of candidates ever assembled in the history of American politics. For almost two years, we have observed, heard, questioned, debated, and pondered whether to embrace one of the many candidates. The contest is now in its final days. Voters must choose between the Republican ticket of Arizona Senator John McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and the Democratic ticket of Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden.

Especially since the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, voters have been encouraged to elect leaders based on their personal affability. In 2000 and 2004 voters were asked which of the leading presidential candidates would be someone with whom they would feel most comfortable having a social drink. George W. Bush became president after the bitter 2000 election, and was re-elected in 2004, in large part because of such thinking and because voters ignored questions about his political and cultural competence and intellectual honesty. Ironically, an aristocrat whose family wealth guaranteed him access into the most prestigious schools in the nation came to preside over the largest collection of public policy failures in recent American memory because voters viewed him as "likeable."

Personal affability is not to be discounted in public service or anything else. However, it should not be too much to ask that the people who pilot the commercial airliners we ride, the people who treat our physical ailments, and the people who handle our business affairs be competent, above all. The same standard of competence should apply to anyone elected to the highest public offices in our democracy. Those persons should also be inclusive, not narrow-minded. They should respect American notions of liberty, fundamental fairness, and be compassionate toward people who are vulnerable due to age, youth, health issues, economic circumstances, national, religious, and ethnic background, and differences in sexual orientation. American voters must decide between the McCain-Palin and the Obama-Biden teams on something much more important than which of the candidates would make the better drinking companions or hunting and fishing buddies.

We must also decide whether to vote our best hopes and highest ideals or our lowest fears. The nation is engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The national economy is in shambles. World opinion concerning American leadership is at its lowest point in recent memory. The next president must be able to unite the nation, wisely command our armed forces, and effectively engage our allies and adversaries throughout the world. The next vice president must be able to assume those duties at a moment's notice. Those are not skills any of us usually require of our social companions. They are non-negotiable requirements for anyone aspiring to be chief executive of the United States.

Finally, we must decide whether to be known as people who embrace change with hope or who cringe in fear about the prospect of change. For some people, change is dangerous, frightening, and frustrating. For people who are competent and hopeful, change is the constant factor in life. Humans are adaptable creatures. We function best by applying our remarkable intellectual and social abilities to address changing conditions and new experiences. The American genius has long been that we enjoy the challenge of change and revel in it, not to shrink in fear from change.

The presidential election of 2008, like every presidential election, will reveal as much about the character of American voters as it reveals about the candidates. Will we vote our hopes or our fears? Will we decide based on competence and inclusion? Will we choose a leadership that calls us to face 21st Century challenges together, or will we choose leadership that shrinks from those challenges and fearfully longs for a yesterday that will never return?

The world is watching. The future is waiting. The time for making that fateful choice draws to an end soon. Let us choose wisely.

Wendell Griffen
Judge, Arkansas Court of Appeals
CEO, Griffen Strategic Consulting, PLLC

Saturday, October 11, 2008

This is Your Campaign on Prejudice

Over the past several days Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have served a steady dose of bigotry, fear-mongering, and character assassination by their suggestions that Senator Barack Obama "pals" with terrorists and holds views that are somehow alien to American notions of democracy. Their campaign stood tacitly by when speakers lampooned Obama because of his middle name (Hussein) which he was given to honor his Kenyan father. Their campaign took no effort to silence or correct people who falsely described his religious beliefs (calling him Muslim when Obama is Christian). When people shouted "kill him" or "off with his head" about Obama during McCain-Palin campaign rallies, neither McCain nor Palin acted displeased.

McCain was visibly condescending toward Obama during their first debate in Oxford, Mississippi on September 26 to the point that he refused to even look at him. During their second debate in Nashville, Tennessee, McCain referred to Obama as "that one," as if Obama was unworthy of being identified as "Senator Obama" or "my opponent." As I witnessed McCain's demeanor during those debates, I recalled the behavior of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice James C. McReynolds, who Woodrow Wilson first named as his Attorney General and later appointed to the Supreme Court after having endured too much of McReynolds' bad temper and poor judgment.

Like McCain, whose intemperance toward his colleagues in the U.S. Senate is well-known, McReynolds was rude toward his colleagues on the Supreme Court and intemperate toward the attorneys who appeared before the Court. McReynolds was openly anti-Semitic and often snubbed Justices Brandeis and Cardozo because of their Jewish faith. And, McReynolds was racist. He once referred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. as a "nigger university." During the oral argument of a landmark desegregation case by Charles Hamilton Houston, a black lawyer who represented the NAACP and who was a former member of the Harvard Law Review, McReynolds turned his chair around so that his back was toward Houston, and stared at the back wall of the courtroom for Houston's entire argument. I recalled McReynolds' conduct when McCain refused to look at Obama during the first debate and when McCain referred to Obama as "that one" during the second debate.

Senator McCain and Governor Palin began playing the fear and prejudice cards with relish from the time their campaign began losing traction as the economic crisis gained strength. Instead of talking about the economic challenges facing Americans, McCain-Palin strategists talked of being eager to turn the page away from those challenges so they could encourage voters to question Obama's patriotism. So they played up fears and prejudices, sowed distrust and bigotry, and hoped their tactics would undermine Obama's influence with undecided voters. The fear-mongering campaign tactics emboldened fearful people to say and act out their worst impulses. As of now, McCain's campaign is better known for its divisiveness, hatefulness, and bigotry against persons of color, immigrants, non-Christians, persons who disagree with McCain and Palin about reproductive choice, and homosexuals, than it is known for a vision of a "United" States that faces current and future challenges with hopeful unity.

McCain and Palin spent much of the past two weeks playing up fears and prejudices at a time when Americans most need to be called to recognize our common predicament. Having sown the seeds of distrust, fear, and bigotry, they should not be surprised by the crop of hate that their campaign has become. Voters have good reason to ponder whether two people who resort to such divisive campaign tactics are likely to be leaders of goodwill, inclusion, and peace. Instead, McCain leads a presidential campaign that would have made Senator Joseph McCarthy proud. He may not like the pet he fed now, especially now that it has begun baring its fangs at him when he tries to make it behave.

It is hard to understand how images of bigotry and prejudice will encourage undecided voters to favor McCain over Obama. Beyond that, one wonders how a McCain presidency would fare in a multi-cultural world. Perhaps the tactics of the past days suggest that McCain and Palin don't care that the next president must work with people from diverse backgrounds and views.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Reagan-Palin Connection

Governor Sarah Palin invoked the memory and cited a comment by former President Ronald Reagan during her closing statement at the October 2 vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden in St. Louis. That was ironic for several reasons.

First, Palin's vice presidential candidacy is similar to Ronald Reagan's political career. Reagan's political strength lay in his photogenic appeal to white conservative voters (Republicans and Democrats), and to his ability to trigger nostalgic notions of America as an exceptional nation within the world community. Because of those features, white conservatives (led by evangelical Christian fundamentalists such as Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson) supported his presidential aspirations in 1980. Like Reagan was, Palin is photogenic, fond of invoking nostalgic references, and the darling of evangelical Christian fundamentalists. Photogenic and ethnocentric nationalism are time-tested ways of garnering political support, especially when citizens refuse to test a candidate's claims and competence in rigorous ways.

Palin's candidacy also resembles Ronald Reagan's career in the way she is able to avoid responsibility for troubling political statements. Palin's remarks during the October 2 debate regarding vice presidential power and her suggestion that the causes of climate change are either unknown or strongly debated are two clear examples. How can public policy be shaped about climate change if public officials at the highest levels are openly dismissive about how climate change is caused? This "ready, fire, aim" approach to executive decision-making characterized the Reagan presidency, and is most clearly demonstrated by the presidency of George W. Bush.

Finally, Palin's reference to Reagan shows that her political handlers continue to believe that American voters who are politically independent will choose their elected officials based on appeals to mis-information. The remark that Palin quoted Reagan about came from comments he made on behalf of the American Medical Association to oppose Medicare. Palin's handlers are counting on white conservative-minded independent voters not knowing that Reagan opposed Medicare, not wondering whether Palin thinks the same way, and not considering whether opposition to Medicare works against their social and political interests.

The conservative political movement came to power under Ronald Reagan, a photogenic B-movie actor with an affable demeanor. The movement that fought affirmative action and emphasized the notion that American society should be a meritocracy thrust Reagan into power, and now hopes to repeat its feat with Sarah Palin. It remains to be seen whether white conservative-minded independent voters will fall for this ploy.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

From President Bush to Potential President Palin

"It is a capital error to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am reminded of that comment by Holmes to Watson as I reflect on the similarities between President George W. Bush and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Unlike some people who criticize President Bush and Governor Palin, I do not consider them stupid. The problem is that President Bush and Governor Palin are affable anti-intellectuals. Their popularity arises from their affability, and from the unfortunate prejudice within some segments of the American public against intellectualism. That prejudice highlights a strange self-contradiction. Americans like to believe that we are smart and enterprising people. However, many voters profess discomfort with elected officials who seem "too smart."

The problem with Bush and Palin is not that they cannot think, but that they approach serious public policy matters in narrow-minded ways based on the convenient lense of personal ideologies. Put bluntly, Bush and Palin are classic examples of tunnel-visioned leadership. They take positions on public policy matters based on prejudice rather than honest inquiry and hard analysis.

In the words of Sherlock Holmes, Bush and Palin commit the "capital error" of theorizing without data. Bush launched the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq because of the "capital error" of theorizing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction despite insistence by United Nations weapons inspectors that none had been detected before Bush ran them out of Iraq with his threat of an imminent invasion. In the same way, Palin demonstrates such a "capital error" by claiming to be ready for national leadership.

It is intriguing that many Americans embrace Palin despite mounting evidence that she is more similar to Bush than different from him. When interviewed by CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric, Palin could not name a single newspaper that she reads. She could not name one Supreme Court decision with which she disagreed (even the decision issued earlier this year involving damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spil litigation. When Charlie Gibson of ABC news interviewed Palin and asked her opinion of the Bush Doctrine, Palin was clearly unfamiliar with the term.

For the past eight years, Americans have suffered the effects of an anti-intellectual, neo-fundamentalist, and belligerent presidency because of our unfortunate tendency to equate affability with competence. So it is amazing, but hardly amusing, that American voters might wittingly elect Palin Vice President of the United States, where she would have 1 chance in 7--the same odds of having your birthday fall on a Friday--of becoming President given Senator John McCain's advanced age and questions about his health.

All of this leads to the following questions. Is a potential Palin presidency likely to be qualitatively and functionally different from the presidency of George W. Bush? Do we want really want bet the life and posterity of the nation on a wrong answer to that question?