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

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