I Do Endorsements

In what should be no surprise to anyone, I’m strongly endorsing Michael Bloomberg for another term as Mayor of New York.

I’m not crazy about the way he gets to run. And I wish there were a lot of choices for a city headed for the kinds of trouble my hometown is headed for. But I can’t think of any good ones – certainly not among the Democratic frontrunners. When I think about the election that way, it’s not a close call.

When I think about the actual Bloomberg record, meanwhile, here’s the way I think. He was elected to do three things: hold the line on crime and quality of life issues; shepherd the city through the aftermath of 9-11 economically and socially; and fix the schools. He’s done the first. He’s done an OK job on the second (the mess at Ground Zero is really not his fault) and now he’s going to have to do it all over again (and it’s going to be much harder). And the third is a mix: his reorganization of the regular public school system has been a mess, but he’s given a huge push to public school choice (and charters particularly) in New York, and that aspect has been a big positive. I hope he’ll use a third term to expand the good parts of his educational record and fix the bad parts, but while I’m pretty confident about the former I’m much less so about the latter.

I’m also endorsing Tzipi Livni for Prime Minister of Israel. She’s a lightweight who doesn’t really have a clear idea of how she’s going to extricate Israel from the West Bank, or how she’s going to deal with Iran, or how she’s going to handle Israel’s economic/demographic problems, or really anything else. But Bibi Netanyahu is a snake who cannot be allowed to hold the Premiership ever again, and Ehud Barak is a borderline Asperger’s case – he’s a deeply weird man whose own political allies think is crazy (which he isn’t; he’s just very, very strange). For all her flaws, Livni is the only candidate who can actually lead Israel, and she represents the political faction that current sits bestride the center of the country.

Oh, yes: and I’m supporting Barack Obama for President. More on that after the jump.

I feel very strange supporting Obama, even though it’s been clear to me for some time that that’s who I was going to vote for. After all, John McCain was pretty much my first political crush. I was an enthusiastic supporter in 2000, and his defeat left me very ambivalent about that year’s general election. I also supported him in the Republican primaries this season (and I’ll go into the reasons for that support in a minute), and you think I’d support my chosen candidate once he won the nomination.

And I’m not a big Obama enthusiast. There are things about him that I like and things about him that I don’t like. He strikes me as a kind of a combination of Jack Kennedy and Jimmy Carter: he has Kennedy’s glamour and emotional distance, as well as his relative inexperience, but he has a policy orientation that is more than a little reminiscent of Carter’s. Given that I think Kennedy is hugely overrated and Carter was a substantial failure (neither assessment is exactly going out on a limb), that suggests I’d be rather underwhelmed by the prospect of an Obama Administration.

So why am I voting the way I am?

Because McCain’s changed, I’ve changed, and the world’s changed.

How has McCain changed? In a nutshell, he’s gotten older. As we age, we get more set in our ways, less mentally flexible, more inclined to rely on narrative structures that we absorbed long ago. And the structures that dominate McCain’s brain are an almost perfect mismatch with our country’s needs at this time.

How have I changed? In a nutshell, I’ve gotten more conservative and less right-wing. (I’m using conservative in the sense of skeptical and cautious as well as in the sense of seeking permanence and valuing rootedness, and right-wing in the sense of believing in the importance of rewarding success more than in ameliorating failure.) More specifically, I’ve decided I was wrong about a bunch of things, and some of those things are Republican Party dogma, and much of that dogma is now central to the McCain campaign message.

How has the world changed? In a nutshell, the Bush Administration happened. We can’t pretend it didn’t. And whoever is the next President has to be responsive to that legacy. Perhaps, if McCain had been President in 2001, things would have gone better – or perhaps not. But we don’t get a do-over; we have to deal with the world as we have it and have made it, and not as we’d like it to have been.

My decision in the GOP primary was very simple, but not terribly useful in informing my general election choice. Quite simply, I decided I was not going to support any candidate who offered vocal support for torture. I made that a litmus test. That ruled out Giuliani and Romney right off the bat. I could never take Fred Thompson terribly seriously, and I’m not a Ron Paul rEVOLutionary. So that left Huckabee and McCain. For all that I find Huckabee to be an appealing fellow, I don’t think we were very likely to see eye-to-eye ideologically, and besides, he was plainly not ready to be President. (I thought he’d be an excellent Vice Presidential pick, though.) That left McCain. But it also left the general election as a new, and open question.

I respect those who have used one or another litmus test to make their decision in the general election. If I were, for example, a pro-life litmus test voter, I don’t see how I could vote for Obama. I’d be stuck voting for McCain or, if he were also unacceptable, for a hopeless third-party candidate. Those pro-lifers who have jumped on the Obama train are either kidding themselves or are not litmus test voters – that is to say, they may remain strongly opposed to abortion, and will frequently vote on that issue alone, but have let some other issue (war and peace? torture and civil liberties? economics and the welfare of the poor?) trump the question of abortion for at least one election. Similarly, it makes sense to me that Andrew Sullivan is making a litmus test of opposition to torture up and down the line (and I hope he is not too sorely disappointed in Obama on this score). But I didn’t have a litmus test for the general election. (My litmus test in the primary was about punishing those who would create an inverted litmus test whereby support for torture became the badge of a true-believing member of the GOP.)

I could make a list of issues on which I agree with Obama, and those on which I agree with McCain, but I’m not sure it would be terribly profitable to do so, because issues are an overrated basis for a vote in a general election. Most of what we can be most sure about a candidate’s agenda is what can be discerned from his or her party label. If those issues are not decisive for you, then you’re just hoping you can accurately discern a candidate’s deepest personal commitments – and hoping that these turn out to be voting issues for you. Your odds may not be as good as you think. Recall that Bush ran in 2000 in part on a more “humble” foreign policy . . .

I don’t know if it’s any easier to discern a potential President’s character, but that’s what I’ve tried to do. And, fortunately for me if not for the country, fate gave us two crises during the campaign that threw into sharp relief the differences between the two major party candidates for President, and confirmed me in my choice. These were: the war in Georgia and the financial crisis.

McCain’s response to the outbreak of fighting in Georgia was basically to side with the Georgians in an unequivocal and even extravagant manner. This in spite of the fact that Russia’s interests in the area are much more significant than ours, that we could not practically do anything to force a resolution that achieved Georgia’s objectives, and that it was more than a little unclear which side was really the aggressor. Barack Obama did not handle the situation especially well either; he started out calling for restraint by both sides (a weak response that effectively greenlighted an overly forceful Russian response) and then swung around to support for Georgian entry into NATO (a position that I would consider extremely dangerous if I thought there was any chance of Obama bringing it about), when the right thing to do was to call for an immediate cease-fire and return to the status-quo ante, and try to get a broad diplomatic front to get that result. But while Obama’s response was inadequate, McCain’s reflexive sabre-rattling struck me at the time, and still strikes me, as utterly irresponsible.

Russia is, let me stress, basically a bad actor on the international stage. But we do not have the luxury of spitting in the eye of every bad actor. McCain used to understand this, and still makes gestures in the direction of doing so. I once entertained the notion that McCain would be the best bet to avoid war with Iran while actually making some progress on that difficult relationship, because he would have credibility as a hawk and showed signs in the past of having a special talent of reaching out to former enemies (e.g., Vietnam). This was, I thought, the single best argument for supporting McCain: that he could be Nixon to Iran’s China (and yes, I know I’ve criticized that analogy in the past, and I still think it’s a poor on, but I’m using it anyway). But the overwhelming thrust of his campaign has been an attempt to convince me otherwise, and I’m taking him at his word.

As for the financial crisis, what it revealed is that McCain has absolutely no interest in a serious domestic policy. McCain appears to have no framework within which to understand what has happened, or what needs to be done to get us out of the hole we’re in, or what reforms might help prevent a recurrence. I dread the thought of a McCain Administration managing the restructuring of America’s banking system. Again, I thought differently of him in the past. I thought, back in 2000, that he was a contemporary version of a Roosevelt Republican: that he was a cheerleader for “dynamism” more than for free markets or property rights, and that what this meant in practice was that he favored a regulatory scheme that focused on transparency and avoiding self-dealing and so forth. He still postures that way, but there’s no meat on the bones – his proposals change almost daily, and the changes are often radical from one iteration to the next, but the candidate shows no sign of comprehension that he is swinging from one thing to the next. Given the magnitude of the crisis we’re in, that’s absolutely terrifying. Either McCain once took this stuff seriously, and no longer does, or I was mistaken about him in the past, and his commitments on domestic policy were driven by motivations (pique at rivals, desire for press approval, views of key interest groups) on which I don’t think we can rely for good outcomes.

Obama hasn’t been perfect on this score either – he’s been extremely general in his responses and also rather backward-looking, much more articulate about how he thinks we got into this mess than about how we’re going to get out of it. But he clears the minimum threshold of being serious about the crisis, and he’s got a team of advisors – from Volker to Summers to Geithner to Goolsbee – in whom I have a pretty high degree of confidence, certainly higher than I have in McCain’s team.

Indeed, the financial crisis was what finally made it clear to me that there is, not to put too fine a point on it, no leadership whatsoever in the national GOP. The party seemed to be completely at a loss for how to respond to the most serious economic crisis since the 1970s. And, in fact, seems to still be at a loss – unable to even discuss the relevant questions coherently. The real question that needs to be asked now is whether there is an alternative leadership waiting in the wings that could be trusted with the responsibility of national governance, or, if not, whether the party will be willing and able to grow such leadership. In other words, the real question is whether I and folks like me should give the GOP time to figure itself out, or swallow our concerns about the Democratic Party and see if we have more luck finding a home somewhere inside their big tent.

What do I expect of an Obama Administration? Obama’s main domestic priorities are: a carbon tax (structured as a rationing scheme); a health-care overhaul similar to the sort of plan a number of governors have been exploring or implementing (notably Mitt Romney); a tax hike on top earners coupled with a tax credit for people who pay payroll taxes but no income taxes; and revising labor laws in such a way as to make private sector union organizing easier. I can’t see the first item passing as we enter a deep recession; the second strikes me as a good idea; the third strikes me as a reasonable idea (I’d rather see a VAT rather than a hike in income tax rates, but what can you do, and the rebate is similar to a payroll tax cut, which I favor); and the fourth makes me nervous. That’s not a terrible average.

A friend of mine said to me that the only reason he’s considering a vote for McCain is that McCain’s so crazy that he might actually scare the Iranians into knuckling under on their nuclear program. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe a policy of unremitting confrontation with Iran is sensible. And Obama will not pursue a policy of unremitting confrontation. (Whether any overtures he makes succeed is another matter; I’m skeptical myself.) Obama is not exactly the modest, restrained, Hamiltonian consolidator I’d like to see on foreign affairs. But neither does he strike me as the gung-ho interventionist that Daniel Larison thinks he is – or that McCain is. He strikes me as a garden-variety liberal internationalist. That’s an improvement over what we’ve got now.

One area where conservatives may legitimately fear an Obama Administration is in its choice of judges. If you’re hoping for audacity, here’s where to look. But I have never voted primarily on the complexion of the courts (and that probably has something to do with the fact that I’m in the mushy middle on a bunch of social issues), and there’s one way in which Obama could have a salutary impact on the high court: if he picks Justices who are suspicious of unchecked Executive power and make a point of protecting the legislature’s prerogatives against the Executive. That would be a useful corrective to the Bush years, and also notable in its own right given that Presidents don’t generally do things that limit their office’s power.

So: I think Obama would be a better President than McCain, and there are at least some areas of policy where I think we agree more than disagree, and agree more than I agree with McCain. Maybe that means I’m just a mushy moderate; maybe it means Obama’s not the extreme left-winger so many on the right think he is; or maybe I’ve got him all wrong. Have I drunk the Kool-Aid? No. Do I think Obama is going to lead to a period of liberal realignment? Probably – the GOP has screwed up so massively that such a realignment really is conceivable for once. Do I think a McCain Administration would be a good break on such a realigning movement? No. McCain would be an incredibly weak President, with poor relations with his own party and facing a furious opposition Congress. He’d probably focus almost exclusively on foreign affairs, quickly getting a reputation for being out of touch with the economic problems of most Americans. And his signature foreign policy idea – a League of Democracies – has not a prayer of even being considered in any foreign capital. A failed McCain Administration would be followed by an even more ferocious reaction against the GOP than is already occurring. And there is no chance whatsoever that the GOP would take any kind of dictation from McCain to change its ways.

In retrospect, do I wish John Kerry had won? Yes. It’s a shame he ran such a substance-free campaign, and that he picked a running mate so manifestly unready to be President on day one.

Finally: why don’t I vote for Bob Barr? Because I’m not a libertarian and neither is he. What would be the point?