Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Long-Awaited Endorsement

I'm a day late and a dollar short, but this blog is an enthusiastic endorser of Sen. Barack Obama for both the Democratic nomination and President of the United States.

In my opinion, there are three important criteria by which to evaluate presidential candidates.
  1. The thrust of the top two or three domestic policy initiatives. New presidents don't really get to have any more than that. The details aren't important because they'll be hacked to pieces by Congress anyway.
  2. Foreign policy. Presidents have a huge amount of power in this area.
  3. Intangibles. Character, judgment, intelligence, oratorical skill, and management style obviously matter in a candidate. Experience, of course, is related to these qualities.
For domestic policy initiatives, there is little difference between Clinton and Obama: they're both going to prioritize health care and climate change. The differences probably won't matter. However, I think Obama plays much better in red states and is therefore likely to assemble filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate.

It's harder to determine exactly what McCain's domestic priorities are, but I'd expect government reform, a fiscally irresponsible tax cut, and maybe some health reform. It's unclear enough to make a very informed statement. If McCain actually wants to do serious climate change and health care legislation, he may actually find it easier than the Democrats because it'd play as a Nixon-to-China moment. Let's call it a push, which I think is charitable to McCain.

On foreign policy, there is a clear distinction between Obama and the others. Whether for political reasons or because it's what she actually believes, Senator Clinton's record strongly indicates that she will take a hawkish attitude on Iran, Iraq, and other matters.

The generally hawkish approach to international problems, typified by both Senator McCain and Senator Clinton, has proved to fairly destructive to our interests and blind to the appearance of our actions in the rest of the world. It's not just that Senator Obama was right about Iraq; he was right for exactly the right reasons. That's a rare statement.

On intangibles, I'm once again going to state that Obama is the superior candidate, although McCain in particular has some strong attributes. Here's a highly subjective list of why I think so:
  • His speeches suggest that he understands conservative arguments and is able to listen to, and intelligently judge, ideas from across the ideological spectrum. That's bad to some people, but after the last eight years I'm excited about the possibility of having a President that can be convinced by data.
  • The judgment of people I trust (like Megan McArdle and Matthew Yglesias) is that he has a particularly strong group of economic and foreign policy advisors.
  • His reticence to engage in smear campaigns and the like is refreshing. An Obama win might correct some bad political behavior by other candidates.
  • The election of an African-American president would be a much more powerful "rebranding" of America than the election of a woman, which has happened in many other places and will be seen as a vehicle for the restoration of Bill Clinton.
  • His communication skills make him more able to mobilize people for change.
  • His campaign has been, by far, the best run of the big three. That speaks well of his management and leadership. The Clinton campaign seems infected with the same kind of yes-men and dysfunctional dynamics that have crippled the Bush Administration.
Senator Obama is the second candidate to which I have ever donated. Interestingly, the first was Sen. McCain in 2000. You should too.


Primaries & Caucuses

There's a lot of opinions floating around about the primary and caucus process. These kinds of pieces used to be focused on the special role of Iowa and New Hampshire, which really is indefensible, and demonstrably leads to irresponsible policies like ethanol subsidies. Now that it's clear that Iowa and New Hampshire weren't decisive, however, the focus has turned to the structure of the entire process, and whether caucuses, superdelegates, etc. are truly small-d democratic or not.

People are asserting a lot of rights that don't actually exist. After all, what do you really want out of a nominating process? In a perfect world, I'd prefer to see all the candidates in a single primary that passes through a rotating schedule of states, with the top two vote-getters going to the general. In 2008, that very well might have meant Obama and Clinton in November. But that's not the system we're ever going to get, nor would it be very appealing to partisans of right and left, since it provides maximum incentive for everyone to portray themselves as centrists.

In reality, the parties are trying to obtain a candidate that most reflects the ideals of the party faithful while still being appealing enough to the nation to win in the general election. There's no imperative here to be democratic, to "count every vote", to avoid disenfranchisement, or anything else. Is it really more appropriate to have a primary, where there can be many independents and crossovers, or a caucus that restricts the franchise to true believers? In reality, there's a strong argument for a mix of caucuses and primaries, to capture both objectives of the process. Perhaps it'd be better if every state had a Texas-like mix of both, but it's clear that the state-by-state hodgepodge is a pretty good second-best.

Similarly, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with dedicated party hacks (i.e., superdelegates) getting extra influence on the process. After all, if you're dissatisfied with the nominee, you can always vote for the other guy, unless you're a dedicated partisan.