I just voted for Barack Obama in the California primary.
It has, this year, been an embarrassment of riches on the Democratic side--a half-dozen or so candidates any one of whom would have a reasonable shot of being in the top 20% of American presidents if elected, compared to zero on the Republican side. Now we are down to two: Barack Obama and Hilary Rodham Clinton.
The arguments against Barack Obama are:
- He has no administrative experience running a large organization.
- He is too liberal.
- He is Black, and thus vulnerable to the politics of personal destruction, and will not get elected.
The arguments against Hilary Rodham Clinton are:
- Her performance running Clinton-era health care reform in 1993 and 1994 gives no confidence in her ability to run the large organization that is the U.S. government.
- She is too centrist.
- She is female and a Clinton, and thus vulnerable to the politics of personal destruction, and will not get elected.
The response to (1) for both sides is by this point very convincing: both have now demonstrated an ability to run an excellent political campaign. Running a successful presidential political campaign is not the same thing as governing a country, but both have demonstrated substantial administrative competence over the past two years--and neither has betrayed the moral failure of telling big lies or making themselves hostage to special interests in the way that, say, George H.W. Bush did and thus crippled their presidency in advance. A Barack Obama who was just a pretty face who could give a nice speech could not have run the campaign he has run over the past two years. And the Hilary Rodham Clinton who made such an administrative mess of health reform in 1993-1994 could not have run the campaign she has run over the past two years. Thus I am now confident that either has a reasonable shot of being in the top 20% of American presidents.
The response to (2) is that the policy differences are incredibly minor, and are being amplified by both campaigns as they play a negative-sum game for the party and for the country as a whole. Barack Obama is a more liberal senator than Hilary Rodham Clinton, and yet the big policy difference is that he is to the right of Clinton on health care? Our experience with auto insurance mandates tells us that HRC's individual mandate to purchase health insurance would get us close to universal coverage only if it were administered through the tax system--and maybe not even then. Barack Obama's "pay or play" requirement that employers either offer health insurance or kick in money to the system is very close to being an employer mandate if the "pay" component is set at a serious level. Either plan could produce effectively universal coverage. Either could fall short--with the devil being in the details.
What is going on is that, as Matthew Yglesias wrote somewhere I cannot find right now, both campaigns are magnifying their policy differences on health care and Iraq in order to have something to talk about. But what policy differences there are are insufficient to push anybody toward one rather than the other.
And as for (3), it is also not a consideration. The Republican Party is very good at the politics of personal destruction, and the press eats it up--no matter who the Democratic candidate. When draft-dodger Dick Cheney can impugn the patriotism of WWII bomber pilot George McGovern without any journalistic pushback--well, we already knew that America's Washington village journalists are completely without honor. And we already knew that the only Republicans with honor are those who are openly and publicly committed to the radical transformation and reform of their party. We do live in Romuli faece, and not in Platonis πολτειαι. We have to deal with it.
So none of the arguments against either candidate seems to me to weigh one way or another. So why did I vote for Barack Obama rather than HRC? Because he gives a really nice speech.
Barack Obama is not, however, the most liberal senator. The National Journal, which claims he is, has for some reason gone into the tank on this one, and is now downgraded from "reliable" to "must be verified."