Monday, September 29, 2008

The Oxford Debate

At the conclusion of the first presidential debate I thought – “What a colossal waste of time.”

The talking heads reminded me later that not everyone has been watching these two men for the last 19 months. For them, this may have been a refreshing and delightful evening of television. They were the fortunate ones. The talking heads also told me that this was an amazingly cerebral debate compared to most and for that reason there weren’t any memorable moments. I suppose that it was issue oriented, but cerebral…I think not. It was what debate has become – a performance. In this instance, a boring performance with more stump speech excerpts than true thoughtfulness. Anyone that watched either party convention learned nothing interesting or useful during the debate.

For my part, the first debate was actually the first time I’ve started to tune out of the presidential race. It has become an agony to watch the daily news unfolding. All those many months ago I thought that the two men left running for president were different from the rest. John McCain had spent years making up his own mind about things; some may argue that it was an impulsive and inconsistent mind, but when he told the Jerry Falwell followers that they could all go to hell my heart warmed. Barack Obama had risen rapidly with a willingness to speak truth to hostile audiences and in his case, embrace religion rather than deride it. I thought to myself – either of these men would be a nice improvement.

Not so much anymore. My love affair with John McCain ended last summer. He embraced the right wing of his party trying to persuade those he needed most to win the nomination. As he stood on the stage of Jerry Falwell’s college I started shopping for a new candidate. In the face of no better options I stuck with him. Meanwhile, I’ve always liked Barack Obama because I’ve always liked a good speech. I’m a sucker for a good speech. As Obama started piling up primary wins I kept anticipating the next victory speech. Politically, I should have been behind Clinton, but I kept thinking maybe all this hope and change brouhaha was for real…maybe, just maybe. Turns out it wasn’t, not really. Obama turned out to be an exceptionally good politician surrounded by the same old politicians that have been lurking around Washington since Bill Clinton took office.

As the debate unfolded, whatever excitement had returned by the end of the primaries had been replaced by anguish over watching the tit for tat back and forth of modern, daily campaigning. What lobbyist worked for whom? What surrogate said what? What sort of terrorists in Iran? Lipstick on a pig? God help us and god help America! By the end of the debate I was having trouble finding the enthusiasm to vote for either candidate.

It’s hard to vote for a man that can’t answer a simple question. Neither man wanted to answer the first question – do you support the current bailout plan? In their first try they spent two minutes apiece regurgitating their economic stump speech. When Jim Lehrer asked again, he got more of the same. When he asked one more time, he received grudging and vague support. It took nine minutes to answer a yes/no question. Why couldn’t either man say, “Yes, I support the bailout. I have reservations, but it is necessary for the following reasons…” Why couldn’t they? Because thoughtfulness has been stripped from politics. Why confuse people with thought and reason when they can be so easily dazzled with smoke and mirrors.

It’s hard to vote for a man that cannot say, “I was wrong.” We are all wrong sometimes. John McCain was wrong about Saddam Hussein’s capability to develop and distribute weapons. Barack Obama was wrong about the surge. I waited for Obama to say, “John, I was wrong about the surge. I didn’t think it would work and didn’t think it was worth the risk. I’m happy to be wrong about that. I wanted to take a different path and none of us here can say whether it would have been better. But John, you were wrong about parts of this too. Being right about one thing and being wrong about all the rest does not demonstrate good judgment. It demonstrates good timing.” At any time McCain could have said, “Senator Obama, I was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. I thought Iraq was further along and a more eminent threat than they proved to be. That doesn’t change my continuing conviction that liberating Iraq was the right decision. Hussein was a dictator. Hussein was a killer. Eventually, we would not be able to contain him. To say that we shouldn’t have gone to war at all because of a mismanagement of the military strategy by George Bush demonstrates a lack of understanding in how the world really works.”

It’s hard to vote for a man that can’t be honest about the political realities we face. After being repeatedly asked by Jim Lehrer whether any adjustments would need to be made to their plans when elected president in light of the financial meltdown neither wanted to give up anything. John McCain finally suggested a spending freeze. Sounds good. Barack Obama finally conceded that yes, of course, some things just couldn’t happen, but obviously we’d need to cut taxes. John McCain agreed. Obviously. We always need tax cuts. All problems can be solved with tax cuts. How about either one of these guys tell me the truth – no tax cuts, no Social Security when I retire and no way we come out of this financial crisis without a recession and complete realignment of the economy? I suppose that’s asking too much.

Then again, maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s us. Maybe we are asking too much of the presidency. We want our presidents to be something unreal. We want them to be all things to all people. We want them down-home and ordinary, but the smartest kid in the class. We want them to be funny, but inoffensive. We want them to be perfect people, but flawed. We want specifics and details, but in no larger chunk of time than a television commercial. We want candidates that are above the fray, but willing to draw blood in a fight.

We seek inspiration where none can be found. We seek answers where none are offered. We seek guidance from a steady hand when one is not extended. This is our own fault. Our candidates reflect the worst in us because at we don’t care so much what our candidates say as long as they make us feel good about ourselves.

For ninety minutes, the two men running for president did everything they could to make us feel good about voting for them and feel foolish for voting for the other guy. That just doesn’t work for me.

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