Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Fighting words

Posted by boakley59 on September 30, 2008

The McCain campaign for the presidency of the United States is in a fighting mood. It wants America in a fighting mood, too. The signature image of the Republican convention is John McCain bellowing at the conclusion of his acceptance speech, “Fight with me! Fight with me! Fight with me!”

I hate fighting, and the belligerence of the convention deeply disturbed me. I have been struggling to compose a meaningful response that neither draws on the same animalistic heat nor yields the field.

So what can I do but accept the McCain invitation? Yes, indeed, John McCain, I will fight with you — not as I would with an ally to help him secure hearth and home, but as I would with a bully to stop his destructive intimidation seeking control of the schoolyard.

Just who or what am I fighting? Ultimately, this question is at the heart of the problem with what passes for political discourse in our election system. Ideas are reduced to ideology, problems to loyalty tests, solutions to sound bites, character to caricature. As an editor whose life has been devoted to ensuring that words are used well, I have great difficulty with political messages from all sides. Upon my initial distress at the McCain message, Suzy asked why I even bothered to watch or listen, and she wondered what made the distorted message from one side any worse than the distorted message from the other.

These are important questions, and quick answers aren’t enough. But quick answers may be given if only to meet the challenge issuing from the McCain campaign that anyone who talks or explains too much is too timid to do very much. So, I start with a quick summary and if you agree with McCain that addressing the details is just dithering to avoid doing, you can skip the rest: McCain is looking for war on all fronts, and he’s got the wrong targets, the wrong weapons, the wrong allies and the wrong approach.

I have declared myself, in answer to the bully’s challenge. Yes, I would rather discuss and decide than fight, but no, I won’t just back down, even for fear I might become the monster I intend to resist.

Now, to the details. (My conclusions were reached at the close of the Republican Convention, and my arguments do not address the recent campaign twists in response to the financial crisis. McCain’s performance under this duress is quite in keeping with the conclusions presented here.)

Who am I fighting? I watched John McCain and Barack Obama at the Rick Warren Saddleback forum and I watched most speeches and a lot of commentary at the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, and I have been following the news since. For my purposes, “the McCain campaign” encompasses McCain’s remarks plus what such speakers as Rudy Giuliani and others said, even though there may be a technical objection that “McCain himself never said such and such.” I try to reconcile these utterings with voting record and biography.

What am I fighting? So I don’t have to write a book to cover it all, and acknowledging the risk of oversimplifying what I have said should not be given short shrift, I’ll focus on four issues that fan the biggest flames: the economy, national security, energy and abortion. The rules for the Saddleback forum gave me great hope of hearing substantive arguments to guide meaningful policies, not sound-bite pandering to voting niches. The candidates would answer identical questions, out of hearing of the opponent, with no time limit on individual answers but an overall limit that meant candidates might not get to all the same questions.

McCain’s answers were an utter disappointment on nearly every issue. Pat Buchanan later praised McCain’s responses for being brief, decisive and comprehensible, in contrast to Obama’s lengthier responses, which he found not simple enough to be meaningful. This is exactly backwards: These are complex issues and simple answers are the meaningless ones, except when they’re worse than meaningless, which is to say when they’re wrong.

Since the financial crisis has come to the fore, let’s begin with the economy. Asked to give a ballpark figure for what “rich” means, McCain more or less said there’s no such thing and the problem is the Democratic side’s wish to forcibly and unfairly redistribute wealth through bad taxes. Folks, we already redistribute wealth through a bad tax code, and it’s those with the most wealth who are getting the most from the redistribution.

Consider: American productivity has generally risen but inflation-adjusted wages have fallen. This was true before gasoline hit $4 a gallon and food prices went through the roof with transportation costs up. That is to say, most of us are working more and earning less, and we are losing health insurance and benefits under the Republican fiscal policies, including tax policies that McCain has supported. People who get money through employment income are losing it to tax policies, while people who get more money simply for already having money are getting tax breaks. People who work for a living are working harder for less, and wealth already accumulated is expanding faster than ever. Corporate grunts are approaching Depression-era inflation-adjusted wages, while corporate executives are being paid record slices of the pie generated by the rising productivity of those increasingly impoverished workers.

Proposals to address this through tax increases on wealthier taxpayers are painted as envy-driven “soaking the rich.” (Interesting to accuse the other side of injuring a group that your side refuses to define.) If I am working faster and better than ever and someone earning several hundred times what I make is gaining from my productivity while I am struggling to buy groceries, envy is not the word. I am being exploited at the least, and more likely cheated, and I am outraged. To say this is not a matter of rich or poor is to endorse the corrupt redistribution of wealth already in place, and only someone on the gain side of that system could possibly say that. It hurts to make an us-them argument out of it, but most of us are having a much harder time putting food on the table, and we need help from those to whom much is being shoveled.

The policies McCain endorses, while denying that “rich” matters, accept the Reaganomic notion of trickle-down reward: A rising tide lifts all boats. Unfortunately, the yacht club controls access to the harbor and the rowboats don’t even get in the water. This philosophy and these policies have demonstrably failed.

Among the things that the poor spend increasingly more for is energy. The problem here has been painted both as a national security and economic issue: dependence on foreign oil. At the Saddleback forum, McCain said the change of mind of which he was most proud was ending his opposition to offshore drilling for oil. The notion played very well to the Republican base, as evidenced by the repeated chants of “Drill, baby, drill!” at the convention. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin held this up as progress, even if not the ultimate answer, and much better in any case than doing nothing.

This is the Easter Island defense of resource depletion, and history is not on Palin’s side. Doing a more or less familiar, stupid thing is not better than doing nothing. Of course, “doing nothing” is not what the other side proposes, for that is not the same as “not doing the wrong thing.” She’s wrong in her assumption and in her characterization of the alternatives.

Errant spin aside, the point here is that offshore drilling has no practical benefit, only a psychological one. It feels like “doing something.” But the best estimates of the resources available and the time frame and costs involved in tapping them are that offshore drilling will do nothing to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The available oil is simply not enough to make a dent in reliance on foreign sources. By the time it can be found and recovered, the economic situation will have changed, probably for the worse, and the economic benefit will be to the oil providers, not the general consumers. Reliance on foreign oil will not be reduced by endangering our environment to maximize our own limited supply of this fading resource. Our canteen is going dry along with the nearby stream; we must think how to reduce our thirst or find different drinks, not sip more often from the canteen and dip more often in the stream.

So, McCain is proudest of reversing himself to embrace a policy that cannot succeed as a solution to the problem it purports to address. He is proudest of having learned to accept nonsense that brings the political advantage of having people chant their approval at conventions.

Along with this economic threat to our national security, we are spending mightily on war. Here, McCain touts himself as the steady hand of experience in matters of the military and foreign policy. His proposals in these areas are largely to follow the Bush path, but with more resources and toughness, and perhaps less torture. His direct promises in the Saddleback forum were to get Osama bin Laden and to carry the fight to “radical Islamic terrorism.” The bin Laden promise is empty posturing: If the Bush policies and defense machine haven’t already achieved this end, what knowledge or tactic that McCain could deploy will work? If he can deliver, why hasn’t he shared this with the administration already?

As for fighting “radical Islamic terrorism,” making this remark at Saddleback seems a tribal version of pointing out a black man at a Klan rally. It’s too close to invoking a holy war, and that is precisely the wrong approach to the problem. Even if you believe that Islam is an inherently violent religion, “Islamic” is the least important word in the phrase. Indeed, to emphasize the antagonism of Islam and Christianity largely validates the reasoning of the murderous 9/11 hijackers: Believers attack God’s enemies. The real antidote is to focus the military resources on the radical terrorism in the mix, but reach out to the many Muslims in our multicultural midst and find the mutual respect for life to which believers of almost all stripes pay lip service. We must join with Muslims here and abroad against radical terrorism, not make war on all Islam. McCain had plenty of time in the open-ended forum to make that distinction, but he instead used the sound bite to invoke a friendly, majority “us” against an evil, alien “them.”

The trumpeting of experience also rings hollow. Rudy Giuliani pointed out at the convention that the Democrats never mention “victory” in all their proposals regarding war, presumably because the Democratic ticket lacks understanding or experience in war. Military historians perhaps will conclude that Americans won most of the battles in Vietnam, from which McCain’s claim of experience arises, but the enduring images of the evacuation of Saigon at the end of this guerrilla war were hardly representative of victory. And despite that conflict’s emphatic lesson that military might is not the determining factor in a guerrilla war (also see Revolution, American, 18th century), McCain draws on his experience to propose more military spending in a multiple-front war to go after a guerrilla leader. Perhaps we are to understand that his personal suffering taught him to avoid the mistakes of previous wartime administrations, but if so why espouse their failed policies?

McCain’s catch-phrase calls to arms, while seeming decisive and taken by some therefore to be admirable, are unrealistic at best and destructive at worst. He is a moth confidently leading followers into the alluring flame. His Saddleback answer on the abortion question offered similar false comfort: He would base policy on the principle that life begins at conception. The principle has wide appeal and his pledge brings him support, but it is an unworkable and meaningless promise.

Trivial objections arise: Do we become eligible to drive, vote, drink and collect retirement benefits nine months earlier, or do we amend existing age statutes to reflect the new legal understanding? More seriously, such an approach also makes every miscarriage a potential manslaughter case. If a pregnant woman miscarries after taking a sleeping pill or after slipping and falling on icy steps, was she criminally negligent? Is a birth defect a result of poor neonatal nutrition and therefore actionable? It may be argued that nuanced laws might be written, but the very issue at hand is to eliminate nuance in existing law. Some would ask who would prosecute such cases, who would seek to accuse? We have a ready pool of mother-suers in the sort of people who blockade or bomb abortion clinics (who generally fit the label of “radical Christian terrorists”). Other likely plaintiffs are those who resist vaccination on false claims of risk and conspiracy.

Even given that the underlying principle is worthy, this language can only serve as posturing to settle the sides for a fight no one will win anytime soon. This makes cooperation or change less likely.

On issue after issue, McCain is on a war footing: The other nominee is un-American; the other religion is evil; we must drill now. But the fighting never stops. His insistence on his standing as a maverick played out at the convention with the sitting president of his own party appearing only by video. In his own speech, McCain would not even say the president’s name. This is treatment typically reserved for the rival nominee, not the sitting leader of the nation and party one loves. Yet the maverick also voted with this president on the overwhelming majority of bills. Nevertheless, the self-styled maverick also claims that experience in various areas matters. There’s a certain self-contradictory tension: We may grant that creativity requires familiarity with the box before thinking outside it, but can someone claiming the value of working in a system simultaneously be an antidote to it? Is an “experienced maverick” just a dog chasing its tail?

McCain fights the rival nominee, but he also fights his own party and ultimately his own words. In the end, his campaign is “sound and fury, signifying nothing” but that he remains a prisoner of war, and he invites us all into that same darkness.

So, I move toward the darkness in that I fight McCain. But I also fight to stay out of the darkness, and there is the difference Suzy asked about. Yes, similar deconstructions apply to campaign posturing by Obama, but in the end his campaign does not fold in on itself and collapse of its own weight. Sad to damn with such faint praise in this troubling time, but there’s a chance Obama might make headway on some of the challenges we face. Thoughtful cooperation, even if haltingly managed, at least keeps us out of the darkness and self-destruction of McCain’s fighting words.


One Response to “Fighting words”

  1. DJ said

    I’m making this a simple choice—all politicians lie in one form or another, it’s the nature of politics (unfortunately), you find me one who doesn’t and I will make it my life’s work to find the other nine as was asked of Abraham. But, I’ll not hold my breath.

    McCain came to the crossroads and made his Robert Johnson choice and has simply sold his soul in the hopes he can land him the presidency. But whereas Johnson just wanted to play the blues, it will be the blues for us if McCain gets the office. Obama does give the hope (and that hope springs eternal is important) he can be a leader that helps to change more than a few of the things in this country that have taken so much hope out of so many.

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