by Victor Davis Hanson
The problem with bringing up Ayers and Wright and the other assorted nuts of Obama’s weird Scipionic Circle — I think the most reprehensible of the discarded associates was the rather murderous Kenyan, Raila Odinga — is that it may now be too little too late.
That is, all these were legitimate issues of concern. And had McCain not played Zeus on Olympus in August, he might have raised them as proof of poor judgment and a certain extremism that was not conducive to the sobriety required by the Presidency: Mutatis mutandis, would McCain have befriended an abortion clinic bomber, had a racist pastor with KKK affiliations, or patronized a Serbian nationalist with blood on his hands?
But by evoking them now, McCain looks desperate (a), and (b) diverting attention from the omnipresent economic crisis. What then might he do in the debate?
1. Damning both Wall Street greed and Fannie and Freddie collusion is fine, but he might at least remind us that the U.S. is now running up billions in annual deficits, adding to trillions in federal debt, and simply cannot promise more expenditures unless they are met by commensurate cuts in spending. In this regard, he can (carefully to be sure) suggest that our national culture of buy now/pay later is going to have to change. Voters want to be challenged to sacrifice rather than hear the same old “they” did it — as if these creepy politicians were elected by ghosts, or practice an ethos absolutely foreign to what we see in our own popular culture.
2. So far McCain has not explained the significance of Freddie and Fannie. Yes, there was a nexus of Enron-like corruption as a Raines or Johnson cooked the books to win mega-bonuses; covered their tracks by talking grandly of “putting the poor into a home”; and then hedged their bets by sleazy donations to House and Senate liberal demagogues.
But that said, they also serve as a warning about such huge quasi-public enterprises: can we imagine a Health care Freddie or an Education Fannie? At least a Ken Lay or Richard Fuld in the private sector can be demonized as a bandit, but when a Raines practices such similar greed, he is inside the government and embedded in folds of bureaucratic protection, with all sorts of liberal apologies that shield him from the full deterrent effect of the law. The lesson of what caused the Wall Street greed is not just robber capitalism, but unaccountable government monstrosities — that would be made worse by Obama’s planned “hope and change” creation of a new trillion dollar government expansion.
3. If he brings up earmarks again, McCain has to tell us the truth: in aggregate dollars they do not constitute a big percentage of the budget. BUT they represent a sort of lubricant for far greater larcenies. In other words, terrible waste and spending are facilitated in trite ways by lawmakers tacking on earmarks. We saw that with the $700 billion bailout plan. Yes, wooden arrows were a small part of the largess, but the inclusion of these payoffs reduced the principled discussion of our very futures into a matter of petty bribes and payoffs. Earmarks are a question of honesty and the integrity of the entire political system. When a cop takes $20 to drop a ticket, we don’t say “$20 is a small part of the multimillion dollar police budget”, but rather that such crookedness is a dangerous cancer to the public trust.
4. Bring up judgment in foreign policy: Obama wished to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions, but even Iranian leaders now want no such meeting without their own preconditions. How strange — an American President in search of dialogue with a third-rate terror state would be asked to grant, not demand, preconditions for a chance to talk? Why would Iranian mullahs voice such braggadocio if they didn’t sense future American uncertainty?
5. Iraq: For all practical purposes at the present, the costs of American occupation of Iraq are not that much different in blood and treasure from the stationing of a commensurate number of troops elsewhere. We may soon be nearing the rate of accidental deaths found per 130-140,000 troops per month elsewhere in the world; and the provisioning costs of those in Iraq may not be all that much higher than would be true should soldiers be redeployed back home or to other overseas bases abroad. So McCain might take a risk at this point and simply say that Iraq is not the drain on the American taxpayer as had been alleged, but both a victory now and a wise investment in the future stability of the region. And we need not hear any more that Iraq was a diversion, since it was about the only theater in which we could freely defeat, kill, and humiliate al Qaeda and radical Islamists. Far from weakening Afghanistan, it was complementary to it: as destroying Nazi Germany was to defeating Japan. Likewise, the military is not broken but now even more competent, trained, and experienced than it was at the start of the war. McCain needs to remind us of all that, and transcend the “I was for the surge, he wasn’t!”
6. Challenge Obama to name in advance a Secretary of Defense or State, or Middle East envoy. He will probably mention a safe Clintonite — but who knows? After all, in a 2004 interview he bragged that he went to Wright’s Trinity every Sunday (even on THE SUNDAY?) and had some rather inspirational mentors (GG is the Chicago Sun-Times interviewer):
GG: Do you still attend Trinity?
OBAMA: Yep. Every week. 11 oclock service.
GG: Do you have people in your life that you look to for guidance?
OBAMA: Well, my pastor [Wright] is certainly someone who I have an enormous amount of respect for. I have a number of friends who are ministers. Reverend Meeks is a close friend and colleague of mine in the state Senate. Father Michael Pfleger is a dear friend, and somebody I interact with closely.
GG: Those two will keep you on your toes.
OBAMA: And they’re good friends. Because both of them are in the public eye, there are ways we can all reflect on what’s happening to each of us in ways that are useful. I think they can help me, they can appreciate certain specific challenges that I go through as a public figure.
7. What does Obama mean by “spread the wealth”? Surely McCain can remind voters that already the top 5% of American income earners pay at least 60% of the total tax burden; while 35% pay no income tax. Is it such a good thing that under Obama’s plan 50% of American might pay no income tax? — and thus have no stake in questions of wise federal expenditures of someone else’s internal revenue?
8. Is it such a good thing to ask some very productive self-employed Americans in high-tax states to give the government 2/3s of their incomes (40% federal, 15% FICA, 10% state)? Why would anyone take the risk to expand a business, build a new apartment complex, or hire more employees if he knew that any additional income would amount to only 35% of profits? It seems hardly worth the additional risk? One neighbor says, “I love Obama — I’m paying no income tax now and getting a credit check from the government, so why work weekends?” The other neighbor replies, “Yes, I’m giving 65% of my extra profits to the government to pay for you, so why work weekends?” Many of the lower middle class will pay no income taxes and get a check back; many of the really wealthy will be taxed at lower capital gains rates (since they take their income often in stock selling and buying or have access to sophisticated shelters), but the victims would be precisely the upwardly mobile, upper middle class.
9. Just as McCain has voiced disapproval of extraneous zealots who have crossed the line in their anti-Obama sentiments, can’t Obama likewise discourage ACORN, the uber-partisans who swarm radio-stations, or politicos like Rep. Lewis who connected McCain to George Wallace and by extension to the murdering of small girls?
Conservatives for Obama
I have no problem with a David Brooks or Christopher Buckley voicing admiration for Obama and disdain for either Bush or Palin. Both are principled critics whom I like and admire.
My earlier note centered on disagreement about what constituted wisdom. I am not convinced that Palin’s ignorance about Niebuhr or Obama’s interest in him makes much difference. And I think the rabid right’s intolerance of diversity is no different from the Obama cult of near hero-worship. (Wait and see when the Fairness Doctrine is in place).
In that regard, I often note the tone of the hard left at this site; the right disagrees and adduces arguments, the left often by spewing invective. I know that when I give a lecture to businessmen suggesting greed is endemic on Wall Street and has discredited much of their own ethos there are serious but professional retorts; at a university the professorial response to criticism of the Left is shrill and occasionally unhinged.
Half of what I learned did not come from books or graduate school or teaching or writing, but from some rather rough characters who taught me how to prune, hammer, wire, and fix things — as well as their world view that came along with those tasks. Thank God, we have that experience represented in Sarah Palin. Can’t her critics grasp that? It ain’t easy to step up to the city-council, mayorship, or governor’s office while raising kids, on a short budget, without family money or connections, and out in Alaska? Did not the career of Truman teach us anything? We have plenty of highly educated politicos, so there is no worry we are a nation of populist yokels; what is lacking in public life are just a few people who aren’t lawyers, professors, consultants, and bureaucrats.
That said, I do think if McCain now had a 15% lead over Obama, and had he invited reporters to josh and cajole as in the past, and had Palin been photographed with her head in a Conrad novel, with glasses down on her nose, and an occasional cast-off quote from a Jack London, many conservatives might nevertheless have been less prone to admire Obama. After all, in fairness, the latter did get the number of U.S. states wrong on several occasions, erred about basic facts of World War II, and seemed downright silly in his riffs about tire air pressure. I just wish Obama would release his Columbia and Occidental transcripts, so that the nation can be reminded how one gets into Harvard Law School. I suspect there would not be a lot of A+s on contemporary American moralists or even American geography.
If Obama wins…
We will all support to the best of our abilities the President of the U.S.; he will need it in these challenging times when so many abroad will try to take advantage of America’s ongoing perceived weakness. But nevertheless, there will be irony aplenty, and not all of it necessarily bad.
Consider. The Europeans really will have their multilateralist: no, problem, Eastern Europe, we will get the U.N. on Putin right away. Don’t worry France, we are right behind you in Kandahar. Angie, no problem, Iranian nukes can’t quite reach Frankfurt. OK, U.K., ready or not, here come more of your Guantanamo detainees. Don’t worry, Israel, trust me — Hamas really is sober and judicious. How strange to see a Euro-summit in which the U.S. president is to the left of the Europeans, who are fleeing the positions we are now assuming.
Or better yet
As one scared Frenchman told me this summer, “Hey, what’s up? There’s only room for one Obama in the West, and we already claimed that role!”
I don’t believe in guilt by association, but on the other hand, I do listen to others when they admire and praise others, especially if they see something I may have missed. Jesse Jackson apparently has a take on Obama that we’ve not grasped, when today he assured Frenchmen that Obama will be far more sympathetic to the Palestinians and that America is going to change in ways you won’t believe.
From the horse’s mouth
For the best thing written on why Wright matters, read this excerpt from progressive journalist Ben Wallace-Wells, who in 2007 wrote a laudatory piece on Barack Obama in Rolling Stone, and apparently felt the following passage was proof of why the hard left finally had an authentic candidate:
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama’s life, or his politics. The senator “affirmed” his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a “sounding board” to “make sure I’m not losing myself in the hype and hoopla.” Both the title of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright’s sermons. “If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from,” says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, “just look at Jeremiah Wright.”
Obama wasn’t born into Wright’s world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell’s nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and “felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”
Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that’s packed in there. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Obama’s life story is a splicing of two different roles, and two different ways of thinking about America’s. One is that of the consummate insider, someone who has been raised believing that he will help to lead America, who believes in this country’s capacity for acts of outstanding virtue. The other is that of a black man who feels very deeply that this country’s exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust. This tension runs through his life; Obama is at once an insider and an outsider, a bomb thrower and the class president. “I’m somebody who believes in this country and its institutions,” he tells me. “But I often think they’re broken.”
©2008 Victor Davis Hanson