The American two-party political system is both wonderful and severely flawed. It allows us to conduct free elections and to promote our ideals through a political means that can actually accomplish something for the overall good of the nation, or at least it did at some points in our history. At the same time this wonderful, and sometimes efficient, two-party system is severely flawed. I am inclined to think that what it does best, at least in the present context, is to keep one single group from dominating and forcing radical change. By this means it preserves us through a time when we are an almost evenly divided nation about a number of political and social issues. Being an incrementalist I believe one of the reasons the founders, for example, set up three branches of government was to hinder the prospect of future revolutions. Yet we still had a bloody Civil War. No system is perfect!
I have quoted former-president Harry Truman about this point of the two parties and partisanship, but the quotation bears repeating. Truman said: “There never was a non-partisan in politics.” I agree. Every reader of this blog, or for that matter any person who has any interest in politics, has a partisan viewpoint. I have tried to be a non-partisan and it not only doesn’t work, it is really no fun if the truth be known. We all support one side or the other in these debates. Some people are totally turned-off but this solves nothing at all. It is the nature of our political process to create some partisanship. Democracy will always have this so long as we are a free people.
But there is a huge difference in being admittedly partisan and in being a hyper-partisan, which I think much of this current election has become. It is one of those things that you know when you see it. And we clearly see a lot more of it when elections get drawn out over long periods of time like they have in recent cycles. We play "gotcha" on a daily basis.
It was President Truman who also said, “A man cannot be a non-partisan and be effective in a political party. When he’s in any party, he’s partisan.” Truman believed that the only time a person could become non-partisan is when he or she is in office. But even this is doubtful today given the fact that most people in office will run again. Even if they are serving a “lame-duck” term they are concerned, in most cases it seems, about what we call “legacy.”
There was a time when former-presidents, for example, never injected their harsh criticism into elections. That time is gone now. There was also a sense that we should cease partisanship once an election was over. We could resume it a few months before the next election but we had a sense of propriety about all of this. Such a time is also long gone. Campaigns are 24/7 and seem now to be endless. Senator Obama has been running for the White House for nearly 20 months. (Cynics would say longer.) Senator McCain, in one sense at least, has been running for the presidency for eight years. And on and on this goes.
To my mind there are several presidents who sought to introduce a new way of dealing with partisanship. One was Andrew Jackson, who once wrote to James Monroe: “Now is the time to exterminate the monster called ‘party-spirit.’” In the last century the most non-partisan of all our presidents might have been Harry Truman.
He drove Republicans mad with his ebullient spirit. He was called “The Happy Warrior.” He left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history and today is considered one of our better presidents. He continually confounded his critics. The "establishment" thought he was a light weight and they were really totally wrong. He was an astute man who understood human nature and people as well as any leader in our lifetime.
I write these words because I want to comment on the present general election and the candidates in a way that admits I am partisan. I have a favorite in this race. At the same time I strive with all my being to be fair and thereby to help Christians think beyond the red and blue categories that we seem stuck in since Watergate and the Clinton impeachment trial. I am sick of politics as “full-contact sport.” I think many of you agree.
With this in mind I will begin a series of occasional posts leading up to the election that attempt what may be almost impossible. I will admit why I favor the direction of one candidate over the other, as honestly as I know how, but I will also attempt to be as fair-minded and charitable as possible. Is this too much to ask from a Christian who is a public thinker and writer?
I will talk about issues, personalities and flaps. These are all important in my view. I will also tell you what I think about a particular issue and I will find things to like and not like in both candidates. In the end I will pray for the man who is chosen on November 4. I pray that he is aided by divine providence and will ask God to bless his leadership of our great nation.
It is more than interesting to me that we have two men running for the presidency who both appear to be Christians. I do not think this is a requirement in any way, nor should it be. I concur with Luther who once said, "I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian." I think some Christians in leadership are foolish, and thus we should openly discuss this without the hyper-partisanship that drives us to trash fellow believers, to try to prove that they "could not be real Christians" and hold to those political views.
To begin this process let me first tell you that I have studied Barack Obama’s life and views very carefully over the last two-plus years. I have read both his memoirs, looked carefully at his votes in the Illinois Senate and in the U. S. Senate, talked to several of his personal friends in Illinois (who are Christians), and sought to hear him out very carefully. There is a lot to like in this man. There was a time when I thought I “could” vote for him but that time has now passed. I am not nervous about him, in a hyper-partisan way. But I do not believe he is the best choice for the nation. This is, mind you, my opinion and that is all it is. Voting for or against him has absolutely nothing to do with me respecting those who disagree. And it will not drive a wedge between me and other believers. I will not let that happen.
I do not think Barack Obama is the devil incarnate. I watched his interviews on the Bill O’Reilly program this week and felt he did remarkably well. He alleviated some major fears about national defense and his preparedness to defend the USA. I am tired of the Republican tactics about national defense. (John Kerry made me nervous but Obama does not make me nearly as nervous even though I disagree with him.) I also believe Al Gore would have defended the nation, regardless of the right-wing attacks against him.) This approach, of making all Democrats look unpatriotic has been used since the time of Nixon. It is profoundly overworked in elections. Oppose Obama’s views about Iraq on principal, and I do, but do not treat him as an unpatriotic man who wants to destroy this nation. Fair-minded people can see that he does care about the nation. The issue here is not sincerity or patriotism but policy and vision.
On the other side I have been studying John McCain for more than ten years. I have met him, albeit briefly, and I voted for him in the Illinois primary in 2000. I felt that he was a far superior candidate to George W. Bush then and I believe he is a much better man for this office today than President Bush. I can see why Obama wants to associate McCain with Bush, since it is seemingly good political strategy, but I think many voters will see through this attempt to argue for McCain as Bush III. McCain confounds most people, he always has. He is a social conservative but he is a true reformer. How else do you explain his view of immigration, and related issues, that drive the right wing crazy? His hero is Teddy Roosevelt which tells you a lot about him if you read his McCain’s books and speeches as I have over the years.
It is clever to run McCain as the candidate for “change” but the truth is that he has every bit as much claim to be a change agent as Obama, in deed more so in terms of what he has done as a legislator. He offended many far right conservatives for some very good reasons. And to cynically say that now he is running to the far right, and thus has flip-flopped, is no more true than to say Obama is running to the far left of his party, and thus has flip-flopped. This is just the way we do these partisan attacks in the modern era. Frankly, I hate the “flip-flop” chants and shrill attacks since I believe a person who changes his mind is generally a mature, thoughtful person. But “change” was Obama’s major issue and now McCain has taken it and is running with it himself. This is just smart politics. He has every right to do this. Whether it will work is up to the voters.
The past few days have revealed just how silly this whole business can get. We have had Obama talk about “putting lipstick on a pig” and the right has gone stark crazy. Was he wise in using this analogy? Probably not. Should he apologize? For what? Is it right to say that he is referring to Governor Plain and being sexist? Give me a break. Only someone who can read his mind could know that if you watch the entire video of this episode. This is the stuff that both campaigns major on and it is truly disgusting.
Just a few days ago someone caught McCain in the “How many houses do you own” conundrum. The ads then poured out from the Democrats making him seem out of touch with the rest of us. Give me another break. He actually said he did not know and thus the person asking the question would need to ask his staff. There are a lot of reasons for this but no one on the other side wanted to hear them. This was pure campaign fodder. They had a sound byte and they wanted to make him look like a rich man who cares nothing for the poor.
Who is doing more of this in 2008? I have no idea. We know that both parties have done it and I expect that it will only get worse. The Democrats have much more money so they will spend it. I would imagine that they will spend it on television ads. The Republicans are sure to answer, so long as the funds are there. Which raises another question, and it is an important one—campaign finance reform. McCain fought for it but what happened seems to have made things worse. I think what he tried to do was motivated by sound ideas but the bill was not a good one. Now the voters get assaulted with these silly ads for the next fifty-plus days. It does nothing to promote real democracy and true reform.
So, I will write more about all of this as we approach November 4, but rest assured that I love my country much more than any party. (In fact I am not red or blue but tend towards purple as someone recently put it.) I will pray for both these men and will support the next president, whoever he may be. I only wish we could have the three debates, and the one vice-presidential debate, and then vote in two weeks. I am tired of the whole business. I bet many of you are too.