Thursday, January 24, 2008

Decisive Issues, Part III: Moral Authority

Moral authority is one of those things that change with perspective. One person's heroine is another's shrill harpy. It's also one of those things that is very hard to earn, but very easy to lose. It's recognizable in part because of the absence of something else, namely self-interest. People recognized as having moral authority are often exhorting us to act against our own - and, usually, their own - best interests. Saints inspire to put aside our differences and recognize what we have in common with others (I'm listening to Jesus Christ Superstar while I'm writing this). Saints don't make it politics very often because politics is where come to fight for our own interests first. Of the three candidates I am evaluating, Barack Obama takes the "common ground is the best ground" approach. Each has a unique claim on moral authority: John McCain has seen and survived the worst that human beings can inflict on each other and has consistently challenged the bizarre tendency in conservative circles towards supporting and even demanding the use of torture. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have survived and prospered as an African-American and a woman in contemporary America, and each can claim to have won through to their current positions despite the obstacles of racism and sexism in America. Each can also claim to speak for a group previously underrepresented in this country. The presence of either in the White House would go a long ways towards healing ancient wounds.

Here are my comparisons:

McCain v. Obama: These guys are ideological opposites, but have some interesting political similarities. Both are at once insiders and outsiders. McCain is the son and grandson of Navy admirals, i.e. he's very much steeped in military tradition and history, but he occasionally challenges his party's orthodoxy and establishment. Barack Obama, as an African-American, is something of an outsider (fortunately less so now than when he was born), but he's a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law. Like McCain, he sometimes takes on sensitive topics in his party. For example, he recognizes and argues against homophobia in the black church. Neither McCain nor Obama demonizes the opposition, and each makes an effort to break out of the politically convenient but restricting rhetorical straitjacket of using euphemisms and nuance, the kind of language that earns politicians as a class their reputation for lying. Neither is always successful, but each makes the attempt to be honest when possible. Which honesty occasionally gets both in trouble.

Both are adept at using humor to defuse tensions when confronting difficult situations. Both have financial scandals in their background, although McCain's - being part of the Keating Five - is much more significant than Obama's, working with the developer Rezko. And both have strong track records on ethics and campaign finance reform. One difference between them is their emphasis on working with the opposition. McCain can work with Democrats. He can go beyond partisan differences, but does not place much emphasis on it. That may be a function of where the base of the Republican party is right now - purity is more important to many conservatives than compromise. Obama, on the other hand, has made resolving differences a core part of his campaign. This doesn't play well with some progressives - Kos accuses him of not running as a Democrat in the Democrat primary. But Obama challenges Democrats to think beyond their own self-interests. Advantage: Obama

McCain v. Clinton: Up until about a year ago, I would have figured out a way to call this even. I would have dismissed all of the minor scandals during the Clinton Administration as products of that infamous "vast right-wing conspiracy." Heck, a couple of months ago I would have argued in favor of Hillary’s ground-breaking role as the first woman president.

But a couple of things have changed the equation. Substantively, I thot her mailer in New Hampshire questioning Obama’s pro-choice credentials – despite his 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood – was beyond the pale. I realize that politics can be hardball, but that kind of behavior diminishes her moral authority, and with it her ability to enact her agenda if she is elected. And then . . .

And then there’s the big dog, Bill. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to realize why conservatives don’t like the Clintons. And, at the end of the day, the man lied about sex. That is a stain that can never be erased. I’ve dismissed the importance of that before, but I’m having a harder time doing it now. So in terms of moral authority, McCain vs. Hillary, McCain wins. Decisively. Advantage: McCain

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