Saturday, August 16, 2008

Burn Down The Mission

So tonight I watched Rick Warren's Civil Forum on webcast.

John McCain makes it all sound so simple, doesn't he?

Barack Obama's answers to the questions weren't nearly as fluent as McCain's. Obama was very careful with the words he chose. And that was true for every question, not just the questions for which anyone could've predicted that McCain's answer would please the crowd more than his. He weighed his words for the entire hour, and he often cautioned that there weren't simple formulas under which the decisions would make themselves.

McCain, to almost every question, had an answer that would fit on a bumper sticker.

This is nothing new.

Understand, I was once a hard-core, far-right conservative. In 1979, when I was in fifth grade, I made up my own pro-Reagan flyers and handed them out. I chose Baylor for college, thinking, among other things, that I'd fit right in politically. And six years later, when I left, I'd done a complete pendulum swing, and it was because of exactly what I saw tonight in the contrast between McCain and Obama. I'd realized that the scale of the problems that the president and Congress address gives them a density of complication that absolutely rules out reduction to slogans. I might forgive a parent for explaining these things to very young children in short words and sentences, but the president of the United States is not my parent and I am not a child.

Now, I will admit, some of the difference I saw tonight had to do with the questions, the questioner, and the venue. Rick Warren's questions were always going to be a downhill fight for McCain and an uphill fight for Obama. Everyone knew that. Points to Obama for braving it, and points to McCain for visiting the NAACP convention this year, after Bush boycotted it for the first umpteen years of his political career. Very rarely is a speaking situation, or an audience, a level playing field. Part of McCain's fluency and part of Obama's caution had to do with the tilt of the subject matter. But that was far from all of it.

The Republican Party is running on a long historical cycle of providing easy answers. The Democrats have, for this century and much of the last, been the party that described problems as multivariate and complex, and offered cautious, complex responses that were often not very comforting. That, I think, is what we saw tonight out of McCain and Obama. Nothing has changed. The parties are playing to type.

And after the last eight years, it just dumbfounds me that anyone on earth can still find simple solutions attractive. What is it going to take? How many ham-handed, clumsy moves are going to have to blow up in our face before we accept that perhaps governing this country is harder than it looks? That a governing strategy can't fit into five words, and if someone manages to do it, then what they've just produced isn't substance, but spin? Is the past five years of the Bush administration not enough to show people that incompetent government by the incurious and the unprepared, by people who are caught off guard by what they didn't stir themselves to think about, has real consequences? Consequences that don't go away overnight?

In my darker moments, I sometimes think very hateful thoughts. I think thoughts that prominently include the word "stupid," repeated over and over again. I compare people who would swallow this kind of appeal to dog food. To furniture. To breakfast cereal. To a bag of hammers. To dirt. Brain damaged dirt. But once my frustration cools off, I remember once again how wrong I am to think such things.

It's not stupidity, it's fear.

The electorate puts me in mind of a cancer patient. Barack Obama fits the role of a skillful, educated and supremely ethical doctor. The very best doctors, when talking to cancer patients, have to dance their way through a minefield. They have to accentuate the positive, but it's horribly wrong, even wicked, to eliminate the negative. They have to hedge, they have to point out risks, they have to admit what isn't understood. Their ethics require that they seek out informed consent. That, I assert, is what Obama had to offer tonight: a diagnosis. Diagnoses aren't clear-cut, because human bodies are unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and treatment is often painful, carries risks, and bears no guarantee of success.

John McCain is a pharmaceutical sales rep. He's got some pills to sell. His claims about the pills are power-worded. Whether he's right or not, and even if in the back of our minds we know that the doctor is probably closer to the truth, it's very appealing for us to think about swallowing a pill and watching all that bad, scary cancer just vanish as the magic medicine spreads through us and wipes it out like an eraser. We want to believe it. And so many Americans have talked themselves into a defeatist funk when it comes to understanding any of these issues, or either party's position on them, that investing the discipline to make a truly rational decision seems to them to demand a much higher cost than they think they can afford.

I used cancer patient as my example, rather than any other ailment, because I've known too many cancer patients who let fear, frustration and the temptation of despair turn them to irrational silliness: "alternative" medicine that amounted to voodoo. People whose fear is that powerful may as well be drowning. They'll grab at the explanation that ends in more hope, no matter how transparently foolish it may be.

I still have nagging, stubborn, possibly even indelible objections to Barack Obama's bid for my vote. But I am not on the fence when it comes to who is making the stronger case. I still expect I'm going to write someone in. But I have no illusions about what John McCain is doing. As much as his negative ads aggravate me, after he made lofty promises to stay entirely away from such campaigning (and while he makes the jaw-dropping claim that his campaign hasn't been negative), that's not my biggest grievance with his argument set. My biggest gripe is with its dishonest, violent, condescending simplicity.

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