Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Looking to the Future: America version 44.0

That, as they say, is that. President-elect Barack Obama is correct in saying that, "a defining moment of change has come to America."

As the first president with a minority background, he will always hold a significant place in national history, but his effectiveness in delivering on the promise of change must be measured both in terms of quantity and direction as he assumes the roles of chief executive and commander-in-chief.

Change is not hard-wired to run in only a positive direction. Neither is it a constant that change that causes positive effects for one person or family will not have a negative effect on others. Nor is it like a domesticated pet that can be leashed; unintended consequences are the bane of every change-artist politico.

Despite all of the realities and wildcards - known by way of hindsight - change sounds good. Even when we do not have the benefit of seeing it in legislative form, but only hear the happy populist rhetoric that scintillates crowds on the campaign trail, change makes us feel like good times are just around the bend. The grass is always greener. Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah.

The question that faces us is to what degree Obama's victory is also a mandate for the changes he will attempt to make, in terms of judicial appointments and cabinet postings, as well as his policy agenda. There are many reasons to suspect that the Democrat wave that swept the country yesterday was a public relations success, not an ideological one, because the ideology has yet to manifest itself in a clear legislative policymaking agenda.

Based on campaign promises, a person voting for Obama may have done so simply because they believed he would lower their taxes. To them, he might represent the values of conservativism in a package that was more appealing than that grumpy ol' John McCain. If not for the fine print that will become the essence of how Obama delivers on his other promises without bankrupting the country, that voter might get what they are expecting. With that in mind, it may not be smart for Obama to rapidly conclude that the results of this election represent a mandate for the liberal objectives that were challenged by his McCain, as well as members of the media, without much in the way of substantive response from Obama.

It is probably unrealistic to expect Democrat politicians - now in cloistered conclave, contemplating what can be accomplished whilst we have one-party rule - to question whether a juggernaut liberal agenda for the first session of 2009 is not the will of the people. No one wants to look a gift horse in the mouth, but ignoring the possibility that the electorate may not have been voicing a mandate, despite the results of the election, could have the effects both of ensuring a pendulum swing back in 2010 to a Republican-dominated Congress and the exacerbation of the country's current economic predicament.

Based on our two year history with the party leadership of Reid and Pelosi, the Democrats will gulp greedily from the chalice handed them without too much concern for why it was given to them in the first place. After all, it would be somewhat rational - although short-sighted - to conclude that yesterday's results were a clear message of animosity toward Republican candidates and the values underpinning their party.

In the presidential race, while several states switched from red to blue, not one flipped in the other direction. The same trend is shaping up in the Senate, House, and gubernatorial races, although the Minnesota race between Coleman and Franken will have to be decided after at least one recount. (Minnesota GOP attorneys should connect with the Washington State GOP for a briefing on lessons learned from having close statewide races slip through their hands. Reference: Gorton/Cantwell, 2000, Rossi/Gregoire, 2004.)

If the election was intended to be a repudiation of the conservative values that are often associated with the Republican party, one might think that traditionally conservative issues should have suffered as well, but, for reasons as yet unknown, rays of conservative light can be seen, if we want to squint really, really hard.

  • Bans on gay marriage (as distinguished from civil unions or domestic partnerships) in California, Florida and Arizona are passing, although they will almost certainly face immediate court battles.
  • Nebraska voted to end affirmative action policies of the state government by a 58 to 42 percent margin.

On the other hand, 'value of life' issues were losers. Washington state passed Initiative 1000, a law legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide that has been criticized for its failure to provide common sense safeguards. South Dakota and California failed to pass abortion limits propositions, and Colorado's attempt to legally define life as beginning at the moment conception was crushed by voters.

In the weeks and months ahead, Republicans will come to some conclusions about why they lost (psst, get the base on the line and see if they have an alibi for where they all were on Election Night), and the Democrats will come to their own conclusions about why they won. This will all go into the big Mid-term Election Strategy hopper.

Meanwhile, Obama will be naming cabinet nominees, assembling White House staff and mapping out the agenda for his first one hundred days. With a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a media presumably still panting after "The One", maintain a grip on reality will be harder for Republicans and conservatives than any time since 1976.

Nevertheless, after the electoral college convenes and the inauguration takes places in the cold January air of the nation's capital, President-elect Obama will become the President Obama. He will be America's president and my president, despite my having voted for Senator John McCain.

I hope that those who may despair, or even fear, an Obama presidency will remember that the presidency is the symbol of our nation's strength and the office deserves its own measure of respect, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

I also hope that those who rejoiced last night remember that the greatest strength of our system is in the value we place on keeping a hot furnace of debate stoked. No matter how dire our circumstances may be, or what stakes lay before us, honest and open-minded argument about issues is vital and should be embraced. Brand loyalty might give us warm feelings when choosing a carbonated beverage, but blind partisanship should chill us if it becomes the only factor in how we, as individuals, arrive at our decisions to vote or how we judge the performance of our government.

Answers to tough questions should be demanded from the new president and the congress serving beside him, and we should all be color-blind in that pursuit, focusing only on the merits of proposals, considerate of the effects government actions may have on the fabric of American life.

So, too, should President-elect Obama recognize that he is in uncharted waters. With virtually no executive experience, and absolutely no experience dealing with matters of foreign affairs, he should be careful to avoid catering to the masses. Foreign policy is not an area for ideological experimentation, as so many presidents have learned after it was too late. Poll respondents on the questions of Iraq and Afghanistan do not receive the daily intelligence briefing that Obama will soon begin receiving. As distasteful as it may be, even the most idealistic presidents have to succumb to the harshness of realpolitik.

Obama should also carefully consider the weight of his proposals and the real impact that many would have on American families and individuals. If any set of American values do still exist that cross party lines they would be the desire for freedom, choice and opportunity. When politicians have not been careful to protect those values in our laws and way of life, they have paid the price in mid-term elections and their own bids to stay in office.

We are capable of emerging through the crises ahead - challenges that await us like predators shrouded in a concealing fog - but only if we are willing to be critical, open-minded and involved in the process of government. The media sits in the important position of moderating the conversation. More respect in our culture is needed and the nation's media are uniquely able to present an example to Americans of how issues should discussed and differences resolved. By promoting authentic respect for differing points of view in the newsroom, and a transparent balance in how issues are covered, a more robust and civil conversation can develop.

Less talking and more active listening is required. True, it sounds more like a prescription for couples counseling than political communication, but haven't the last eight years felt a bit like the country is in the throes of a bitter divorce? Would it hurt either side to occasionally acknowledge - publicly - when the opposition has the facts right, instead of simply racing down Diatribe Boulevard?

If we are truly interested in defining our problems or finding solutions, we need to be getting a lot closer to the truth than the current style of political discourse allows.

The first political party, or politician to put down the bullhorn and the pom-poms and speak to all Americans either as one who thinks as they do or as one who respects their beliefs despite disagreement, will reap the enormous benefits of true leadership.


This piece was subsequently published November 7, 2008 on the website, with minor editing, under the headline 'Questioniong the promise of change'.

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