The case for Barack Obama, in broad strokes:
He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.
A great moment: When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd “I have no comment,” or “We shouldn’t judge.” Instead he said, “My mother had me when she was 18,” which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn’t have to.
There is something else. On Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, Mr. Obama won the Alabama primary with 56% to Hillary Clinton’s 42%. That evening, a friend watched the victory speech on TV in his suburban den. His 10-year-old daughter walked in, saw on the screen “Obama Wins” and “Alabama.” She said, “Daddy, we saw a documentary on Martin Luther King Day in school.” She said, “That’s where they used the hoses.” Suddenly my friend saw it new. Birmingham, 1963, and the water hoses used against the civil rights demonstrators. And now look, the black man thanking Alabama for his victory.
This means nothing? This means a great deal.
John McCain’s story is not of rise so much as endurance, not only in Vietnam, which was spectacular enough, but throughout a rough and rugged political career of 26 years. He is passionate, obstreperous, independent, sees existential fables within history. His self-confessed role model for many years was Robert Jordan in Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Mr. McCain, in his last memoir: “He was and remains to my mind a hero for the twentieth century . . . an idealistic freedom fighter” who had “a beautiful fatalism” and who sacrificed “for something else, something greater.” Actually Jordan fought on the side of the communists and died pointlessly, but never mind. He joined his personality to a great purpose and found meaning in his maverickness. In his campaign, Mr. McCain rarely got down to the meaning of things; he mostly stated stands. But separate and seemingly unconnected stands do not coherence make.
However: It was a night during the Republican Convention in September, and two former U.S. senators, who had served with Mr. McCain for a combined 16 years, were having drinks in a hotel dining room. I told them I collected stories of senators who’d been cursed out by John McCain, and they laughed and told me of times they’d been the target of his wrath on the Senate floor.
The talk turned to presidents they had known, and why they had wanted the job. This one wanted it as the last item on his résumé, that one wanted it out of an inflated sense of personal destiny. Is that why Mr. McCain wants it? “No”, said one, reflectively. “He wants to help the country.” The other added, with almost an air of wonder, “He wants to make America stronger, he really does.” And then they spoke, these two men who’d been bruised by him, of John McCain’s honest patriotism.
Those who have historically been sympathetic to the Republican Party or conservatism, and who support Barack Obama—Colin Powell, William Weld and Charles Fried, among others—and whose arguments have not passed muster with some muster-passers, go undamned here. Their objections include: The McCain campaign has been inadequate, and some of his major decisions embarrassing. All too true. But conservatives must honor prudence, and ask if the circumstances accompanying an Obama victory will encourage the helpful moderation and nonpartisan spirit these supporters attempt, in their endorsements, to demonstrate.
There is for instance, in the words of Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Pawlenty, “the runaway train.” The size and dimension of the likely Democratic victory seem clear. A Democratic House with a bigger, more fervent Democratic majority; a Democratic Senate with the same, and possibly with a filibuster-breaking 60 seats; a new and popular Democratic president, elected by a few points or more; a Democratic base whose anger and hunger have built for eight years; Democratic activists and operatives hungry for business and action. What will this mix produce? A runaway train with no one to put on the brakes, to claim a mandate for slowing, no one to cry “Crossing ahead”? Democrats in Congress will move for innovation when much of the country hopes only for stability. Who will tell Congress of that rest of the nation? Mr. Obama will be overwhelmed trying to placate the innovators.
America enjoyed divided government most successfully recently from 1994 to 2000, with Bill Clinton in the White House and Newt Gingrich in effect running Congress. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it yielded a great deal, including sweeping reform of the welfare system, and balanced budgets.
Whoever is elected Tuesday, his freedom in office will be limited. Mr. Obama is out of money and Mr. McCain is out of army, so what might be assumed to be the worst impulses of each—big spender, big scrapper—will be circumscribed by reality. In Mr. Obama’s case, energy will likely be diverted to other issues. He will raise taxes, of course, but he may also feel forced to bow to a clamorous base with the nonspending items they favor: the rewriting of union law to force greater unionization of smaller shops, for instance, and a return to a “fairness doctrine” that would limit free speech on the air.
And there is this. The past few months as the campaign unfolded, I listened for Mr. Obama to speak thoughtfully about the life issues, including abortion. Our last Democratic president knew what that issue was, and knew by nature how to speak of it. Bill Clinton famously said, over and over, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” The “rare” mattered. It set a tone, as presidents do, and made an important concession: You only want a medical practice to be rare when it isn’t good. For Mr. Obama, whose mind tends, as intellectuals’ minds do, toward the abstract, it all seems so . . . abstract. And cold. And rather suggestive of radical departures. “That’s above my pay grade.” Friend, that is your pay grade, that’s where the presidency lives, in issues like that.
But let’s be frank. Something new is happening in America. It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment. History happens, it makes its turns, you hold on for dear life. Life moves.
A fitting end for a harem-scarem, rock-’em-sock-’em shakeup of a year—one of tumbling inevitabilities, torn coalitions, striking new personalities.
Eras end, and begin. “God is in charge of history.” And so my beautiful election ends.