Struggling to identify the lesser evil

I’m not going to endorse anyone in this election. As with the previous two presidential races in which I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ll be throwing my ballot to the Libertarians on the theory that my vote has a vanishingly small chance of affecting the outcome and its marginal value is greater for a small third party than for the Big Two. I’m also glad to have a respectable candidate on the LP ticket this year; I won’t have to hold my nose voting for Bob Barr as I did voting for the insane Michael Badnarik. I expect McCain and Obama both have the potential to be disastrously bad presidents and I won’t take an affirmative act in favor of either of them. The question then isn’t so much which of them I’d rather see in office as it is whose victory will drive me to the fewest shots of bourbon on election night and beyond.

One of my friends recently pointed out that this site has an anti-Obama bias. He’s right, but it’s not because I think Obama is substantially worse than McCain. It’s because so many intelligent people seem to be under Obama’s spell, taking it on faith that he’s going to be a fantastically transformational president. The few McCain supporters I know are more grounded. They don’t particularly like the guy or what he stands for, but they soberly think him the lesser of two evils, especially given Democrats’ control of Congress. (There are plenty of stupidly enthusiastic McCain supporters as well, but I don’t think they read this blog.)

Throughout this campaign I’ve wavered about which of the two I think would be least destructive in office. I initially favored Obama, if for no other reason than to kick the reigning bastards out. I later drifted toward McCain based on the superiority of many of his policy ideas. Then he nominated Palin for VP and it got really hard to be a self-respecting McCain defender. Ever since the convention the McCain campaign has been an intellectual disaster. Perhaps there is no way McCain could have won this election, but he could have at least forced Obama into a more substantive discussion. If he had, he could have made a respectable play for the politically secular, socially tolerant, economically literate voter. It’s extremely disappointing that he didn’t, because he could have made a good case for himself on a number of issues:

Trade: McCain boasts an admirably long career of promoting free trade. According to Cato’s trade vote tracker, since 1997 he’s voted 88% of the time against trade barriers (35 of 40 votes) and against subsidies 80% (8 out of 10 votes). Obama has a thinner record, but it’s consistently anti-trade: Out of 18 opportunities to vote in favor of free trade, he did so only 4 times. This matches his rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he stokes resentment toward foreign trade by blaming outsourcing for our economic woes. McCain’s the clear favorite here.

The popular line among Obama-leaning libertarians right now is that Obama is only appearing anti-trade to get elected and that he’s clever enough to implement better policies once he’s in office. Maybe, but that’s not the way his record points. It strikes me as equally likely that he’ll be true to his word on restricting trade and waver in his support of civil liberties, as he in fact has a record of doing. Counting on Obama to stand up against his own rhetoric, Democratic interest groups, and an anti-trade, pro-regulation Congress is a thin reed on which to place one’s hopes.

Climate change: The best way to cut carbon emissions is to tax them directly or institute a system of cap-and-trade. Ideally no candidate would propose anything besides these ideas and some highly targeted grants to basic research. In the real world politicians invariably support handouts to special interests, too.

Obama and McCain both support cap-and-trade, though Obama’s targets are slightly more ambitious and therefore more costly. They both support subsidies to coal and renewable power. Obama has his own grab bag of other subsidies and handouts to promote. Though you won’t hear them say much about it now, Obama and Biden both have a long history of boosting ethanol, subsidies McCain has had the guts to call out as wasteful sops to farm states that don’t actually help the environment. McCain would advocate subsidies for the construction of nuclear plants and offer prizes for research; there are reasons to be dubious of the nuclear idea and thankfully he may not be able to win support for it.

On an issue where both candidates spout a lot of nonsense, McCain’s plan has an edge for likely being less expensive. If you’re against throwing money at reducing carbon emissions, McCain’s your man. If you’re in favor of doing that, he’s still your man because he’ll waste less money in the process. A major obstacle to addressing climate change is getting the system of cap-and-trade instituted in the first place; if McCain doesn’t reduce emissions to the degree you prefer you can tighten the restrictions four years later. Whatever reasonable position you may have on climate change, there’s a good argument for McCain being the smarter pick.

Subsidies and spending: Speaking of subsidies, remember that $300 billion farm bill from this past spring? McCain has consistently opposed farm subsidies, preferring to defend the interests of US farmers by opening foreign markets to trade. Obama staunchly supports the handouts, with the exception of opposing our notorious sugar protectionism. Until he had to win the Florida vote, that is. Now he supports that too.

Predictably neither candidate is addressing the true causes of uncontrolled government spending: entitlements and the military budget. They both want to expand the military and neither is likely to meaningfully reform entitlements, though McCain does have a decent fiscal record. McCain at least will be better at resisting new government largesse. I worry about the new entitlements a liberal Democratic supermajority will put into place — spending programs that will be practically impossible to reverse once they’ve been implemented.

Health care: I don’t pretend to know how to “fix” the US health care system. I am convinced that decoupling health insurance from employment and bringing more market pressures to bear on health care costs would be worthwhile approaches to reform. McCain’s plan would transfer the tax credit from employers to individuals, free up the insurance market by allowing plans to compete across state lines, and open group plans to new kinds of associations. These all strike me as steps in the right direction.

Taxes: Making sense of tax policies is a struggle even for experts and I don’t pretend to be one. Neither candidate is pushing comprehensive reform. Clive Crook argues that McCain has undersold his plan since after accounting for his refundable health insurance credit it will arguably make middle class Americans better off than they’d be under Obama’s. This issue, along with long-term deficits, has received too little attention in the campaign.

Foreign policy: No, McCain doesn’t have an advantage here, but Obama’s not as superior as people think. He is not principally opposed to committing US troops to foreign intervention; he’ll just commit troops to presumably nicer, smarter wars than McCain would. He may prove dangerously hawkish on Iran if diplomacy fails to prevent it from moving forward with nuclear projects. He and McCain seem equally reckless regarding Georgia. But a key difference is this: When a President McCain proposes sending our troops into a new arena, he’ll face skepticism from the media and a Democratic Congress who will accuse him of continuing failed policies from the Bush years. President Obama will get a free pass since he’s by definition smart and nice and doesn’t fight stupid wars like Bush did. When Obama proposes deploying US troops, who will step up to counter his ambitions? And why does he want to add 90,000 troops to the military unless he foresees a use for them?

Divided government: The most compelling reason to vote for McCain is that he’ll face a Democratic Congress. Though it’s hard to run a pro-gridlock campaign, for advocates of limited government it’s the best thing McCain’s got going for him. If we have learned one thing from the post-9/11 Bush Administration, it is that we should be wary of trusting a charismatic president whose party controls both houses of Congress in time of perceived crisis. This year the crisis is financial rather than military, the presumptive president even more charismatic than before, and Congress potentially even beyond the reach of filibuster by the minority party. That’s a hell of a lot power to trust in one man. Would President McCain, or even President Palin, be so terrible as to make this the preferred alternative?

A counter to this argument is that Republicans need to spend some time in the wilderness to renew their small government credentials. I agree, and for that reason I’m glad to see that they’ll lose even more seats in Congress and that they’re sweeping George Bush under the rug as thoroughly as possible. But I’m not sure that handing the levers of power entirely to the Democrats is worth the long-term cost or that exiled Republicans wouldn’t look instead to culture warriors like Palin to redefine the GOP. Hoping they’ll return with a new Goldwater or Reagan or Gingrich is taking a big risk for a very uncertain payoff.

On a related note, a last argument in McCain’s favor is that there’s a decent chance he’d be a one-term man. He even flirted with the idea of making a one-term pledge. Obama will likely enjoy two. Except in the unlikely event that there’s been no economic recovery or a foreign policy disaster four years from now, he’ll be in a position to win re-election. So what’s worse, eight years of Obama, or four of McCain followed by a potentially open contest?

That’s the best case I can make for McCain. I don’t find it compelling; the specter of McCain-Palin foreign policy looms too large over any prospect of them assuming office, especially in the worst possible scenarios. If McCain hadn’t chosen such an obscenely unqualified vice presidential nominee I could feel more confident in preferring him. If Republicans could maintain control over just one house of Congress I could rest easier about Obama’s big government ambitions. We’re left instead with two atrocious choices. For all the reasons given above, I can’t join in the chorus of libertarians half-heartedly rooting for Obama. I can’t root for McCain either, but I confess I’ll feel more relief than I perhaps should if by some miracle he wins on Tuesday. Luckily, it appears there’s little chance he’ll have the opportunity to prove me wrong.

Comments

  1. RD says:

    A libertarian friend recently asked me where I was at. Here was (most) of the response I sent him:

    I think I’m going with Obama. I’ll take my chances on the economy. The Republican party has gone crazy in the last few weeks. I don’t ever
    want to hear about parts of the country being pro-American, I don’t
    ever want to hear requests for investigations into anti-Americans in
    Congress. The party needs to lose and lose badly. It needs to
    faction apart and then be rebuilt from the ground up and it needs to
    be done with an eye towards remembering what makes it a viable party in the modern era — a focus on small government and personal
    responsibility, not on hating immigrants, minorities, gays and
    perceived un-Americans. There’s just been so much anger and
    hostility in the Republican party this year and it’s not the sort of
    thing I want the party to think it’s going to do well with. The Bush
    coalition, which rested social conservatives on the top of the
    Republican pyramid, creates a party I’m loathe to really get behind, especially if this is how it’s going to sell itself.

    The really irksome part is that McCain was perfectly capable of
    running a campaign aimed at me. I think he’s pro-gay. Hell, I think
    he’s an atheist, though he’s quiet about it. I think he’s small
    government and personal responsibility. I don’t at all think he’s part of the social conservative base, but his whole campaign has been
    run with them as the seemingly sole target the entire time (up until
    the last few days, when he’s switched to arguing about taxes full
    time–why didn’t he do that the whole time!?!). I don’t want the
    social conservatives targeted, I want them marginalized. A McCain
    disaster will either lead to them being minimized (hopefully), or them
    taking a stranglehold on the party (hopefully not). Either way, it
    will establish whether or not I’ll be voting for the party in the future.

  2. Matt says:

    RD – If the Republican party goes the way you hope it’ll pretty much clinch my opposition. I think that the social conservatives frequently go much too far, but they’re pretty much the only part of the Republican party that really appeals to a lot of people (read: Catholics and moderate protestants). Without social conservative the Republican party doesn’t stand a chance.

  3. Jeff says:

    Actually, Matt, the social conservatives drive people like me – tolerant, secular-minded people with a latent suspicion of government – far, far, far away from the Republican Party. Some people like the siren song of social conservatism because they’re scared of changing cultures, but I think most of the great American middle look at their legislative agenda and are put ill at ease by it.

    The Republican Party needs to get back to the Grover Norquist-style “leave us alone” ethos. That’s the only way for them to be convincingly in opposition to the Democrats. Congealing around the Robertson-Dobson-Palin axis only marginalizes them further.

  4. Matt says:

    I understand that they drive people like you away, but I think a lot of people have come to the Republican party through their conservative social message and embraced the rest of the package as an afterthought. This is the ultimate tension in the Republican party; there’s really two parties that have made an alliance of convenience, and for either to push the other away would be disasterous to the party. Honestly, I think there’s more room for overlap between social conservatives and fiscal liberals than the opposite, but the Democrats are far too stubborn on the social issues to even listen to that logic. A Harry Reid/Mike Huckabee ticket would clean up this country.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] by chance you are voting tomorrow, here’s a shameless plug for my evaluation of the candidates and here’s Will Wilkinson on the virtues of  [...]

  2. [...] of what that piece says. For something a bit more critical of Obama, check out fellow libertarian Jacob Grier’s post that, unlike me, actually analyzes many of the issues. I guess I’m just not a policy geek, [...]

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