I’m sitting in a typically Obama-friendly Portland coffee shop trying to fill out my Virginia absentee ballot. I need a No. 2 pencil do so. I could get up and ask if anyone can loan me one so I can vote for Bob Barr in a swing state, but I don’t expect that will inspire anyone to help.
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.
OK, one more post about Rocky Mountain oysters, then I promise I’ll stop. Actually I don’t promise. But check out this photo at Amanda’s blog of the General Tso’s-coated mountain oysters currently on the menu at Firefly in Dupont Circle. A big step up from the big bowl of fried, floppy discs I enjoyed in Denver, don’t you think? Anyone in DC going to try them out?
Radley’s been posting the YouTube videos of John Stossel’s recent special on American politics. Since I don’t have a TV in Portland yet, I’m grateful. Here’s my favorite segment, a look at how the complex campaign finance laws backed by McCain and other progressives confound political outsiders.
The opening sequence is good as well.
In a related vein, here’s Cato’s Gene Healy discussing the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, in which a hack president is touched by an angel and transforms into a benevolent dictator finding solutions to all the country’s problems.
No one’s expecting Obama to round up and execute his opposition, but “the God-touched president” is an apt metaphor for how high expectations of his leadership have risen. Perhaps the most distressing thing about Obama is how he’s taken a generation attuned to the knowing irony of The Colbert Report and South Park and brought them back to the earnest belief in salvation through politics seen in this Roosevelt-era movie.
After a long conversation with several oh-so-earnest Portland Obama supporters last night — the kind of group in which predicting the existential end of the United States within 20 years if he loses doesn’t cause anyone to bat an eye — I was reminded of my fantasy election. As much as I dislike Hillary Clinton, I harbor a secret wish that she were the Democratic nominee. She has no cult of personality. She’s not fooling anybody. Most normally intelligent people’s brains don’t turn to mush when they envision her in office. Even with Democratic control of Congress, another President Clinton would have at least ensured that the partisan rancor and distrust of government Bush has worked so hard to achieve would not be squandered.
And on the Republican side, as long as they’re going to tank the election anyway, couldn’t they have thrown Ron Paul on the ticket? Never mind that he’d be crushed, at least the debates would have been interesting.
Remember when Dr Pepper promised a free soda to everyone in America if Guns N’ Roses releases Chinese Democracy this year? They’re following through. This means my friend Jeff’s prediction is hilarious but wrong:
Ah, but you forget – Axl Rose is the kind of asshole who would wait to release the album – even if it’s ready – until January 1, 2009 just to prevent people from getting their Dr. Peppers.
I’m more excited about the soda than the album.
Ron Bailey’s one of my favorite science writers and I’m completely on board with his complaints about alarmist reactions against genetically modified food. Yet in this post of his about a newly passed Hawaiian ban on growing GM coffee, I’m sympathetic to the coffee farmers who supported it. They’ve succeeded in creating an immensely popular brand — rather above its actual quality, in my experience — and their livelihood depends on keeping it intact and protecting their organic certification. Their fears of losing certification in US markets are likely overblown, but I can understand why they have them. (Even so, as Ron has previously written, it’s not at all obvious that organic farmers deserve legal protection against potential contamination.)
If there’s anyone to blame here it’s the USDA’s and Europe’s organic certification programs and the consumers who demand products bearing their labels. It’s weird that certification, which depends mostly on the farming techniques used in production, also addresses the genetic composition of the plants at issue. It would be nice if we could decouple these standards because right now there’s no convenient way to convey to consumers that a product is GM yet otherwise grown under organic conditions. This is especially problematic given that a major aim of genetically modified crops is to make it easier to avoid the pesticide use that drives many people to prefer organics.
Is there a future for GM coffee? Maybe. Trials for pest-resistant varietals have been successful despite attacks from vandals hoping to derail the project. Coffee is an incredibly complex crop though, and it’s hard to predict how a new varietal will taste under different growing conditions. If scientists do create a GM bean that tastes great and makes it easier for farmers to work without pesticides, coffee lovers should welcome it with open arms. Under current regulations, however, we won’t be able to market it as organic no matter how naturally it’s grown.