Monday, February 04, 2008

Obama v. Clinton

Unlike many people I know, I am actually agonising about this one. I favour Obama, on balance, but the scales are pretty close in my view. I am interested only in a small subset of issues that most Americans will be concerned about: foreign policy. Here, 3 issues seem to be most important - security, energy and climate change, and the economy - and of course all three are connected in some important ways. Obama seems unambiguously better than Clinton on security, an issue on which I feel most able to take a position. I am pleased, but not overly impressed, by his early anti-war stance, as I think it relatively easier for an Illinois state senator representing a predominantly antiwar district to vote against the war, than for the senator from New York. But I am enthused by his declaration of intent to negotiate with the leaders of 'rogue' states as a matter of priority, and by his determination not only to get the US out of Iraq but to change the mindset that got it there in the first place. Conversely, I am dismayed by Clinton's decision to vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation. Obama's politics represents a fundamentally novel way for the US to relate to what it perceives as threats in the world; Clinton's is a continuation of US policy since 1979. My friend DB, who works for the Clinton campaign, argues that she needs to adopt a hardline stance because she is a woman. But that is hardly an explanation that offers solace. She will not miraculously stop feeling the need to be hardline once she becomes President, and indeed the record of first-time women leaders in many countries offers little comfort on this score. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi may have adopted the hawkish positions they did on many issues precisely because they felt the need to compensate for gender. Clinton actually seems to have the opposite problem - she is perceived as too cold and calculating and actually seems to benefit from occasional demonstrations of femininity (I feel weird writing this, but I'm talking about the electorate - specifically New Hampshire - not myself). So she is lucky not to have the usual female problem and she needs to recognise this and drop the hawkish posturing (there are of course moments when she does - e.g. references to the end of cowboy diplomacy, multilateralism etc. but as with all Democrats, it is never very clear whether the commitment to multilateralism is principled or instrumental, a cheaper way of getting done what the US wants).

Both candidates have said positive, if vague, things about climate change, although Clinton has coupled this with the need to reduce dependence on foreign oil (I think that effectively means the need to reduce dependence on oil, period, even though the US does have large reserves of its own). I am not enough of an economist to know which candidate is better on those issues, although Clinton's proposals seem more fully worked out and her health care plan seems to offer more comprehensive coverage. Mandatory health insurance seems to move the US closer to an NHS-type system, which I think would be a good thing. Again, NOT an expert on this stuff - my views are based on a very impressionistic understanding of the sound bytes.

Some things about Obama worry me - the astonishing number of 'present' votes, as opposed to yes or no (that most of these were in the state senate is again no cause for comfort). I am genuinely moved by the soaring rhetoric, but anyone who promises to end the genocide in Darfur, close Guantanamo Bay and guarantee access to life-saving drugs in Africa in one sentence is perhaps getting a little carried away (at least two of those issues do not strike me as being resolvable by the US acting alone).

On rhetoric v. managerialism, I think those who prefer one to the other forget that the US President is both a head of state and a head of government. In a head of state, people want someone who can rise above and transcend partisan differences and unite across party lines, someone who can offer people a better vision of themselves and move them enough to walk towards it. In a head of government, people want someone who can translate those lofty promises into real change, someone who can manouevre proposals past the bewilderingly large number of veto points in the US political system, someone who can manage a vast and sprawling bureaucracy without allowing unaccountable and competing centres of authority to proliferate in dark corners. This is why the choice is not self-evident.

On electability, I do not think either candidate has a clear advantage v. McCain. Clinton could lose because she is a polarising figure and may not attract independent voters (which McCain has a proven ability to do). Obama may lose because there are still a significant number of white folks who do not want to see an African American (even half an African American) become President.

Which brings us to identity politics. This cannot just be about identity politics, I keep telling myself, the issues have to matter a great deal more. If it were just about identity politics then Condoleezza Rice would be my wet dream. I do not have wet dreams thinking about Condoleezza Rice. I am appalled by the thought of Condoleezza Rice as President. So this cannot just be about identity politics. And yet, and yet...

Some part of me wants Hilary to be President more than Barack. Because, I think, there is a greater recognition of the social construction of race, in the US and the world, than there is a recognition of the social construction of gender (think about the academy, although that is never a great barometer for society at large: constructivist views of race are now standard unless you are James Watson, but Judith Butler acolytes still tend to be seen as a somewhat eccentric lot). You will not find a single interview in all the election coverage so far of an African American who says 'I am not ready for an African American President', and yet I have seen interviews with women who say 'I am not ready for a female President; I want a man to look after me.' Tragic. Some part of me wants Hillary to become President because in my own life, gender has been an immeasurably greater source of trouble than race, and because I think the demonstration effect of a female US President would be immense (demonstration effects don't require their symbols to actually do anything for their identity constituencies - of course that helps, but their power comes in large part from symbolising a possibility, smashing a ceiling, defying stereotypes, demonstrating by example). Hillary is not the perfect woman, but no one will be.

And what about that other demonstration effect? In a country founded on slavery, torn apart by Civil War, brought together by the Reconstruction amendments, only to have those chipped away or put into cold storage by Jim Crow, till 1964. 1964 is yesterday, India is 17 years old, my parents are alive, the 1960s are living memory and black people can't vote. Those little old black ladies who queued for hours to hear Barack speak and then voted for him - they couldn't vote for anyone till the 1960s and now they actually get to vote for a black man. And, whatever Bill Clinton might say, white people are voting for this black man. And so what if, as DB says (complicated argument follows, veracity of which I cannot vouch for), they're upper-middle class while folk who can use their vote to expiate their liberal guilt because they already have health insurance, while working class white people vote for Hillary because they need what she promises. So what if the white vote is a guilt vote? (I don't believe it is, but so what if it is?) Maybe this nation does need a huge collective act of atonement from white people for what they did to black people. If Barack takes the oath of office in January 2009, the US will be a giant step closer to Martin Luther King's dream.

So Obama is ahead in my calculus, but not by much. Damn. Why couldn't Condoleezza Rice be nicer?

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