In defense of indecision

Going40 has not been a site of much political discussion. Rightfully so; I am much too important to waste space on discussions about health care and economics. But just like you, I have spent many hours reading about most aspects of this campaign: the candidates, the issues, the sideshows. And, I suspect just like you, I desperately want it to be over. I am not a journalist, and my blog doesn't need to be fair and balanced. I want Obama to win this election with all my being; if McCain wins I can honestly say I don't understand this country. But I have also been thinking a great deal about what comes after the election if Obama wins. Not what happens in the coming months, or even next couple years: What happens in the long term? What happens if the much-heralded change comes to Washington? What if the United States really does enter a post-partisan world? What might that look like, and what are our responsibilities as voting citizens in making it happen?

First, Democrats (and some Republicans) who have endured eight years of embarrassment have a chance to experience optimism, an opportunity to discard the rightfully-earned bitterness we have felt watching our country crash and burn. With control of the executive branch--and with solid majorities in both houses of Congress--comes an opportunity to make demonstrable and efficient progress in making the United States a fair, just, compassionate place. The Democrats are certainly not above making mistakes in their attempts to right the wrongs of the last few years, but I do believe that Obama intends to try, and will surround himself with skillful and sincere advisors.

Not all of those involved in the next government will be Democrats, of course. With Democratic gains in Congress, some of the more senior and influential Republicans will be moderates. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, will have more power among their party members in the Senate. Other Republican moderates may well lose their seats: Christophers Shays of Connecticut is the only Republican from New England in the House, and his chances at reelection are by no means assured. Here in Minnesota, Norm Coleman is running even with Al Franken. Some may not see Coleman as a moderate, and have called him a lackey of George Bush, but campaign rhetoric aside, he is not a Republican in the Michelle Bachmann mold (may she go down in fiery flames). Many of these races will come down to the choices made by the as-yet undecided voters.

A talking head on NPR today mentioned that we'd like to think undecided voters are the cream of the electoral crop, so thoughtful and reasoned, so beyond partisanship that they need the entire campaign season to glean every morsel of possible enlightenment, and only then make their solid, perfect choices. In reality, the undecided voter is a 65-year-old conservative woman with limited education and a penchant for Jesus. The smart folks are more partisan, and made up their minds a long time ago (we would call them Blog Readers, I daresay). 

I wish for a different kind of undecided voter, and I wish I had the guts to be one. Here, in a porous, wordy nutshell, is why:

Obama's vision of a post-partisan America does not mean that one party's rule is absolute, or that those with dissenting opinions don't matter. Rather, it means we get over ourselves enough to realize that many (not all) of us want many (not all) of the same things for this country, and that we disagree about the best path for getting there. A healthy, functional, well-intentioned minority has a valuable place in our government. Both parties seem to forget that when it's their turn to be in power. I have heard many times the last few days that one of the best reasons to elect Al Franken is to help assure a filibuster-proof Senate. I can't think of a worse reason. I would much rather that the Democrats, with their healthy but limited majority, work with the moderate Republicans and an able, inspiring president to bring consensus to the quagmire that is the economywarenvironmentsocialdivideclusterfuck we now enjoy. And here's the thing: a 60+ majority of Democrats in the Senate is not going to inspire conciliation and cooperation with the Republicans. It is going to inspire defensiveness and posturing. 

Part of delaying a decision as a voter could be, in some idyllic future, to see what the country needs most from our state's congressional delegation. A common campaign trope involves a candidate promising to "do right by the great state of _________," which simply means bringing as many earmarks into the state as possible. I don't particularly want legislation that benefits the people of my state at the expense of others. Is it really impossible to think that we might someday make decisions based on a long term vision for the country? Only if we as voters are willing to look beyond quick gains and a screw-the-other-side-because-they-screwed-me-first attitude. But if my state has a competent, effective senator from the other party, it might be in my country's best interest to see that she or he is reelected. Likewise, a divisive hyper-partisan member of my party might not be the best way forward. I am not suggesting that this election offers such a choice, nor do I mean that party loyalty has no place in our system (after all, Michele Bachmann must go). I am saying, however, that one way forward might be to start, with baby steps, trusting the other side. A little, teeny bit. With a calm, measured, capable president leading the way.

Sure, I trust Barack Obama to get things done with his party in the majority. But here's how much I admire and respect him: I think he can show us a new way, one that includes real cooperation with those with whom we disagree. The devil is, of course, in the details, but it need not be in the other side.


Ann said...

Ten seconds after reading your post, I checked my gmail and found I had a message from my Aunt Chase in CA. She had just voted (early, by mail) and reported not only that she opposed Prop 8, but also that she believes the two of you are "so cute" on the eqcapac website (which I forwarded to her a while ago).

The importance of politics and the importance of Scott Rohr, perfectly melded...

deb said...

Deb’s non-ironic, non-smart ass response:

Full disclosure to the readers: I will be voting for Al Franken on Tuesday.

To Scott:

I’ve read your post six or seven times, first skimming it, and then paying close attention. I’m a slow reader, as you know, and I’ve thought very carefully about it all day. I found it to be a beautifully written essay, carefully and thoughtfully argued. I agree with much of what you said, and if your intention was to think out loud about an ideal, then I apologize for filling up bandwidth on your blog with my response.

My concern is that you’ve written about the world as it should be, and not the world as it is. I believe this coming Tuesday we have to do reality-based voting.

Norm Coleman is not the guy who is going to extend bipartisanship, nor does he deserve the chance.

You’ve suggested in the past that you dislike Franken, and I don’t know on what basis that’s true, because apparently we’ve carefully avoided the details up until now. I can understand not liking Al Franken (though I like him a lot). He has a big personality and a bigger public persona, and that’s bound to be abrasive to some people. But the desire to *like* a candidate is a huge part of what got George Bush elected. Twice. (Both times illegitimately, but that’s not my point here.)


I’ve been writing this in my head all day. Everyone should be relieved at how much I’ve edited out. I hope I’ve been respectful.

I am unable to resist asking you to look at the Strib photo at this link:

I’m going to post an essay from Slate.com, and I think it will take several boxes to include it all. I’m doing this because the Slate webpage so ugly, I don’t want anyone to have to look at it.


deb said...

How the press and his critics misunderstand Al Franken.      By Jonathan Chait

Posted Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, at 1:53 PM ET
In theory, Americans love an anti-politician—an outsider who tells the voters what he actually thinks rather than suffocating his personality beneath layers of polspeak. Think of Warren Beatty in Bulworth, Michael Douglas in The American President. In reality, voters tend to ruthlessly punish any spark of genuine personality. And the worst personality trait you can have, politically speaking, is humor—not the corny, banquet-speaker humor of Ronald Reagan but humor as a cutting tool of social analysis.

Consider the case of Al Franken. The Saturday Night Live writer turned Minnesota Senate candidate spent most of the last year trailing badly as pundits clucked their tongues at his "potty mouth." Lately, he has pulled even with his opponent, Norm Coleman, but he's done so only by riding an overwhelming anti-Republican wave and running a relentlessly dull, cookie-cutter campaign. Even so, his shameful comic past has marked him indelibly. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson warned that Franken's election would "push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness." Even some Democrats apparently regard him as a bad joke. Not long ago, NBC political director Chuck Todd waxed incredulous at the prospect of Franken winning. "I have had multiple very high-level Democrats on the Hill sit there with their fingers crossed," reported Todd. "They are scared of Franken winning. More importantly, they fear that if Franken wins, then every liberal Hollywood type is going to say, 'Hey, I can run for office, too.' " Coleman recently released a campaign flier calling Franken "completely unfit for public office" because of his comedy career.

It's understandable that people might, at first blush, think of Franken as the equivalent of Sen. Carrot Top—or the next Jesse Ventura, a fellow Minnesotan to whom Franken is incessantly compared. It doesn't help that Franken is best known for playing the goofy character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. And so Franken's comedic career has been transformed in the public mind into the job-training equivalent of dressing up in tights and smashing a fake chair over somebody's head.

deb said...

Chait, cont.

Actually, while Franken has done lots of straight comedy, he began his career as a political satirist—a very different thing. Satire is a form of political commentary. It can be mindless, but so can an op-ed on fiscal policy in the Wall Street Journal. At its best, satire clarifies a truth that the subject would like to muddy.

Franken's critics are aware of his political satire, but that, too, has become another count in the indictment—Al Franken, trash talker. "He lampooned Rush Limbaugh as a 'big fat idiot,' and he dismissed Ann Coulter as a 'nutcase,' " clucked U.S. News earlier this year. Critics who take note of Franken's political books treat them as the left's answer to Coulter or Bill O'Reilly. But this misses the satirical point. To get the joke of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, you need only to look at the cover, which features Franken posing in a tweed jacket in front of a wall of musty bound volumes, clutching a pipe, looking comically pompous. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right has the joke in the title itself. Coulter writes books with titles like Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, whose charge is meant to be taken at face value. Franken's title mocks the accusation itself with over-the-top redundancy and subverts its own claim to truth by appropriating the corrupted slogan "Fair and Balanced."

Franken does resort to invective on occasion, but this hardly defines his satirical style. (You could just as easily cherry-pick Jon Stewart's most obscene sentences—he recently said "Fuck you" to Sarah Palin—to paint him as a foul-mouthed ranter.) His books are laced with wonky disquisitions on economic policy that are themselves laced with jokes. He evinces vastly more knowledge about domestic policy than most members of Congress or national political reporters I've met.

To be sure, Franken skewers his targets, a habit which has contributed to his reputation as a raging left-winger. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Franken's politics "neatly mirror" those of the "liberal base." There's a misperception at work here that conflates blunt opposition to the Republican right with left-wing beliefs. As a confessed Bush hater who's not enamored with the left, I'm a fellow victim of this confusion. Franken is actually a moderate who initially favored the Iraq war and has praised the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Indeed, what Franken reveals of himself in Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot confounds a lot of blue-state-elitist stereotypes. Franken recounts having said a prayer for George H.W. Bush upon his election, defending Bob Dole's honor to a European journalist, and making multiple overseas trips to entertain American troops. The Franken persona is best summed up by the instance when, upon hearing National Review Editor Rich Lowry claim that liberals had sissified politics, Franken challenged Lowry to a fistfight. When Lowry refused, they met for an amiable lunch. If, say, Jim Webb did this sort of thing, it would be seen as rough-hewn, populist authenticity.

deb said...

Chait, cont.

Normally, a politician's self-depiction should be considered self-serving fluff unless proven otherwise. But the book predates any hints of his interest in elective office. What's more, it's so stuffed with impolitic statements that it's unimaginable that Franken could have contemplated ever running for office when he wrote it. He pokes fun at Christianity ("[W]ill someone explain to me how Jesus can be both the son of God and also God?"), calls Ted Kennedy "bloated," and casually admits that "I'd make a terrible politician."

The most surprising thing about Franken's oeuvre is that, as good a satirist as he is, he's clearly smarter than he is funny. Dave Barry once famously defined a sense of humor as a "measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason." Franken has an infinite faith in the power of reason. Time and again, he tries to present his adverseries with detailed rebuttals and gets nowhere. One book has a small moment of triumph, in which he badgers House budget committee Chairman John Kasich into admitting that Republicans were employing a misleading measure of their plans to cut Medicare. "I took a few victory laps around the table," he writes. Franken doesn't write, however, that Kasich and his fellow Republicans continued to brandish the misleading statistic anyway.

I would guess that Franken is running for the Senate because he thinks he will have moments like these, when the superior force of his reason will carry the day. I have never seen or heard of a successful politician who thinks like this. I can't imagine he'll find politics anything but a crushing disappointment. But I'm eager to see him try.


Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2203137/

Copyright 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC

Anonymous said...

I too wish we had a calmer, less combative population (or at least the population presented by the 'reader hungry' media.) I believe moderation makes for boring news.

That said I don't see the connection between undecideds and moderates. More often undecideds, again judging by the interviews I've read and heard from the media, tend more to be people who really haven't given much thought to the election (or politics or the world around them ... how ever one cares to label their inattention) and yet, have the same vote that more involved voters have.

Whatever question I might have as to my the weight of my single vote, I'm confident that there's at least one fearful, homophobic, racist, gullible and ignorantly self-assured voter out there to balance out MY vote.

For what it's worth, the periods when there HAS BEEN a dominant liberal majority driving the Federal government have moved the U.S. much closer to the country we, and the rest of the world, deserve.

To suggest that Norm Coleman is a moderate because he's more politic in his public comments than M. Bachmann seems like a semantic argument at best. I'll grant you he's not on the social fringe but he HAS been a decidedly cooperative supporter of any Republican cause that he believes will further his political future.

As a voter I can't burst Norm's well-financed Georgetown bubble, all I can do is try to elect someone who I believe has values closer to my own and has interests other than those that have paid him handsomely. It's as close as I can hope for to holding his actions responsible for the mess 'his team' has lead my country into.

I don't happen to know where Norm's moral compass points ... but I do think his political history suggests that it has been 'changeable.'

Bi-partisan efforts toward the common-good are only as effective as our shared view of what constitutes that common good.