About 40 percent of Americans are hard-core Republicans and 40 percent are hard-core Democrats. The way to capture the White House is to appeal to the 20 percent who are often called “independents.”
So the Antiplanner was puzzled after the Democratic convention when Obama’s acceptance speech was so clearly oriented to the left wing, while McCain’s vice-presidential pick was so clearly oriented to the right wing. How, I wondered, will either of them capture the center that way?
The answer today is clear. Obama’s acceptance speech committed him to nothing; he could go out and give more centrist-oriented speeches and sweep up the independents.
In contrast, by choosing Palin, McCain committed himself to the right wing. Sure, Palin “energized the base” of the Republican Party, but that only meant that 40 percent of the public will vote for McCain-Palin. Selecting Palin also meant selecting Palin’s rhetoric, such as claims that Obama “pals around” with terrorists and that he is a socialist.
Pollsters say that Obama benefitted from the economic downturn, as more voters trust McCain on international relations while more trust Obama on the economy. Yet it is the other way around with me, as I suspect Obama can restore our standing in the international community but I fear his economic policies will ruin the nation. If McCain had been able to convey a better economic message, he might have been able to make that case.
Instead, the McCain-Palin campaign focused on the “S” word, “socialist.” The problem with the S word is that it is obsolete: very few people (aside from a few fringe elements) are true socialists anymore. So it has become a word used only by enemies of socialism, not its friends.
Today, people like Obama describe themselves as “social democrats.” They will say they believe in the free market, but they will add that they also believe government action is needed to provide a safety net and to keep unscrupulous capitalists from taking advantage of downtrodden workers and consumers. They don’t want to nationalize industries (the hallmark of socialism), but they do want to put lots of constraints and controls on most if not all industries (an idea sometimes called corporatism).
When you call a social democrat a socialist, it is like calling a paleoconservative a neoconservative. Someone on the left might not be able to tell the difference between a paleo and a neo, but those on the right find the differences so huge and fundamental as to be totally unbridgeable. Similarly, leftists snigger when you confuse socialists and social democrats, while those on the right find the two indistinguishable.
The point being, of course, that using the S word meant that McCain-Palin were still, in the last days of the election, playing to their base and not to the center. That’s definitely a losing strategy.
McCain-Palin claimed that an interview Obama gave in 2001 proved he was a socialist. In the interview, Obama said that the civil rights movement had made a “tragic” mistake in focusing on the courts, because the Supreme Court gave blacks the right to vote but refused to “venture into the issues of redistribution of wealth.” If only the civil rights movement had done more “political and community organizing” (Obama’s early career), they would have been able to “bring about redistributive change.”
The Obama campaign appeared quick to deny that Obama was endorsing redistribution of incomes. But actually, what they denied was that Obama thinks that “the courts should get into the business of redistributing wealth.” He obviously doesn’t: he considers that the job of Congress and the state legislatures. But he clearly endorses wealth redistribution — which is, after all, part of the social democrat agenda (which also includes caps on incomes).
McCain-Palin missed a big opportunity here. Instead of saying, “this proves Obama is a socialist,” they should have said, “Obama wants to take your hard-earned income and give it to someone who didn’t work for it. How will money be redistributed? From whites to blacks? From rich to poor? No, historically, almost every program for redistributing income has ended up taking from the poor and middle classes and giving to the rich, because the rich are the ones who have the political power to influence the programs. Is that what you want?”
Calling Obama a socialist firmed up support on the right. Attacking Obama’s social democrat agenda might have gained support from the center.
To use an example near and dear to the Antiplanner’s heart, Obama favors smart growth, a planning concept that holds, among other things, that government planners representing “the community” can redefine your property rights at any time. McCain-Palin could have used this to stir up some of the anti-eminent domain sentiment that followed the Kelo decision. Instead, they relied on tired old code words like “socialist” (and newer code words like “terrorist”).
Most of the Obamacons who have turned away from McCain have done so because they are alienated by this divisive rhetoric. As The Economist said in its endorsement of Obama, the only way centrists could vote for McCain is “on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying.”
It was a hard decision, but the Antiplanner finally mailed in a vote for McCain based precisely on this assumption. As I have said before, my heart wants Obama to win, but my head tells me he will be a disaster for our economy — and right now the economy appears to be the most serious issue of this particular moment in time.
Of course, it is entirely possible that we shouldn’t believe all the things Obama has been saying about redistribution of wealth, government control of health care, and government planning. The difference is that Obama has been saying those things for years, while McCain’s message and actions until very recently tended to be fiscally conservative and (at least on some issues) socially liberal.
It has been clear for weeks now that Obama is going to win. His first actions in office will likely include an “economic stimulus” package that focus on “infrastructure.” As a result, bureaucrats throughout the nation will try to position their pet projects to look like “infrastructure.” It is hard to predict how Obama is going to sort them out, but I am not optimistic that I will agree with his reasoning.
Obama has said that he wants to create a new New Deal. The problem with that is that the old New Deal prolonged the Depression by several years: The U.S. was still in a depression long after Europe had recovered, and unemployment in 1938 was higher than in 1931. The Antiplanner’s fear is that Obama’s policies will prolong the current recession through the next eight years.
I have a strong suspicion that libertarian writer Virginia Postrel is correct when she says, “Obama is not a sunny FDR or JFK. He’s not a Ronald Reagan, expecting a pony in a room of manure. He assumes that any pony will have died of suffocation and worries that the horseless carriage has thrown stable hands permanently out of work.”
Still, in the long run, our international standing may be more important than current economic conditions, and Obama is more likely to restore that standing than McCain. Perhaps providing inspiration to young blacks and other minorities to realize that they can get a fair opportunity in our country is more important than getting out of the current doldrums. If these are true, and I hope they are, then Obama will be a great president.