« The Pulpit Initiative--Skeel | Main | Good News on the Cancer Front--Stuntz »

McCain or Obama?--Stuntz

This Stuart Taylor column captures half of my frustration with this presidential election. Taylor argues that, if Obama governs as a centrist, he could have a spectacularly successful presidency. If he governs from the left, Taylor says, he will fail as badly as George W. Bush did governing from the right.

Most of Bush's mistakes were not due to ideology, but that's a quibble. Taylor's basic point is sound.  The country is centrist, not leftist.  Problem is, Obama's track record is more left than center.  Based on the candidates' records, the centrist in this race is John McCain.

But McCain has a problem of his own:  He seems unable to persuade anyone who isn't already on his side.  Watching and listening to his stump speech reminds me of the times I watched Bob Dole on the campaign trail in 1996.  That wasn't a pretty sight.  Like McCain now, Dole then was a wise old man who had run for president one too many times; either through old age or too much time in the Senate, he had lost the ability to persuade voters, much less inspire them.  And were McCain to win on Tuesday, he would have to do a lot of persuading in order to govern with a left-leaning Democratic Congress and a public nearly half of which would be enraged at a third consecutive Republican victory.

So one candidate has a genuinely rare talent for inspiring followers from a wide range of backgrounds--but that candidate's ideological stance is hard to pin down.  His political past suggests he's a leftist; his campaign rhetoric suggests he's somewhere near the political center.  Trusting the rhetoric over the record seems to me dangerous.  The other candidate has a far more impressive record--but an almost Bush-like inability to convince those not already in his camp.  One might lead in bad directions; the other may be unable to lead at all.  Not an easy call for centrists like Taylor, and like me.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments ( 10 )

Not being a centrist, the choice isn't so difficult for me, but that's an interesting point. But of course, it's not exactly clear that Obama can actually persuade people as opposed to charm them, don't you think? McCain's problems stem from what is, in fairness, his greatest strength: his honor-based ethic. He sees things in terms of honor and it often leads him to the right conclusions, but it also makes him think of political disagreements in terms of an honorable/dishonorable dichotomy. It's hard to tell exactly how Obama thinks of his opponents. My guess is that he thinks the disagreement expected and in some sense reasonable, but ultimately rooted in self-interest or some other base motive (but motive that is probably not even known to those who are in the wrong). That is, I suspect that Obama thinks that his conservative opponents are, for the most part, afflicted with some kind of "false consciousness." I don't mean here to make Obama out to be some sort of closet-Marxist, but he shares the consensus views among academics and among those views is that people who hold conservative views generally do so out of cognitive mistakes or some sort of deep-seated neuroses. They "cling," they have "authoritarian personalities," they're "dogmatists," etc.

In any case, I suppose we'll see soon enough. Alas.


The attribution of bad motives to opponents is a problem that the right and the left share. On both sides, it's unfair -- most political disagreements boil down to empirics. If I thought that a more progressive income tax would cost nothing in terms of economic growth, I'd support it, and I suspect a lot of conservative voters would as well. If "card check" would raise wages without also raising unemployment, I'd support that too. On both counts, I think the evidence leans the other way. But people who think otherwise aren't morally flawed; they just disagree about the effects the relevant policies produce.

I grant that ideologues on both sides don't care about the empirics. But I doubt that's most conservatives or most liberals.

That said, I think you're exactly right about Obama's belief in false consciousness. That's one of the characteristics that makes me nervous. Just as McCain's exaggerated sense of certainty makes me nervous.

It's been said that actions speak louder than words.

Take a look at both candidates, and what they've done, not what they say now, and you can good idea of what they'll be like in the future.

I think what Obama will do is pretty clear. That's why I've voting McCain.

One of the many things that bothers me about 0bama is that the press takes so little interest in questioning him; I don't think that is going to change. And, that is very dangerous.

I get what you are saying about McCain, but he does have a charisma and gravitas that also appeals to people who don't much agree with him (like me).

I suspect that that gravitas (and fluency) will make him a very capable leader. Perhaps more capable than I want.

McCain-Palin '08!!! (Heaven help us)

In order to unseat political opponents, Obama & his Chicago machine had sealed divorce records opened.

Whether this attributes bad motives to Obama, I do not know. But I challenge you or anyone else to explain how this can attribute good motives to him.

- turned off basic credit card security checks at his campaign website?

- ordered his lawyers to file cease and desist letters to people who disagreed with him?

- used the race card?

Twice is coincidence, thrice is the work of the enemy.

I always have to laugh when so called centrist parrot the MSM and the left. You guys can think for yourselves, can't you? George Bush was a centrist big government Republican. Someone needs to show me where he governed from the right. I would have loved it if he did, but he wasn't even close. I think the only thing he did was cut taxes.

You can vote for McCain, who genuinely wants the best for this country and all its people, is ruled by a code of honor rather than policy consistency and can therefore sometimes be quite maddening, but there is no doubt about his courage, physical and moral. Or, you can vote for the pretty, well-spoken fella who has never accomplished anything, never stood for anything except his own career, seems to have a consistent, far-left political philosophy but leaves doubt how hard he will push it against opposition. Thwe two are about equal in intelligence.

In the background, Democratic-controlled House and Senate, with the left wing of the party in control of both.

McCain's VP pick lacks experience but otherwise is impressive and shows every sign of being able to grow; in 6 months she will be at least as well-prepared as Truman was when FDR died, probably more as McCain won't keep her in the dark the way FDR did to HST. Obama's VP has been around forever and never done anything noteworthy, and is a loose cannon. Hard to believe there is growth potential after 36 undistinguished years in the Senate.

What's so hard to choose? Unless you are a hard-leftist yourself, or believe the GOP will control Congress and prefer divided government, the only rational vote is McCain.

The scary thing about the Left these days is that they seem to believe that they no longer have to engage with their critics, just destroy them. The underlying belief seems to be that libertarian & "freedom" preoccupations are the products of paranoid, xenophobic, small-minded, racist bigotry. Indeed, I think the entire notion of freedom is slowly getting discredited (or equated with nothing more than mere selfishness).

On good days, the Left's comforting logic leads them to treat their opponents with condescending pity. Unfortunately, I think we are going to see plenty of bad days ahead. In that environment, the Left's tolerance for "ignorant rubes" is going to be quite limited.

Look for a plethora of policy moves that are designed to limit debate and to institutionalize power (Fairness Doctrine, card check, the courts). I honestly don't think the America we all grew up in is going to survive.

I am center right, so the issue for me is easy. But make no mistake Obama is a hard left wing person. He has gotten a pass from the media on his associations with hard left radicals.


I didn't mean to wade into the "bad faith" swamp. I agree - both left and right are guilty of supposing their opponents harbor nasty fantasies that are covered over by artful rhetoric.

I'm skeptical, though, regarding your claim that politics is mostly about "empirics." I wish that were so, but it seems more true to say that people's decisions regarding the sort of evidence they take to be persuasive are themselves conditioned by their pre-political values. (Not determined, just conditioned). But that's a much longer discussion (and likely bears in interesting ways on your and David's "modest rule of law" essay...)