Oct 23 2008

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November 5th

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Barack Obama is ahead by 7 points nationally this morning, and is leading in all the swing states that now include several places that are a traditional part of the GOP base coalition.1

Sufficiently freed from today’s conventional electoral wisdom, let us intellectually consider an alternate postulate; what if we wake up on November 5th to President-elect John McCain?  More specifically, what does it mean for the United States, as a nation of individuals, as we react to the election, given today’s political partisanship?

For a presidential run featuring the first minority nominee, race has played a counter-intuitive role in this campaign. It has been Obama himself who has made the most pointed references to his partial African roots, insulating audiences and voters at large from phantom attack ads that would distort Obama’s distinctive name, childhood and hyphenated national origin.

On the flip side, fear of race-baiting has effectively walled off Obama from more rigorous review of his record, agenda and associations. Consider that when McCain-Palin labeled the Obama economic program “socialist”, a blogger called “Midwest Voices” immediately created a post stating that “socialist” was a code word for “black” and thereby a racial attack.

When the GOP directly challenged Obama’s ties to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayres, no less a civil rights authority than Representative John Lewis stepped forward to say the Republicans were, “Sowing seeds of hatred and division,” suggesting that McCain was another George Wallace.

Commentators categorize these Republican criticisms variously as distracting, divisive and desperate. But a real measure of balance and proportion are required here to understand the stakes involved.

Consider, for example, if John McCain had sat in a pew at Liberty University for 20 years, or had as a colleague and political associate a man who in his youth had bombed abortion clinics or been part of the KKK?  Would those connections be so easily dismissed?

By the same logic, the Mainstream Media have run numerous stories about Governor Sarah Palin’s church in Alaska, raising questions about her fitness for the vice presidency based on the church’s religious teachings. By the same measure of fairness, would it not be appropriate for a companion piece on Obama’s world view in light of the sermons of Reverend Wright and the black liberation theology that he has preached?

But that hasn’t happened.

So, if anything, race has ironically been consciously excluded from the presidential contest, even as it creates an effective double standard beneficial to the Obama campaign.

But there may be no escaping race in this contest. It may not be a matter of “if”, but rather a matter of “when”. Perhaps undeservedly, it would be most likely after the vote is counted that race will become an issue in a potentially profound way for our political discourse.

Through 9-11, the Iraq War, Katrina and the more recent financial meltdown, America has faced a series of challenges that have tested our trust; trust in our leaders, trust in our institutions, and more broadly, trust in our societal assumptions. One of our most corrosive and ongoing challenges to our national sense of trust has been the emerging crisis in political legitimacy.

American faith in people and institutions has swayed back and forth with the epic events of our history; the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Vietnam and the ‘60s to name just a few.

More recently, the culture wars of the ‘90s, waged by Republicans questioning the legitimacy of the Clinton presidency, were fought in reaction to generational change and the moral assumptions that came with it in 1992. Those clashes ultimately ended in President Clinton’s impeachment. That bare knuckles partisanship gave rise, voice and energy to a counter-culture of Democrats, liberals and minorities with their own values and issues of legitimacy that found focus with the contested election of 2000.

It is important at this juncture here to state a clear fact. George W. Bush won the state of Florida and the presidency in 2000.

That fact is indisputable, and not because the Supreme Court made it so. According to the New York Times, “a comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.”2

But that has not stopped the creation and endurance of an urban legend that the election was stolen, which persists with all the corrosive impact on electoral legitimacy it engenders.

For instance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that “I’ve never seen such a wholesale machinery of disenfranchisement at work” as what occurred in Florida on Election Day. It was, he says, “a 10 on a scale of 10” in the degree of voting-rights abuses, worse than Selma, Ala.” Jackson still refers to Florida as “the scene of the crime.”

Further, in the lead up to the 2004 election, John Kerry told crowds that “we know thousands of people were denied the right to vote,” in Florida. For his part, then-running mate John Edwards said that Florida in 2000 was, “an incredible miscarriage of justice.”  The narrative is so imbedded that Bob Shrum, the 0-8 Democratic presidential consultant, recently started out a piece on the 2008 election by referencing the “stolen” 2000 vote.

The narrative of the stolen election and political illegitimacy carried forward into the election of 2004. In a Rolling Stone piece, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stated flatly that Republicans had kept 350,000 voters from casting ballots, votes that ostensibly would have put John Kerry in the White House.3  Conspiracy theorists also surmised that the Diebold company, which manufactured the electronic voting machines, “fixed” the election for Bush, as its’ CEO was a Bush supporter.

This toxic mix of fraying electoral legitimacy has been compounded since by a sub-current of political polarization based on race.
Commenting on a report concerning the 2004 vote in Ohio, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said that, “”It’s been widely reported over the past several years that Republicans do target African-Americans for voter suppression…it’s…clear that there was massive voter suppression,” Dean said”4 These extraordinary comments were later refuted by an author of the report.”5

Yet these sentiments found new, authentic and ferocious voice with Hurricane Katrina, which ripped through the majority African-American city of New Orleans. A devastating natural disaster, coupled with a slow and disjointed response, distorted the hard truths of the impact of Katrina, amid frenzied, sensational and down right irresponsible reporting.

As the New York Times reported on September 19, 2005, “…the media’s willingness to report thinly attributed rumors may also have contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that will not clean up easily.”

This “cultural wreckage” includes the indelible images of racially distinct suffering that are as much apart of our collective psyche as the fall of the Twin Towers, and with it, much of the credibility of the government to manage crises equitably.

Today, eight years later, we have a situation in the minds of many on the Left, where two national elections were “tainted” and a natural disaster intentionally broke down along racial grounds.  It has led us to a fault line where political legitimacy itself hangs in the balance through a national election where a major party nominee is African American.

What will we do?

Barack Obama has raised nearly $600 million. Easily it is the largest haul in American history and it keeps on coming.6Contributions are an easily measure and important symbol of energy and enthusiasm for candidate, and clearly Obama has a following. Moreover, as a complement to his fundraising prowess, Obama has registered more than 9 million new voters.  In the eight critical states that will decide the election, those registrations are 4-1 Democratic.7  Back to the politics of the moment, Obama leads the Electoral College with a staggering 306 to 157 margin (270 required to win) 12 days out.

To discuss these formidable hurdles is not to rule out a McCain win, but rather the difficulty under which it can be achieved. But with the odds so heavily weighted against McCain, what would his victory mean to America and Democrats?

For instance, there was no crisis of confidence when the Democrats retook the Congress in 2006. Is there an emerging dialectic where the only “clean” elections are the ones won by Democrats?

In the case of November 4th, would Obama’s fundraising, organization and recent polling itself be enough to question the legitimacy of the election no matter what the actual margins?

Would a clear McCain win confirm Obama’s lack of qualification or give life to stereotypical views of America and American voters as bigots and racists? On these most fundamental issues, would America’s tenuous political legitimacy simply disintegrate?

Almost a half century ago, Richard Nixon decided against a recount for the good of the nation, though the graveyards of Illinois probably kept him from winning the state and presidency. Nixon was young (47) and didn’t want to be perceived as a sore loser, which would doom another shot at the highest office.

Our partisan comity, our social compact, has frayed badly since that moment. Amid a war of values, our political discourse has deteriorated beyond the point of shared interest. Our tether is separately tied to the legitimacy of the system, which is equally battered.

So these pages use this occasion to offer a word of caution on November 4th and beyond.

There has been much recklessness with rhetoric over the past two decades and too little thought to its enduring damage. Debatable policy, narrow and selfish interest, spectacularly partisan charges and baseless accusations. We have pushed the outer limit of the permissible in the search for the greater collective, yet we have only increased our own division.

Elections are about choice. Voting is about decision. But, before we set off to contest, to challenge or to inflame, we should collectively breathe deep and carefully decide on our next steps, recognizing that what we start is sometimes difficult to stop, and that an action taken cannot always be taken back.

The Hippocratic Oath requires that a doctor first do no harm. The oath is useful and practical advice for citizens, politicians, pundits and statesmen in equal measure on this coming Election Day, beginning with Senator McCain and Senator Obama and all of their supporters.

It is both our history and our legacy that our primary interest, indeed our collective interest, is our national interest. That requires mettle, restraint and grace.

May we find it in abundance a week from Tuesday, and in the process prevent academic policy arguments from taking on the rubric of violence and insurrection.

1. Realclearpolitics.com 10/23/08

2. New York Times, November 21, 2001

3. Rolling Stone, “ Was the 2004 Election Stolen” June 2006

4. Fox News, “Dean Charges Black Vote Suppressed,” June 23, 2005

5. Ibid

6. Opensecrets.com

7. Boston Globe “Voter Registration Boom for Obama October 8, 2008


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