This is an open letter to those American voters who are not affiliated with either major political party, or who have not yet decided whether to vote for Barack Obama or John McCain. There are millions of you, in every state of the country, men and women, from all races, classes and ethnic groups. Each of you has his or her own reasons for not registering as either a Democrat or a Republican, and for not yet having decided whom to vote for. It's impossible to sum up such a diverse group, especially because by definition you are, well, independent. Some of you are relatively apolitical, whether out of disillusionment or simply because you have other more pressing concerns in your daily lives. Others of you follow politics, siding sometimes with Democrats, sometimes with Republicans, sometimes with libertarian figures like Ron Paul, and sometimes with none of the above.
But there are a few qualities that many of you share. You are fed up with the choices offered you and sick of partisan rancor. You are disillusioned both with the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Many of you are conservative on fiscal policy and liberal on social issues, which is a big reason neither party exactly fits you. Mainly, you want someone who will actually deliver -- on the economy, on foreign policy, on domestic programs. And you don't care what his or her political label is.
Because you hold the key to the election, both John McCain and Barack Obama have been assiduously courting you. But you're not sold on either candidate. You like the fact that McCain has a reputation as a maverick and an independent thinker, but you're not sure if he doesn't just represent more of the Washington status quo. As for Obama, you don't know much about him and all the mania about him only makes you suspicious.
As the endless campaign moves into the home stretch, the noise from both sides and their supporters grows deafening. You're sick of the hyperbolic, us-against-them commentary that dominates our political discourse. What follows is a list of the main issues facing the country, and an attempt to compare, in as neutral a way as possible, how the two candidates stack up on those issues.
First, there's the overriding matter of simple competence. By his own admission, McCain knows little about economics and has little interest in it. His ignorance has been reflected in the numerous confused and inaccurate statements he has made since the financial crisis exploded, including saying that "the fundamentals of our economy remain strong," then clumsily saying he meant America's workers; falsely blaming the meltdown on "abuses within Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac"; incoherently blaming the crisis on nameless "greedy" individuals (we all know that Wall Street functions on greed -- greed is not the problem) and saying if he were president he would fire SEC chairman Chris Cox (which the president lacks the power to do). McCain simply does not inspire confidence as a capable manager of the incredibly complex U.S. economy, especially at a time of unprecedented collapse.
Second, there's the fact that the Republican Party has betrayed true conservatism. McCain, Bush and their fellow ideologues claim to be conservatives, but in fact their ideology is profoundly unconservative. Because McCain and Bush are so fixated on cutting taxes for the richest Americans, while simultaneously insisting on vastly increasing spending, they have saddled the country with a ruinous, record debt, much of it owed to China. True fiscal conservatives strive to keep taxes low, but understand that nations, like individuals, must live within their means. That's the root meaning of "conservative" -- you conserve what's valuable. By spending like drunken sailors while starving the government of money by cutting taxes on plutocrats, Bush and McCain have passed a crippling debt on to our children and grandchildren. This is the very opposite of conservatism -- it's more like "spend it now and pass the buckism."
Third, and most important, there's common sense: You don't reward failure. At this moment, with the U.S. suffering through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and saddled by the largest debt in our nation's history, with wages stagnant, credit tight and food and energy costs soaring, why would anyone support a candidate whose beliefs and policies are identical to those of George W. Bush? Let's assume you are fiscally conservative -- meaning you tend to support lower taxes and deregulated markets and are wary of big government. At first glance, this would seem to make a Republican candidate a more attractive choice. But, in fact, the labels "Republican" and "Democrat" don't mean much anymore when it comes to the economy. As the current crisis shows, Republicans are as prone to engage in big-government regulation as Democrats.
The bottom line is all that matters, and the Republicans are largely responsible for that bottom line. The crisis happened on the GOP's watch, and it was a direct result of their beliefs and policies. One of McCain's top economic advisors, Phil Gramm -- who said the country was only in a "mental recession" and called Americans "a nation of whiners" -- was one of the authors of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that deregulated the banking industry and was largely responsible for the current meltdown. By encouraging speculators to take excessive risks without fear of penalty, the Republicans are largely responsible for financial disasters such as the one we are now experiencing -- and for the earlier savings and loan debacle that tarred McCain. Whatever your personal economic views, it simply doesn't make sense to reward the Republicans for their failure.
First, it should be said that the Democrats, too, bear some responsibility for the current mess. It was President Clinton who signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Second, no president is going to be able to wave a magic wand and clean up this mess overnight. But the Democrats have always been more concerned with the welfare of American workers, and less ideologically driven than the Republicans. That mixed, practical approach led to the creation of one of America's great institutions, Social Security. Not surprisingly, McCain joined Bush in trying to privatize part of Social Security, which McCain called "a disgrace." Americans overwhelmingly rejected that misguided attempt, but McCain still embraces the same failed ideas. Obama, by contrast, stands in the moderate, mainstream American tradition, one that recognizes the virtues of free markets but also recognizes that total deregulation ends up benefiting not average Americans but the super-rich -- who are now being bailed out at taxpayer expense.
If elected president, Obama would not be able to restore the glory days of the soaring stock market and the housing bubble -- those factors are out of his or any president's control. But he would be far more likely to steer a safe and centrist course. He would encourage entrepreneurship and initiative, but regulate excessively risky practices like the unchecked mania for subprime loan-based securities that led to the current collapse. He also understands that the U.S. is inextricably tied into the world economy, and that simply mouthing bromides about the glories of the "free market" is no longer meaningful in the age of globalized capital and impossible-to-understand financial transactions like derivatives.
In the end, you should ask yourself a straightforward question. If you believe that you've done better financially under Bush than Clinton, you should vote for McCain. If you don't, you should vote for Obama.
FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Let's assume that you tend to trust Republicans more on national security. McCain has far more experience than Obama, and he is a war hero. So it might seem logical to tilt toward McCain. But as with the economy, labels don't mean anything, only results. On Iraq, the most important foreign policy decision since Vietnam, McCain was dead wrong. Not only did he ardently support (and still supports) that disastrous war, which most analysts consider one of the greatest foreign-policy mistakes in U.S. history, he's actually to the right of Bush: He's still talking about "victory" in Iraq, an idea that even Bush has abandoned. A vote for McCain increases the chances of an endless and self-destructive U.S. military presence in Iraq.
McCain's foreign policy approach would make America less safe, not more. McCain would be far more likely to restart a dangerous cold war with Russia. His hard-line policies, formulated by advisors who include some of the same neoconservatives who dreamed up the Iraq war, would imperil America. His bellicose rhetoric toward Iran raises the specter of a war that could raise gas prices to as high as $10 a gallon, lead to a global depression, threaten U.S. troops, and greatly increase the chances that radical Islamists would attack the U.S. mainland again.
Obama has far less experience than McCain. But experience means little without good judgment, and on foreign policy Obama's judgment has clearly been better than McCain's. Obama opposed Bush's invasion of Iraq from the start, insisting that capturing Osama bin Laden and defeating al-Qaida was our top priority and that Iraq was a disastrous distraction. This isn't a partisan or Democratic opinion -- it is one held by America's intelligence agencies, which agree that the Iraq war has made America far less safe. Obama has a coherent plan for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Moreover, the fact that the rest of the world overwhelmingly wants to see Obama elected simply cannot be ignored. It's tempting at times to thumb our noses at or try to run roughshod over other nations, but the Bush years have shown that it is not a luxury worth indulging. America's "soft power," our good name, is a vital asset that we cannot afford to squander. In an interconnected world, it is simply not in the U.S. interests to be despised by our allies. It makes it much harder for us to pursue our national interests both in terms of national security and economically. Under Bush, the U.S. is more unpopular than it has ever been. Electing Obama would immediately help reverse that lamentable trend. Electing McCain would continue it.
Once a courageous critic of the Christian right, McCain has thrown in his lot with it for political reasons. This pleases the Republican base, which makes up about 15 percent of the country, but it ensures that America will continue to be painfully polarized, as it has been for the last eight years. The increasingly nasty "culture war" has led to a loss of civility and mutual respect and has damaged our social fabric.
Americans disagree and will continue to disagree on contentious issues like abortion, the role of religion in public life, affirmative action, and gay rights. But Obama is far more likely to be a national uniter on these issues, because his positions are more moderate and are shared by more Americans. Conservatives, liberals and independents alike all have an interest in finding common ground on these divisive issues, and when that isn't possible, finding a civil way to discuss them. Obama, who has sought to transcend worn-out clichés about race, has a proven track record of reconciliation on such matters.
McCain was once highly respected even by his political opponents for his integrity and willingness to challenge GOP orthodoxy. Unfortunately, that was the old McCain. The new McCain has sold out his principles to win. He has abandoned his independent positions on issues like taxes, torture and immigration and fallen in line with his party's policies. He has also run a much dirtier campaign than Obama, endlessly attacking his opponent's integrity and running transparently false ads that even members of his own party have repudiated. His cynical, win-at-all-costs approach is epitomized by his highly irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, one that even GOP guru Karl Rove says was purely political. Palin may have her personal virtues, and you may find her a breath of fresh air, but no one except die-hard partisans can seriously argue that she is actually prepared to be president. This alone is a reason not to vote for McCain, even if you agree with some of his positions. That McCain would be willing, for purely political reasons, to put an unqualified individual a heartbeat away from the most difficult and important job in the world raises serious questions about his judgment, and ultimately about his character.
Obama is not the saint some of his supporters claim him to be, but there are no serious stains on his character. He belonged to a church whose pastor gave some incendiary anti-American sermons, but he repudiated those views and quit the church. His is a classic American story of overcoming long odds: A mixed-race child raised by a single mother, he went on to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He passed up a sure shot at corporate wealth to work with impoverished residents of Chicago. His track record in the Illinois Senate and then the U.S. Senate is solid. And his campaign, while it has at times played hardball politics, has been largely respectful and avoided ad hominem attacks on his opponents. He is exceptionally intelligent and has written one of the most widely praised books ever penned by a politician. None of this proves that his character is flawless, but it should dispel needless fears about it.
All this adds up to a clear conclusion: Barack Obama is far more likely to be an effective president than McCain. And he's far more likely to bring real change to Washington than McCain, who may have good intentions but who shares the failed policies of George W. Bush and his party. This isn't because Democrats are good and the Republicans are evil, or because Obama is some sort of political messiah, but because the Republicans have had their turn and screwed things up, and America desperately needs something different. Obama will not be a miracle worker. But he'll change the disastrous course steered by the Bush administration. McCain may move the furniture around on the deck, but it'll be the same Titanic.
As independents, you aren't beholden to any party or ideology. You have the privilege, and the responsibility, of thinking for yourselves. And when you do that, you'll find there's only one reasonable choice: Barack Obama.