Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moral Support

I'm probably wrong, but I think I know the precise moment that George W. Bush won his re-election.

Of course, there wasn't really one precise moment that changed everything and determined the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. People voted they way they did because of a whole range of reasons and feelings. But there was one moment when I thought to myself, that's it, he's going to get re-elected.

It was during one of the presidential debates, and actually it was two moments or, more precisely, a series of moments. One was the creepy feeling I got when John Kerry and John Edwards answered every question they got, no matter the topic, by mentioning that Dick Cheney's daughter was a lesbian. But the moment when I really thought Bush had clinched it came when the two candidates were asked about their positions on abortion.

Now, I'm not saying that the issue of abortion determined the election. Most people don't vote exclusively based on their position on abortion or any other single issue. But I think the question revealed something about the two men. John Kerry gave a very long, convoluted answer, explaining how he was personally against abortion but that he didn't think it was right to inflict his moral positions on other people and so yadda yadda. After Kerry spent what seemed like hours trying to get himself on every side of the issue, Bush stepped up to the mic and said simply, "I'm against it." That was all.

You can make the argument that Kerry's answer was more thoughtful, more informed, more (dare I say it) nuanced. But I thought I could feel a collective frisson that said, how refreshing to hear a politician state a position so simply and directly, with no qualifiers or exceptions or weasel words to get him out of trouble later. I might be wrong, but I thought I could feel voters thinking, hey, I might not agree with this guy, but at least he says what he thinks and we know where he stands. Whatever he believes, he really believes it.

I thought I was detecting a similar moment during the 2008 presidential campaign, but I was wrong. In August, Russia invaded South Ossetia and Georgia, sending in troops and dropping bombs. Candidate John McCain immediately denounced the Russian action. Barack Obama made a statement calculated to be even-handed, saying more or less that both sides were part of the problem. It took him a few days to finally come out and say that, well, actually, the Russians were the problem and that, as McCain had said days earlier with fervor, we should stand with the Georgians. Obama's poll numbers did dip for a while, but ultimately the situation along the Russian border weighed little in voters' minds when November came around.

But we saw Obama's penchant for calculation and even-handedness in foreign affairs again immediately after the election in Iran. As Iranians took to the streets and European leaders immediately decried violence against them and spoke up for the possibility of democracy in Iran, Obama made the unconscionable comment to CNBC, "The difference in actual policies between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as advertised," amounting to a virtual tacit endorsement of the current regime. He completely missed the point that people in the street were dying for their chance to have tweedle dum instead of tweedle dee. In that moment, how the outcome of the election might affect Obama's grand negotiation strategy was really beside the point.

To his credit the president, as he did in August, finally came around after a few days later. He made a statement graced with his trademark eloquence in an interview taped on Friday with CBS's Harry Smith. "And the world is watching," he said. "And we stand behind those who are seeking justice in a peaceful way." Strangely, however, those particular words did not make it onto the evening news that night. The key parts of his statement were edited out for brevity. So much for trusting Katie Couric with your news.

Meanwhile, defenders of the president went on news programs all week to counter criticism from Republicans, saying that the president had really gotten it right. The most surreal moment was when they trotted out the name of Henry Kissinger to say that even Richard Nixon's old foreign policy guru, famed for his Machiavellian instincts, had opined that Obama had hit just the right tone. The defenders seemed to imply the strange notion that America's top spokesman should hold back because the U.S. brand had been morally tarnished over the years and that the demonstrators would lose credibility or authenticity if America voiced support for them. This is completely backwards. One develops a good moral brand for saying and doing the right thing, not the other way around. Always be suspicious when people want to talk more about strategy than about what's the right thing to do.

Anyway, the fact that so many people had to be asked the question about the president's hesitancy itself demonstrates the president was slow on the uptake. And it leaves us wondering what his real values are. Does he have passionate principles that spring immediately from his heart? Or does he have only carefully worked out positions that need to be polished and tested before being fed into the teleprompter? After eight years of George W. Bush, lots of people are quite happy to have a leader who does not "shoot from the hip." But that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least wonder about our leader's aim.

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