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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Electile dysfunction?

Okay, this is my last chance to say something really pithy and profound about the 2008 U.S. election before it actually happens. So here goes. Wait for it… wait for it… any minute now… Sorry, I got nothing.

Well, okay, there’s this. With all the questioning about Barrack Obama’s past associations, his pastor, the guy who helped him buy his house and all the rest of it, I am still amazed that the McCain campaign and the media have never delved into the years that he served (under the name Lieutenant Commander Tuvok) on the Federation Starship Voyager. I think this period of his life is highly pertinent. We really need to ask ourselves if we are ready to elect a Vulcan president.

This leads to a related question. If the Vulcan Obama can be said to have the personality of Mr. Spock, does this mean that McCain would be Capt. Kirk? Let’s see, James T. Kirk, the hammy, over-emoting young leader with a female alien in every space port… No. Clearly, Bill Clinton was Capt. Kirk. McCain is more like one of those crotchety old Federation admirals who comes on the view screen and tells the Enterprise crew they can’t do something and then, once the view screen is turned off, Kirk and the crew go and do it anyway.

But here I am focusing on the personalities of the candidates. That’s what we all do. We get so caught up in the colorful individuals and the compelling narrative of the election story that we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. And what is the bigger picture? I think I caught a glimpse of it back in the 1990s when I heard Capt. Kirk, I mean Bill Clinton, wax philosophical during a visit to Ireland. Clinton loved Ireland, and Ireland loved him. At one point, he was rumored to be buying a home in Kenmare, County Kerry, but nothing came of it. And maybe it is just as well. Much of Kenmare was under water last week. But I digress.

Clinton was on one of his presidential visits, and one of his public events was the signing of some bill, I think having to do with technology or something. The gimmick was that he was signing it with a computer rather than a pen, using some new digital signature technology developed by Microsoft, thereby symbolizing that we were enterting yet another stage of the future. In remarks on Irish television, the president began to ramble somewhat wistfully about what the development meant to him. He spoke of how as a young man he had dreamed of being president someday and of his idealistic hopes for all the good he could do and what he couled accomplish for the country. But when he did get to be president, he said, he found that what he was mostly doing was siging pieces of paper. He was signing (or not signing) laws passed by Congress or proclamations or executive orders drafted by staff or submitted by cabinet secretaries. He found that there was little that a president could actually do other than sign things. And now with the new technology, he added almost ruefully, he might not even get to do that anymore==at least not literally with a pen. It was a strange thing to hear a man ruminate on the relative inefficacy of the presidency when, like all presidents, he had gotten to his office by making all sorts of promises of new directions and important changes. But the man was clearly being candid in how he felt.

Now there is an optimistic and a pessimistic way to look at those comments by President Clinton. The optimistic take is that the country and the government are much bigger than one man and that laws and policies are really arrived at collectively through many elected representatives and a large organization of professional functionaries. The negative take, on the other hand, is that the government is simply going to carry on as usual no matter whom we elect, and that the election barely matters. In an election year in which the biggest buzz word was “change,” it would really be good to know which it is.

Personally, presidential elections always make me mervous. Even more so when there is no incumbent running. I have trouble understanding people who feel that everything will be wonderful if only their guy would win. And everything will be terrible if the other guy wins. This sort of belief borders on religious faith, especially in a year like this one. The bottom line is that Obama has spent so little time actually acting as a national politician (as opposed to a national campaigner) that we have to take him on faith as to what he will do and not do as president. His campaign message is basically: anything has to be better than what we have had. Personally, it’s not a message that I find particularly reassuring. And, as a candidate, distractions about his pastor and other associates aside, he has gotten the least probing and challenging from the press than any candidate in my lifetime. Obama may turn out to be the best president the country has ever had (and I hope he will), but there is no particular reason to assume that he will other than through pure faith and his uncanny ability to attract people with his charisma. (And politicians with too much charisma are something else that makes me nervous.) The other side isn’t any better. Certainly McCain has had a long career in the Senate and a clear political track record that should tell us what he might and might not do. But it is all pretty much negated by the fact that there is little consistency to what he does. It is one case where a track record is actually more confusing than helpful. No matter whom we elect this year, it will be leap of faith.

If I have trouble understanding people who are dead set sure that their candidate is the country’s savior, I have even more trouble understanding the roughly eight percent of the voters (if we believe the polls) who still have not made up their minds. What more are they waiting for? And how many of them have already voted anyway, since something like a third of us will have voted early? And this fairly sizeable bloc of supposedly undecideds is the other thing that makes me nervous about this election. I don’t think the Democrats, or for that matter the country, can handle another controversial decision in the electoral college. Now this worry may well be for naught. After all, the polls indicate a clear Obama victory. But one thing we have learned from the past couple of presidential elections is that it is easier to get younger voters to respond to polls and, as a result, polls tend to oversample Democratic voters—right up to and including exit polls, leading to suspicions of skullduggery in places like Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Every four years we hear how there is a new generation of young voters who are energized and ready to change the electoral map. And every four years the election ends up getting decided by the same old, boring middle Americans who usually prefer Republicans but who occasionally opt for a Carter or a Clinton. Maybe this is the year that it really does change. We shall see.

If I have a reason to be optimistic, it is this. If predicting elections and what new presidents will do or not do is difficult, that doesn’t mean that surprises are always bad. When people tell pollsters whom they are inclined to vote for, it is a hypothetical question. Only when we pull the ballot lever or fill in the circles on the ballot does it really count. And we tend to think differently when our decision has consequences. The same is true of politicians. When they are campaigning for the presidency, it is all hypothetical, and they will say pretty much anything (or avoid saying certain things) to get elected. But once elected, a president’s words and actions have consequences. This is why presidents turn out to be very different than their campaigns suggested. Bill Clinton was going to reform medical care. George W. Bush was going to reform education and have nothing to do with nation building. Reacting to events that were largely out of their control, their presidencies took very different paths from what was envisioned. While you may not have been happy with either or both of the last two presidents, I think it can be argued that at least they performed better than their campaign rhetoric may have suggested.

So, if I have not dispirited you enough, just let me exhort the roughly two-thirds of the registered American voters who have yet cast their ballots to, on Tuesday, boldly go where no man (and, pointedly, still no woman) has gone before, and make your preference known==no matter how much leaping your faith has to do. Make it so.

-S.L., 30 October 2008

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