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November 4, 2008

Election Day, 2008

I have been away for a long time, due to deadline pressures. I return today, perhaps one of the most fateful days for our country in my generation.

I will admit to voting for Barack Obama, but not without concerns.

I remember the missteps of another president with little experience. The last eight years have been his legacy, and both domestically and internationally his policies have been largely disastrous.

The difference is that Obama is genuinely curious, fiercely intelligent, constitutionally cautious, and fundamentally pragmatic. I do not fear a liberal tidal wave of costly legislation. What I fear instead is cautious half measures where bold measures are called for. Obama may surprise me. I certainly don't envy him the task ahead.

In foreign policy, we seem to be seeing a change in military doctrine, from the cautious Powell Doctrine, which required overwhelming force, clear objectives, and overwhelming public support, to a more nebulous Petraeus Doctrine, that favors counter-insurgency without any clear guidelines as to where or when it is or isn't appropriate. I believe Obama will be more cautious here, and I think that's wise. McCain, previously very reluctant to send troops abroad unless a clear national interest was at stake, appears to have been transformed by the First Gulf War and the influence of the Neo-Conservatives, and now believes in a bellicose expansion of democracy around the world with U.S. troops in the vanguard. How he expects to do this with the military already stretched to the breaking point is beyond me—and it was his inability to articulate such a strategy that made me doubt that his long experience in government was actually an advantage.

On domestic policy, McCain's allegiance to the de-and-anti-regulation fervor of his good friend Phil Gramm ("America has become a nation of whiners") made it all too obvious that he simply did not understand the forces that led to the financial meltdown we're now experiencing. His mantra of Freddie and Fannie Mae was an attempt to fool people into thinking government was the problem, when these are not government programs. He blamed greed on Wall Street but then went off half-cocked about firing Christopher Cox at the SEC without explaining how Cox was to blame for any of the problems. I'm not sure the argument couldn't be made, but McCain never made it. And he never explained how or why his long adherence to deregulatory dogma was going to mesh with his sudden conversion to "21st century regulation." It was all smoke and mirrors, sound and fury, with no center to hold it.

And that was part of a larger problem: I watched the man I once admired, John McCain, devolve into an erratic bag of weird tics and senseless bile as the campaign progressed. His heroic stature, his independent instincts, they dissolved before my eyes as he catered more and more shamelessly to the most fringe elements of the conservative base. The deceit that typified his campaign ads was sickening (as was that of Obama's, but Obama relied on it far less than McCain did). His open contempt for Obama was appalling and childish. And his selection of the wildly unprepared Sarah Palin as his running mate, perhaps the most cynically sexist decision I've seen in politics, made plain his utter lack of judgment. It's often said McCain has a gambler's instincts, that he relies on his gut like the bomber pilot he once was, but this time it won't be just him going down in the plane. It will be all of us. I'm not sure McCain fully grasps that. And I'm tired, so very tired, of men who rely on gut instincts, which is shorthand for an impulsive, prejudiced, ill-considered kneejerk reaction to events, premised on, at best, chest-thumping ideology unbothered by facts.

As I said, however, my vote for Obama is not untroubled. We have borrowed far too much from future generations to bail us out of today's problems. Some very real and very difficult decisions need to be made—about changing Social Security so that it's needs-based, to making health care more affordable and less of a drain on our economy; to re-investing in education in a culture addicted to TV and the Internet; to rebuilding our infrastructure; to transforming our international policy so that terrorists are pursued as the criminals they are, not the warriors they pretend to be (one of the greatest errors of the Bush Administration, in my opinion); to building partnerships abroad, not animosities and counterproductive contests of will. How to accomplish the domestic agenda without further impoverishment of future generations will require a president willing to completely rethink the federal bureaucracy—making it lean and mean, not fat and happy. (Republicans from Reagan to Bush II have made it plain that their rhetoric about big government is exactly that—rhetoric. Given 20 years in three administrations to trim government, they only expanded it—and made it more inefficient. Astonishing.) The Democrats, who believe in government, will need to make this wholesale transformation to be credible as leaders.

I hope you voted. And I hope you stay engaged. No matter who wins the election, to paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve: "We're in for a bumpy ride."

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