[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
You hear a lot of laments about the lack of substance in the 2008 presidential campaign. How issues are taking a back seat to inanity, often represented by the McCain campaign's made-up outrage over Barack Obama's use of an expression about putting lipstick on a pig (one, of course, that John McCain had used multiple times in the last year). To me, the real problem is that there is no discussion about the basic vision of the candidates, or what kind of United States they want to see and lead.
After all, taking a stand on an issue is fleeting. McCain flip-flops on his positions on a regular basis (I collected some here), sometimes even in the same day (like his 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). And as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out on This Week last Sunday, it's not enough to know the candidates' takes on specific issues, since, inevitably, once in office, they will have to confront unforeseen problems as they arise.
That's why, to me, a candidate's approach to governing, and the candidate's view of what the United States should be as a nation, is so important.
There is widespread agreement now that George W. Bush was a terrible president. (His disapproval rating is at 68 percent in recent polls by both CNN and CBS News/New York Times.) He presided over five catastrophes that will forever define his presidency: 1) He failed to act on the intelligence warnings about al-Qaeda's plans to fly planes into buildings before the 9/11 terrorist attacks; 2) he lied to Americans and Congress to gain support for an unnecessary war in Iraq; 3) he mismanaged the war in Iraq, leaving America's military broken and its diplomatic standing in the world severely damaged; 4) his administration bungled the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, leading to a humanitarian disaster of a proportion that should never occur in a country as wealthy as ours; and 5) he was the last president (in a line of four) to push deregulation to the point of anarchy, allowing the current subprime-mortgage-related economic crisis to occur.
But any president can make bad judgments. Jimmy Carter was (and is) an intelligent, dedicated and warm-hearted person, but he nevertheless made a series of ill-conceived governing decisions during his four years in office that left his legacy as one of failure.
No, it was not just Bush's blunders that appalled many Americans. Rather it was his disregard for the American values of democracy and respect for the rule of law that has left such a bitter taste in our mouths. Rather than protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States of America (as he swore he would do in his oath of office), Bush pledged to protect and defend his political position and extreme right-wing ideals. His administration lied to justify the war in Iraq. It conducted warrantless wiretaps of American citizens. It politicized the Justice Department, turning it into a body that protected his administration, rather than the American people. He appointed incompetent cronies to government positions, and his administration chose individuals for non-political positions based on political litmus tests. The administration ignored Congressional inquiries and subpoenas, acting as though they were above the law. Nowhere was that attitude more apparent than in the outing of an active CIA agent as political payback to her husband, and then pardoning the only government official convicted in criminal court for having a role in the scandal. Bush's White House condoned the use of torture, thrusting the images of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding into the world.
In my view, Bush destroyed any moral right the United States had to speak out about civil rights abuses in other countries. He took the notion of the country as a beacon of freedom and democracy and turned us into a nation that isn't trusted in most of the world. That is the Bush legacy.
And that is what voters should be thinking about when voting in November.
Want to know how McCain would govern? Just look at his campaign. Since it became clear that Obama would be his party's nominee, McCain has conducted his campaign in a manner that no American should be proud of. He has lied and played games, treating the election like it was a schoolyard football game with no referees rather than a civic process to decide the course of the next four years. He has been widely derided, including by many conservatives (even noted conservative George Will blasted McCain on Tuesday), for his shameless dishonesty and political game-playing.
McCain's rap sheet is long and growing, with highlights including: His pandering "celebrity" ad, personally attacking Obama for being popular; his knowingly false ads on the benefits of offshore drilling (blaming Obama's opposition to offshore drilling for $4-a-gallon gas prices, even though he and everyone else knew those charges were false); portraying Obama's support of funding to teach children to recognize and evade sexual predators as "sex education"; saying his lie-filled ads are the fault of Obama, because he did not agree to his demand that they do joint town-hall meetings together; his ceaseless flip-flopping on issues, seemingly taking a position with the sole purpose of making a political point that day (like his 26-year history of deregulating tossed aside to blame Obama for the current economic mess because of a campaign donation); pretending that the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was because she was the most qualified candidate for the job; and his baldly political gambit of "suspending" his campaign and trying to delay both his debate Friday and the vice-presidential debate next month, using the legitimate economic crisis as a cover to stem the free-fall his poll numbers had suffered.
Not to mention McCain campaigning on a pledge to clean up government, all while his campaign is being run by lobbyists. The company of Rick Davis, his campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (both of which were bailed out by the government earlier this month), with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as last month. And the nation of Georgia paid the firm of McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, nearly $900,000 since 2004. That's the same Georgia that McCain steadfastly supported during the conflict last month. And what about McCain taking millions of dollars from oil companies while advocating for their two pet projects: massive tax breaks for them and offshore drilling.
The disconnect between McCain's words and his actions, all in an effort to distort his record into something more palatable for voters, is the central approach to his campaign. And it smells a lot like the last eight years of the Bush administration.
And what of Palin? Her behavior since being nominated has been disturbingly similar to Bush's "I'm above the law" take on democracy. She has ignored subpoenas in the Troopergate investigation (even though a Republican-majority committee in Alaska authorized the probe). She has shut out the media, limiting her appearances to tightly controlled, one-on-one sit-downs with a handful of interviewers. And she has lied over and over again, on issues small (the myth that her teleprompter stopped working during her convention speech) and large (that she opposed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere).
Most disturbingly, as her attacks on Obama's community organizing show, she has an anti-intellectual, culture-war bent to her view of government that is, again, just like the approach of the Bush administration. And her questionable knowledge of the world, from her lack of international travel to her inability to talk about nearly any foreign policy issue without clinging to her talking points (like her trouble with Charles Gibson's question about the Bush Doctrine), is disturbingly reminiscent of our current president.
Obama, on the other hand, has exhibited a different approach to leading a campaign, one that would presumably extend to a different, more open way of governing. Obama's ads, even the toughest ones, have not contained lies and distortions like those of his opponent. He has consistently avoided getting into the muck of dirty politics. He immediately declared a "hands off" policy on statements about Palin's pregnant unmarried teenage daughter. (You think the McCain campaign would have reacted similarly if Obama had a 17-year-old daughter who was expecting?) He consistently praises McCain's patriotism and service, even as McCain uses his time as a prisoner of war to score political points, wielding it as an all-purpose defense to every attack on his record. And Palin mocked Obama's work as a community organizer, turning something that should be lauded by all Americans (giving up financially lucrative employment to help others) into a sneering put-down.
Obama has taken hits for not being specific enough in his plans on specific issues (I guess those critics can't be bothered to read his Web site), but he has done a remarkable job of articulating his vision of what America should be. He has shown himself to be forward-thinking and modern, recognizing that the U.S. is a leader in the world, but that we can't bully other countries into submission whenever we like. Contrast this to McCain, who thinks we can impose our military will to get what we want, with his approach nowhere more apparent than his remarks about meeting with the prime minister of Spain. McCain's gaffe at not understanding that Spain is not in Latin America got the headlines, but lost was his view that leaders only "deserve" to meet with the U.S. president if they've earned it. So Spain, a member of NATO, a democracy, and a country in the European Union, may not merit a meeting since after the elevation of the prime minister's party to power (in an election), the country pulled its troops out of Iraq. Is that really how we want to portray ourselves as a country?
The 2008 election is about which candidate's view of governing America you want to buy into. McCain and Palin have demonstrated, through their behavior, that they will govern like Bush, not just in their policy beliefs, but, like Bush, with a greater interest in political gain than serving the American people. If you enjoyed living with the consequences of Bush's philosophy of government, then you'll love four years under the boots of McCain and Palin.
After all, as voters, we get to choose the type of America in which we want to live. And that's something I take very seriously. As unlikely as it may be, nothing would make me happier than for James Carville to look into the camera on the morning after Election Day and explain an Obama win by tweaking his famous proclamation by saying, "It's about the democracy, stupid." Especially since democracy isn't something we've seen a lot of the last eight years.