Conflict vs. trauma

To add my two cents to the potlatch of commentary on last night’s presidential debate . . . I thought both McCain and Obama communicated their essential positions on the economy and on foreign policy well. McCain, for example, displayed his belief in trickle-down economics and beast-starving, the theories that have guided the Republican party in theory, if not quite practice, since Reagan. He asserted repeatedly that the best way out of the current financial crisis was to lower taxes on business and to cut federal spending (that is, starve the beast). These have been the consensus Republican ideas about economics for a generation, and McCain stuck to them proudly. He believes that the market makes better decisions than government planners do, and he believes this in the somewhat absolutist way typical of the Phil Gramm crowd—he believes the federal government should have a much smaller role in economic life than it does.

Of course these ideas—or at any rate, an absolutist variant of them—are what got America into its current financial crisis, and Obama, for his part, made clear that he believes that trickle-down economics is nonsense. When McCain claimed that Obama wanted to raise taxes on people earning $42,000 a year, Obama retorted that that was a lie, and explained that in fact he was going to raise taxes only on those making more than $250,000 a year—and give everyone else a break. The contrast was straightforward: McCain wants to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes on big business. Obama wants to stimulate it by cutting taxes on the middle class and the working class. And Obama thinks there is a role for government regulation even in the best of markets, and pointed to the market breakdown of the last few weeks to prove his point.

In foreign policy, too, they did well at distinguishing themselves. McCain established that he wants to continue the all-black-versus-all-white way of looking at the world that guided George W. Bush in the first six and a half years or so of his presidency. McCain sees the world as axis of good versus axis of evil, and in such a world, a willingness to have diplomatic talks with Iran is prima facie evidence of moral compromise, if not taint.

Obama, by contrast, believes that the world is neither black nor white but rather full of colors. In his opinion, it is only possible to see a monochromatic world by selective blindness, the sort that Obama called out when he complained that

for 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, “Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he’s our dictator.”

As Obama sees the world, a country like Pakistan has many people in it, with many conflicting natures, and it doesn’t make sense to treat a country as “good” merely because its leader has agreed to work as our ally, nor does it make sense to treat a country like Iran as monolithically “evil” just because its current leadership is reprehensible. Here, as in their beliefs on economics, there are fundamental differences of philosophy, and the debate helped to reveal them. If you believe America’s foreign policy should be a fight for virtue, vote McCain. If you believe diplomacy requires moral complexity, maybe even a touch of wiliness, vote Obama.

A related thought: I had the sense last night that on the subject of Iraq, McCain is in the grip of a repetition compulsion. He looks at Iraq through the prism of his experience as a soldier who returned from Vietnam, and that’s natural enough, given his experience. I wonder, though, whether the prism has grown cloudy—I wonder if McCain is capable of seeing through it any more, to see Iraq for what it is, beyond and apart from its parallels to Vietnam. The parallels exist, of course. Both wars were sold to America as moral causes against forces that threatened America from a distance. Both wars stirred up ambivalence on the home front. And both devolved into civil wars in which America was an interloper. But the differences between the two wars are substantial. The ambivalence on the home front today, for one thing, has a very different character from that of the 1960s and 1970s; no one today is trying to shame American soldiers; everyone respects their service, including those who worry whether the cause is worthy of it. The civil war in Iraq isn’t over economic ideology, it’s about religion (and potentially, if things don’t work out for the Kurds, ethnicity), and America hasn’t picked a side the way it did in Vietnam. America doesn’t face an enemy army in the country, poised to take over if we leave, so there won’t be a fall of Saigon in Baghdad. There might be a gradual descent into chaos and ethnic cleansing, of course—I’m not trying to claim that everything is hunky-dory there now, or will be hunky-dory when we leave. But I do think it’s important to say that Iraq isn’t Vietnam, and someone needs to point that out to McCain. McCain boasts of his experience, but in some cases experience overcomes judgment instead of enhancing it.

And while on the topic of trauma: The segments of Katie Couric’s interviews with Sarah Palin released to date are upsetting, for a number of reasons—not least what her incompetence suggests about McCain’s decision-making habits. But last night, while we were watching the presidential debate with friends, when the subject of Palin came up, several said they felt sorry for her, and it occurred to me that Palin looks in the Couric interviews like someone who’s been yelled at a lot lately. At the Republican convention she had what you might call unexamined poise; it seems gone now. Now she looks hunted, confused, wary. I wonder if she’s been on the receiving end of the some of the frustration the McCain campaign must be feeling.