Until this point, I have remained relatively neutral in my views toward the 2008 Presidential candidates. I’ve watched the news and have taken interest in what the candidates have said, but I withheld judgement on who I felt was the best candidate until I saw more. As you can see by the title of the post, this is no longer the case.
So what prompted my decision? Well, as you may know, CNN and YouTube hosted a Democratic debate last week Tuesday, which is available to watch in segments on YouTube. As I said in my brief review, I was not terribly impressed by the performance of the front-runners especially, as most of their answers seemed to avoid differentiation and carried signs of careful pre-debate scripting. However, amid the canned responses, there were a few that seemed newer. One of these has caught mainstream media attention:
When this was first covered, a few media outlets mentioned a clash between Obama and Clinton over the response in that question. For those who don’t want to watch the video or want text as supplement, here’s the question:
In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately without precondition during the first year of your administration in Washington or anywhere else with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries.
It was given to Barack, who started immediately:
I would. And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous.
Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic Presidents like JFK constantly spoke to [the] Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them, they may pose and extraordinary danger to this country, but we have the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward, and I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.
We’ve been talking about Iraq—One of the first things I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria, because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses. They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point, but if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight in terms of stabilizing the region.
Anderson Cooper, the moderator, then bounced the question back to the original questioner who was in the audience, who expressed the desire that Hillary give her opinion:
Well I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort, because I think that it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes, I don’t want to make a situation even worse, but I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration, and I will pursue very vigorous diplomacy and I will use a lot of high level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way.
But certainly, we’re not going to just have our President meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and, you know, the President of North Korea, Iran, and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.
After that, Anderson redirected the question to Edwards with this wording:
Senator Edwards, would you meet with Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?
Yes. And I think Senator Clinton’s right, actually. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure the meeting’s not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community.
But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is what do we actually do, what does the President of the United States do to restore America’s moral leadership in the world? It’s not enough just to meet with bad leaders.
In addition, the world needs to hear from the President of the United States about who we are, [Anderson Cooper: time] what it is we represent, that in fact we believe in equality, we believe in diversity, that they are at the heart and soul of what the United States of America is.
This is something that troubles me about the debates. They basically offer little windows into a Presidential candidate’s policy views in the form of short soundbite answers. As you can see by the spacing I added while compiling these transcripts, the answers can be confined to three short paragraphs. That is not enough space to frame a full, nuanced answer to the question.
This format has another feature: it gives a good deal of power to the candidates who respond second, because they not only get to answer the question but they get to comment on the previous answer and since they have the framework set by that answer, they can add more nuance. Hillary Clinton does just that. Of course, Obama and Clinton had at least partial disagreement in their answers, but as the answers were short, we could only guess at the true difference in their views.
Now, the reason that this question has been in the news has been because Hillary used it as a means to attack Barack and associate his answer with one of his perceived weaknesses: his relative inexperience in Washington. Here’s what she said:
I thought it was irresponsible and frankly naïve to say that you would commit to a meeting with you know, Chávez, Castro, and others within the first year. Senator Obama gave an answer that I think he is regretting today.
This was a pretty low blow, and given the fact that Clinton is seen as the front-runner, a strange move. Barack responded in kind by bringing up her Iraq War vote:
If you want to talk about irresponsibility and naïveté, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without and exit plan.
He later added:
The diplomatic spadework has to be done ahead of time. The notion that I was somehow going to be inviting them over for tea next week without having had initial envoys meet is ridiculous.
But the general principle is one that I think Senator Clinton is wrong on, and that is if we are laying out preconditions that prevent us from speaking frankly to these folks, then we are continuing with Bush-Cheney policies.
He repeated the Bush-Cheney associaton later on the campaign trail in New Hampshire (his campaign has posted a video of this from which following is excerpted):
[…]If we want fundamental change, then we can be afraid to talk to our enemies. We can’t be afraid to…I’m not afraid of losing the PR war to dictators. I’m happy to look them in the eye and say what needs to be said. I’m happy to tell them what I think. I’m not going to avoid them, I’m not going to hide behind a bunch of rhetoric. I don’t want a continuation of Bush-Cheney. I don’t want Bush-Cheney lite. I want a fundamental change, it’s time to turn the page […]
Clinton responded again in an interview with CNN:
This is getting kind of silly. You know, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been called “George Bush” or “Dick Cheney”, certainly. You know, you have to ask, “What’s ever happened to the politics of hope?”
In the short run, it appears that she won the “spat” as many media outlets are calling it, as her poll numbers jumped in comparison to Obama’s. According to the Reuters article:
Those polled cited Clinton’s experience and competence highest among her positive attributes.
I find both those attributes suspect. She has definitely been in Washington longer than Obama: eight years as first lady followed by six and a half years in the US Senate. However, one should note that the only President in power while during those six and half years of the Senate was George Bush (not counting the 17 last days of the Clinton Presidency) and that though being the spouse of a President does grant one a unique view of the Presidency, it does not count as job experience.
If those polled really wanted experience, they would have picked Joe Biden, who has served in the Senate for 28 more years than Clinton, or Chris Dodd, who has been a Senator for 11 years longer and has 25 years more legislative experience total, including his 14 years in the US House of Representatives. In fact, Barack Obama has more legislative experience that Hillary Clinton with eight years in the Illinois State Senate before his two and a half in the US Senate and he unlike Clinton, has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which shows foreign policy experience.
I will grant her experience points for her work toward universal health care that was defeated near the beginning of her husband’s presidency, but I think it is also worth noting that the same health insurance companies she was against during that failed effort now pay her the second largest amount lobby money of any current US Senator.
As for her competence, I fail to see where its high rating comes from. She strongly supported the resolution to grant Bush the authority necessary for the Iraq War and has really only come out against it as its popularity plummeted. And in a spectacularly asinine political ploy, she has put forward a resolution to repeal that authority she so strongly supported, even though there is no chance such a resolution would pass. She does not exude an air of competence.
And that is a definite part of Obama’s appeal. Before the war was declared, he spoke out against it. Before troops were sent in, he foresaw the difficulties of keeping the different factions in line. This is not the case with any of the other Democratic candidates beyond Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, both of whom are unelectable, as they only appeal to the the left wing of the Democratic Party.
But this is not the only reason that I like Obama over the rest or I would have been a supporter from the start. While I liked the fact that he opposed the war from the start, when it had been popular, that did not prove he was a competent leader. One of the things that drew me closer to the Obama camp was this New York Times article.
It portrays him as a pragmatic politician, which is something that I admire. He is willing to make the necessary compromises to get the job done, but not one who compromises his values. The lends support to the notion that Barack would stay consistent to what he advocates now and be able to competently enact it. As another example, his Iraq War De-Escalation Act is more realistic than Clinton’s deauthorization of the war.
But the reason that I am putting my support behind Barack comes from his recent speech. He shows in that speech that he understands what is going on and that contrary to Hillary Clinton’s attack, his view of foreign policy is not naïve and actually has quite a bit of depth and support. It is a pity that many in the media focused on an isolated quote and placed it in a vacuum making it look like Obama was going to invade Pakistan, which has led to a backlash from some of his more dovish supporters.
The speech further shows Obama’s realism, but further than that, it shows that he is a creative thinker and has more in mind that just getting out of Iraq and pursuing more diplomacy. It shows an integration of his words on diplomacy from the debate into a bigger picture.
However, above all else, it shows boldness and leadership among the Democratic contenders. He is the first to give such a detailed integrated plan for foreign policy matters and he uses ideas not heard from any of the other candidates. Pushing out such a detailed plan at this stage shows that he is serious and not just basing his ideas upon what the polls tell him to do. He may have lost support temporarily for his ideas concerning Pakistan, but I assure you, the other front-runners have agreed (though Edwards tried to frame it in a manner to make Obama seem more hawkish than he is).
So, as I now support Obama, I will be using this graphic in my sidebar as both a way of showing my support and implicitly disclosing my political biases to readers:
Now, to be clear, I am not declaring this decision of support to be final. I will still approach Obama’s candidacy with what I view as a healthy dose of skepticism and my support is not unconditional. If Obama later says or does something which I think casts doubt upon his candidacy, I will say so, and if he goes further, I will fully retract my support.
For now, I definitely support him above the other two front-runners (Clinton and Edwards). If I had a second choice right now, it would probably be Biden, but I still have to find out more about him. For now, my support is behind Barack Obama for President in the 2008 elections.