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 Friday, October 10, 2008

Jonathan Kay: Barack Obama for President

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Jonathan Kay

I did not expect to be writing this.

Just last night, I gave a speech about the upcoming U.S. election at the University of Toronto. I said that Barack Obama had a lot of attractive qualities but that, on balance, I still liked John McCain, largely because I trusted him to do the right thing in Iraq.

John McCain

But then I got home, booted up the Webcast of Tuesday's presidential debate, and heard John McCain declare that he wants to take $300-billion of taxpayer money, and use it to pay off the homes of private citizens.

This "conservative" wants to socialize the risk taken on by millions of Americans who freely entered into arm's-length mortgage contracts.

It was just one moment on Tuesday night, but it perfectly symbolized how this erstwhile "maverick" has descended into bald-faced redistributionist, welfare-state populism.

With both candidates doing their best to pander to middle-class voters amidst the fallout of Wall Street's crash, the ideological stakes have vanished, or at least gotten very tiny, in the U.S. presidential election.


And so I am inclined simply to pick the guy who is best-placed to restore America's political capital in the community of nations. By a wide margin, that man is Barack Obama.

Not that I think Obama walks on water.

Putting aside his charisma and speaking ability, he is a conventionally left-wing product of an urban Democratic political machine — with all the sleazy personal associations that entails. But he is hardly the political anti-Christ that the right-wing blogosphere has constructed.

If you get your information exclusively from the most fevered conservative sites, which a disturbing number of my correspondents seem to do, you would think that Obama's first acts as President would be to sell Israel to Iran, put Jeremiah Wright in charge of the Commission on Civil Rights, free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and swear an oath of allegiance on the Koran.

It's all quite ridiculous: Like every presidential candidate, Obama has been consistently tacking toward the center from the moment he declared his candidacy.

Once in office, he will likely be a triangulator in the mode of Bill Clinton (a Democrat who, lest we forget, signed welfare reform into law, eliminated the deficit, bombed Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, liberated Kosovo, signed The Iraq Liberation Act, and championed free trade).

No, Obama doesn't have much foreign-policy experience. And some of the things he's said on the subject are daft. But as George Jonas has pointed out: "A leader needs to know nothing about leaks, except who in town fixes them. The person with the best set of yellow pages is the best leader. IQ? Learning? Sophistication? Please! England never had a better ruler than Queen Victoria."

On Afghanistan, moreover, Obama has arguably been even more hawkish — and adopted his strong position earlier — than John McCain. Given that this is where Canada has deployed its own small but hardy contingent, that counts for something with me.

On Iraq, I still have a question mark next to Obama's name. And that's a problem: Whatever you think of the invasion, the United States has an obligation to stick around long enough to prevent the country from falling into the all-out apocalyptic anarchy that threatened to envelop it in 2004, and then again in 2006. (That was my logic for supporting McCain for the GOP leadership back in early January, when he was still in full maverick mode.)

Voting for Obama means you have to take the optimistic view that — once in office, and thereby freed of the need to pander to the anti-war left — he'll do the sensible and responsible thing in Iraq.

That is actually not much of a stretch, though: The consensus among most Iraqi politicians themselves is that U.S. forces will be needed only until 2011 — a forecast that, if acted upon, would still allow Obama to say that he got America out in his first term.

It's theoretically possible that Obama could cut and run, of course. On the other hand, that risk has to be balanced against the increased leverage he will have on just about every other international issue that comes across his desk.

From the Caucasus to the United Nations to Iran to North Korea, recent months have shown us what happens when Washington loses its political capital on the world stage.

Obviously, a lot of this is tied up with George W. Bush himself, but his disastrous presidency has also tarnished the Republican brand. It's unfair that John McCain has to pay for that legacy but, well, he does.


Finally, there's Sarah Palin.

I'll admit that I was a fan when she was first named to the GOP ticket. She was funny and down-to-earth, and she gave a great speech at the GOP convention.

Even when it was clear that she was overmatched in her debate with Biden last week, I still stuck with her — because I saw her on her own terms: as a welcome comeuppance to smug, secular, big-city liberal elites. But then I realized that this was pretty much the only reason I liked her.

Once I got past the scheadenfruede associated with watching feminists work themselves into an enraged tizzy over the fact that Palin wasn't the "right" kind of woman, I began to focus on the idea of her in the White House.

On the crucial question of whether I would want this woman running the United States if the elected president died, I really couldn't, in my heart, answer yes. She seems like a perfectly bright, perfectly nice, perfectly competent state governor.

But she doesn't belong in the White House.

I suspect that many conservatives who profess to believe that Palin would make a great president have secretly come around to the same view as me — but their tribal political reflex won't let them admit as much.

That's understandable, given how sharply divided American voters are between two mutually antagonistic partisan camps. But it's really not the right way for thinking people to decide on a political candidate.

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