The center-spread poster in today’s print edition of the Pioneer Press/Politico coverage of the Republican National Convention shows an animated John McCain at the podium in the Xcel center and quotes from his speech — “Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is Coming.”
An Associated Press story this morning trumpeted “McCain and Obama campaigns grapple for ‘change.’ “
The Wall Street Journal, in a story headlined “The McCain Change,” notes that “Mr. McCain remains a formidable contender … because he can credibly claim to be a reformer who often fought his party’s worst instincts. …”
At the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby writes of “McCain’s maverick pick”: “The Palin pick is a vivid illustration of why the label ‘maverick’ is so often applied to McCain. … Most voters know McCain is his own man.”
And all that has me more than a bit worried.
A rebel who wants to lead?
There is romanticism to this notion of the maverick, the outsider, the rebel who does things his or her own way. It’s a powerful theme in this nation founded by rebels. But the best mavericks inspire us to march to the beat of our own drummers; they do not ask us, much less demand of us, that we fall in behind them and march in their parades. Shouldn’t we question why a maverick wants to lead?
The concept of “change” also presents some problems. “Change” — not as a concept, but as a practical reality — can be exhilarating but also disturbing, depending upon who is doing the changing.
“Change is disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us,” writes Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Change Masters.”
Will a McCain presidency be one where change is done to us or by us? That is the question. In my first convention post I posited that McCain and Sen. Barack Obama are running for an office that does not exist in the Constitution. As change from the “imperial presidency” of George W. Bush, Obama offers a “messianic presidency” of hope and national transformation and McCain a vision of the presidency whose authority is “liberally interpreted.” Nothing I heard at either convention tempts me to alter that opinion.
Michelle Obama articulated party principle
To my mind, the best speech of either convention was delivered by Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic nominee. I say so not because I agree with its content (I agree with not a whit of it), but because more so than any other speech of the past two weeks, it articulated the fundamental principle of the Democratic Party of Barack Obama.
The first time she heard Barack speak, Michelle Obama recalled, he talked about the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be.” That theme recurred throughout her speech:
“And he urged us … to strive for the world as it should be … mold our future into the shape of our ideals. … All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do — that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.”
To me, that is not the mantra of a president who would want nor could allow people marching to the beats of their own drummers. A world as it should be cannot tolerate individual liberty and free choice lest individuals make choices that lead to a world less than it should be. Conversely, a free society will never be perfect; individuals in a free society will always make less than perfect choices.
Liberty vs. perfection
There is no “solution” to the inherent contradiction between liberty and perfection. Only trade-offs, and in her speech, Michelle Obama made clear that her husband and his people will be deciding what those trade-offs will be. Some might be good for me, some bad; but in either case they would never be entirely mine.
Neither McCain nor Palin offered as clear and concise a vision as Michelle Obama.
McCain makes a lot of the right noises on issues like education and health care, but a presidency whose authority would be liberally interpreted is not a restrained presidency. A pit bull nipping at the heels of the establishment is one thing; a pit bull at the pinnacle of power is quite another.
Leaders must have a core — something more than simply putting country first. It is their core that provides predictability and consistency to their decision-making and normalcy for the rest of us. For love of country one might advocate for a universal health-care system run by the government as easily as a system based on patient and doctor relationships. It is one’s core, one’s principles that determines how love of country is shown.
Where do Constitution’s limits fit in?
McCain said in his speech that he “puts country first,” country above his career, country above any party. But can he put country above his own view of the world? Can he observe the constitutional limits on the presidency even when that restraint curtails his ability to advance his agenda? Can he return to Congress its constitutional authority to declare war before we put troops in harm’s way? McCain, who seeks the job whose primary function is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” didn’t mention the document or that obligation once in his acceptance speech.
Leaving St. Paul, McCain and Palin are rebels without a true cause. They want to change the Republican Party, they want to shake up Washington, they want to reform education, reform health care, reform energy policy — but we voters don’t know to what end. Will McCain-Palin reforms be disturbing changes done to us or will they be reforms enabling us to make changes in our own circumstances?
Whether the McCain-Palin ticket will offer the choice of a constitutionally limited presidency or merely be a conservative echo of policymakers creating a better world remains to be seen.