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Washington Diarist

The Ballot Blues

I have never voted happily in a general election. In the 1980s I envied my conservative friends who drew the curtain of the voting booth over an epiphany, whereas I groaned beneath my philosophical complexity when I voted for Reagan; and when I voted for Clinton a decade later, it was not without an exertion of casuistry about the distinction between supportable and admirable. I have not yet been asked for my vote by a candidate who represents the entirety of my convictions. I am not dismayed by this. Politics should not provide the most complete or the most profound of life's satisfactions. Voting is not an expression of the soul. Anyway, my convictions do not add up. I like taxes and I like the military. (The only thing Obama said in any of those dreary debates that delighted me was his muffled admission the other night that "I don't mind paying a little more" taxes. Taxation is a strong sign of membership in a polity; and the many calamities of recent years have confirmed to me that the government needs my money, because there are emergencies, within and beyond our borders, with which only it can deal.) I want universal health care and I want an interventionist foreign policy. I believe that the American president should help people in distress, at home and abroad--not all of them, but a lot of them. I like capitalism, but not religiously, and I feel the same way about diplomacy. I do not trust bankers to understand American values and poets to understand American interests. Taken together, these are political inconsistencies, but they are not intellectual inconsistencies. It is not my problem that the political culture of this country has made the liberalism that I inherited, and of which I was honored to become an heir, seem incoherent. Or maybe it is my problem: after all, I have to vote.

For many years I began my mornings mordantly with Eugene McCarthy, as we walked our dogs along the uneventful streets of Kalorama. As we walked, we talked--or rather, I listened, because I did not wish to interrupt the rushing stream of his recollections and reflections. One day in the summer of 1992 our subject was the presidential campaign--"poor George," was how Gene began every remark about Bush--and he was warning me against allowing considerations of policy or philosophy too much to influence my view of the candidates. "You vote for the man," he drawled though his jowls. "What matters is the man." In his wicked accounts of his adventures in Washington, Gene was a master portraitist; he insisted that temperament is one of the causes of history. (He was an illustration of his rule.) When it comes to the president, he maintained, character is fate: his character, our fate. I have been thinking about Gene's advice in the last days--it is almost over!--of this campaign, but it does not quite settle the matter. Obama is too cool, but McCain is too hot. For all his articulateness, I still do not know what most moves Obama--what are the two or three grand proposals that he would put before the Congress and the country in the early months of his administration, which is all the respite from the madness of politics that any administration will ever get; and I cannot shirk the feeling, as I watch him rise, that I am witnessing not so much the triumph of a cause as the success of a plan. I must say that the Ayers affair rankles me, because I would not shake the man's dirty hand; and the fact that Obama was eight years old at the time of the Weather Underground is no more pertinent to his moral and historical awareness than the fact that he was six years old at the time of the King assassination. Obama's passionlessness spooks me. His friends tell me that my impression is wrong, but I long ago gave up on personal assurances about politicians. As far as I am concerned, politicians are what they want us to think they are. (And the lyricism of some of Obama's friends is embarrassing.) As for McCain: I admire his talent for allegiances, personal and historical; and also his talent for enmity, because we have enemies. He was splendidly right about the surge, which is not a small thing; and the grudging way Obama treats the reversal in Iraq, when he treats it at all, is disgraceful. Tyrants and génocidaires would sleep less soundly during a McCain presidency. And yet it is impossible any longer to ignore the contradiction between the nobility of his past and the ignobility of his present. He is abstracted, dispersed, out of focus, Stockdalesque, mentally undone. Often he sounds simply unintelligent. I would be more affected by his championing of soldiers and veterans if it were not also the championing of people like himself: solipsism is a common effect of solidarity, and McCain's sense of reality seems to be narrowing. The financial crisis harshly exposed these limitations: it made McCain more dogmatic and more doctrinaire, with his wild refrain about tax cuts and his unmaverick-like refusal to examine his party's cult of corporations. His economics refuted his compassion. McCain feels with his heart, but he thinks with his base. And when he picked Sarah Palin, he told the United States of America to go fuck itself. I used to think of my dilemma this way: Obama's conception of America is better than he is, McCain's conception of America is worse than he is. But McCain is looking more and more like his America, which is Bush's America: a country of capitalists and Christians. I do not know how to explain what has become of him. But the more I regard him, the more I recall Gene's ominous words. You vote for the man.

Obama is a smart man. He is a decent man. He is an undangerous man, in the manner of all pragmatists and opportunists. He reveres reason, though he often confuses it with conversation. His domestic goals are good, though the titans of American finance, the greedy geniuses of Wall Street, may have made many of those goals fantastic. He will see to it that some liberalism survives at the Supreme Court. This leaves only the rest of the world. What a time for a novice! I dread the prospect of Obama's West Wing education in foreign policy: even when he spoke well about these matters in the debates, it all sounded so new to him, so light. He must not mistake the global adulation of his person with the end of anti-Americanism. And he must not mistake his hope for the world with his analysis of the world. But OK, then: Obama, and another anxious visit to the ballot box, with--in the stinging words of Du Bois--"a hope not hopeless but unhopeful."

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.