The Running Mate Is Fear , David T. Jones

Article published in The MetropolitaIn of Sep. 4

Earlier in the campaign season, once Democrats and Republicans identified their presidential candidates, respectively Senators Obama and McCain, the next question for the chatterers was “Who will be the Veep (Vice President).” This exercise qualified as fun for everyone with prognosticators pondering over the pros and cons of inter alia Senator Clinton (amusingly Republicans argued that Obama shouldn’t pick her), Senators Dodd, Biden, and even Senators Hagel and Lugar (both Republicans), but not former Senator Edwards, after he “blotted his copy book.” For Republicans the fibrillation included former Massachusetts governor Romney, Florida governor Crist, former Secstate Powell, and former Pennsylvania governor Ridge (but nobody mentioned obscure Alaskan politicians).

During the process, it was those who didn’t know who were talking; those who knew said nothing. But selecting Senator Biden and Governor Palin as, respectively, the Obama and McCain running mates is a personnel decision; the reality is a socio-psychological issue.

For the United States in this seminal year, the real running mate on both tickets is fear. Setting aside as persiflage the various campaign slogans such as “we are the change we have been waiting for,” “real change,” or “spare change,” this is not a good time for the United States. The country faces many serious problems, each generating a quotient of fear.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, when 80 percent of the population believes that the country is headed in the wrong direction, you cannot be happy. A Democrat may be pleased at the political opportunities this affords his party (and a Republican desperately discouraged), but there are no “happy campers” when contemplating the forest of extended costly combat in Iraq/Afghanistan; the anticipation of another “9/11” later if not sooner; a struggling economy (including rising energy prices, the housing bust, health care increases, massive federal deficits/trade imbalances, rising unemployment, and a falling dollar); and a plethora of racial and gender issues that the political campaign will exacerbate rather than heal.

Each of these substantive challenges generates its own level of fear; it has been rare that so many challenges have arrived simultaneously with so few obvious solutions and so many bitterly debated and divisive/mutually exclusive decisions pending a change of administrations in Washington.

We are, for example, afraid that the long hiatus in terror attacks on the United States will end just at a point designed to influence the election. For those with a scintilla of imagination, every air flight is a test of courage. It is approaching seven years since 9/11, but Osama bin Laden remains at large, and no one can be confident that it has been counterintelligence vigilance that has kept new assaults at bay. We fear both loosening the security strictures and the abrading social consequences of this security over the long term. For those who believe some U.S. citizens are paranoid about security when we should merely be neurotic, one observes, “he laughs at scars who never felt a wound.”

We are afraid that the tentative progress toward stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan is subject to the “two steps forward and one step back”—and that the “step back” will arrive in the autumn. Such will generate still another round of bitterness between those who believe both military actions were a nefarious Bush plot for oil as directed by VP “Haliburton” Cheney and those who see them as bitter but necessary politico military decisions that U.S. strength is driving toward an acceptable conclusion. We fear the prospect of new military confrontation (Iran) and “paralysis by analysis” from invidious experience in Iraq/Afghanistan. And now there are resurgent/revanchist Russian challenges starting with Moscow’s pressure for regime change in Georgia.

We are afraid that the extended U.S. economic boom has deflated. We fear that the many “chickens” let lose in the form of massive trade deficits, huge budget deficits, and exuberant energy consumption are circling round the roost. Nor do we see any quick fixes; many “answers” look akin to deprivation in the form of higher taxes, higher unemployment, reduced energy consumption, and retrenching at home and abroad.

We are afraid that the challenges coincident with the unprecedented number of illegal immigrants (guesstimated at 12 million but who’s counting?) will overload societal acceptance. Immigrant absorption is eased by a booming economy, but the semi-recession will generate even more tension for those at the bottom of the economic ladder regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender.

It looks like years if not decades of bitter pills with the blame game being the only game in town.

We fear that these challenges require transcendental political skill but, unfortunately, many Americans are not satisfied with their principal candidates; both are significantly, perhaps fatally, flawed.

Senator John McCain

In some respects, Senator McCain’s flaws are less obvious. He has been in public life in many dimensions for 50 years—which is his weakness as well as his strength; what you see is what you get and will get in a McCain presidency. He is well tutored in national security and practical politics. He is 72, not the oldest man ever to run for the presidency (Robert Dole was older), but if elected, he would be the oldest ever to become president for a first term. McCain deflects age questions by suggesting that his 96 year old mother would scold them; but perhaps genetically more relevant is that his father died abruptly at 70. And nobody can say that Senator McCain has not lived an extraordinarily stressful life, notably 5.5 years as a POW in Vietnam. The consequence of this experience, including both injury and torture, has left him physically handicapped, unable to raise his arms above shoulder level. Ask your father or grandfather whether he feels as capable now as he felt in his 50s?

Moreover, Senator McCain has been defined by anger—perhaps the emotion that kept him alive and sane as a POW, but one that has generated animosities among those who might have been allies. He claims to have conquered his bad temper, but this new McCain has not been tested, and he largely ignored the motto of “to get along; go along” in his political career. Never an intellectual, it is unclear whether he would be creatively flexible in addressing national domestic and foreign challenges outside his exiting paradigms. Can he build alliances both at home and abroad when facing skeptical and/or hostile interlocutors?

Senator Barack Obama

The (in)experience question is overwhelming. Senator Obama’s substantive credentials for the presidency are the thinnest of any Republican or Democratic candidate since World War II. He has never run anything larger than a senate office, engaged in business, or served in the military. If elected Obama would be younger than all but Clinton, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt (who became president in 1901 after McKinley was assassinated having been elected vice president). Obama’s 6 years as an Illinois state legislator are irrelevant so far as national effectiveness is concerned (ref Stockwell Day’s experience in Alberta provincial politics as illustrative). His books are most inspiring to those who consider Oprah Winfrey to be a literary critic.

When one has no experience comparable to an opponent, you claim (a) judgment is more important than experience; and/or (b) yesterday’s experience is irrelevant for tomorrow’s challenges. Convincing Americans that is today’s reality is Senator Obama’s challenge.

Much of the presidential campaign to date has been devoted to seeking insight on Senator Obama. His soaring and inspirational speeches are juxtaposed against comments that bitter working class whites cling to guns and god. Should he be defined by the company he kept for 20 years (the odious Rev Wright with his “God damn America” rhetoric)? Has he become a prisoner of his own rhetoric with critics now caveating rhetoric with “empty”? What would his credentials as the most liberal U.S. senator mean for domestic policy positions? Was his decision to start wearing a U.S. flag lapel pin after ostentatiously refusing to do so an appreciation of political reality or an act of hypocrisy—or both?

Race will be another significant element in the election along with the fear associated with what a minority member president would mean for the United States. This is not because Senator Obama is African American as trivial observers of the U.S. scene would instantly surmise. To be sure, there are those voters who would never support a candidate not of their race (or gender) as well as those who would support the proverbial “yellar dog” if it had the correct political label on its ownership tag. Pollsters suggest that the United States is ready for an African-American (or a woman) as president, but definitely not this woman (Senator Clinton) and perhaps not this African-American, who has yet to provide a comfort level for other Americans. The task would have been easier for a figure such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, with his decades of exemplary public service. Senator Obama may end by demonstrating a U.S. success story by being elected president. Or he may also epitomize the ultimate level of success—being rejected on his merits with race having little to do with his defeat.

Does Senator Barack Obama have a middle name? The media never hesitated to identify “Hillary Rodham Clinton” or “Martin Luther King” or even with a bit of a sneer for upper-caste pretensions, “George Herbert Walker Bush.” But Senator Obama’s middle name (“Hussein”) largely goes unmentioned, primarily because the political reality of “a name is a name is a name” may prompt those who see “Barack Hussein Obama” as a Muslim name—and thus unsuited to be U.S. president.

Senator Obama’s name also leads into one of the dare-not-speak-its-name fears: assassination. It has been 40 years since there was a political assassination in the United States (1968 with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and not since 1981 has there been an identified attempt (against Ronald Reagan), but the trauma associated with these attacks and presence of Senator Obama has raised the stakes. Thus the scare at the Democratic convention involved arrest of several drug-addled males with rifles in their car—ultimately being charged with illegal drug/gun possession but not worse crimes.

There is, for example, the quiet appreciation that while Senator Obama doubtless is a Christian, he may well be viewed in Muslim countries as having once been a Muslim. For some strict interpretations of Islam, a Muslim who converts to another faith is an apostate—and subject to death for this action. Thus in 1965 Malcom X was murdered by three black males ultimately identified as Black Muslims. And while Secret Service security and personal protection have become ever more sophisticated, the fear of the lone “James Earl Ray” type assassin cannot be set aside.

Nor is Senator McCain immune to threat. At one point earlier in the primary campaign, he was reported to have refused Secret Service protection. While one assumes that is no longer the case, the open nature of democratic politics places him at risk as well.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once proclaimed that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That observation was and remains true—but it is likewise true that failure to recognize and appreciate the power of fear may lead to exactly the consequences that inspired the dread.  And fear will surely stand at the shoulder of this presidential election.

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