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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Now That Was a Surprise

I actually enjoyed watching the debate. I hate these things, normally. I hate the way they are controlled and negotiated; I hate the time constraints, the inability to follow-up on questions which demand follow-ups, the converse obsession with cramming in irrelevant asides for the sake of getting every possible sound bite out of every possible second. (How I wish that someday these things could be run like a real debate, and structured by people who really know something about rhetoric and argument!) As it is, I almost never watch them. But I had to watch this one, because I needed to know if I could feel anything positive about the fact that my vote will likely be for Kerry.

See, I'm primarily an expressive voter; while I can make instrumental calculations about the potential outcome of voting for this person in this district or this state at this time as well as anyone, for the most part I prefer to think of voting in terms situating and expressing myself in relation to other people, to causes and movements and principles. The point, in such cases, isn't necessarily to move or join the powers-that-be (though that can obviously also be a result); the point, rather, is to hear and be heard, or at least have the knowledge of having done such. Hence my (oft-defended, and not regretted) votes for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000--not a man who I thought could be elected president, or even a man who I wanted to be elected president (he would have been terrible at the job), but a man who expressed something about globalization and trade and corporate power that I wasn't hearing from anyone else. This time around things are different; I'm living in (possibly) a swing state, and terrorism and war simply weren't on anyone's radar four or eight years ago. So I'm thinking more instrumentally than before. But that doesn't mean I don't want to find something positive in Kerry, something a vote for him can express. As I wrote back then: "One of the reasons I greatly fear that...Kerry will be annihilated is that there is little or no expressivity behind his impending nomination at all; his support is built primary out of a metaparanoia about how "other" voters [will act]." Instrumentality--or in other words, "winning"--can't be an end in itself, at least not in a world where the public life is meaningful.

It'd be ridiculous to say that this evening's debate gave "meaning" to Kerry's campaign, much less this whole depressing election. Still, in the midst of all the back and forth and fake grins and tense answers, as the minutes went by and Melissa and I watched and listened, I felt like I could really discern--and I got the impression from the way Bush and Kerry were reacting to the questions and each other that they felt other people were discerning as well--a genuine, substantive moral argument between these two men. It emerged vaguely, from somewhere within the nexus of personal style and talking points; it came out in the exchange over Iran ("We did engage the mullahs"; "No, the Europeans did") and North Korea ("You can't just talk one-on-one with Kim Jong Il"; "Maybe you can't but I can"), and at other points as well. Bush has invested a tremendous amount of his own self-understanding, not to mention his choices as president, in the solitude and "toughness" of being president--hard choices, got to be on the offensive, I know how these people think, etc., etc. He is a deeply, deeply self-reliant man. (Except he would say he relies on God, which doesn't undermine my point; in Bush's evangelical worldview, God is in his self, making him whole, supporting his difficult work. It's a legitimate theological perspective, if one that, I think at least, misunderstands the real operation of grace.) Kerry, by contrast, simply cannot understand why the president feels this way. He isn't embarrassed by the fact he's changed his mind, finessed the truth, shifted perspective, turned one set of tasks into another, seen and exploited connections, made simple things complex, shared burdens (and blame). He thinks that is what being in the world means; it's a kind of rough realism, actually. Whereas Bush, like most idealists of one stripe or another, sees himself as being rather along in the world. Just him (and God, and some close friends), and a whole lot of work to be done.

All in all, a revealing and meaningful evening, at least for me. I'm a chastened idealist, who is still trying to work out where and how and to what extent my thinking about Iraq went wrong. The idea of standing alone before God, or some principle or law or standard (human rights, democracy, religious truth, etc.), and knowing that one must act (or intervene, as is more usually the case for people in the situation of most readers of this blog), resonates with me. My Lutheran streak, perhaps: Hier stehe ich; Ich kann nicht anders? Maybe. But Bush's solitude is not for me, because it is, unfortunately, a careless solitude, one in which toughness is substituted competence. Matthew Ygelsias's instant assessment of Bush's primary claim this evening is on the money: "Sending a message is one thing. Killing Osama bin Laden is another. Sending a message is one thing. Retaking Falluja is another. Sending a message is one thing. Halting genocide in Darfur is another. Sending a message is one thing. Preventing a hostile Iran from going nuclear is another. Sending a message is one thing. Warding off the looming Iraqi Civil War is another."

Who won? Everyone else will ask that question, so there's no point in avoiding it. Bush didn't blow up, though occasionally I thought he was close to cracking. Kerry was less boring and less pompous and more succinct than I've ever heard him. Bush partisans will say Kerry just lectured; Kerry partisans will say Bush looked like a fool. My bet: the consensus view will be a grudging acknowledgement, even by most Republicans, that it wasn't Bush's best night, that he did look a little tired, and that Kerry did manage to fluster him a bit. But that's all; there will be crowing, but not much. Onward to November.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Russell, you have a Lutheran streak? 

Posted by Clark Goble