Another Perspective

Elections Have Consequences

A lesson in political pragmatism -- or how an imperfect conservative would be preferable to a perfect liberal.

By 10.30.09

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Nine months into the Obama presidency, it is clear that he and Senator McCain would have produced wildly different administrations. Now is the time to reflect and learn -- and then to move on.

Taking the percentages of those who failed to show up, coupled with the knowledge that a significant number of voters crossed party lines -- to the Obama camp -- suggests President Obama's margin of victory was not insurmountable: 52.9 percent to McCain's 45.7 percent. A shift in just over 3-½ percent of the voting bloc would have given McCain the win. While Democrats were slightly ramping up their numbers, Republicans were ramping up their convictions that fighting for McCain was fighting for a lost cause. As stated by a post-election article in CNN:

"A downturn in the number and percentage of Republican voters going to the polls seemed to be the primary explanation for the lower than predicted turnout.…" Compared to 2004, Republican turnout declined by 1.3 percentage points to 28.7 percent, while Democratic turnout increased by 2.6 points from 28.7 percent in 2004 to 31.3 percent in 2008.… Many people were fooled…by this year's increase in registration (more than 10 million added to the rolls), citizens' willingness to stand for hours even in inclement weather to vote early, the likely rise in youth and African American voting, and the extensive grassroots organizing network of the Obama campaign into believing that turnout would be substantially higher than in 2004. (Emphasis mine.)

Senator McCain could have won, and there was a huge difference between the candidates. There is a huge difference between the philosophies. That should be abundantly clear by now.

The Internet Freedom Act of 2009 is a glimpse into what was behind door No. 2. It's an example of what could have been. The bill is an attempt to keep government out of insidious Internet regulation. Not surprisingly, it's being introduced by Senator McCain.

In foreign policy, Senator John McCain is solid. He is making the case for action in Afghanistan. Under the last administration, Senator McCain had the conscience and confidence to fall out of step with his President and criticize the strategy in Iraq. We called it the surge. It worked. It brought a measurable degree of hope and change to American national security. It allowed us to begin troop withdrawals. It was the right thing to do. That was last year. This month, Senator McCain is again pressing his President, this time aligned with a different party, calling for an end to the inertia in Afghanistan. His voice is significant because it was almost our voice. It was almost the voice of the Commander in Chief. But for a variety of reasons, most of them lamentable, that was not to be. Had wide-eyed Americans gone to the polls in larger numbers or taken an unemotional look at Barack Obama, would we be debating whether we're "dithering" or losing the battle? No, I dare say that the word dither would not be crossing anyone's lips, not in foreign policy.

I'm inclined to think that under a McCain administration, things would have been different: better-different -- and not just in foreign affairs.

Domestically, President Obama has been anything but dithering. In the months since he took office, we have suffered stimulation, bailouts, Supreme Court Justice-fications, environmental indulgences, and health care histrionics. In short, despite a mild hurricane season, meteorologically speaking, this Administration has been on a domestic rampage, systematically attacking years of fiscal and social structure in a welcoming environment of low-pressure and high expectations. As hurricanes go, this one is just getting started. Policies and bulwarks against government intrusion lay scattered and broken along the battered shoreline. The warm water of the mainstream press coupled with the blowing winds of a Democrat-run legislature, ensure the likelihood that this season will not end with the coming winter, but will rage on until the midterm elections.

It could have been prevented.

That is not to say that John McCain is or was the perfect antidote to Obama fever -- McCain comes with his own shortcomings. Understood. McCain made some choices during the Bush presidency that baffled the Right, perturbed the Party, and empowered the petulant press. Suffice it to say that he did that. Enumerating those moments is unavailing.

But as adversity brings out the worst in some, it also brings out the best in others. Since the election, on nearly every issue and at every turn, Senator John McCain has been a high pressure of resistance against the push of big government. That is what we're fighting against, after all, the absolute and utter intrusion of government regulation and interference like no time in recent memory. We're witnessing the infusion of artificial life and intelligence into a ravenous government, on an increasingly unapologetic scale. We're witnessing the birth of an era of government, not just government, big government -- the type of government that takes from one person according to his ability -- against his will -- and redistributes to another according to his need: an insidious form of government.

Generally speaking, government is good, is virtuous, is eternal, and is a necessary component of law, order, and justice. But a Big-Brother version of government is a vice. If left unregulated by its governees, this vice will tear through the fabric of our supernal system of self-governance. Alexander Pope's brilliant commentary on vice illustrates the regrettable transformation:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen.
Yet seen to oft, familiar with her face,
First we pity, then endure, then embrace.

Years ago we lamented big government. Years ago, big government was seen for the brutish behemoth that it is. But that antipathy has been tempered through years of familiarity and assiduously "innocuous" propaganda about need, helplessness, and compassion.

Taking responsibility from the one and forcing it on the many is not just. Passing legislation that has not been read is not virtuous. Forcing the private sector to bow to anticompetitive energy policies is not necessary. Exploiting 30 million uninsured in order to place the reins of health care in the fist of the governmental is not compassionate. But shifting our power from the governed to the governing can bring about unwanted outcomes that smack of eternity.

In November of 2008, we could have made a better choice. For some of us, our ideology got in the way. We're worse for it.

On the call to reduce regulations of sub-prime lending -- the ultimate cause of this economic tribulation -- Senator McCain fought back. On the nomination of Justice Sonya Sotomayor, a Justice who articulated acceptance of judge-made law, Senator McCain fought back. On the passage of another round of stimulus money, Senator McCain is fighting back. On the expansion of government into banking and finance, Senator McCain is fighting back. On the push for governmental takeover of health care in America, Senator McCain is fighting back. On the push to win in Afghanistan according to the dictates of the best-informed and highest-ranking boots on the ground, and against the delay of the current administration, Senator McCain is fighting back. And on the push toward a general increase in government, Senator McCain is fighting forward: "Keeping business free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy."

Yes, it is.

Senator McCain has been solid. He has stood firm against President Obama when it's been needed and he has stood by President Obama when it's been necessary. Is he the rebirth of another Reagan or Goldwater? -- probably not. But, as France's President Nicolas Sarkozy stated, referring to President Obama's atomic altruism, "we live in the real world, not a virtual one." In the real world, Americans elected Barack Obama as President. An imperfect conservative lost the election to a near perfect liberal. That is the real world that we live in.

If we hope to change the world in the next election, we must not let our principles cripple our pragmatism. Ideology feeds aspirations; it cannot stand in place of them. The human condition is necessarily a pragmatic one. Until we can create the perfect president, we must make do with imperfect politicians. We must see their place in the larger picture as our best selves. Then, when they fall short -- as they surely will do -- we must scour the nation for better ones.

We cannot turn back the tide of November, 2008, but we can learn from it. We can see that our votes, and lack of votes, have consequences.

We would be better off with less stimulus, a Justice who seeks to interpret rather than make law, the tendency toward less government in health care and energy regulations, and a leader who dared to make the right call on matters of foreign policy and the war on terror.

We would have been better off with John McCain. Let's hope we have learned our lesson.

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About the Author

Robert P. Kirchhoefer is a Washington, D.C. attorney who previously worked in banking and finance.