John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Three Threads

Posted on November 1, 2008



            Ken Duberstein jumped off the Republican ship into the shark infested Democratic waters yesterday when he endorsed Barack Obama, following his good friend Colin Powell and abandoning his other friend John McCain in the process. 


            Duberstein is finished as a Republican now, so I was puzzled why he would take this rather dramatic and risky step at this stage in his career.  And it got me to thinking about the deeper motivations in this election choice.


            There are three threads to this historic election campaign.  Of course, there is the race factor, which dominates the media discussion but is being avoided by both campaigns.  There is the debate over philosophy.  And then, as in any campaign for any office, there is the debate over qualifications.


            Obama’s basic argument answers all three.  He is for change.  His mere visage, of course, represents dramatic change from America’s past.  He would be the first American of such obvious African heritage to be elected to the nation’s highest office.  And for most Americans, that is a triumph of America’s best instincts over America’s worst instincts.


            Obama’s most repeated argument comes with philosophy.  He represents a clear break from the last 30 years – since Reagan—philosophically.  He simply doesn’t have the same faith in the free-market philosophy that started with Reagan, continued with Clinton and culminated with George Bush the Second.  Instead, he wants to take the country in a completely different direction, much less free market, much more government directed.


I would note, however, that Obama’s argument didn’t start with the economy.  It started with Iraq.  His philosophy isn’t just about economics.  It is about America’s place in the world.  He represents a sharp break from Reagan’s theory of American exceptionalism.  He grew up in Indonesia, and he saw first hand, in his mind, the bad side of American power.  His philosophy was shaped by the idea that when it comes to America, the glass is half-empty, not half-full.   When he talks about the promise of America and how to make America a “more perfect union” he sees an America is not Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill, but rather a mass of greedy capitalists who seek to exploit the poor and the downtrodden.  This is the American “philosophy” that he wants to change. 


It is not by accident that Barack Obama was voted the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate, more liberal than Bernie Sanders and Ted Kennedy.  His philosophical outlook is much different than most Americans. 


The third thread is the debate over qualifications.  Simply put, Obama is not yet qualified to be President.  He may be with some more time in the Senate.  He spent a relatively short period in the Illinois State Senate before he was promoted – through a bizarre series of circumstances – to the United States Senate, where he promptly decided to start running for President.  Talk about audacity!  


But this is a change year, and the voters care less about experience than about just about any other factor.  Indeed, with approval ratings of the Congress hovering in the low teens, Congressional experience is more a detriment than a benefit.  Experience didn’t work for Hillary and it doesn’t seem to be working for McCain.


The trick for the McCain campaign has been to focus on the second and third threads while ignoring the first thread.  That is why McCain said that he had no interest in bringing up the comments of Rev. Wright, Obama’s racist pastor of more than 20 years. 

McCain is no George Wallace, and he understands that for the Republican Party to survive for the next 50 years, it needs to be the party of Lincoln, not the party of Lee Atwater. 


            The media is drawn to the race discussion like a moth to the light, and has ignored the deeper debate on philosophy, because they largely agree with Obama. 


            In the qualifications debate, McCain sacrificed the high ground when he named Sarah Palin as his running mate.  It could have been a good issue, but remarkably, McCain now is losing ground on this terrain because his Vice Presidential choice has even less experience than Obama!


            And for former Republicans like Duberstein and Powell, the elevation of Palin sent a deeper signal.  For them, McCain’s choice was a signal to the conservative base that he is with them, not with the more progressive Republicans who voted for civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 1960s.


            You can vote against Barack Obama and not be a racist.  You can have deep concerns about Obama’s radical philosophy and troubling inexperience.  You can salute Obama’s historic achievement, yet still vote against him.


            That is what Duberstein and Powell should have considered but didn’t when they decided to endorse Obama.