People keep sending me outraged emails about Barack Obama’s pandering to the reactionary Israel lobby, AIPAC, and on the merits, of course I agree with his critics. He has taken precisely the same hard-right line on Israel and Palestine as Clinton, McCain, and let’s see…. Oh yes, everyone I can recall who has gotten close to the nomination of a major party. If we take his most extreme statements literally (such as declaring the Jerusalem will not be divided), they amount to rejecting almost every approach to peacemaking reasonably supposed to have a snowball’s chance of success.
Israel-Palestine is widely perceived to be one of those issues where candidates are required to genuflect in the direction of the most influential and well-resourced interests on the political landscape: on Israel, AIPAC. I have no proof that is true, as no one has actually tested the hypothesis by getting nominated and breaching the orthodoxy. But of this much I am certain: there are enough people on both the right and left whose hot buttons are connected to the Mideast that any position will arouse extreme displeasure and feelings of betrayal. In this contest of words, every syllable carries a nuclear charge and the fallout obscures all reason. (The other side is much more outraged. Have you seen some of the unbelievable email filth that is being generated and widely circulated by bigots on the extreme right trying to discredit Obama as a tool of terrorism?)
My own take on hot-button campaign statements is this: once the contest narrows to two candidates whose general political values and styles have become clear, no statement, no single position, is of ultimate importance, because an election is not a referendum on specific policies, but a yes or no proposition. One wins, the other loses.
We know something about who these two candidates are. I want Obama to be president because he is inspiring and mobilizing, he has been consistent (if not perfect) in advocating humane domestic policies and social inclusion; and John McCain terrifies me with his militarist’s view of the world and his consistent advocacy of policies that promise to widen the divide between rich and poor, our most terrible social problem. I am not going to undermine that clear, cross-cutting distinction by focusing overmuch on single issues where I find Obama’s position objectionable. That would be caring more about being pure than achieving democratic power, a bad habit I gave up decades ago.
I don’t mean merely that to some degree, all candidates say what they think will win the election regardless of their true beliefs. George Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative.” What relationship does that bear to his policies? He has even opposed decent benefits for the soldiers he sent to war, let alone publicly funded medical care for kids and countless other programs that anyone with an ounce of compassion would support.
What is even more germane, I think, is that single-issue campaign statements bear little relationship to what happens once a president is elected. Complex forces and unpredictable events shape each historical period, thrusting presidents into roles they never even imagined during their campaigns.
Lyndon Johnson was no civil rights crusader before he presided over the creation of epochal civil rights legislation. He was impelled into that position by a moral force and social movement so large, passionate and determined that the opposition yielded. Richard Nixon made his early reputation as an anticommunist crusader, strongly opposed in all his campaign statements to any accommodation of his opponents—until commerce, population, technology and the birth pangs of globalization created an opening to China that he claimed as his own triumph. Ronald Reagan, the darling of the hard right, made his political climb by rejecting his own progressive past and condemning everything to the left of Attila the Hun; but the Soviet bloc’s weakening ability to sustain top-down control and contain citizens’ desire for freedom gave Reagan the opportunity to step onto the world stage as godfather of detente.
And so it goes. Obama, however benighted I find his recent statements, will be able to serve as a Mideast peacemaker if and when conditions in that region and world public opinion create the opportunity. Factors entirely out of his control, such as the corruption and ineffectiveness of Israeli and Palestinian regimes, are likely to have more impact on that prospect than any position Obama takes in this campaign, just as factors out of Johnson’s, Nixon’s and Reagan’s control helped to shape their historic roles.
With these hot-button issues, pundits and activists narrow our vision in a way that distorts reality. The outraged people who have written to me on this issue treat Obama’s Mideast statements as if they were uniquely contradictory to his generally progressive public identity, a single blemish on a spotless record. That’s the fallout factor, a superheated issue creating a mushroom cloud of indignation that blots out the rest of picture. In fact, there are many areas in which candidates are expected to tickle some powerful interest in a favorite spot: all the major primary candidates supported some version of the egregious “No Child Left Behind” legislation; they all supported the expensively stupid and wrong-headed farm bill just passed; they all opposed same-sex marriage; none of them advocated banning handguns; and so on. Personally, some of these things are more important to me than the Mideast question. Certainly, the decline of public education at the hands of policymakers who mistake classrooms for factories and the continued triumph of agribusiness will have greater immediate effects on the country Obama will serve as president, terrible impact for generations.
In some imaginary election where we could choose between a dozen candidates, finding the one whose positions perfectly coincide with our own, it might be useful to focus this kind of attention on specific points of disagreement with Obama. But again, there are only two choices here, Obama or McCain, and therefore, as far as I am concerned, only one sensible focal point, the urgent need to elect Obama: the vast majority of issues on which his positions are truly compassionate, intelligent and different in approach from politics-as-usual, the remarkable galvanizing, mobilizing effect of his candidacy, the new democratic potential actualized by his way of campaigning.
Once Obama is elected, I promise you, I will be as committed to keeping him honest as I have been with every other president. But right now, I’m not going to get too excited about AIPAC or any other single-issue disagreement. When I feel tempted to forget the forest and focus on a tree, I remember the useful corrective of Voltaire’s brilliant aphorism: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
How would it be if we were able to keep our focus on the forest despite all this urgent pressure toward litmus-test politics? How would it be to elect a merely good, if not perfect, president? I am hoping my progressive brothers and sisters can kick their addiction to single-issue outrage long enough to help this country find out.