Despite the fact that the United States started with the "self-evident" premise that "all men are created equal," it took 94 years after its founding before blacks were able to vote, and it took another 50 years for women to be given that same basic right. Another 88 years have passed, and we're still waiting for the first non-white, non-Christian, or non-male to be elected president. Amazingly enough, either of the two remaining contenders on the Democratic side could end the white Christian male reign, and in the abstract I'm delighted by that prospect. But elections aren't in the abstract, they're about the positions, qualifications, and character of the individuals running for office. And how one casts his or her vote usually is influenced by other, non-substantive factors, such as perceived electability and how the media characterizes and portrays the candidates.
I try not to consider these last two factors, but in order to do that, I have to recognize the possible influence they play. In national polls, Obama is much more favorably viewed than Clinton is. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but the three non-substantive reasons I can think of offhand are: (1) charisma, (2) familiarity, and (3) sexism. Obama is young and handsome, and a dynamic speaker -- he has charisma that none of the other candidates possesses. As for familiarity, the old saw is that it breeds contempt, and given the "dynastic" concerns with respect to the Bushes and Clintons, that certainly seems true here. And then there's the media, which seems to take delight in holding Clinton to a standard that none of the other candidates are held to, a standard that strikes me as sexism pure and simple. Quite frankly, it disgusts me. It dates back to at least the Lewinsky scandal, and probably before -- she was condemned for having been cheated on and staying with Bill, but she would have been condemned at least as much for leaving Bill. With a media that takes delight in focusing on non-substantive rather than substantive matters among the candidates (quick -- tell me three things about John Edwards' aborted candidacy that don't involve a $400 haircut), she is criticized no matter what she does.*
Ok then -- assuming I can get past these non-substantive factors, where am I on the substantive ones?
On many of the issues I care about, such as choice, I think there's basically no difference between Clinton and Obama. With respect to the economy, their initiatives, while similar, show some differences, but to be honest I don't feel I'm qualified to say which one offers the superior package. On healthcare, I think Clinton has the more carefully considered approach, and Obama is looking somewhat shabby (but where she's going to come up with the money to pay for her superior proposal is another matter entirely). Otherwise, on pretty much every issue where they have a substantive difference, Obama comes out ahead. Katherine supports Obama based on her knowledge of the issues of Iraq, foreign policy generally, immigration, civil liberties, criminal justice, and human rights. Given the extremes that the Bush Administration has gone to on most of these issues, it seems critical to me that we have in office the person most likely to undo as much of those extremes as possible. hilzoy, probably the blogger I most respect, makes numerous additional points in Obama's favor.
As for qualifications, some argue that Obama is inexperienced, but on closer examination, that doesn't seem to hold up. Much has been made of Obama's desire to be bipartisan, which some have taken to mean that Obama will compromise on issues that he shouldn't just for the sake of bipartisanship.** But if one actually looks at his track record, as hilzoy has done, one can reasonably conclude that "Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle." That strikes me as leadership -- he's been able to get good things done.
Lastly, there's the hard-to-quantify character issue, which I think also favors Obama.^ With respect to the campaigns, it's nearly impossible in a constantly under-the-microscope environment to remain completely clean among the inevitable mudslinging, and Obama isn't spotless in this regard. At the same time, Clinton seems to have done more mudslinging (largely through intermediaries, including Bill). Of greater concern to me is her efforts to change the rules of the election in midstream -- by arguing that the Florida and Michigan delegates should count only after it was clear that they broke in her favor (rather than challenge the DNC's bad decision to exclude them at the time the decision was made), and to sue days before the Nevada caucus over the rules that some of her campaign team helped create in last-minute changes to the rules established in Nevada. Beyond the campaign, however, is the sense that she formulates her positions not necessarily on what she believes is the right answer, but what she considers the most politically supportable one. Perhaps not surprisingly, I feel this way most about the way her position on Iraq has "e vol ved."
For these reasons, I've decided to vote for Obama this Tuesday. That being said, I still favor Clinton over any of the Republican offerings. If you watch the January 31 debate that had only the two of them, you can see substantive discussions and debate, something generally absent from the "I'm more conservative than you are, you hippie Liberal (but I still represent change from Bush)" Republican slugfests.
* -- That being said, sometimes charges of sexism go too far, and are unwarranted. New York NOW's condemnation of Ted Kennedy's support of Obama is one example. Another is the indignation some folks feel when Hillary is asked about Bill Clinton's role -- if she considers him an asset on the campaign trail based on his experience (and fails to repudiate his remarks that generate controversy), it's fair game to ask whether she considers him an asset in the White House based on his experience.
** -- Truthfully, I'm much more concerned that Clinton, rather than Obama, will seek bipartisanship at the expense of progressive principles, something her husband was frequently accused of. Case in point.
^ -- Then again, maybe not.