Historians may someday look back on our time and conclude that we became a deeply unserious nation. So let's wrap up this series of columns on the 2008 presidential campaign -- by going to the movies!
Obama supporters see John McCain as Old Man Potter, the cantankerous banker from "It's a Wonderful Life." As Paris Hilton would note, both are "wrinkly white haired guys." And both put business ahead of people who stand to lose their homes. By contrast, his supporters see Barack Obama as Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy's character, George Bailey, is not a banker; he runs a kind of financial co-op. Neighbors pool their savings and George then asks them, "How much do you really need to get by?"
On the other hand, McCain supporters see Barack Obama as the alien commander from "Independence Day." They'll quickly add that Obama's an alien, not because his father was Kenyan, but because the senator's politics smack of European socialism. And they see Obama supporters as those New Age kooks gathered on the roof of the Los Angeles skyscraper to welcome the flying saucer. If you don't know what happens next, I won't give it away. But in this movie, John McCain is the ex-fighter pilot turned President who climbs back in his plane to pursue those aliens, as McCain would say, "to the gates of hell!" And Will Smith's part would be played by Sarah Palin.
Come to think of it, "independence" really is what this election is all about. Each candidate interprets that word very differently.
For McCain - though his career has been riddled with inconsistency - independence means what it did for Thomas Jefferson. We've been endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Citizens, and the individual states that existed before the formation of the United States, give the central government a strictly limited portion of those rights - like the right to make war or to print money. But, in the words of the Tenth Amendment to the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
In other words, people are born with the right to be free from government, except as explicitly stated in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) simply spell out some of those individual rights - such as freedom of speech and religion - though not all of them, as the Ninth Amendment makes clear.
Barack Obama believes this basic structure of our Constitution is flawed. As an Illinois state senator, Obama said during a 2001 interview on Chicago public radio: "(T)he Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society... It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted -- and the Warren court interpreted it in the same way -- that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties... The Constitution reflected an enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on until this day... The Framers had the same blind spot...the fundamental flaw of this country."
Barack Obama believes people have not only "negative" but also positive rights: claims they are entitled to make on the government; meaning -- since the government is funded by taxes -- claims that people are entitled to make on their fellow citizens. Franklin Roosevelt made these positive claims clear when, in his 1944 State of the Union Address, he called for a "Second Bill of Rights" that would ensure among other things:
"The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
"The right of every family to a decent home;
"The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health."
For better or for worse, this is a far cry from the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - which implicitly require personal responsibility to achieve whatever you might define as happiness.
But let's move from philosophy to reality. Well before Roosevelt's New Deal, we as a nation began to accept the idea that government must provide safety nets to those in genuine need, along with certain other necessities like public education, retirement security, emergency health care and regulation of publicly traded markets. Now, in 2008, the question is one of degree. Barack Obama believes a just society requires more positive claims on government. John McCain believes bigger government fosters corruption, stagnation and dependency.
In keeping with his more or less conservative record, a President John McCain would provide some brakes on Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. This may lead to gridlock. Many McCain supporters would welcome that, if it means staving off what they see as radical change. But divided government also could mean moderate change. McCain does have a record of reaching across the aisle, often to the consternation of conservatives.
A President Obama would bring change indeed. His voting record suggests he will work in close harmony with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Change would of course be incremental; only loons warn that Obama would seek to become a dictator. But that change could be profound as regards judges, taxes, health care, education, union organizing, trade, energy policy, social issues like same-sex marriage, political discourse (through the return of the Fairness Doctrine) and many other matters.
If you haven't already voted early, the choice is still yours. In any event, there's one thing we all can celebrate. After more than a year of campaigning, this race is finally ending.