Thursday, October 26, 2006

Politics and Civility, Redux

I have a confession to make. I like Barak Obama. As a more-or-less conservative Republican, I know I'm not supposed to. And I don't really fall into the two typical Obama camps: the one that proclaims him the liberal savior of the Democrats or the one that proclaims him a new "third way" politician in the mold of Bill Clinton. But neither am I in the "he's all talk and posturing" camp some on the right have created.

I don't deny that Sen. Obama is a liberal. But then, neither does he. Indeed, he celebrates it. I imagine we would disagree in many ways about many things. But that, really, is the point. Sen. Obama is one of a handful (though thankfully it seems to be a growing handful) of well-known liberal politicians with whom I can disagree without rancor. Why? Because while he strongly states his own position, he does so without belittling or ridiculing those who disagree. And while he has been quite candid with his views (in book after book, no less), he can also listen respectfully and debate calmly.

And in this age of insane partisan sniping, that alone is something to admire.

But Sen. Obama goes further than that. Some on the right point to his lack of accomplishments as a senator (as if a first term junior senator could be expected to amass an impressive tally within two years). But I point to the nature and quality of his first widely-known accomplishment. It may not seem much to many, one sponsor among several of a bipartisan bill to force the federal government to detail spending in a public database and make that database searchable on a public website.

But take one brief moment and reflect. Ask why the Republicans are close to losing both houses this election. Certainly a midterm election like this produces losses. Certainly Iraq plays a role, as does disappointment among Republicans over spending and immigration. But can anyone deny that graft and corruption, and—even more—the appearance of graft and corruption has played a major role? Look at the growing Porkbusters movement, and the growing tide on the Blogosphere and elsewhere against "earmarks", dubious contracts, and all the rest.

And then look at Senator Obama, ambitious, eager, possibly considering a run for the Presidency in 2008. He could, like Nancy Pelosi, focus on how to accumulate and consolidate power after a Democratic victory. Or, like John Murtha, focus on hammering the Republicans over Iraq. Or, like Harry Reid, decry Republican corruption (while building his own Nevada empire ever higher). But rather than do these things, he works closely with Republicans to deliver a low-key bill that might, just might, change how Washington, Republican and Democratic, does business.

If that be ambition, it's the kind of ambition that I like: seeking to gain honor and prestige by doing something worthwhile and necessary. It's not empty posturing, it's not ugly calculation, and it's not partisan hypocrisy. It's something dangerously close to statesmanship: placing the needs of ones nation above one's personal politics. Working with the opposing party, risking "giving them a win", to get something done. Was the decision altruistic? I certainly hope not! Seeking to build one's reputation by doing worthy things may not be saintly, but it's the kind of "good ambition" that we should desire from our politicians. Just as I want my CEOs (the CEOs of those companies I own stock in) to build short-term value by building long-term value and growth, I want my politicians to build their careers by making my government and my country better.

And, oddly, I prefer that they do it without rancor and shrill partisan posturing. I like it best when they do it as part of a career which appears to turn away from dividing and towards uniting. Uniting not by appealing to a bland (and probably non-existant) middle ground on every issue, but by appealing to real shared ground on issues where it does exist. To get the (cumbersomely named) Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act passed, Sen. Obama and his co-sponsors had to battle open and secret opposition by an equally bipartisan group of those wanting to continue to do business the old-fashioned way. Sen. Obama could have chosen the easy path of posturing and criticism, but he chose the harder and better path of solving problems, even when that means partnering with the "other side".

For that, and for his constant tone of respect and reason, I salute him and offer him the highest praise: if all Democrats today were liberals of the cast of Barak Obama, the Republicans wouldn't be in danger of losing the Congress, they'd be desperately lining up new careers.

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