Rooting interests

The only way for a libertarian who is also a political junkie to get through a presidential campaign is to develop some kind of rooting interest. This usually involves rooting against the most odious person in the race.

The libertarian side of me is constantly making mental calculations about the leading presidential contenders and how their election might affect the perennial struggle between individual liberty and government power. Picking between the Democrat and the Republican on this basis is sort of like trying to choose between a turtle and a snail about who will add the most to your track team. Both will be terribly lousy, so it’s just a matter of degree.

With only minimal policy differences to differentiate the contenders, my political junkie side, the human side, develops very superficial opinions about who I simply won’t be able to stomach watching on my TV for at least the next four years.

Since becoming a libertarian in 1994, these interests have usually coincided. It was easy to root for Dole against Clinton in 1996, as Dole had both the policy and personality advantages going for him.

You’ll recall that Dole, while always a moderate, was proposing major tax reform and was set to work with a GOP Congress which at that point had not completely sold out its limited-government ideals. In fact, they’d just shut down the government in a bruising budget battle with Clinton. Dole’s wicked sense of humor, curmudgeonly personality and constant references to himself in the third person made him easy to like on a personal level.

He certainly was not as smarmy, self-satisfied, duplicitous and odious as Bill Clinton, who was fresh from likening those who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building to Republicans who favored slowing the growth of spending on Medicare. He also had passed an entirely symbolic semiautomatic gun ban, raised taxes, and attempted to have the government “manage competition” in the health insurance industry. By election time, he was running on supporting school uniforms.

In 2000, it was a very tough call. Bush was clearly running away from the ideas of free markets and smaller government, while Gore was running on obnoxious “people vs. the powerful” theme. He was a liberal technocrat’s wet dream, and on the personal level I still held against him his despicable 1996 Democratic convention speech where he used his sister’s lung-cancer death to score political points. His obnoxious debate performances only confirmed how insufferable he would be to have as president for four years.

Bush, with his frequent malapropisms, would make excellent fodder for the late-night comics, I thought. So I gave him the very, very slight edge.

By 2004, Bush had already established himself as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history for self-evident reasons. His awfulness on policy filled me with so much rage that I could hardly generate a chuckle at his occasionally stupid and embarrassing remarks.

Kerry was no prize on personality, and you’ll recall that on the war he argued not that it should be ended but that he could fight it better. I suspected, though, that he would be much more likely to pull out were he elected. And indeed, he’s since come to favor withdrawing from Iraq. More than anything, I hoped a Kerry victory would be seen as a rebuke of the idea of pre-emptive war. In the time since, the course of the war itself has become such a rebuke.

And how about now? Normally, I’d be rooting for a Republican under the assumption that the Democrats will retain Congress and it’s best to aim for divided government and gridlock. But it seems likely the GOP nominee will remain committed to a forever war in Iraq and that the Democrats won’t be able to get a veto-proof majority to stop it. And the war is sort of a binary issue, and one the president will determine. So that means I’ve to root for a Democrat.

Also, I think George Will is right to note that it is almost certain that a Democrat will win the presidency this year:

Today, all the usual indicators are dismal for Republicans. If that broad assertion seems counterintuitive, produce a counterexample. The adverse indicators include: shifts in voters’ identifications with the two parties (Democrats now 50 percent, Republicans 36 percent); the tendency of independents (they favored Democratic candidates by 18 points in 2006); the fact that Democrats hold a majority of congressional seats in states with 303 electoral votes; the Democrats’ strength and the Republicans’ relative weakness in fundraising; the percentage of Americans who think the country is on the “wrong track”; the Republicans’ enthusiasm deficit relative to Democrats’ embrace of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be nominated.

So which one should I root for? Which one should libertarians root for?

First, the policy argument. Barack Obama was right on the war, and I believe he is more likely to follow through with his promise to end it. While Obama’s far from a noninterventionist, he is not the hawk that Hillary’s proven herself to be over time (remember the Kosovo war she got Bill to start as a price for standing by him after the Lewinsky fiasco?).

Both Hillary and Obama are terribly liberal, and both want to dramatically increase government control of health care. But I think that tactically, Hillary may be far preferable on policy. Obama — a magnetic, likeable and fresh face — could very will win a sweeping victory that goes all the way down the ticket, giving Democrats a much larger margin in Congress.

The Republicans are clearly flummoxed about how they could attack him. Their only hope would be a major foreign-policy crisis that they could use to highlight his allegedly slim resume (which is relative, I say; he has more foreign-policy experience than most governors or mayors).

Hillary, on the other hand, is deeply hated by Republicans and not much liked by independents. The trends would still carry her to victory, but it would be a much smaller victory. And once in office, I believe it would be much harder for her to marshal support for the many, many, many grandiose schemes she has in mind. Her mandate will be minimal, compared to the 55% or even better popular vote I think Obama could easily win.

Then again, I cannot stand the woman. Her voice irritates me. Her disdainful attitude toward those who disagree with her is disgusting. She literally cries, “Woe is me.” She shares all of her husband’s flaws and none of his charm. Once she is endowed with the terrible and expansive powers of the modern presidency (for which she’s expressed an alarming fondness), I’m quite sure my hatred for her will grow even stronger.

But, given the likely and frightening alternative of a popular, effective liberal president such as Obama, I guess this grinch may be rooting for Hillary after all.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of Angry Blog.)