Sidetrack by Sideshows

Presidential elections should be about issues, about vision, about the future. After all, the nation’s economy is in freefall, gas and food prices are skyrocketing, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, the Earth is warming and the war, well, there is the war.

But instead of issues, we are treated to an endless string of peripheral issues, questions about elitism and electability, flag pins, middle names and mudslinging, thanks to a news media obsessed with conflict and averse to complications.

And four of the biggest are also four that should be removed from the table:

1. The experience question:

While Sen. McCain has been touting his resume—former Navy pilot and prisoner of war who has served in Congress for 26 years, the last 22 in the Senate—implying that his opponent’s is a bit thin, there is nothing about his experience that would suggest that he is better qualified for the nation’s top office than Sen. Obama.

After all, we are not talking about some novice who woke up one day after owning a baseball team and decided to seek office. Sen. Obama has served in government for 11 years, four in the US Senate and seven in the state legislature in Illinois, and has worked as a community organizer, civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor.

The simple fact is that there is no experience that can prepare someone to be president. After all, President Ronald Reagan, by way of comparison, served eight years as governor of California and was an actor and corporate pitchman before that. And conservatives didn’t seem at all concerned that the experience of their candidate in 2000—the current president—paled in comparison to his opponent, a sitting vice president who had served more than two decades in Congress.

Experience is a convenient argument to trot out when you have little else to talk about. The question, in the end, is not experience but vision and how the candidates’ pasts might shape their work in the White House. So let’s talk about vision and leave the resumes for the human resource people to peruse.

2. Flips and flops:

In 2004, Republicans tagged US Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, as a flip-flopper because of his vote on the funding of the Iraq War. Sen. Kerry voted against an $87 billion funding bill for the Iraq War in 2003, while proposing an alternative bill that would have provided the money but tied it to a repeal of some of the Bush tax cuts.

It was a standard legislative maneuver, but one that was easily painted as trying to have it both ways. And, thanks to a masterful advertising campaign by the GOP—along with attacks from outside groups—Kerry looked weak and ineffectual.

Fast forward to the 2008 race and it difficult to see how either candidate can benefit from raising the specter of the flip-flop. Both candidates have taken what charitably can be called “nuanced positions”: McCain on the Bush tax cuts, the torture ban, public financing, Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right; Obama on the FISA vote and public financing.

This is to be expected, however, given that both have spent the bulk of their public lives as legislators whose primary job is to compromise to get things done. Compromise, however, doesn’t play well in the current, 24-7 cable/blog culture.

3. Religion and the preacher question:

Both candidates have used religious affiliations to enhance their political viability – Obama proclaiming his faith publicly and endorsing faith-based public programs, McCain by reaching out to rightwing preachers after calling them “agents of intolerance.” They’ve also both experienced blow-back because of their connections to pastors—the Revs. Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger for Obama; the Revs. John Hagee and Rod Parsley for McCain.

That blowback, as it were, should probably be considered comeuppance for both because of the opportunistic way in which both candidates have turned toward the religious realm. As the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C., wrote in The Christian Science Monitor (which I saw in the Record of Hackensack, N.J.):

“The candidates have sought the endorsements of clergy, and both McCain and Obama are now having some buyer’s remorse. But candidates cannot have it both ways. They cannot continue to use clergy for political gain and then discard them when it no longer fits their agenda.

“The problem is not that these presidential candidates incorporated religion into their campaigns. The problem is that the candidates have used religion as a divisive tool, instead of a unifying power.”

And the blowback—and common missteps—should offer enough incentive to leave religion out of the debate.

4. Patriotism:

Arguments over patriotism in a presidential contest are about as useful as arguing over which sports teams the candidates support. Both candidates are patriotic Americans and this little pissing contest demeans both and the concept of patriotism in general.

Enough of these issues. Let’s talk about the economy, the environment, health care and the war.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in central New Jersey. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2008

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