Tuesday, January 08, 2008

An Independent State of Mind

Independents in New Hampshire are lining up for McCain and Obama. McCain’s independent credentials are well established. But Obama? Outside the unification, post-partisan rhetoric, is he really an independent who is breaking free from the usual political categories?

A trip to the Obama website is the kind of in-depth-to-the-point-of-tedium experience you expect from any wonky Democratic website. There are plans upon plans upon plans. The Democrats, even with all their sub-species, are essentially the party that believes in the efficacy of national government. There isn’t a problem in the world that can’t be solved through federal power, and Obama’s policies do not deviate from that predilection.

Of course, a tendency towards statism does not mean Obama isn’t an independent at heart. After all, without evidence that he is deceiving us, we must assume the senator is sincere in his desire to bridge the political divides. Still, the vast majority of his policies are tried-and-true Democratic initiatives:

Reversing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy • Quickly withdrawing all combat forces from Iraq (he supported getting us out by March 2008) • Fixing Social Security by removing the cap on taxable earnings • Curtailing CAFTA and NAFTA • Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation • Instituting a Fair Pay Act to ensure equal pay for women • Banning racial profiling • Providing affordable childcare to working families • Capping carbon emissions and investing LOTS of money and effort in developing clean energy

I could go on and on. Without judging the individual merit of these positions, I think we can agree they are hardly independent of politics as usual.

So why the enthusiasm among independents? Outside the soaring rhetoric, is Obama offering any significant changes not found in the platforms of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards? Well … yeah.

All the candidates talk about reforming government, but Obama’s website is the most passionate and most specific about changing the way government works. He has numerous governmental transparency initiatives which would illuminate the flow of money through our system. He wants political contributions documented and shared. He wants citizens to be able to see where federal dollars end up and who directed them there. Simply put, he wants accountability through transparency and he would use Internet technology to ensure anyone and everyone can see the money flow.

If you can categorize “independents” at all (a tricky task to be sure), you’d probably give them two qualifications. 1) a preference for new ideas that come from outside the usual party politics; and 2) a desire to reform politics and government as usual. Obama really doesn’t appeal to the first but he’s right in line on the second. Add to that his stated commitment to reinstating PAYGO, and I can see why independents are responding to his message.

It’s not that Obama is overflowing with new ideas, it’s that he’s promising responsibility at a level not offered or at least not accentuated by any other Democrat. In effect, he's saying: we’re going to do this the right way rather than continuing the closed-doors, backroom handshake system. After eight years of Bush’s hyper-secrecy and the previous eight years of Clinton’s equivocations, the promise of a new era of government disclosure and responsibility is truly alluring.

Obama may not be a policy independent, but he has an independent spirit, a will and a want to reform. In the end, his mainline Democratic platform may lose him independent support. But, for now, Obama’s message is one independents can get behind.

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