Storytime

Call me old-fashioned, but here’s how I think about my choice for president: I ask myself who’s going to fix the serious problems confronting us here in the US and in the world. Problems like—the 25% of people in my home state of Texas who have no health insurance. The mess in Iraq, the looming threat of Iran, the intractable conflict in the middle east. Climate change, down the road. You know, important stuff.

It causes me great despair, to say the very least, that elections no longer turn on preferences about stuff like this. You could see it plainly in 2004. Here was a guy up for reelection who had demonstrated staggering incompetence in Iraq and at home, and “swing voters” chose him anyway. The best explanation anybody could come up with was that Bush, not Kerry, seemed like “a regular guy, a guy like me.” When it comes down to it, elections in the US are now settled by people who have no stable views on issues, but vote on intangible like “shares my values,” “has a good story,” “can relate to me.”

And now, here we go again. John McCain has added the governor of Alaska to the Republican ticket. You’d think Sarah Palin would add nothing, what with a political career that has been focused on local issues, and a very short career at that—a year and half as governor, after being mayor of a small Alaskan town. She’s fought corruption in her very corrupt state—who could object?–but she has no background, positions, or experience relating to national and foreign policy issues like health care or Iraq. What we do know about her is that she’s ardently pro-life, even in cases of rape and incest; she’d like to see creationism taught alongside evolution in public schools; she doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change; she’s pro-gun and anti-gay. On the whole, she’s well to the right of the average American.

But she’s a gutsy gal with a lot of personal appeal. She’s a former Miss Alaska runner up, a big-game hunter and an NRA member, a basketball player and a sports fan. She’s tough in the motherhood arena, choosing to have kid #5 even knowing he would have down syndrome; she gave birth and was back to work in three days and still makes time to use a breast pump at night. It’s the intangibles that could make her a big help to McCain—the nebulous sense of “like me” and “good story” that comes from her humble origins, can-do, unpretentious demeanor, and her penchant for all-American stuff like hunting and sports.

I sure do wish the Democrats were in a position to make the obvious argument: this woman is unqualified. I think Barack Obama is much smarter, better prepared, and more capable, but that’s a matter of perceptions. In plain, bankable terms, Obama is a neophyte too. What’s got to be the focus is where the candidates want to take us—toward endless engagement in Iraq or withdrawal? Toward a future with or without universal health care? Toward tackling global warming or ignoring it? Toward girls and women making their own reproductive choices or being required to continue unwanted pregnancies?

And yet, and yet…does that stuff matter anymore? The Democrats are as guilty as the Republicans. We heard “their stories” last week—Michelle Obama on her childhood, Joe Biden on the tragedies in his life, Barack Obama on growing up with his grandparents in Hawaii. Now we’re in for a week of Republican stories, and Sarah Palin sure will add color to the story-fest. Can you blame the candidates? They’ve figured out what moves voters, and sadly enough, all too often it’s “the story.”

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