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Posted by on Jun 26, 2008 in At TMV | 9 comments

Obama, McCain, Two Hangmen, and Camus

(For a different perspective on the subject of this post, note this contribution from TMV Chief Joe Gandelman earlier today.)


I was four years old in 1969, the year Mason Proffit’s “Wanted!” album was released. It was several years later that I remember first hearing the signature song from that album, “Two Hangmen” — the chorus of which was comprised of these bizarre but intoxicating lines:

Two hangmen, hangin’ from a tree
That don’t bother me, at all

This afternoon, I recalled those lines, the last one in particular, as I continued my multi-day struggle to understand why — after all the excitement of the primary season; after finally seeing my “dream” contest between McCain and Obama realized — why, after all that, am I now thoroughly un-enthused about both candidates?

Granted, my enthusiasm for McCain started to flag months ago. Like others, I was drawn to his anti-establishment persona and track record. Then, after he became the presumptive GOP nominee, he seemed to lose much of the chutzpah that had defined him, veering hard into the the damaged embrace of contemporary Republicanism.

On the other hand, McCain has done some things recently to restore the scarlet “M” in his maverick image. Case in point: He quietly flipped off the GOP base by dialoguing with the president of Log Cabin Republicans. What’s more: As Iraq begins to heal (no matter how much some want to deny it), McCain looks more and more like the foreign policy stud he once was.

Regardless, I’m not ordering my McCain ’08 buttons just yet. Something restrains me.

Turning to Obama, it’s a different story with a similar ending. In February, even as McCain disappointed, Obama thrilled. Sure, I detested his centralized big-government ideas, but his strength of character, his intelligence, and his flexibility seemed just the right antidote to eight years of lack of character, questionable intelligence, and bull-headedness. Nor did the March-April-May uproars over Rezko, Wright, Ayers, and Pfleger change my mind.

Regardless, the light on the front of the Obama train has now dimmed.

At first, I thought this dimming was prompted by Obama’s decision on public finance. However — despite the candidate’s tortured and disingenuous explanation of that decision — I accepted his argument. The small donations from hundreds of thousands of people that have filled his coffers lie at the core of every viable public finance proposal I’ve read. Hence, I can rationalize with confidence that Obama has embraced public financing even as he rejects its regulatory framework. (Besides, as Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign argues, the real test is not acceptance or rejection of today’s system, but the eventual fixing of it.)

Next, I thought perhaps Obama’s waffling on FISA had sparked my doubts. However, as with the finance issue, his changed position on FISA didn’t really … um … “bother me at all.” Much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of some of this site’s readers and writers, I’ve netted out on FISA (and telecom amnesty) where the WaPo editorial board and Justin Gardner did.

So if the “obvious” factors don’t bother me — what does? Why am I not jumping up and down to be the next Obama or McCain groupie?

You might label me petty for this explanation, but I’m convinced the reason for my deflated interest in these candidates is rooted in a trend rather than any single point; it’s based less on policy particulars, more on the approach the candidates are taking to those particulars.

My one constant throughout this campaign has been this: Reasonable people can disagree about policy and the fine points of our democracy. But in the process of disagreeing, they should not demonize or misrepresent each other, nor should they resort to simplistic soundbite characterizations of the issues. Such practices only serve to impede rather than advance enduring solutions.

I thought these two candidates respected those principles, but as the WaPo’s Dan Balz, argues, their opening salvos suggest otherwise. The “maverick” and “change-we-can-believe-in” candidates have disappeared, and instead of Obama and McCain, I now see Clinton and Romney.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m no longer the wide-eyed child who once sang gleefully along to the chorus of Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen” without really understanding what the song was about. Shame on me for forgetting that; for letting the naïve child resume temporary control of my mind.

I guess I’m Sisyphus after all, forever pushing a damned rock up a damned hill, realizing that my singular solace, as Albert Camus suggested, is my ability to curse the gods while I walk down the hill, just before I repeat the endless, fruitless exercise all over again.

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