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I Wish Him Well

By January 1, 2009 No Comments
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I did not vote for Barack Obama for president, but I wish him well.

I’m a Republican–partly from inertia, partly by chance, partly by personal loyalty,
but mostly, in my view, because I think a lot about the American political systems and
their unique attributes and how to see them through Christian lenses.

The Republican notion of limited government allows more room than the other party
option in America for the great Christian social traditions–Catholic subsidiarity and
Kuyperian sphere sovereignty. Subsidiarity in simplified form holds that society’s social
and political matters ought to be handled by the lowest or least centralized competent
authority, and sphere sovereignty asserts that the various aspects of life have their own
distinct responsibilities and competence.

In pragmatic terms, and American politics is nothing if not pragmatic, these two
great Christian traditions point to similar applications in our system. The role of
government is to allow and sometimes force the localized and differentiated authorities
and spheres to do their jobs. Government is more umpire than player, more
nudger than doer.

And so, I confess that I regularly commit Republicanism in the voting booth. Were I
not living in western Michigan, I admit, I might more often vote Democratic, particularly
lower on the ticket, and perhaps even switch parties. But, fortunately, local GOP politicians
(at least some of them) have so far been able to resist the anti-intellectualism and simpleminded
government-bashing that too much infects the party elsewhere.

I found it relatively easy in 2008 to vote my party for president. I had followed John
McCain’s career for a long time, and even had the privilege of interacting with him briefly
early in his Washington, D.C. congressional career, when I happened to be working there
for a different member of Congress. McCain was then, and still seems now, the pragmatic
problem solver; non-ideological, willing to cross party lines and tick off ideologues to work
seriously on policy problems. Though I was unimpressed with McCain’s vice-presidential
choice and could nit-pick about his 2008 tactics, his longer record gave me comfort.

Even so, I was strongly tempted to vote for Barack Obama. There is no disputing his
intelligence, his ability, and, of course, his race, which I view as a strong point in his favor.
I was attracted, too, by his Christianity–his faith and church-related experiences and the
way he described them seemed both genuine and familiar. He talked about politics and
policy in ways that drew me. I was disappointed that Obama’s well-articulated faith led to
no policy differences from his party on any significant issue; but, on the other hand, most
Republicans would fail on that same standard. Still, there were many good, and almost
compelling reasons to vote for Obama.

Even though he had almost no accomplishments that could provide some data to verify
his promise, promises, and prose, I wanted to vote for him. But, in the end, one big thing–Democratic control of the U.S. House and Senate–stopped me. People seek public office to
do things–to change public policies. And I am fearful of the policies that result from oneparty
control of our national institutions. It is usually bad, no matter which party it is. Under
such conditions, political problems, and the political system’s responses to them, tend to
get defined in a highly partisan way. The blame, the burden, and the benefits are all spread
too narrowly and unfairly. Always, or nearly so, the “out” party quickly finds ways to destroy
the credibility of the “in” party’s solutions. Later, if the entirely “outs” become the entirely
“ins,” vengeful payback more than common good motivates the newly empowered. Having
directly experienced some of that, I wanted to avoid it. So I voted for divided government.

So far, I have been pleasantly surprised by Obama’s White House and the Cabinet picks
related to international affairs and macroeconomic policy. The selections have been almost
uniformly highly intelligent, experienced, and competent. He seems to have chosen wisely–in those areas a set of advisors not much different from that which McCain would have
chosen, I might add.

But, as is often the case, the major issue our new president faces (at least at this moment’s
impression) is a marginal issue of a campaign–stimulating domestic economic activity.
No one thought much about global terrorism in the 2000 election, but it has dominated
the last eight years. And this election no one talked much about multi-year, trillion-dollar-a-year deficits to spur economic activity, a course on which we are, apparently, about to
embark. Such stimulus has traditionally been far more pork-barrel than post-partisanship.
And here I am less impressed by the president-elect’s first post-election moves.

But we shall see. I hope that, in the rush to spend, the party in power thinks both about
the long-term needs of communities and the long-term burden such spending places on the
younger generation of taxpayers, who today sit in my classrooms and will have to pay, quite
literally, for what is decided in the few months ahead.

I do not envy our new president. I hope that he can broaden health insurance coverage,
expand global stability and international justice, and see emerge a more “green” and
sustainable domestic economy. I doubt some of his ideas, partly because they violate the
guidelines of both subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. I fear what the Congress will do as
his ideas go through the policy process. May I be wrong, and he, right. It won’t be the first
time, for either.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.