Saturday, August 16, 2008

Faith and Politics

Tonight we saw something quite unique in the Faith Forum moderated by Rick Warren, at the Saddleback church where both McCain and Obama have appeared together for the first time since the primaries ended.

What was unique was that this was being moderated by a Pastor, and secondly it was a true apples to apples comparison, as both candidates were given their turn to answer the same set of questions. The questions ranged from how faith shaped their decisions and life, their views on abortion and stem cell research, evil, moral failures both personal and America's moral failures, and of course taxes. There has been a lot of discussion of how this would impact the two candidates, and from my point of view it did two things:
  1. It definitely crystalized the view points that uncertain voters may have had about both candidates.
  2. It also showcased the two very different styles of the two men, and what kind of approach or leadership they would bring to the White House. In some way, their generational gap was also quite evident.
Although some have speculated that this might be an opportunity to steal some greater portion of the evangelical base, I am not convinced that anything has significantly changed. I think the conservative evangelicals who place "sin" issues such as abortion and opposing of gay marriages were more clear on their support for McCain. For McCain, he was able to appeal to his religious conservative base by emphathically stating his pro-life position. This was particularly evident when he responded to which Supreme Court Justices he would not have nominated. For Obama, any doubts on his faith and his Christian beliefs were laid to rest. Obama was more comfortable about referencing faith and parts of the teachings of the New Testament in his answers. This may have reassured some who had questions on his religious beliefs (although it's even sad to have to prove one's own religion in this day and age).

One interesting question was in regards to Moral Failures. Obama again referenced his teen issues and temporary use of drugs. He did go into some introspective on what drove him in his moral failure and how he has changed. McCain very briefly and very uncomfortably stated the failure with his first marriage as his moral failure, and then quickly moved on to a new topic. As described by a CNN analyst, the room was described as being "so quiet, you could hear a pin drop". It's been suggested that his answers were very to the point, and that maybe something that is generational (Update: speculation exists whether McCain knew upfront what the questions were). What is interesting is that despite the John Edwards scandal, the same scrutiny is not applied to McCain and his character. It's not like he was a teenager making a mistake. He was a 40 year old man who cheated on his disabled wife, and divorced her while getting married to his 2nd wife. But for the family focus and moral values group, this is apparently a minor point.

The style of Obama was much more intellectual, and thoughtful. It's clear that as he gives his answers, he is truly looking back on his past, his faith, his principles, and how they come into play with his leadership.

McCain's answers, if purely judged by "superficial" style, where short and sweet answers may be considered the hallmark of a leader, has succeeded in meeting that definition. What troubled me most about McCain, is the lack of honesty his answers demonstrated. His answers were very much "prepared" or canned, almost like if you were to go on an interview and someone asked -

"What kind of worker do you see yourself", if you said "A hard worker, someone motivated and dedicated." Or if you were asked "Do you think you are intelligent" - if you answered simply "Yes", would either of those responses be enough to get you the job?

I didn't get a clear sense of McCain's honesty, his true principles - except when he spoke about his time as a POW and hunting down Osama Bin Laden. I think that was the only time I saw his honesty and passion. Otherwise his answers were very much geared to the republican base. I was surprised by how he tried to package himself as "Pro-Life", when he has voted "Pro-Life" only to follow party loyalties, and not out of any true passion for this issue. Witness the fact that he is contemplating Ridge and Leiberman as VPs - both of whom are Pro-Choice.

When Warren asked Obama to define the word "rich," the Illinois senator teased the pastor about the mammoth sales of his book, "The Purpose Driven Life." Obama noted his plan to add a new Social Security payroll tax to incomes above $250,000 a year.

McCain said, "some of the richest people I've ever known in my life are the most unhappy." He said being rich should be defined by having a home and a prosperous and safe world. Without mentioning Obama, he said some want to increase taxes. "I don't want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich," McCain said. When pushed on an exact number, he joked: "If you're just talking about income, how about five million?" He added, "I'm sure that comment will be distorted."

But when it came to the question regarding what defined "rich" and who would be taxed, the candidates again gave two very different answers. McCain clearly dodged the question and gave a rather simplistic and dishonest answer. He absolutely refused to acknowledge what income would be considered rich, and what amazed me is that the audience bought into the argument that we can continue to have this large deficit and have tax cuts. McCain gave an example, which I thought was irrelevant, but I am sure people will grasp on this as the root of all evil in government spending - which was an example of $3 Million spent on bear DNA research (which by the way he voted for). If McCain thinks that we can sustain tax cuts and simply cut discretionary spending, he is living in a dream world. Here's an example, suppose you are living pay check to pay check, and you have a $50,000 credit card bill, leasing an SUV, would cutting out a daily $4 Latte change your financial situation?

Our deficit is nearing HALF A TRILLION Dollars , Obama acknowledged this and made it clear that we can not continue to have this deficit, because it affects our National Security. The bulk of our spending is primarily made up of defense (in particular the Iraq War), Social Security, Medicaid, Infrastructure, and the servicing of our national debt - which is owned by foreign countries such as China!

When asked Obama responded directly to what defines "rich". Obama indicated that for those making less than $150,000, they would get a tax cut. Those making more than $250,000 would get a slight tax increase. Obama was clear about the need for Americans to have to make sacrifices, and he referenced his grandparents' generation, and the sacrifices of a nation made during WWII. McCain did initially scoff Bush's philosphy for America "to go shopping" after 9/11. He made some statements of how Americans should have enlisted (which many did), join the Peace Corps, etc. But again, when it came to energy and taxes, two very hard issues, McCain advocated tax cuts and gave pithy catch phrases like "Drill Here - Drill Now".

It alarms me that after 8 years of short catch phrases that were packaged as American policy - i.e."Americans don't cut and run", "Mission Accomplished", Americans still hoot and hollar over simple answers. Are we really seeing the dumbing of America, where thoughtful answers don't rate as high in popularity as catchy phrases you might hear at a pep rally - like "We're #1"?

Towards the end, when asked why they wanted to run for President, they both provided servitude and country as their reasons. Looking back at this first "debate", and what we can take away from this as voters, I think ultimately, it comes down to who's leadership style and philosphy is more suited for America's future. McCain's simplistic, easy and gimmicky answers, and his hawkish "shoot from the hip" foreign policy style quite simply scares me. I think we have had enough of 8 years of "Cowboy" diplomacy.
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The Individual vs the Collective

I came across this article in the NY Times, of all the conservative writers, I do tend to respect David Brook's opinions more than say those of William Kristol, who pens ideological blatherings for the NY Times.

With the Olympics, you can't avoid all the writing about China's geo-political and cultural differences. However, I found his latest article about the differences between Western and Eastern mind-set rather interesting.

It is true that there is a different way of thinking between the two groups, that the Eastern philosphy is that of the collective, thinking of the group as more important than the individual, vs Western philosophy where the individualistic originality tends to be more inherent.

However, I would disagree with David Brook's inherent conclusion that there isn't a sense of collectivism in the US. Nor can we infer that the opening ceremonies show a true picture of a country in harmony. I think the social norms we have today in our neighborhood, the idea of working together for a greater good is evident everyday in the US. Every country has it's moment where an ideal or mission can bring it together for a nationalistic or collective effort.

But at the same time, in Western cultures, we recognize the unique rewards that individualism can bring as well. Throughout history, it's because of individual and creative innovators, that we were able to bring advancement. When you have a collective society all working in harmony, for sure you will have the productivity, but you don't have the creativity to produce something unique and jump start advancements in technology and ultimately your economy.

The opening ceremonies were impressive to be sure, and with so many displaying national pride and given the vast population, China did have the resources to pull off such an amazing show, but we need to keep in mind, that it was just that - a show.
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Monday, August 11, 2008

Re-inventing oneself

As everyone knows, part of the fun of watching any significant sporting event, will be the barrage of advertisements - think of the Super Bowl.

The Olympics are no different, with the millions paid by sponsors that range from the human interest to the cool and bizarre. One ad has definitely caught my eye - the Audi A4 Truth in Progress commercial.

The concept is so simple yet demonstrates the power image has to influence our thinking.

The image of the house being re-invented, the "traditional" (aka "old") interior transitioning to a modern ("new") interior - with even the dog being replaced from a "fussy" Irish Wolfhound to a "fun" dog - was wrapped up with the image of the Mercedes being replaced by the new Audi A4.

The message was clear and simple, and beyond the typical boring images that luxury cars usually rely on. Audi was able to make a direct jab at Mercedes by conveying the image that the modern luxury car has been re-defined by Audi.

This reminds me how important it is to not only be aware, but self-aware, and know when it's time to re-invent oneself or risk becoming stale.
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