Pragmatic, Principled, Obama


By Joe Campbell
October 12th, 2007

A note on why this was written: I was challenged by a redditor about Senator Obama’s vote for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The text of Obama’s speech on the floor of the Senate is here. Thanks to my challenger for the link. The actual back and forth is here. I’ve edited it a bit for posting.

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Obama’s vote in favor of the Military Commissions Act does disturb me greatly. More so than anything else about Obama as a candidate and future president.

However, I believe (and at this point it can only be a belief) that Barack Obama as president would restore habeas corpus and put an end to torture as a means of interrogation. He says so in his stump speech, but I do not blindly trust the words of those campaigning for public office.

After a cursory search of the web, I have not found a defense of Senator Obama’s vote. And given the two foundational principles – habeas corpus and the the responsibility of a government to treat those within it’s power humanely – that this bill in one way or another attacks (by suspending habeas rights for non-citizens with controversy over whether it applies to citizens, and by allowing testimony gained by means of torture)–it is difficult to see what a good man of principle may have been thinking. Even more, the MCA put into law the staggeringly flawed policy that is the Bush administration’s response to detaining possible terrorists.

But I do not merely admire Senator Obama because he is principled; just as important: he is both ambitious and pragmatic. Many principled men and women have broken their selves upon the system. I firmly believe it is possible to be both highly principled, and willing to compromise those principles at the right time, in order to preserve them.

As Lincoln did – suspending habeas corpus without calling on Congress; declaring slavery an evil, if anything is evil, yet not calling for its extermination.

I do not know what Obama was thinking when he cast that vote.

  • He may have been thinking that to be one of the very few voices speaking without a chance of success at this time might marginalize him for the 2008 election.
  • He may have been thinking that it was better to pass a flawed bill and begin to re-assert a weak role for Congress in these important matters than to dither about and have the president flout the ruling of the Supreme Court. Because if the president had just ignored the Court’s ruling, that may have damaged the balance of power more than this weak bill.
  • He may have been making political calculations about his future, or about the long-term interests of the country, or both.

But my point is this: as disturbing as it may be, it is conceivable that a good and principled man or woman could vote for such a flawed law as this.

Centrism is not a dirty word. It is not our salvation either. I do not believe however Obama is trying to be a centrist. Rather, it seems to me he is trying to find the best solutions, words, and actions in a flawed world. Unlike Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, he is willing to be pragmatic in order to achieve what he wants. As the Clintons are; as Lincoln, JFK, and MLK were.

For me, the difference is that I trust that Obama has principles. Every position seems to contain both pragmatic and principled stands.

When I see Clinton, I only see pragmatism. She seems to believe that elections are games to get power; and with her power, she will do certain good things. Her focus is on the ends almost exclusively.

Obama seems to believe that elections are about convincing the country that his principles are right where possible, and compromising otherwise. Power is about making the changes he has brought the country around to with his election and using his position in office.

Kucinich seems to believe that elections are only won by the corrupt, and power is guaranteed to corrupt. It does not seem to me that Kucinich wants to win.

Oscar Wilde once said: “It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory and still to love it.” We are in a fallen world. I believe the institutions of our democracy are in grave danger. And I cannot countenance a leader who is unwilling to compromise in order to win.

Lincoln won his election on a platform of keeping slavery. And he meant it, it seems. Yet given the perspective of history, I would not have chosen another man to lead our country in that time – no matter how pure or how principled. Slavery was evil. Yet Lincoln’s decision, flawed as it may be, compromising his basic principles and the principles of our nation, still stands the test of time. It stands because he was able to bring the country to where he felt it should be.

And that is my hope for Obama.