I'm not afraid of Barack Obama

At the risk of stirring controversy I'd like to declare that Barack Obama would probably make an OK president. To his supporters this will sound outrageously tepid. Whereas many conservatives are passionately convinced the rookie Senator from Illinois is absolutely the worst imaginable candidate for the Oval Office since, um, the last guy the Democrats nominated. In this respect, at least, hard-core Republican and Democratic sympathizers are quite similar: Compare what the latter now say about John McCain with the way they used to praise his independence from George W. Bush, and ask yourself whether they, too, don't need either a reality check or an honesty transfusion.

The test I apply within my own social circles, such as they are, is to ask which Democratic nominee for president in the last 60 years they do not consider conspicuously unfit for that office. Not just potentially ineffective, lacking experience and/or liable to espouse bad polices, but offensively unsuited to it. I realize conservatives are likely not to support liberal candidates regardless of their personal qualities (and vice versa). But in a democracy, if your hair rises in panic at every nominee from the other party it is your judgment that is called into question, not theirs.

I apply my 60-year test to Republicans because I want to be sure my net is large enough to catch Harry Truman. He had his failings, but his temperament was well suited to the difficult job of U.S. president, and particularly in foreign affairs he is now vindicated as thoroughly as he was pilloried at the time. The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson opined on Tuesday, expressly respecting George W. Bush, that "Almost every North American politician who leaves office unpopular hopes for a Truman. Alas for them, Mr. Truman's rehabilitation was unique." Oh really? What about Ronald Reagan? Or Richard Nixon? Or Dwight Eisenhower? Shall I go on naming Republicans or is the point clear?

I know it's hard to rally the troops with a dramatic cry that while your own candidate is uninspiring the other guy is liable, on balance, to be marginally worse. But even active partisans should try to remember which of their utterances are deliberate exaggerations or outright lies. Those who merely follow politics with passion have no excuse for plunging into the bile so enthusiastically as to splash it about. I don't expect Democrats to prefer Republican candidates or vice versa but I do expect them to keep a little perspective.

A number of essentially mediocre Democratic candidates in the past half-century might have made a dangerous mess of Soviet-American relations. But that doesn't make Walter Mondale a leftist menace like Al Gore, or a cad like Bill Clinton. Democrats should be ashamed of the enthusiastic welcome they gave Mr. Clinton at their convention 10 years after he was impeached; Richard Nixon was not even at the 1984 RNC a decade after resigning. But honestly, would conservatives, or Americans, be worse off today if Michael Dukakis had defeated George Bush Sr. in 1992? And if Sarah Palin were a Democrat, would the Globe editorially demand her resignation from the ticket and peddle rumours of a "shotgun" wedding for her pregnant daughter?

Some of my Republican friends tell me Sen. Obama is bitter, radical and dangerous. I don't believe it. Yes, he inhaled some noxious vapours from the left-wing fringe of black American politics but I don't think they poisoned him. Indeed the one extravagant expectation of his supporters that I think he could meet is to help heal America's deep and ancient racial wounds, simply by raising his right hand and repeating the oath of office.

I grant that on foreign policy he seems to vacillate rhetorically between appeasement and belligerence and if he were to do so in office we'd all regret it. But honestly, what true Republican liked John McCain before the campaign started? And if the Democrats are going to win, would you rather it be with Hillary Clinton? Or Al Gore? They can't all be worse than one another. Membership in the Democratic Party may indicate poor judgment, but unless you're willing openly to call it proof of imbecility, depravity or both you can't treat every nominee as confirmation of that claim. And by the way, if liberals would extend the same courtesy to conservatives, in Canada as well, it might not harm political discourse there or here.

In the end, I tell my conservative friends that, if elected, Barack Obama will either do a decent job, which would be good, or be a comically catastrophic bust like Jimmy Carter and push the country back to the right, which would also be good. So we have nothing to lose but our sense of proportion.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]