10/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's At Stake: The Future vs The Past

I watched the first presidential debate last week with friends in Sydney where I was on a State Department speaking tour to explain US politics to Australian audiences. One of my co-viewers was Don Russell, a former Aussie Ambassador to the US and chief political advisor to the former Labor Prime Minister. Don espoused the theory that the determining factor in the presidential race will be the extent of HD penetration in American households.

Russell argues that John McCain looks really, really old in High Definition, and that the more voters who watch the next two debates in HD, the better Obama will do. It's an intriguing theory, and probably not without some merit--and some enterprising reporter or reader might want to check out the actual extent of HD coverage.

Watching in HD or not, John McCain does look like the old guy in the race, and Obama the fresh face. For some older voters, McCain's age is a plus--the experience factor. He's been around Washington, DC a long time, and might know more than newcomer Obama; certainly, that has been one of his campaign's main arguments.

For me and many others, it is not just about McCain's age (although surely it is of added concern with Sarah Palin standing on deck in the VP circle). It is about his ideas and what he stands for. The moto of the 2008 election should be: It's The Future, stupid.

Of course, the economy is the most single important issue now in voters' minds and the political struggle in DC over the financial bailout and the drop in the stock market only heightens public concern. How voters perceive each candidate's response to the financial crisis--how each man acts, how each explains the situation, and how each proposes to reform the economy once in the White House--will largely determine who is the next President of the United States. But more is at stake in this contest than simply reining in the excesses of Wall Street.

The 2008 election is a choice between the past and the future--and the choice will affect America's fortunes at home and abroad for generations to come.

John McCain is more than the oldest candidate to run for President. His ideas are old--stale, inadequate to the times, and proven failures. Yes, he is a man of some honor and courage who wants what is best for his country--but to listen to him in the first debate is to hear how stuck he is in the past. He spoke of Eisenhower, of Vietnam, of the aging and irrelevant Henry Kissinger, and most frequently of Ronald Reagan. As a self-declared "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution", he is a firm believer in Reaganomics--the belief that cutting taxes and cutting government regulations will lead to economic growth and greater prosperity.

Recent events have made clear (if it wasn't already self evident) that such policies lead to greater inequality, stagnant wages, and greater economic volatility--a prescription for a weaker not a stronger American society. The stated beliefs of his choice for VP Sarah Palin are backward looking: anti-women, anti-science, anti-progressive.

In foreign policy, McCain wants to put the failed Bush doctrine on steroids. He calls for a League of Democracies that would bypass the UN and exclude Russia and China, two nations that need to become stake holders in the international system, not excluded from it. This is a recipe for repeating the mistakes of the 20th century--first economic depression, then world war. His position on Iraq: stay until "victory" is achieved, is simply repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. In some ways, he is simply refighting the Vietnam War in a different setting--bogged down in sand instead of mud.

While in Australia, I had dinner and a long talk with Paul Keating, one of the must successful Prime Ministers in recent decades. Keating led the reform of the Australian economy, dramatically opening it to the world while building a world class social safety net to allow Australians the security to compete globally. He also started new initiatives in Asia, and built up the country's ties to China while maintaining good relations with the US. He helped President Clinton see the value of APEC, and the utility of gathering the leaders of Asian and Pacific nations each year for group and bi-lateral talks.

Keating despairs for America and our role in the world if McCain is elected. In a recent poll, almost three-quarters of Australians want Barack Obama to be the next President of the US.

Some of my liberal Republican friends (a dying breed to be sure) argue that the "real John McCain" will emerge once he is in the White House--and that he will turn out to be a genuine liberal Republican. Unfortunately, there is little evidence in this campaign and his stated positions to support that thin reed of hope. Check out Jeffrey Goldberg's article "Why War is His Answer--Inside the Mind of John McCain" in the October issue of The Atlantic for a detailed exposition of why the optimists for McCain are misguided. All of his key foreign policy advisors think that Bush has been right about the world, just that he didn't execute his unilateralist policies well enough. McCain will somehow do it better.

On the domestic front, McCain might be checked by a Democratic Congress, but I doubt that he has the flexibility of Govenor Arnold to reinvent himself as a Green reformer. McCain will get angry facing off against Pelosi and Reid, and the result will be stalemate and drift. McCain's erratic behavior last week during the financial meltdown--one day the economy is sound, the next day he wants to fire the head of the SEC, the next day he "suspends" his campaign and returns to inject Presidential politics into the negotiations. His intercession seems to have made matters worse on Capitol Hill, not better--a likely preview of a McCain Presidency.

As a former supporter of Senator Clinton, I firmly believe that Barack Obama understands, while McCain does not, that America's future is at stake in this election--and that Reaganomics at home and aggressive unilateralism abroad are not the right answers.

If Obama is elected President to govern with a Democratic Congress--one in which conservative sourtherners will no longer dominate-- there will be an historic opportunity to stem the tide of rising inequality in American society, to reform the American economy, to regulate it fairly and smartly, and to build a social safety net for the 21st Century that includes portable pensions, universal health care, early childhood education and community-based educational reform, and greater scientific innovation, especially in creating more jobs in the "green economy." Such reforms would strengthen America to move forward in this globalized world without impoverishing the majority of our citizens. Progressive groups and an activist Congress would be essential partners in creating what I call a New American Compact--in effect, a new New Deal.

Abroad, the election of Obama would be greeted not only with a sign of relief, but with a great deal of hope. Polls at home and abroad show that citizens around the globe believe that an Obama Presidency could help significantly to restore American moral prestige and leadership in international affairs. Certainly, the election of a President of African-American descent would signal that the US has finally moved beyond its racial past, and provide an outpouring of optimism about the nature of American society. As President,, Barack Obama would have to made difficult decisions about matters of war and peace, climate change, and global economic reform--but I am convinced that he would look to the future not the past in making his choices, and that he would deploy a considerable stable of talented Americans, including Al Gore, Bill Clinton, John Kerry and others, to help him find allies to craft a global New Deal--to be an FDR for the 21st Century.

If elected President, Obama might signal his intentions by canceling the the traditional Inaugural parties and balls for wealthy contributors, ask Hollywood celebrities not to jet in to DC, and instead turn Inauguration week into a national conversation on Ideas for Change. He could ask a new generation of innovative thinkers for their ideas on the content of a new American Compact, and energize citizens through online forums, and encourage them to participate with Congress in reforming and renewing American society from DC and Wall Street down to the neighborhoods of Main Street.

My optimistic, California-bred nature sometimes kicks in and I get excited by the possibilities, once more, of building a better America--but I am realist. It will take a lot of hard work, and lot of cleaning up the mess created by the incompetence and mendacity of the Bush-Cheney era. Electing Obama offers the promise of a better future. McCain will only continue the sad ways of the past. The choice seems very stark and very clear: the past vs the future.