I confess that I wasn’t really watching the debate because I had any interest in what McCain would say. I already know who I am voting for and I already know where McCain stands on all the issues, except for his astonishing mortgage bailout plan, about which the less said, the better. I really wanted to get a better sense for the general governing philosophy for an Obama administration. On that score, the bulk of the debate was a rehash of Obama’s technocratic campaign, but this exchange (from the transcript) really stood out in my mind and was the highlight of the debate.
Brokaw: Sen. McCain, for you, we have our first question from the Internet
tonight. A child of the Depression, 78-year-old Fiorra from Chicago.
Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to
help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As
president, what sacrifices — sacrifices will you ask every American to
make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic
morass that we’re now in?
McCain: [spending cuts, entitlements, earmarks, blah blah blah. Defense? ooookay.]
Obama: You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11
and where you were on that day and, you know, how all of the country
was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not
only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country.
And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the
opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American
people, he said, “Go out and shop.”
That wasn’t the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.
And so it’s important to understand that the — I think the American
people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle
these problems not just in government, but outside of government.
And let’s take the example of energy, which we already spoke about.
There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start
thinking about how we use energy.
I believe in the need for
increased oil production. We’re going to have to explore new ways to
get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling
the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they’re
not using, that either you use them or you lose them.
We’re going to have to develop clean coal technology and safe ways to store nuclear energy.
But each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save
energy in our homes, in our buildings. And one of the things I want to
do is make sure that we’re providing incentives so that you can buy a
fuel efficient car that’s made right here in the United States of
America, not in Japan or South Korea, making sure that you are able to
weatherize your home or make your business more fuel efficient.
And that’s going to require effort from each and every one of us.
And the last point I just want to make. I think the young people of
America are especially interested in how they can serve, and that’s one
of the reasons why I’m interested in doubling the Peace Corps, making
sure that we are creating a volunteer corps all across this country
that can be involved in their community, involved in military service,
so that military families and our troops are not the only ones bearing
the burden of renewing America.
That’s something that all of us have to be involved with and that requires some leadership from Washington.
I can’t overstate the importance of this. Most serious analysts have long observed that energy lies at the crossroads of most of our 21st-century challenges: national security, environment, economy, and arguably liberty itself, since the track record of oil-producing nations in that regards has not exactly been great (OPEC stands as an exception to Fareed Zakaria’s general observation that political liberalism increases with per-capita GDP in his excellent book, The Future of Freedom). So not only did Obama answer the question, but he answered it in the right context – Americans should be asked for sacrifice, but not for something of minor importance. This is the essence of leadership – to draw people forward and lead them in positive action, not just treat the American public as passive entities along for the ride.
Interestingly, Obama’s answer is fundamentally conservative. First, it is literally conservative by definition – since we are being asked to conserve energy for our own collective sake. Politically, Obama’s answer is conservative because it places the responsibility for action directly upon the individual – McCain mentioned numerous times how great and resourceful we are as a people, but Obama here is actually paying more than lip service to that idea. Fundamentally, the concept of national service is also conservative – a protection and contribution to the home and hearth, an “energy militia” of citizenry in a sense. This is critical in fostering that sense of ownership that a citizen should feel at a gut level towards not the “government” but the society and nation.
Related – Daniel Larison’s extensive discussion on “patriotism” vs “nationalism“. It’s not an arbitrary distinction.