US & Canada

Viewpoint: An undecided voter's agony

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
Image caption Obama and Romney have been in the political spotlight for years - but some American voters still cannot choose one over the other

Not all undecided American voters are uninformed, uninterested or unintelligent. Rod Dreher is having trouble choosing a candidate because he likes neither of them.

I am a middle-aged, college-educated American. I know how to read and write. I am reasonably conversant in the great issues of our time, have all my teeth, and to the best of my knowledge, have never sired a Honey Boo Boo Child.

And still, I cannot decide how to cast my presidential vote on Election Day.

This ought to be easy. I am a convinced conservative - the Red Tory variety. I haven't voted for a Democrat for president since Michael Dukakis, and that unfortunate gesture can be forgiven as youthful folly.

The thought of voting for Barack Obama gives me ideological hives. So why do I entertain the prospect, however remote?

Easy: Mitt Romney and the woebegone Republican Party have driven me away.

No credibility

Mr Romney may be so artificial he gives polymers a bad name, but it's not his personality that bothers me, it's his policies.

My alienation from the GOP began with the waning years of the George W Bush presidency, which was bad for the country and catastrophic for the Republican Party.

GOP credibility on foreign policy died in the deserts of Iraq, taking with it neo-conservative dogma about universal democracy and the capabilities of American hyperpower.

The economic crash revealed the danger of free-market fundamentalism - especially of privileging the Wall Street priestly class. It did tremendous damage to Republican claims to be better economic stewards than the Democrats.

George W Bush's domestic leadership, aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans, occasioned the greatest expanse of government spending since Democrat Lyndon B Johnson's welfare-state orgy of the 1960s. As long as we had tax cuts, few on the right seemed to mind.

Given this record, it was not surprising the country chose Mr Obama over John McCain in 2008.

Dissenting conservatives like me expected Mr McCain's loss would occasion a Great Relearning by the GOP, a time of rethinking what prudent and capable conservatism looks like in the wake of the Bush debacle.

That didn't happen. The Republicans chose instead to double down on dogmatism and line up in lock step to block Mr Obama's agenda.

Power politics

Their obstructionism wasn't entirely unreasonable: as a general matter, a conservative party ought to oppose a liberal president's initiatives.

Image caption The author voted only once for a Democrat but can't commit to Romney

But absent a rethinking and recalibration of GOP policies and principles, it amounted to cynical power politics.

Four years on, we have Mitt Romney, a plutocrat with important hair and no particular political principles, running to be the third term of George W Bush.

The Republicans have exiled Mr Bush down the memory hole, but the only difference I can see between him and Mr Romney is that the current nominee has twice the smarts and half the conviction.

If I vote for Mr Romney, it will be on the hope that he has the courage of his lack of convictions: he doesn't really mean what he says and will govern pragmatically, not ideologically.

Mr Obama is not much of an alternative.

I did not vote for him in 2008, but I expected at least that I could count on a liberal Democratic president to rein in Wall Street and pursue a reasonable national security policy.

Mr Obama has disappointed, to put it mildly.

While he has certainly been better on foreign policy than any conceivable Republican - especially on the prospect of war with Iran - Mr Obama waged war with Libya without Congressional consent.

And he has stuck to the bipartisan "American century" consensus - the idea that America is and must be the "indispensable nation," as he put it in his address earlier this year at the US Air Force Academy.

Plus, he has continued many of the objectionable Bush-era policies.

Image caption Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush Sr by eight percentage points

He stopped waterboarding, but almost all of Mr Bush's extraordinary post-9/11 national security structure remains in place. Mr Obama added to the president's powers the right to assassinate American citizens overseas that the government deems terrorists.

Economically, Mr Obama has continued Bill Clinton's practice of letting Wall Street dictate economic policy.

Less evil?

The best that can be said for him is that he hasn't done as poorly as he might have with the terrible hand that was dealt him.

No doubt Mr Obama will be more sensitive in addressing the enormous economic inequality in the US, and hostile to the concentration of power in the financial sector than Mr Romney, the extremely rich former chief of the investment firm Bain Capital.

But given how close the Democrats have become to Wall Street since the Clinton era, he will not be much better.

Though I would likely give Mr Obama my vote over Mr Romney as the lesser of two evils on foreign policy and economics, I'm challenged by my deep misgivings about the president's understanding of religious liberty.

The Obama administration's decision to compel religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception against their own core teachings reveals its hostility to religious sensibilities.

Over the next four years churches, parochial schools, and all religious institutions will face tremendous constitutional challenges should the US Supreme Court overturn bans on same-sex marriage, as Mr Obama supports.

Necessary choice

In 2008, I cast a third-party protest vote, writing in the agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry.

It felt good, but it was a wasted vote. I am disinclined to indulge in that futile gesture again.

The truth is, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats offers a plausible critique of the current crisis, nor a solution to it.

One of these men, Mr Obama or Mr Romney, will be president next year. A choice must be made, and choosing not to choose is itself a choice and probably the least honourable.

To most of my fellow Americans, the choice is obvious.

That it is not clear to me is not for my want of intelligence or political engagement - it is because neither candidate is worthy of my vote.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative. E-mail: