I've agonized about who I would support in the Presidential contest, and until yesterday, I wasn't rooting for any of them. But I think I've made up my mind. I realize it's taken a lot of time, and that might be frustrating to some; it has certainly frustrated me. And yet there's a reason for this, illustrated well by Steve Clemons and his a must-read piece. Clemons he gets to the heart of why picking someone is so difficult by recounting an anecdote from a friend of his who advises John McCain.
But this person who knows McCain better than most made the point that sometimes the "person" that the candidate is just doesn't matter all that much -- at some point, the candidate becomes a franchise of so many interests and perspectives, sometimes in internal conflict with one another, that what the candidate really thinks or feels becomes less important.
That is why I spend a lot of time looking at advisers, funders, and other interests that surround these candidates. Each is somewhat of a free trade zone unto himself or herself for political interests vying to steer him or her this way or that.
It's lousy that this is the case -- but it is, and we need to be engaged as American citizens in trying to compel the candidates one direction or another -- and to punish or reward based on the positions that they are occasionally brave enough to articulate.
I largely agree with Steve, except I don't think it's a lousy process. Here's my thinking on the different candidates, and why at least now and just like Chris, I'll be rooting for a John Edwards win in the Iowa caucuses.
There are two basic pieces that frame my thinking on politics. The first is the Bar Fight Primary. If you believe we need a political realignment, as I do, or a different way of governing, then it's worthwhile to examine Reagan's career and his turn to change America. In 1980, Ronald Reagan showed that he was willing to unify America, to change the way citizens thought about their relationship to their government. Only, he was no centrist, he unified the country against liberals. To start his campaign, he picked a fight against the civil rights movement, and the first thing he did in office was to illegally crush a union. That is how you realign, through aggressive divisive persuasive arguments and actions. Only Edwards has put forward an aggressive populist message, one conducive to the partisanship we need. And while he has no strong political accomplishments and I'm not sure he'd run a good general election campaign, he's succeeding somehow in Iowa with almost no media focus and a deep hostility from DC (marked by his fundraising circles, which unlike those of Clinton and Obama are entirely driven by non-DC sources). That is admirable, even if I don't fully understand how he's doing it. And if he can keep doing it, that will neuter the DC Village, which is something we desperately need to do.
Obama is the only other candidate who could do this, but I do not think he will. Though both he and Edwards have phenomenally good media and internet platforms, Obama's campaign is marked by cynical boasts about irrelevant non-accomplishments reigning in the power lobbyists and a fake aversion to the DC establishment that loves him and slathers him with cash. He has gay-baited and sister souljah's liberals, and aggressively repudiated progressive ideas with statements like "I don't think in ideological terms. I never have." His most recent right-wing attack is on John Edwards being a trial lawyer, but he has not hesitated to come at Clinton from the right. There are also subtle differences between Edwards and Obama that mark Edwards more serious about progressive governance, like how Obama would restrict all lobbyists, while Edwards would only restrict corporate lobbyists. And at the end of the day, unlike Dodd (who I would endorse if he were top-tier), both Clinton and Obama failed to do anything to stop the horrifically anti-American Military Commissions Act from passing in 2006 that legalized torture and got rid of habeast corpus; Obama deserves special scorn for his 2006 work and his abandonment of Ned Lamont, though Bill Clinton isn't far behind (Edwards came straight up to Connecticut after the primary victory, as did Wes Clark).
|So in terms of the bar fight primary, Edwards comes out ahead. He is the most loyal political figure to progressives, he is most willing to listen, and he will fight with us at least some of the time. I do not think that Edwards is a perfect candidate. I think he's got problems in understanding how to effectively attack the right and work the media, as evidenced by the mishandling of the haircut fiasco, and I don't see a lot of accomplishment there. He hasn't built up any infrastructure in four years of running for office, and his signature issue, poverty, has gone nowhere. So this is not an enthusiastic push for Edwards, but it is a statement that I would prefer he win over the others.
The second way I'm organizing my thinking about the Presidential contest is in terms of what the country needs. I wrote about this in my piece on the the overall political architecture of our society, titled Five Untouchable Symptoms in which I outlined five large hurdles to a progressive country, like American empire and the war on drugs, that are not being addressed right now. We live in a political culture that is driven by fear and war, with a military and an economy that grows and succeeds by high trust creativity and technological development. This is not sustainable, and we will make a choice one way or another. Keeping 2 million people in prison, many of whom are there simply because they used the same illegal substances something that the last two Presidents and many of our elites have done, and stationing troops in 144 countries around the world with no public debate on the matter and a creepily defined 'Department of Homeland Security', are clear paths to authoritarianism. So are Blackwater and private armies, the legalization of torture, the end of habeas, a hedge fund world, and the corporate control of media. These signposts do not mark a path to freedom. On the other side, the internet, open politics, the new economy, the sustainable agriculture movement, millenial politics, and a pluralist globalized America are signposts to a progressive society marked by individual freedom and communitarian values.
America has a choice, to dismantle our war economy and to live in a healthy sustainable high trust world, or to drift lazily towards a sort of corporate PR-driven fascism. The tools, whether inexpensive limitless solar power that can literally be printed out on sheets or immensely powerful data analysis spying systems that can identify and suppress dissent, exist for either. Only Edwards, with his rejection of the war on terror frame and his statement that Americans need to be patriotic about something other than war, is even identifying the problem as a problem of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
Both Clinton and Obama believe the war on terror is real, and I believe they are sincere and will act on those impulses when in office. Mark Schmitt has made the best counter-argument here, with the idea that Obama has a progressive theory of change. Obama will act like a hard-nosed community organizer, so goes the theory, and sit Republicans on a committee with Democrats, and define the mission his way. He will show that the Republicans act in bad faith rather than pick a fight right off the bat. While certainly intriguing, for this to work, one assumption among many you must hold is that Obama shares your ends. And since he does think that there is a war on terror, and progressives do not, if you are a progressive you have to assume that Obama is lying to get elected and will repudiate right-wing frames after he is elected. I don't think that is wise. I think it is just as likely that he will sit Republicans and Democrats down on a committee and define the committee mission his way: figure out how to 'win the war on terror'.
And that is not change, it is yet more drift towards lazy authoritarianism. As for Clinton, there are really three episodes that foreshadow her Presidency: health care in 1993-1994, surviving the right-wing machine in the 1990s, and the war in Iraq. Clinton has shown herself to be an extremely hard worker, exceptionally smart and a master of detail. Her dramatic failure in 1993-1994 on health care has been analyzed to death, and you can cast blame, but on a basic level she just didn't get it done. Her work on Iraq is just loathsome, both in her vote for the war, her John Kerry-like insistence she didn't vote for the war but voted for the authorization of force, her refusal to apologize, and her continued expressive conservative tendencies best illustrated by her reprehensible vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to ratchet up tensions with Iran. Dick Holbrooke said it best.
"She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband," says Richard Holbrooke, the former envoy for Bill Clinton. "Hillary Clinton is a classic national-security Democrat. She is better at framing national-security issues for the current era than her husband was at a common point in his career."
With Hillary Clinton, we will get a continuation of Bush-Cheney militarism, albeit done more competently. Once again, that is drift in the wrong direction. On a positive note, Clinton's survival in the 1990s is meaningful. Of the three contenders, she is the only one who has bested the conservative machine in an electoral circumstance. And she has certainly helped more than any of them to build center-left infrastructure. And yet, I think it's clear from her work on Iraq and her primary, that a Clinton campaign will be a slightly more competently managed repeat of Kerry, with viciously backbiting advisors, no message, a swing state strategy, and a frustrated base.
Now, you might think at this point that I am being too harsh on Obama and Clinton, that implying they will move us towards a closed society is unrealistic. And yet, it is undeniably true that both Obama and Clinton have embraced the main thrust of George Bush's frame for governance, the war on terror. Terror is a tactic, and since the war on terror was initiated by George Bush, the number of terrorist incidents has skyrocketed. It is not only wrong to believe that there is a war on terror, it is giving in to your worst instincts. It is not fact-based, reality-based, or whatever you want to call it. It is Bush-Cheney lite authoritarianism. Period. And that both Obama and Clinton embrace this frame shows just how far we must go to take over the Democratic Party.
Moving forward, it seems like Edwards has some shot to take the nomination, but it's not clear if he will. I am impressed that he has gone as far as he has with relatively little money and establishment support. At the same time, though I have clearly described larger issues at play and definitely argued for Edwards and against Obama and Clinton, if either of those were to win, I would endorse them heartily. As Clemons notes, candidates are no so much people but confluences of difference interests marked by a set of specific personality traits. And so while it is a simpler frame to believe that an electoral contest settles all questions, the reality is fortunately not so neat. The day after Iowa, the day after New Hampshire, and in fact, every day of the election and the Presidency these interest groups will be fighting and organizing against and with each other. And I intend to stay in that fray.
For now, it is Edwards whose set of interests are most conducive to a progressive realignment of the country. Clinton is more of the same, and to genuinely believe in Obama as a progressive you must believe, as Schmitt does, that he is fundamentally deceitful and that deceit is a path to building progressive electoral power. And yet, all of them are malleable and all are worth putting in office.
In other words, we are not electing a dictator, we are electing a President. And that means that we have a responsibility to pay attention, to speak softly or yell, to get involved, to stay involved, and to vote, again and again. America can drift into an extremely dark period, or we can build our dreams, it really is up to us and our choices. While we debate the big ideas in the Presidential contest, we make the choice of defining who we are every day, even when our favorite candidate doesn't win, or even when George Bush is in office.