Until yesterday I had not diaried on the Presidential nomination race. I will not be posting, or probably even lurking, during my upcoming three weeks in Asia, so I'm nearing my last chance to weigh in on the nomination races that have so roiled this site. My handicapping of both races was posted here; this diary is about my preferences among the Democratic candidates.
This diary reflects my thoughts only; it is not associated with any candidate or campaign.
Part 2 of 2
In choosing a candidate in the Democratic Presidential race, I remain where I have been for months. I like John Edwards. I like Chris Dodd. I like Barack Obama. I like them pretty much in that order.
I do not not like Hillary Clinton, whom I predicted yesterday will be the next President.
Anytime anyone phrases a sentence that awkwardly -- scroll to the end of the linked e.e. cummings poem for a brilliant example -- you know that a jumble of conflicted feelings underlies it.
Most of this diary is about Hillary, because it is regarding Hillary that there is an apparently wide gulf between attitudes of the netroots and the Democratic electorate at large, and I suspect that it is only about Hillary that I have anything particularly interesting to say. Before doing so, I'll offer a few thoughts on Edwards, Dodd, and Obama. I promise you, there is something here for everyone to hate.
1. John Edwards
If I were placed into a newsproof box and allowed out only to vote in California's February 5 primary without knowing what had come before, I would vote for John Edwards. In my ratings, the gap between Edwards and Obama is not as wide as that between Obama and Hillary, but while I'd be tempted to switch to the candidate I expect is more likely to beat her, I wouldn't do so for one basic reason: John Edwards earned my provisional vote between 2004 and 2006, and he simply never did anything to lose it. Until I know that strategic considerations must take priority, I believe in sticking with my candidate.
Positives. Edwards is running on an excellent platform and sounding most of the right notes regarding policy positions. Not perfect, perhaps, but close enough, combined with his viability, so that I feel no need to look around further. For someone as interested as I am in the minutiae of policy and legislation, it's odd to admit that what really turns my head is something much more abstract and ethereal, which I can best describe as "values." (This may just be a personality flaw: each of the two times I bought a house, and in renting my present apartment, I made a detailed list of things I wanted in a house and then tossed it out when I found one that I found charming -- and I haven't regretted any of those decisions.)
Essentially, to me "values" means the considerations I think that a person will bear in mind when it comes to making tough decisions. Will they value fairness? Will they value liberty? Will they value standing up for the commonweal against avarice? (And so on.) Edwards simply strikes me as someone who, in the Oval Office, will make decisions as I would like to think I would in his place and with his talents. (How can the rest of you argue someone out of a position like that? I don't know that you can. It is, above all else, an intuition.)
Negatives. I have to overlook a bit to reach this point. Edwards's voting record while representing North Carolina was not ideal -- but he was representing North Carolina, after all, and was probably about as good a vote as one could expect from there. I'm a bit ill at ease with how Edwards much has refashioned himself since 2004 into much more of a progressive -- but the way he presents his positions don't ring false at all to me; I think who he presents himself as being now is who he is. He voted for some things I can't stand -- not so much the 2002 AUMF, which almost all politicians with further ambitions supported (and people like me and Barack Obama had the luxury to oppose without consequence), but a variety of others that get mentioned here regularly -- but he seems to understand where he was wrong. And he talks a great game and has a great wife.
Any Democratic nominee will be savaged by Republicans, and for Edwards they already have the "too far left" theme picked out (which will backfire), the hypocritical class traitor theme (which won't resonate), and the "Breck Girl" ridicule, which will get some traction, though not enough to defeat him if nominated. But I think that the "Breck Girl" line of attack gets at my sole real concern about Edwards in a very roundabout way. Edwards is an adept fighter, but he is not a street fighter or brawler. He fights in the manner of a courtroom advocate; witness his planting the poison tablet of Hillary's money from lobbyists at the YearlyKos debate. (He is also vulnerable to attacks from a street fighter like Kucinich, as we saw at that debate.) Like Mondale and Dukakis and Gore and Kerry, I worry that he concentrates too much on scoring debating points to an attentively scorekeeping audience. He won't have an audience that can follow his argument in debates; he'll have an opponent that lies brazenly and expects not to be found out.
I worry that Edwards does not have the hard and nasty side that may be required this year. He should have creamed Dick Cheney in the 2004 debates, and seemed shocked that Cheney was just lying nonchalently throughout the whole thing and that the earth didn't swallow him up, that no referee showed up to penalize him, etc. Edwards has the style of the matador (or on his worse days, the picador) about him; I'd prefer someone who can swing a battleaxe. Bill Clinton was normally friendly as pie, but when his eyes would narrow he looked like someone who could rip off his enemy's leg and club him to death with it. The public responds to that sort of passion. I can't picture John Edwards doing what I'd like to see him do in a debate: growl in a low Johnny Cash voice that his opponent is lying to the public without sounding like a mere scold.
Conclusion: But maybe that won't be necessary this year, and if Edwards doesn't have all of the styling I'd like, he's still the right sort of model. The candidate in my experience whom Edwards reminds me of the most is -- I'll bet you won't guess this one -- Jimmy Carter in 1976. In that election, people were sick of the corruption of the previous administration and wanted decency above all. I can see that happening again -- and if so Edwards is well-placed to deliver.
2. Chris Dodd
Positives. Chris Dodd has what John Edwards doesn't have, in this respect. He can swing a battleaxe. If Dodd had a chance in hell of the nomination, I would seriously have to consider switching to him, because he's a good liberal and he has the pugnacity to take down any Republican.
Negatives. I vaguely recall there being a variety of votes over the years where he disappointed -- and coming from Connecticut rather than North Carolina he had much less of an excuse to do so -- but I haven't looked them up because his numbers have never been good enough for me to consider switching. So I wouldn't be surprised if there were strong reasons to oppose Dodd that I've overlooked -- but I'll be surprised if I ever need to look them up. (That Don Imus thing certainly doesn't do much to recommend him.)
Conclusion: I think that Dodd has done himself proud in this campaign and may well have set himself up as the next Senate Majority Leader after Reid leaves, but if I were to abandon Edwards it would be for someone more likely to win, not less.
3. Barack Obama
He's a year-and-a-half younger than me, yet even so I'd have no problems voting for him. That probably says a lot. He and his wife remind me of so many of my friends in academia and law: funny, whip-smart, dedicated progressives. I think that he'd destroy his opponent in the general election, just as Colin Powell would have destroyed any Democrat in 2000. All of that makes it sound like I have a crush on him -- Barack and Michelle, come stay at my house this campaign! -- and yet I don't. I like him, I admire him, and yet there is something in him that rings false to me. I'm not the first to note that he stinks of too much conciliation.
Negatives: I checked Wikipedia a moment ago to verify his birthday, and saw some quotes from the 2004 convention that reinforce my point. He said:
No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.
This seems sappy to me, something that as a community organizer he should know better. It would be so easy if all we needed was "a slight change in priorities." So little truly divides us! And I say: that's not so. We do not need slight changes in priorities; we need major overhauling of priorities. So much truly divides us from our opponents. And we need to not pretend otherwise.
Most famously, Obama says:
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
And I again say no. Yes, the divisions between us are not fixed in stone, but they are real, and they cannot be soaped away. That we are all one people is aspirational, but not real. Give me John Edwards saying that while we ought to be one America, we are currently two, and that that has got to stop. I think that this excerpt rings false because it makes things too easy, and also because it seems to hide a bit of a cringe: "don't hurt us, O bellicose and nationalistic masses, because in the end we are all on the same side." No, we're not. Our opponents are betraying us, selling us out, poisoning us, abusing us, and the problem is not that we have to prove that we're patriotic too, it's that they are not patriotic in any meaningful sense. And Obama creates a situation where he can't say that clearly, because his approach is that he wants us to reconcile.
Positives: So why do I still like the guy? I think it's because I think that deep down (or maybe not so deep), he's too smart and too decent to believe the soft soap he slathers over the political debate. I think that he gets it, and that he also gets that the American people are not ready to elect Jesse Jackson, but are ready to elect Colin Powell. And he so he has studiously become the Democratic Colin Powell.
I think that Barack Obama appears to have transcended race, as people like to say, but that he really hasn't done so. He's too smart for that. He knows what roles and manners are acceptable for him as a Black American, and he restricts himself to them, but anyone who came from the editorship of the Harvard Law Review into community organizing has to have a highly honed sense of social justice -- perhaps a sense too well-honed to brandish before the American people. I think he'll speak with force and moral authority on issues of social fairness.
I do appreciate the complaints about his not showing leadership on the issues I care about most. He was a Con Law professor, for God's sake, how can he not be echoing Chris Dodd? And then I think that Chris Dodd is doing what he does in part to electrify a longshot campaign, and that perhaps if you aren't a longshot -- but are running against as formidble an opponent as Hillary -- the way to get into power is not to yell about what you're going to do too loudly.
Conclusion: Like the other two above, I think that Barack Obama has great values. I expect great things out of him as President, and I accept that perhaps he just can't be as open about them for now as he might like. (Neither, of course, was FDR in 1932.)
4. Hillary Clinton
And that brings us, at last, to Hillary. I would vote for Hillary over Richardson or Biden, over Kucinich (because I do not think that electability is a fantasy) or Gravel. She is electable, especially when opposing as weak a Republican as she's likely to face, although she's completely tone-deaf at times, and capable of gaffes that can curl your teeth. It's true that she'll piss people off, but largely in places where we'd lose anyway, and being in New York while she ran for Senate and continued to build her brand upstate convinced me that she can charm people you would not expect. She is not a constant ally of progressives, true, but she will not bring the end of democracy or the destruction of the party. She will fight damn hard to do as good of a job as she can as President, in areas with which most of us mostly agree. She will, in some critical areas, be the just about most liberal President we have ever had. That is not negligible.
Negatives: So what is my problem with her?
Let me digress for a moment and suggest that everyone rent the movie version of Joe Klein's novel "Primary Colors," in which Emma Thompson and John Travolta play a vicious and nasty parody of Hillary and Bill. You'll need it to get a sense of the gut-level reaction people are going to have to Hillary, and the impossibility of her digging her way out of the problem. Klein's Hillary is two-dimensional (appropriately enough for one confined to a screen), and the portrayal is not entirely without sympathy for the betrayed wife who both loves and loathes her cheating political soulmate. What interests me here is the ending, which I'm going to mostly spoil for you. The fake Clintons come across some damning information (worse than "Sex on the City") on their last rival for the Democratic nomination, who has been poised to beat them. The cockeyed longtime friend and aide who provides it to them wants to see if they'll do the right thing and refuse to use it. They don't even hesitate -- the only question is when and how they release it; their friend is driven to depair and destruction. What the movie doesn't acknowledge well enough is that they are right: they are right that this information will come out anyway, and that they only question is whether it comes out soon enough to prevent their rival from winning the nomination. They believe that they are the best team to lead the country, and they will stop at nothing (at least nothing legal) to win, but for all their ambition they are ultimately right that the nasty course they take is the correct one.
It's an unfair and vicious portrayal, certainly -- but, you know, kernel of truth and all that.
What bothers me about Hillary is that I don't trust that she will not betray her ideals (and I do think she has some) to get her desired political ends. She is a "corporate Democrat," as Edwards charges, but not because of some evil streak -- she is one because as unions lost power, excess capital accumilated in fewer hands, and costly technology became more important in winning elections, campaign contributions became more important as well -- and corporations and those who favor them are the ones that have the money. (That, to me, was the key insight of the DLC. And as much as I dislike it, I have to note again that they may well have been right that there was no other choice in 1992 if the Democrats were ever to win another election. The Mondale and Dukakis had prefigured what seemed like permanent underfundedness for the Democratic Party, without large amounts of union labor to make up the deficit.)
Aside from my disliking a lot of the content of her politics, I also don't like a lot of her style. She will crudely (and probably more clumsily than her husband) triangulate against progressives, will follow the bad advice of the Democratic advisors who are regularly hired to lose U.S. Presidential elections, and all of the rest of the criticisms you know and that don't bear repeating. She will betray the netroots, progressives, etc., too easily, and often for too little policy-related gain. But she'll do so to put herself in a stronger political position, with which she will, often, do a lot of good. It will drive me (and most of you) insane during her Administration, and we will have a great time protesting her.
But I also think that as disappointed as we will be from day to day, from year to year we will agree that the country will be left better off overall for her rule. (Note: this does not apply if you want to see a workers' revolution or anything like that. But I don't think we'll see that under any candidate, and if we do see it, we won't like how it ends.)
Positives: Here's why I have hopes for Hillary, though: I believe that she, and Bill, are at heart relative progressives, but ones given to compromise. Their motto might be one that I've seen around here, and even used myself: "be as progressive as you can be, but no more so than is safe." Most of my disagreement with the Clintons involves a different assessment of how progressive they can be. My hope for a Hillary Presidency is that I think that times have changed. Now, thanks to George W. Bush, she can be much more progressive -- and, most critically, her being progressive for the next eight years is the only real path to greatness in office.
That's key, given my sense of the Clinton's psychology. I think that they are happy with Bill's Presidency to a great extent, especially as it will be viewed historically next to the younger Bush's, but that they are also dissatisfied. I don't think that they want Hillary to run the country solely because they think that they are smarter and harder working than anyone else -- although they do. I think there is something more at work than that:
I think that they want a mulligan.
A mulligan, as you may know, is a "do-over" in golf. I think that in some respects they want a do-over of Bill Clinton's first two terms. I do not think they view this as due to errors they made when in power, but simply because things may be possible now that were not possible then. Specifically, (1) they are no longer as constrained by Reaganism and a hostile Congress, and (2) they finally have an opportunity for greatness.
Let's take the last one first: the rap on Clinton when he left office, aside from all that unpleasantness about sex, was that he would not be judged to be a great President because -- unlike Lincoln, unlike FDR -- he had never had the crisis that would allow him to achieve greatness. Well, what a difference a Bush makes! Clinton's achievements will be looked on kindly by history -- his handling of the Balkans seems masterful next to Bush's bumbling, and his achieving a budget surplus seems almost poignant in the context of Bush and Cheney's explosion of the deficit -- but they pale compared to what the next President will be able to achieve if he or she is truly able to bring the nation's problems to heel. International havoc, budget insanity, the greenhouse effect, the housing and credit collapse, even trying to undo some of the damage caused by trade agreements -- this is truly "greatness thrust upon them" territory. They may look at themselves as a tested and experienced team who can mow through the nation's ills like dandelions.
But it's the changing political environment that may matter as much. Clinton came to prominence as head of the DLC, trying to accommodate the party to the still-powerful Reagan revolution and the removal from the political system of any effective countervailing force to high-priced lobbyists, mentioned above. It was a time when we had worse than today's Blue Dogs in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party lost much of whatever former shame or restraint it may once have had.
There were two possible responses to the increased power of money (and decreased power of labor) in the political system: struggle against it or embrace it. For over a decade, Democrats struggled against it. In 1992, Clinton gave into it. While not unfriendly to Labor, his view was that the Democrats had to have as much monetary parity as possible with Republicans. And, increasingly, the Democrats became the party of big banks. Within the Administration, Robert Rubin won out over Robert Reich, the Democratic Party became the anti-deficit party -- but also would not deliver on the promises of the Great Society -- and damned if the economy didn't hum along just as predicted. But the public was still crazy from Reaganomics and the tax-cut fever, and the tax hike that saved the economy, coupled with the betrayal of the party by Congressional Democrats who helped scuttle the Clinton health plan, doomed the party for over a decade following the 1994 elections. For the rest of his time in office, Clinton could not accomplish much that was simultaneously progressive and consequential.
In other words, the way to success for Bill Clinton was, in his opinion, the Third Way, the Middle Path, moderation, etc. And Hillary Clinton will be comfortable following in the same direction, if that's what she thinks is called for; that, and her occasional tin ear on the stump (I can't forget her lapsing into Black dialect in the church ...) are the reasons I oppose her. But I hold out more hope for her than many of my colleagues for one main reason: I also think that Hillary -- who is naturally more progressive than Bill -- is willing to veer to the left if it appears that that is the way for her to succeed.
And I think that, starting in 2009, she may well see that that's the way to go.
We have a good chance -- especially with an Dem-unfriendly Federal Reserve -- of seeing a serious recession soon thanks to the bankers' and boosters' bungling. And the way to solve that will be the same way that FDR did: tax fairness and public spending. Hillary's no fool: I think she will figure it out and take that path. And I think she has the best tools once in office to make it happen. I think that she will also see that internationalization of our foreign policy is also the way to undo the damage done under Bush. If one believes that Hillary will be as progressive as she can safely be, but no further, we can hold out a lot of hope if it appears that -- once we take over the whole government and start teaching the public just how badly Bush and his cabal have screwed us over -- she can safely be very progressive.
There would be somewhat of a "Nixon goes to China" element in Hillary's becoming the next FDR, after her husband's budget cutting, but if governing like John Edwards is her clearest path to greatness, that's what I expect her to do. If the threat to the country is grave enough -- and it is -- even the big contributors will have to go along with plans that don't fleece them too badly, and there are ways to make sure that they win. (Infrastructure, alternative energy, education -- there are a lot of great places to divert defense spending in productive ways for the private sector, especially as the scandals of the Bush years come out.)
Conclusion: This doesn't mean that I approach the prospect of a Hillary Presidency with great hope. I expect to be disappointed. But it means that -- especially with a progressive wing more united and potentially powerful, largely due to the internet, than her husband faces -- I don't despair over it. The potential upside of a Clinton Presidency is pretty damn high, although we will have to work to push her to achieve it. It's certainly high enough for me to vote and work for her enthusiastically if she is nominated.
5. The long view
I'd like Edwards or Obama to beat Hillary, both because I think they'd be stronger in the general election and because I think they better share my own progressive values. I think either would be an excellent President, especially if Obama gives up the notion that we are not fighting evils within our political culture with which we cannot be reconciled. But I'm not going to rend my garments if Hillary wins. I will view her as I think she and her husband will view her: as President Mulligan, seeking the greatness in office that eluded her husband when circumstances left him advocating for school uniforms rather than universal health care. And I will try to make the case to her that her path to greatness lies with us.
The bottom line is that we cannot allow the Republicans to run the government again while in anything like their current form. Our system must be cleansed and mended before we can risk losing power to them; they must have an existential fear of following in the footsteps of Bush. And that is why there is one question that either Edwards or Obama could still win my vote going away by being the only one to answer correctly:
"Will you mandate our having Truth and Reconciliation Commissions after you take office, in which the Bush Administration officials, even those who have been pardoned, face the choice of either giving the public the whole truth of what happened during the past eight years or else going to prison for perjury?"
The correct answer is "yes." I hope, should the chips fall her way, to present the case for that very strongly to President Mulligan. I will do so with some degree of hope that she'll understand.