Last Night's Debate Helped Me Choose
I still have a great deal of affinity for John Edwards' message of strengthening the middle class and taking on the powerful interests which resist change. And let me agree with Jane Hamsher that I was proud of all three candidates last night for their commitment to Democratic values and issues of social, economic and international justice. The vapid talking heads just focus on who goes after who, but there was actually a lot of substance there, and these debates are needed in the party, not fights that everyone should shy away from. It'll make Clinton and Obama better general election candidates; the Republicans will saddle them with far more dishonest charges in the fall. Plus, the two top candidates really did go after swing liberals.
Obama doesn't like ideology, so to hear him rebut claims about Reagan by appealing to it is something of a shift. He probably gets that the Reagan stuff has cost him. Jerome Armstrong points out that he is losing because swing liberals have moved from his camp in Iowa to Clinton's in Nevada (splitting in New Hampshire). This, combined with the decline in percentage of the electorate comprised by the youth vote and his lack of appeal among voters who make up their mind at the last minute, were costly.
Meanwhile, Clinton let loose with a rip-roaring progressive economic discussion, arguing for a stronger government to regulate the economy, lower CEO pay, higher taxes on the wealthy, and massive public investment in a clean energy economy akin to the highway system of the 1950s. Clinton's always had a coded populist streak that women hear very loudly and men do not, but it's coming out very clearly right now.
I'm mindful that this could be lip service, and I'm not discounting the wealth of evidence that neither of the top two candidates are particularly ideological or committed to progressive ideas beyond using them as a calling card. But the fact that liberals could have leverage in this race is a welcome return to what a Democratic primary should be all about. Furthermore, it speaks to how liberals and progressives could have additional leverage in a Democratic Administration. And this is where there was a true split between Clinton and Obama last night.
Wolf Blitzer's final question was easily the worst of the night: "If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, unfortunately, he's not, but if he were alive today, why do you think he would or why should he endorse you?" But surprisingly, it offered the truest contrast.
OBAMA: Well, I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable, and this goes to the core differences, I think, in this campaign. I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. (APPLAUSE) It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, "I'm as smart as my husband. I'd better get the right to vote." Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that's the key. So that has been a hallmark of my career, transparency and accountability, getting the American people involved. That's how we're going to bring about change. That's why I want to be president of the United States, to respect the power of the American people to bring about change.
BLITZER: Senator Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, there is no doubt that change comes from the extraordinary efforts of the American people. I've seen it in my life. I'm sitting here as a result of that change. It is also true -- and Dr. King understood this. He campaigned for political leaders. He lobbied them. He pushed them. He cajoled. He did everything he could to get them over the line so that they would be part of the movement that he gave his life for. There are people sitting in this audience right now, John Lewis, Jim Clyburn, they were part of those kinds of efforts, going so far as they could to make it clear that we had to live up to our values and our ideals. And then there was a meeting of morality and politics. And the political leaders finally responded. The American people should not have to work so hard to get leaders who will actually help them and recognize we are strongest when we lead by our values. Dr. King transformed the lives of so many of us, and I intend to do whatever I can to make his legacy real in the lives of Americans.
This is very significant. Obama is certainly running on a theme of unity and bringing the country together. But that has visibly shifted of late. It's now more about building a working majority to get his fairly progressive policies enacted. That was how he reiterated his comments on the legacy of Ronald Reagan. And most important, he is talking openly about involving the American people in the process, using this working majority to leverage recalcitrant legislators and ensure that the policies get through. This is a very different conception of the Presidency. And it's the reason I am involved in politics, to take an active role in how the country progresses. Obama understands that we have an opportunity with the fall of the House of Bush to really set the agenda, but it will take actual civic engagement to do it. That's very heartening.
And the contrast with Sen. Clinton cannot be more stark. She actually says "The American people should not have to work so hard" to get a leader that will help them. The translation you must make from that statement is "don't worry America, your political leaders will figure everything out." Clinton obviously considers politics and lawmaking more important than the will of the American people, and that's fine. But she is making no effort to engage her supporters inside the political process, and I fear that will leave her with the same problems that her husband faced, unable to move forward an agenda, susceptible to shivs from fellow Democrats, reduced to some bad triangulating like welfare reform or NAFTA to build a record.
Indeed, this "go back to sleep, I'll take care of everything" tone shows in her latest ad:
This ad is called “Voices,” but it might as well be called “Lullaby.” Clinton spent the last eight years clearing the hurdle any woman faces in politics, establishing that she is tough and strong enough to be president. With that established, she successfully demonstrated her softer side, and in doing so probably saved her campaign in New Hampshire. This ad has her speaking softly and slowly, as though she were reading the voters a bedtime story. Drift off to sleep, America -- your tribune might not quite feel your pain, but she hears your voice.
We the people are going to be the source of the change in this country. I really feel that one candidate understands this and one doesn't. And while that may not be a policy difference (and there aren't many), it's a significant enough difference for me to favor Obama over Clinton.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum has a different viewpoint. And, this concerns me, too. Obama's answer on the bankruptcy bill, voting against a cap on usury fees because they were "too high," when the result was no cap at all, is disingenuous. It worries me. Then again, you have two people with moderate tendencies leading the race. The key is the leverage from the progressive community to hold them accountable.