Monday, February 11, 2008

 

For some time now, political pollsters have been telling me that I vote just like an African-American female under the age of 30. Given just how far that is from the 60ish white guy I see in the mirror every morning, it’s a characterization that has given me pause. What I think it comes down to is that the political self-interest of young black women more closely aligns with the broadest needs of our society. While everyone benefits from peace, economic prosperity and social justice, younger African-American women vote that agenda more often than anyone else. Address their political concerns and everything else will follow. According to this logic, I ought to be voting for Barack Obama when the Democratic primary process finally rolls into Pennsylvania late in April. Right at this very moment, however, I find myself filled with ambivalence.

Readers of this blog know from experience that I have no hesitation saying what I think on the subject of politics, at least when I know what that is. I first came out for Howard Dean here in October 2003, well before he’d started his net-based leap from obscurity to briefly become the next new flavor among the Democratic contenders of ’04. I felt that he had the best program, which he did, and which propelled him to the front of the polls in advance of the Iowa caucuses. It was there, of course, that Missouri Senator Dick Gephardt, whose own campaign chances required Gephardt to carry Iowa, went negative on Dean, the result being that John Kerry ended up carrying the state & ultimately the nomination.

This time around, the serious candidate who was saying the most useful and important things last fall seemed to me to be John Edwards. Edwards’ class-based social populism still strikes me as undeniably a more accurate take on what is wrong in this society than anything I have heard the other two candidates say. But Edwards was never able to break through with an electorate that appears to have grown very weary of white males. That’s not necessarily the entire electorate, just the Democratic one. By the time the primaries reach Pennsylvania, nobody will even remember that Edwards once was one of the Big Three who elbowed aside more veteran Democratic senators like Joe Biden & Chris Dodd with ease.

So we now find ourselves in this very curious two-person race. Curious in that the policy differences between the two candidates are minimal. Barack Obama clearly has the better record on Iraq, but his plans for the future there are not measurably different from Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton clearly has the better plan for health care – she’s absolutely right when she says that Obama’s kids-only universal health care is a set-up for something being nibbled to death by the health care industry. Except that Senator Clinton has what I would call an imperfect record on health care herself.

Voters so clearly want anything that looks different from what we currently have in the White House that they seem far less concerned with what the actual alternatives might be. In debate after debate, I heard candidates – even McCain & Huckabee – articulating how they will create change going forward. I get that. I think we all get that.

What I really need to know is which change, and how. It isn’t the Bush presidency I need them to differentiate themselves from – any halfway literate bumpkin could do that – so much as it is the Clinton administration before it. What I want to know is how will the next regime look different from that. I don’t hear Clinton addressing this at all. And the terms I hear Obama using, about getting beyond the divisions between red state & blue state, sound to me nothing less than Jimmy Carter with an Ivy League accent. My gut reaction is thank you, no. Been there, done that. The result wasn’t pretty.

But I don’t buy into the argument that this spiel signals any naiveté on Obama’s part so much as it taps into a genuine desire in the American public, the same one that has driven many Democrats out of the party, the same one that has driven many Republicans out of their party, all swelling the ranks of independent voters. But frankly I worry about any administration that attempts to embody post-partisan values. What in practice will that mean? I wish I heard Obama addressing this with greater specificity.

If I look at Obama’s staffing as senator, I see a lot of inside-the-beltway experience, something Carter’s team lacked. Pete Rouse, the chief of staff, previously held the same position for Tom Daschle, whom he’d met when the two served as legislative aides to James Abourezk. Obama’s policy director, Karen Kornbluh, is an economist who has worked for everyone from John Kerry to Alan Greenspan. Kornbluh is one of several former Clinton administration officials in the Obama camp, along with foreign policy advisors Anthony Lake & Susan Rice. The other key figure, as best I can tell, is Samantha Power, the Irish-born journalist who won the Pulitzer for her book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. This isn’t a bad team at all, but it also isn’t the outsider profile that the campaign has been trying to paint for Obama either. Maybe he won’t get slapped around by Congress the way Carter did – I don’t see any obvious “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” like Bert Lance or Hamilton Jordan on the horizon. But I worry about what happens when the expectations set by the rhetoric of a post-partisan future meets the harsh partisan present running the government.

Hillary Clinton has a completely different problem. Actually two. One is that the Bill Clinton administration was nothing to write home about. After it got beaten up over gays in the military & then health care reform, Clinton retreated to his Democratic Leadership Council roots and was content to behave like the mayor of America, with incremental this & incremental that, so that the only major policy accomplishments from two terms in office NAFTA, welfare reform & the No Child Left Behind Act were all Republican initiatives, primarily benefiting the GOP and its agenda. None has proven over time to be good policy.

The second problem is more pragmatic. I’m convinced at this moment that there is almost no path available to Hillary Clinton by which she can become president. I’m convinced that she can conceivably win the nomination – if she uses the brute force of the Democratic establishment, especially the so-called Super Delegates, to do so. But I’m also convinced that this will lead to a fall campaign in which black and younger voters will stay home in droves & independents will turn instead to John McCain.

The alternative – an Obama campaign in the fall – is by no means a gimme. The states he has been winning are precisely the ones most apt to go to the other party in the fall (a curious phenomenon that McCain has replicated on his side of the contest as well).

The Republicans do seem set, against all their instincts, on nominating the one person in their party who could beat the Democrats after eight years of Bush. The possibility of a rightwing third party insurgency is at best a long shot, tho it’s worth remembering that Bill Clinton himself would not have been a two-term president without the active assistance in each election of H. Ross Perot. The more chilling prospect of a Michael Bloomberg candidacy would sink whatever hope the Democrats might have. Many of Bloomberg’s domestic positions – on gun control, on abortion, on the rights of gay people – are to the left of both Democratic contenders.

So what about a dual ticket? It seems clear that Hillary Clinton will never be anyone’s vice-president – she had more power than Al Gore in the first Clinton administration. That leaves us with only the possibility of a Clinton-Obama campaign. Right now the national pundits are saying that Obama is recoiling at that idea, and I can’t say that I blame him. Unfortunately, I can predict – with a lot of historical evidence to support it – that if he doesn’t become Vice President at the very minimum, Barack Obama will almost certainly never become president.

The reason is simple. America has only twice elected a sitting senator to the presidency: Warren Harding & John F. Kennedy. When presidents depart, the candidate is almost always going to be the sitting VP: Nixon, Humphrey, Bush I, Gore. When the other party – doesn’t matter which – is trying to oust the incumbent, somebody from outside Washington is a much more believable candidate for change. This is why we get so many governors when parties change hands: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 2.

But 2008 is an anomaly. Cheney isn’t running, the governors who ran – Romney, Richardson, Huckabee – all had something distinctly wrong about them, and the one governor with a national constituency – Arnold Schwarzenegger – is constitutionally prohibited from becoming president. So we are about to have our third sitting senator become president. That still represents less than seven percent of all presidents in history. Unless something changes dramatically going forward, the winner this year will be the last such exception to the “No Senators Need Apply” rule in my lifetime.

I do think that a Clinton-Obama ticket might be the one combination that would enable Clinton to make it to the White House, but I’m very skeptical that it’s apt to happen. Picking an “alternative” African-American running mate, such as Harold Ford, won’t even carry Ohio.

So this leaves me in this pickle. I don’t dislike either candidate. Hillary speaks directly to my own wonkish side (like you haven’t noticed), while I have to concede that Obama proposes to at least change the terms of the debate, if not the actual existence of one.

But in spite of the rhetoric, I don’t see either candidate doing much to seriously break the control of corporations on the Democratic establishment. Any more than I see John McCain doing much to make the Republican party safe for moderates in the future. I think, after eight years of openly dishonest government, a brutish administration with no respect whatsoever for the Constitutional rights of Americans, it is vitally important that the next president be a Democrat. And the person who has the best chance of winning is Barack Obama. So that puts me right back with my traditional voting demographic – young, black & female once again.

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