It has been more than a year since the first group of Democratic hopefuls announced their candidacy for President of the United States. Seventeen debates or forums have been staged, and more than $150 million has been spent on advertising, polling and other campaign expenses. Pundits have pronounced their conventional wisdom, so easily reversed, on who is most “electable,” “presidential” or “inevitable.” Celebrities and surrogates have rung their appeals, and the deforming machinery of electoral money and math has whirled into place. And yet despite all this, something remarkable, almost magical in its resilience, will take place on January 3. Thousands of neighbors will gather in schools, churches and public libraries across Iowa to caucus. It’s an imperfect, curious system–one that privileges the indirect democracy of delegates and the momentary passions of a state that is, demographically speaking, unrepresentative of America. Nonetheless, during the evening hours, when candidates and campaign staff are relegated to the sidelines, the circus of democracy will be suspended and something approaching actual democratic deliberation will unfold. But who should the voters of Iowa–and then New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and the states that follow in this crowded primary season–select as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer?
This is not an easy question to address. To put this election in context, it is the first time since 1928 that a sitting President or Vice President has been absent from the field. The calamitous Administration of George W. Bush has slashed and burned its way through Iraq, our Constitution and the remnants of the social safety net. It has pursued imperial aggression, lethal incompetence and crony capitalism as if they constitute official policy, leaving the next President with a multitude of crises, from Iraq to New Orleans to Guantánamo Bay.
But to take a page from the free-market gospel: where there is crisis, there is opportunity. Indeed, throughout this uncommonly long election cycle, beyond-
the-Beltway progressives have driven their issues to the forefront of the Democratic agenda. The leading candidates share positions that were considered political suicide as recently as 2004, and topics once shunted aside, like global warming, are of central importance. Withdrawal from Iraq, which John Kerry couldn’t bring himself to call for, is embraced by all the current candidates, albeit on varying timetables. Unfettered free trade, a hallmark of the Clinton Administration, is now viewed by most Democrats as an untenable position. Healthcare for all, an idea that many thought would doom Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, is a mainstream proposition. And it is not just these issues that have taken center stage but the core progressive values they represent: diplomacy over militarism, workers’ rights, the responsibility of government to see that social needs are met. Meanwhile, the Republican campaign has seemingly taken place in an alternate reality, with GOP candidates competing to win the title of Most Likely to Nuke Iran and Most Xenophobic.
With Democrats running left and Republicans slouching right, we believe this election presents a historic opportunity to precipitate a progressive realignment. There is ferment in the air, a yearning for change and for a resuscitation of America’s most inspired dreams of justice and equality. The kindling is in place, but the right spark has not yet been struck. There is a danger that many of this campaign’s most contentious issues could find resolution in policies even more malign than the status quo. The question of immigration reform combined with the rhetoric of economic populism could lead to a jingoistic backlash against the most vulnerable workers in America. The war in Iraq could slide into a Democratic-led occupation with no end in sight; worse, it could spill over into Iran. And then there are the issues, already neglected, that could fade from view: a progressive tax policy that would eliminate breaks for corporations and the mega-rich; public investment in schools and urban infrastructure; an end to the “war on drugs” and a reorientation of our criminal justice system; a plan to address media consolidation; and a robust agenda for urban renewal.