One spoke to the heart. One spoke to the head. But both presidential candidates had the same mission: to prevent Senator Hillary Clinton from claiming the soul of their party.
On Tuesday, at the annual Take Back America conference–a three-day gathering in Washington, DC, of thousands of progressive activists–Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, each an aspirant for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, delivered back-to-back speeches that delineated the stark difference in their political courtship styles.
Obama went first. He started with his own story, talking about his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, when he was paid $12,000 a year by church groups to help establish job training and after-school programs in a neighborhood hit hard by a steel plant closing. He described his subsequent entry into local politics and decried a Washington dominated by special interests where “all you see…is another scandal, or a petty argument, or the persistent stubbornness of a President who refuses to end this war in Iraq.” Blasting lobbyists for oil and pharmaceutical companies, he exclaimed, “They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we;re here to tell them it’s not for sale.”
That was a good applause line. The cynical ways of Washington, he said, are of no use to an Iowa couple he met who own a small business and cannot longer afford health care coverage. Pay-to-play politics in Washington, he pointed out, does not help the workers of Newton, Iowa, who lost their jobs when Maytag closed their plant and shipped their jobs overseas; nor does it do much for the still-homeless in New Orleans, the 45 million Americans without health insurance, and the 15 million American children living in poverty. “The time for the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try style of politics is over,” Obama proclaimed. “It’s time to turn the page.”
And to turn the page requires..hope. Obama, jokingly referring to himself as a “hope-monger,” maintained that hope gets results, and he pointed to his accomplishments as a state senator in Illinois: passing legislation that tightened government ethics rules, that reformed the death penalty, and that expanded health care insurance for children. His big message: hope can cause transformation. Washington can be changed; the nation can be changed. He knows that because his own life marks a transformation in America. “On paper,” he said, it is impossible that I am here–a U.S. senator running for president.” It was obvious what he meant: a black U.S. senator running for president.
Obama touched the right policy points. He promised to sign into a law a universal health care plan by the end of his first term. He called for more money for education. He vowed to place a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. He voiced support for a minimum wage that is a living wage and for legislation that would help unions organize workers. He urged the shutdown of the Guantanamo detention facility. Noting that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start–“we knew back then that it was dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th; we knew back then that we could find ourselves in an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences”–he highlighted his previous proposal to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.