Caucuses are indefensibly awful ways in which to select delegates to a political party's national convention, and they are an even worse way in which to sort out the field of candidates for either party's nomination.
Caucuses are time-consuming and complicated endeavors that are designed to repel rather than attract participation. Those who do so engage in a public setting that is ripe with opportunities for intimidation.
Perhaps worst of all, caucuses can be "gamed" by campaigns and powerful interest groups. For instance, the location of a caucus site can decide whether working people can participate -- as the whole fight over whether Nevada caucuses will be held in Las Vegas casinos illustrates. And the gaming creates an inherently unequal process. Casino workers have the caucus brought to them, while cab drivers must take a busy Saturday off in able to play their part.
Going into Saturday's Nevada caucuses, the balance is tipped in favor of Barack Obama. He has the backing of the biggest union in the state, the Culinary Workers, and that union has successfully defended a system that makes it easier for its members to participate in the caucuses than other Nevadans. (In fairness to the Culinary Workers, they have not done anything wrong -- in fact, they have explored a smart new route for increasing political participation by allowing voting at the workplace. And they have did so with the enthusiastic support of all the major Democratic candidates -- until the point at which they endorsed Obama and allies of Hillary Clinton began to object.)
Obama also has the endorsements of several of the state's major daily newspapers, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal (which bluntly declares that the Illinois senator "embodies the political and ideological perspectives that the party projects") and of key political players such as state Senator Steven Horsford.
Obama's spent an immense amount of time in Nevada, working the state as it has never been worked before. His campaign and its supporters have spent a fortune on television and radio advertising in the state, and the thrust has been far more aggressive than in previous contests. Ads attacking Clinton are all over the radio. A Spanish-language commercial, paid for by UNITE-HERE, the parent union of the Culinary Workers local in Las Vegas, translates as, "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton supporters went to court to prevent working people from voting this Saturday -- that is an embarrassment."
Put the pieces together and this points to an Obama win. No one benefits so much as Obama from the structure of the caucuses in Nevada, and he and his supporters have worked that structure from all the angles. They have, at the same time, attracted the sort of mainstream support and favorable media coverage that is traditionally afforded a front-runner.
And what if Obama loses? It'll be a serious setback after a week that, without a win, is likely to be remembered not as a time of triumph but as a moment in which he failed to capitalize on tremendous advantages -- and in which the Democratic senator praised Republican-icon Ronald Reagan for addressing "the excesses of the 60s and 70s." Of course, Obama will remain in the race, but his momentum will stall at precisely the time when he keep advancing against Clinton forcs that are ever on the watch for signs of vulnerability and weakness in their opponents.
Bottom line: While caucuses should not be definitional, this one could be. Nevada has become a must-win state for Barack Obama. He should get that win; but if he doesn't it will be a stumble for the campaign that played Vegas with the best hand.
This post was updated on January 20, and then again on January 21.
From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. His 1965 contribution was particularly resonant. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue. Dr. King's words ominously ring as true today as the day they were written more than forty years ago.
"'Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,' said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down."
Here are some other links to articles marking the King holiday and suggesting ways we can try to live up to, and extend, his momentous legacy. (Please use the comments field below to suggest additional resources and ideas.)
Bruce Wallace talks to Taylor Branch, King's biographer about presidents, racial injustice, poverty and war.
Ashley Luthern looks at how King has inspired generations of non-violent protesting
Thanks to YouTube we can watch King's "I Have a Dream" speech given on August 28, 1963 on the national mall in Washington, DC.
On his PBS show this past Friday night, Bill Moyers included a mesmerizing seven-minute segment on the relationship of his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King (and more broadly, the civil rights movement.) Watch it on on YouTube.
It really cuts through a lot of the recent tempest about the credit due to MLK and LBJ around civil rights legislation, honors the memory of Dr. King, puts LBJ's efforts in proper perspective, and addresses the broader theme of the importance of having both "outside agitators" and inside deal-makers to foster progressive change.
Finally, I thought this call sent to me by the great young environmental activist Billy Parrish was well-worth amplifying....
Honoring Dr. King with a Just and Sustainable Economic Stimulus
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated forty years ago in Memphis, he was there to help support the long struggle of the city's sanitation workers for decent jobs and dignity. He was also speaking out against the Vietnam War and organizing a Poor People's March on Washington and an Economic Bill of Rights, calling for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. In "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community", the last book he wrote before he was killed, he writes:
"There is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society...For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property-and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who call our beloved nation to a higher destiny."
Today the struggles for economic and racial justice must merge with the struggle to stop global warming. Its worst effects will be visited on the poor, and the great economic opportunity a clean energy future offers should be shared fairly with them. Equal protection and equal opportunity was what King demanded in the 1960s. We should be demanding the same today.
As Congress prepares a giant Economic Stimulus package -- up to $150 billion in emergency spending and George Bush suggests that it again be more tax cuts for the rich -- there is no better way to honor Dr. King's memory and continue his struggle than to demand that Congress go green and go equal in the stimulus. Click here to send a message to your member of Congress:
"In considering your economic stimulus package, please work to ensure that all proposed tax cuts and direct spending promote a clean energy economy and opportunities for poor and working class people. Through strategic investments in energy efficiency, mass transit and a Clean Energy Corps, we can not only avoid short-term recession, but also put hundreds of thousands of people to work and create a secure economic and environmental future for all Americans."
An ad hoc group of leaders - from Van Jones of Green for All to Gillian Caldwell from 1Sky to Joel Rogers from the Center for State Innovation and Jessy Tolkan from the Energy Action Coalition - have been working to develop more forward-thinking ideas for the stimulus. They could use our support.
"The genius of American democracy has somehow done it again. George Bush is the right president at the right time."
So declared the consistently-conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper on the eve of the 2004 election.
The Review-Journal warmly endorsed Bush in 2000, as well.
If there is a Nevada newspaper that offers an unadulterated conservative line, it is the Review-Journal.
And who does this newspaper urge Nevada Democrats to support when they caucus Saturday?
In truth, the paper's editorial on the Democratic contest is more an attack on Hillary Clinton than an enthusiastic embrace of Obama. In dismissing Clinton, the paper's editors detail a bizarre list of particulars that begins with, "For starters, imagine Sen. Clinton and 'co-president' Bill Clinton invited onto a 'This is Your Life' talk show where they're joined by Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky."
It's merely predictable right-wing Hillary-hate that underpins the rejection of Clinton.
John Edwards, on the other hand, is slammed for representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.
"Meanwhile," the editorial grumbles, "John Edwards' anti-capitalist populism is not in this country's long-term best interests."
Obama, on the other hand, is championed as "a good politician" who "knows how to speak to individual Americans and give them the feeling he cares about their concerns."
The old maxim that says "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" holds true here. Conservatives hate Hillary Clinton for who she is. They hate John Edwards for what he says. And they can live with Barack Obama, who could finish off the Clintons, who eschews edgy populism for "hope" and who this week said of a certain conservative: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
The soundest response to Obama's insights regarding Reagan comes from the man whose populism so unsettled the Review-Journal.
"When you think about what Ronald Reagan did to the American people, to the middle class to the working people," said John Edwards. "He was openly -- openly-- intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized labor movement in this country... He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment."
"I can promise you this," the former senator from North Carolina concluded, "this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."
Clinton got trashed.
Obama got the endorsement.
But this round goes to Edwards.
Politics is a serious business--and it's no secret that at The Nation, we're pretty darn serious about it. But politics is also a highly entertaining blood sport, rife with scandal and street theater, gossip, gaffes and the exquisite tension that exists between fact and fiction on the campaign trail.
This week marks the debut of something new for The Nation: Citizen Kang: Love, Death and Politics from LA to the Beltway, a serialized novella pegged to Campaign 08. Written by Los Angeles novelist Gary Phillips, who is known among mystery buffs for noir fiction with a social conscience and a sharp satirical edge, Citizen Kang is political fiction interwoven with political fact.
Taking a page from Dickens and Twain, Phillips' novella unfolds in weekly episodes in our Campaign 08 section from now until Election Day. (Bookmark this page: It's the best way to see our comprehensive coverage.) Gary's main character is Cynthia Kang, a fortysomething first-term, Asian-American Congresswoman from Los Angeles with big ambitions--and big trouble. Kang finds her re-election campaign clouded by the suspicious death of her political mentor, unruly relatives and uncomfortable public questions about her sexual preferences.
As the story line unfolds, Gary will weave in bits and pieces of political and cultural reality on the road to the White House. (Episode 1, "Wide Stance," gives a wink to Larry Craig, introduces Cynthia Kang, her campaign and her sexual issues, and invokes the ghost of James Brown.) Though he's firmly in control of the story, he invites readers to comment on a discussion board and make suggestions about what kinds of political reality to inject into the narrative. Read more about it here.
Already, Citizen Kang is making an impact in the corners of the blogosphere to which mystery buffs are drawn. Here's how Gary explained the project to The Rap Sheet last week:
It was my idea. In October of '06, I, along with several people representing a cross-section from various arenas, including the nonprofit sector, organized labor and academe, attended a meeting that Nation Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Walter Mosley called together at The Nation's offices on the edges of [Greenwich] Village. The idea was to discuss ways to expand the pool of contributors to the magazine as well discuss ways of broadening out who reads the magazine. It ain't no surprise that The Nation's research shows it's mostly whites of a certain age, education and income bracket who subscribe to the magazine.
Post that meeting, I pitched--via a written proposal--Katrina on the idea of doing a political serial. We went back and forth, knowing that there's really no room in the pages of the magazine itself, even given [that] it's a weekly, to do this sort of thing. But she dug it enough that she discussed it with the online editor, Joan Connell, and it was agreed I'd write Citizen Kang for the magazine's Web site.
My inspiration, aside from Dickens, Dumas and Twain, who, among others, wrote serials in newspapers, was Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau's Tanner '88 (more so than [its 2004 sequel] Tanner on Tanner). That was an HBO series done in a kind of mockumentary style that followed Congressman Jack Tanner as he sought the presidential nomination. Initially, my idea was that Congresswoman Cynthia Kang would run for the presidency in '08 as an independent, as matters such as questions about her sexuality, the supposed suicide of her mentor and other such obstacles arose.
But given the craziness of all these early primaries, and the reality that to be viable you need at least $400 million to run, it seems too far-fetched to have Kang run for the presidency. But there's plenty of intrigue and demented delicacies that will unfold as Citizen Kang kicks into gear. Plus, my tongue will be planted firmly in my cheek as these episodes unfold. I mean, if we took politics too seriously, we'd cry, right?
We'll try not to cry. And each Monday, when a new episode appears, we'll look forward to sharing a sardonic laugh--and some insights--as this talented novelist tells a noirish, knowing story of what he so rightly describes as "the sweet hustle of politics."
DETROIT -- The question in Tuesday's Michigan Democratic primary was not whether Hillary Clinton could beat anybody.
The question was whether Clinton could beat nobody.
As the only leading Democratic contender to keep her name on the ballot after Michigan officials moved their primary ahead of the opening date scheduled by the Democratic National Committee, Clinton was perfectly positioned. She had no serious opposition. She also had the strong support of top Michigan Democrats such as Governor Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.
Usually, a prominent presidential contender running a primary campaign without serious opposition and with strong in-state support from party leaders can count on winning 90 percent or more of the vote. That's how it went for George Bush when he was running without serious opposition in Republican primaries in 2004, and for Bill Clinton when he was essentially unopposed in the Democratic primaries in 1996.
But Hillary Clinton got nowhere near 90 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Michigan primary.
With most of the ballots counted, the New York senator was winning uninspiring 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
A remarkable 40 percent of Michiganders who participated in the primary voted for nobody, marking the "Uncommitted" option on their ballots. Another 4 percent backed Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who brought his anti-war, anti-corporate campaign to Michigan and made some inroads among Muslim voters in the Detroit area and liberals in Washtenaw County -- where he was taking almost 10 percent.
But "Uncommitted" was Clinton's most serious challenger in Michigan.
"Uncommitted" was actually beating Clinton in some counties and holding her below 50 percent in others, including Detroit's Wayne County.
Ominously for the Clinton camp, the former First Lady was losing the African-American vote -- in Wayne County and statewide -- to "Uncommitted." African-American leaders such as Detroit Congressman John Conyers, who backs Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, had urged an "Uncommitted" vote. And the message seemed to connect. Exits polls showed "Uncommitted" winning by a 70-26 margin among African-Americans. (Had Michigan voters been allowed to choose between all the serious contenders for the Democratic nod, CNN's exit poll found, Obama would have won the African-American vote by a 73-22 margin over Clinton.)
"Uncommitted" also beat Clinton among independent voters who participated in the Democratic primary, and among young voters.
The message from Michigan, suggests veteran Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson, is that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee she'll "have a real challenge building an electoral coalition that can win in November."
"(A) Democrat won't win without carrying a significant slice of the African-American vote or reaching out to independents," explained Henderson.
It is hard to argue with that assessment.
It is harder still to believe that Clinton will get very far claiming Michigan handed her a meaningful victory Tuesday night. When two out of every five voters choose nobody rather than a prominent candidate who is running with little or no opposition, that candidate's got no reason to celebrate.
Hillary Clinton now faces long odds in Nevada and South Carolina -- and that may work to her advantage.
Clinton has a cyclical tendency to rise and fall and rise and fall, only to rise once again. While her unexpected New Hampshire comeback triggered tons of commentary about polls and tears, the results may have actually turned on her conflicted feelings about her own success. Having spent most of her life as an overachieving underdog, Clinton still does best running against the odds. And she does worst feigning the aura of inevitable incumbent, a role that was obviously uncomfortable both for her and the Democratic electorate.
Clinton in Salem on the eve of the New Hampshire Primary.
After a year running as an inevitable frontrunner, placing a weak third in Iowa was the toughest rebuke in Clinton's political life. Yet she looked much more comfortable afterwards. She was thoughtful in her newly interactive campaign events, and forceful when debating her rivals. She sounded more passionate appropriating the messages of change and populism than she ever was about taking credit for her husband's administration.
She spoke about her achievements as a woman leader with a newfound candor and pride – not as a contest over who has it harder, though Gloria Steinem took that tacky route – but as a relevant demonstration of her mettle. Like Barack Obama, Clinton has broken barriers in her legal and political career. That kind of experience can reveal more grit than speeches, because it demonstrates a candidate's ability to rout adversity. It was not easy serving as the only woman the board of a Fortune 50 company in 1985, nor battling the Republican attack machine while taking on the largest policy role of any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet Clinton spent most of last year pretending she had the incumbent experience of a pseudo-president, instead of the record of a fighting underdog.
Forced back into a tough spot, Clinton sounded more genuine reminding voters of her record, not her husband's. Suddenly, the power lawyer who hid a failing bar exam for decades was not claiming invincibility or incumbency. Instead, she conveyed a fighting and even frantic sense that she need more time, that she had more to say, that momentum and polls and pundits should not cut this election short. She truly needed The People to back her in a fight against all the varied forces that distort, abridge and control our elections. Bill Clinton hit this point on the night of the New Hampshire victory, telling a reporter, "they know what they're doing here. They knew that they were telling America we should continue this [race]." Maureen Dowd may be right that at bottom, Clinton essentially cried for herself, not for America. But after a year of campaign contrivances, Clinton was undeniably an underdog, wrestling with that core, unyielding fact of a healthy democracy: power comes from the people.
If the storyline sounds melodramatic, it's partly because our politics are often broadcast as a supercharged blend of sports and entertainment. Clinton seemed especially beleaguered because the media establishment rushed to end her campaign after a single state spoke. (Having led New Hampshire polls for most of 2007, she might have won there no matter what.) But the media often pumps up politicians just like celebrity entertainers, prepping to tear them down for the sake of entertainment. And when the elites come to destroy you, the people are your only hope.
--Photo Credit: Daniella Zalcman
This is a sad Martin Luther King Day for American politics, thanks to Hillary Clinton's Presidential Campaign.
President Clinton was confronted today by Roland Martin, a black radio host and CNN contributor, for the racially charged attack against Barack Obama at a Hillary Clinton event this weekend. The Clinton Campaign has repeatedly attacked Obama, through surrogates and supporters tasked with introducing Hillary Clinton at events, so Martin pressed President Clinton on his claim that the latest attacks from Bob Johnson were not "part of any planned strategy." Referring to the innuendo about Obama's prior admitted drug use, Martin said:
When you listen to that tone and the inflection, he was not talking about community organizing. It seemed to be very clear what he was implying.
The former president continued to defend the remark, saying "nobody knew" it was coming. (Nobody apologized for it, either.) Yet as all political observers know, presidential campaigns carefully select and coach every supporter who introduces the candidate at major events. Just last week, in fact, a supporter introduced Hillary Clinton by referencing political assassinations and Barack Obama, (which the Clinton campaign had to disavow). And while Johnson's drug remarks are garnering the most attention -- he was forced to issue a statement explaining them -- he also launched another racially charged attack, saying Obama was a "reasonable, likable" figure like "Sidney Poitier [in] Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Jack and Jill Politics, a blog offering a "Black Bourgeoisie perspective on American politics," breaks down the attack in an excellent post today, contending that "the point of that insult is that Obama is a House Negro, a sellout." The post quotes James Baldwin's analysis of how the movie presents a "black doctor" succeeding in American life by promising not to "defile" the white society, and then elaborates:
This is a character who has been written from the perspective of being as inoffensive to white viewers as possible--so much so that he is willing to leave the hemisphere in order to prevent white people from feeling uncomfortable about his marriage to a white woman. [...] these are more than just accusations that Obama  is a sellout ... While it is currently black Clinton surrogates who are doing the heavy lifting, eventually the "Obama is a sellout" meme will become so common that white people will have no problem making the same kind of assertions. Obama's run for president in itself will become a kind of selling out; a metaphor for his ambition trumping his commitment to the community.
Read the whole thing. The New York Times' Matt Bai raises related concerns in a new column this afternoon, pressing the Clintons to renounce the "latest turn into ugliness." He opines:
It must be a kind of nightmare for both Clintons to be running, at this moment, against a talented black man, to be caught in an existential choice between losing their mythical status in the black community or possibly losing to a candidate they feel certain does not deserve to win.
Maybe. But there's a third "choice," too. Team Clinton could continue these despicable campaign tactics, alienating not only blacks, but a wide range of Democratic voters who value equality, and still lose the nomination along the way.
In the agonizingly absurd civil rights "debate" between the supporters of Democrartic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I'm with the Lion of Anacostia.
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress," declared Frederick Douglass in 1857, in response to those who suggested that the great abolitionist was pushing too hard for an end to human bondage. "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Douglass understood that the relationship between struggle and power is definitional for those who seek consequential change in the body politic. Both are needed to bend the arc of history toward progress.
As such, it is boneheaded in the extreme to diminish the role of movements in forcing social and political progress. But it is surely just as silly to suggest that who holds power might be of limited or lesser consequence.
If the candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned for in 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater, had been elected, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement would have suffered a setback. Dr. King believed that it was dramatically better for the movement, and for America, that Democrat Lyndon Johnson won that essential presidential election of 44 years ago.
This would appear to be the point that Hillary Clinton was attempting so clumsily -- or so calculatingly -- to make when she said prior to the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary that, "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done."
Unfortunately, while Clinton's words may have had some truth in them, her comment came across as precisely the sort of crude and self-serving interpretation of history that Americans expect from the lesser of our leaders. And that it was. By so casually referencing the complex role that civil right agitation played in forging racial progress, she invited the firestorm that has come. Obama is not speaking out of turn, or unreasonably, when he suggests that, "Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson... And she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act."
The pettiness of the politics that are on display as we mark the 79th anniversary of King's birth borders on the grotesque. Surely, there is a measure of comfort to be found in the fact that both leading Democratuc candidats for president want to claim a piece of this country's civil roghts legacy. But there is nothing graceful, nor reassuring, in the way in which the claims have been staked.
Clinton played games with the nation's civil rights narrative in order to position herself as a stronger presidential nominee for the Democrats, and Obama's campaign has effectively slammed her for it. Clinton says she is "personally offended" by the signals coming from the Obama camp with regard to her regard for King and the civil rights movement. Obama glibly stirs the pot by suggesting that he is somehow above the fray while saying of Clinton: "She is free to explain (herself)."
Neither candidate matches the charicature that the campaign of the other invites us to accept. At the same time, neither candidate has cut through the thicket of this distorted debate and reached for the higher ground that might distinguish a contender for the presidency as something more than a politician on the hunt.
Where both Clinton and Obama are misguided is in their shared attempt to score political points rather than to step back from the abyss of an ugly discourse and to seek the clarity that is so frequently absent from our politics.
Neither Clinton nor Obama is using history well or wisely. Neither is telling those of us who recognize the significance of the King-Johnson collaboration – and, for a brief shining moment it was a collaboration – what we need to hear. Neither is answering the fundamental questions: How, as president, would they relate to social and political movements? Would they invite the Martin Kings and the Frederick Douglasses of the twenty-first century to the White House? Would either of these two candidates, as president, sit down with those demanding fundamental change, craft policies with supposed radicals, and coordinate political strategies with influential outsiders – as did both Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s?
Frederick Douglass knew, as did King, that it mattered who held the presidency. An imperfect Lincoln was better than a perfect Jefferson or Jackson. As Douglass explained in remembering the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, "We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States."
King was similarly clear-eyed about Johnson, a Texas politician who came slowly to the cause of civil rights but was crucial to its advancement. Where the administration of John Kennedy had kept King at arm's length, Johnson reached out to the man who would win the Nobel Peace Prize during the new president's first year in office.King said Johnson helped him understand that "new white elements" in the American South might be motivated by a "love of their land (that) was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs." Johnson, in turn, recognized the necessity of maintaining close ties with King and other civil rights leaders, both because the president valued their insights and because he needed their support.
The president got that support in 1964, when King urged African-American voters to use all of their burgeoning political might to block the candidacy of Goldwater, a conservative Republican who had voted with southern racist Democrats against civil rights legislation. Though Johnson and the civil rights movement had been at odds during the course of the campaign -- especially over the question of whether to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City -- there was no question about where the most prominent leader of the movement stood with regard to the fall race. Three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in October, 1964, King abandoned the traditional neutrality of the civil rights movement in presidential politics and delivered a historic address at Brooklyn's Antioch Baptist Church in which the New York Times reported that he said the "negative" attitudes of the Republican presidential candidate on human, political and constitutional questions had compelled him to call for the crushing defeat of Goldwater
When Goldwater's candidacy was indeed crushed on November 3, 1964, one of Johnson's first post-election calls was to King, who said that "the forces of good will and progress have triumphed."
But the civil rights leader said something else. Rather than place his blind trust in the president to deliver on the promise of justice, King described Johnson's landslide as "a definite mandate from the American public" to take the civil rights movement deeper into the south, to expand its demands on Washington and to generally raise the level of expectations.
Johnson responded by echoing King's sense of urgency.
In the same week of December, 1964, that the world heard King accept the peace prize – with his memorable description of the honor as "profound recognition that non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time--the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression" – Johnson appeared before civil rights leaders in Washington and declared that, "There are those who say: It has taken us a century to move this far, and it will take another hundred years to finish the job. Well, I am here to say to you tonight that I do not agree. Great social change tends to come rapidly in periods of intense activity and progress before the impulse slows. I believe we are in the midst of such a period of change.
"There are those who predict that the struggle for full equality in America will be marked by violence and hate; that it will tear at the fabric of our society. Well, for myself, I cannot claim to see so clearly into that future. I just do not agree. I know that racial feelings flow from many deep and resistant sources in our history, in the pattern of our lives and in the nature of man. But I believe there are other forces, that are stronger because they are armed with truth, which will bring us toward our goal in peace. There are our commitments to morality and to justice, which are written in our laws and, more importantly, nourished in the hearts of our people. These commitments, carried forward by men of good will in every part of this land, will lead this nation toward the great and necessary fulfillment of American freedom. In this way, our peoples will once again prove equal to the ideals and the values on which our beloved nation rests."
That was a remarkable statement coming from a just-reelected president. It confirmed Johnson's commitment to respond to the demands of the civil rights movement, thus assuring that King's initiatives had not just the prospect but the likelihood of realization.
That is the unique dynamic of the King-Johnson relationship, the dynamic that created the sort of progress Clinton, Obama and others now struggle to define as somehow being more likely to be replicated under one or the other of them.
What we would do well to demand of both these candidates and their campaigns is something more than the cheap positioning of an election season. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both owe it to America to suggest that they could – and would – recreate the King-Johnson dynamic in order to achieve the progress that is still needed not just along the color line that Frederick Douglass and Martin King struggled to move but along lines of gender, class and sexual orientation.
For meaningful progress to be achieved, movements are necessary.
But so, too, are presidents.
It is when a movement has the ear of a willing president that necessity gives way to something more tangible and potentially transformational: the discussion of how to move from an antiquated here to only-dreamed-of there. In a democracy, this can never be a one-sided discussion – as Martin King and Lyndon Johnson, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and every other great American combination recognized. The ability of a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama to articulate that recognition in the language of this moment might well make one of them the next president of a nation that longs not for another history lesson but for the making of history.
Since her loss in Iowa, Senator Hillary Clinton has been an outspoken critic of the caucus system, saying that the limited time allotted for voting disenfranchises too many workers who are on the job during those hours.
It seems in Nevada Clinton has had a change of heart.
Last week the powerful, 60,000 member Culinary Workers Union Local 226 chose to endorse Senator Barack Obama after "fierce lobbying" from the three frontrunners. Two days later, the Nevada State Education Association – with ties to the Clinton campaign in its leadership – filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to shutdown nine casino caucus at-large sites created to allow both union and non-union shift workers to vote during the workday. (On any given day, it would be difficult for these workers to participate without these caucus sites. It will be even more difficult during the busy Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.) According to the Washington Post, the system was created last March with input from the presidential campaigns and – as meeting minutes reveal – "several of the parties to the suit were there and approved of the process."
Karen Finney, Director of Communications at the Democratic National Committee, said to me, "The state party submitted their delegate selection plan last May and it was available for public comment…. They also had a thorough review process in the state and informed the campaigns months ago about their plans. A key goal is to ensure the broadest participation by eligible voters. The state party has worked hard to increase the number of caucus locations throughout the state, there are some 520 public locations statewide, and there are more caucus locations than there were polling locations in 2006. The at-large [casino] precincts are 9 percent of those locations [and] are open to all shift- workers within a 2.5 mile radius."
This is the first time in the 2008 presidential race that the Latino vote will play a significant role in an electoral outcome, and nearly 40 percent of the Culinary union's membership is Latino. Estimates put the votes at the casino sites at more than 10 percent of the statewide total. According to the Los Angeles Times, at a union rally Obama spoke out against the lawsuit which would "disenfranchise the hard-working folks on the Strip.... You don't win an election . . . by trying to keep people out. You're supposed to try to bring them in." He also said of the lawsuit's timing, "Ever since I got the support of Local 226, the lawyers decided to get involved. The rules were OK when the other campaigns thought they would win the Culinary endorsement."
Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, agreed that the timing and impact of the lawsuit are problematic. He told me, "The time to discuss the fairness of caucus sites is long past – you simply don't want to reduce the number of places to vote or do a last-minute change if you want people to participate. Caucus turnout already promises to be distressingly low for representative outcomes."
Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor who does voting rights cases (he's also chair of Montgomery County for Obama and running to serve as a Delegate), told me that the case is without merit: "The Equal Protection claim in this case is silly and would be thrown out even if it hadn't been raised in the eleventh hour in a transparently political way. The claim boils down to the argument that it discriminates against teachers and other professionals to set up polling places in casinos for people who work there since these employees then get an unfair advantage in access to the polls. On this curious theory, of course, it would violate Equal Protection for some people to live two miles away from a polling place while others live on the same block. The irony is that most polling places are in public schools [where Nevada State Education Association members work]! Setting up polling stations in workplaces where there are tens of thousands of voters who would otherwise be unlikely to vote is perfectly rational. It's also a public policy that progressives should celebrate and duplicate, not try to thwart."
D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226, also felt that the Democratic Party should speak out strongly to defend the caucus sites. As he said to the New York Times, "I never thought we'd have people in the Democratic Party try to disenfranchise women, people of color and large numbers of working people in this state. I am sure every single elected official in Nevada will renounce it, and so will the Clinton campaign."
But no such luck.
Asked about the lawsuit on Meet The Press Clinton said, "The courts and the state party will have to work it out."
"Not for us to decide," Rory Reid, Clinton's Nevada state chairman, told the Las Vegas Sun. "We just want the process to be fair."
And Clinton campaign spokesman, Phil Singer, said in a statement to the Times: "We hope the courts and the state party resolve this matter. We will respect their decision and focus our efforts on running a strong campaign."
Until this moment, part of "running a strong campaign" included speaking out on behalf of workers who were unable to make their voices heard at the polls. But now, as a lawsuit threatens to disenfranchise thousands of workers who will be unable to get away from their jobs to vote in their home districts, Clinton and her campaign remain conspicuously silent. This is especially disappointing because the Senator has been a proponent of comprehensive electoral reform in the past, cosponsoring good legislation that would improve voter protections and access, and make Election Day a holiday – all presumably to make more voices heard in our electoral process.
But now it seems Clinton only wants those voices to be heard if they will help her win. A campaign and its candidate who once took pride in the ability to "stay on message" has delivered a message to Nevadans that is loud and clear: winning is more important to them than our shared democratic values.
Here's the strange thing: If we are in a political "season of change" and "change" is now the word most used by presidential candidates, change isn't exactly valued when it comes to presidential runs themselves. Take, for example, the Democratic debate moderated by ABC News' Charlie Gibson a week ago. In that mere hour and a half of television, Gibson, his TV sidekicks like George Stephanopoulos, and the four candidates managed to use the "C" word some 48 times -- being "agents of" or "power voices for change," "making," "delivering," "producing," "advocating for," "fighting for," "believing deeply in," "loving," even "embody[ing] change." In the process, they just about ground change into the dust. But lurking in the background was another use of that word -- as an accusation -- and it went unnoticed.
Here's Hillary Clinton, for example, launching an attack on Barack Obama:
"You know, I think that, two weeks ago, you criticized Senator Edwards in saying that he was unelectable because he had changed positions over the course of four years, that four years ago he wasn't for universal health care; now, he is. Well, you've changed positions within three years on, you know, a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate, and now you have changed."
To which, Obama had to respond: "I have been entirely consistent in my position on health care…"
This is typical of our electoral moment and it's another little legacy of the Bush era. You can probably thank Karl Rove for this one because in 2004, handling a notoriously single-minded, inflexible, and stubborn candidate, he managed to turn the "C" word into a curse no one is likely to forget. To change, you remember, was actually to "flip-flop." And if there's one thing in the post-2004 era that no candidate can now afford to be charged with, it's flipping and flopping like a fish on the deck of a ship.
John Edwards, for instance, recently changed his position on Iraq in a significant way. While still in the Iowa caucus race, he called for the withdrawal within 10 months of all American troops in Iraq (except for a few thousand soldiers left to guard the Baghdad embassy), including the trainers of Iraqi troops. Previously, like the other two leading candidates, he had only called for the withdrawal of American "combat troops" who make up perhaps half of the U.S. troop contingent. He was not challenged on this in the debate, but had he been, he would surely have little choice but to claim that he, too, had somehow been "consistent," that he hadn't flip-flopped on Iraq.
As a result, the "change" candidates of 2008, wielding the "C" word for an audience "fired up" for… well, you know what, so just shout it out… must themselves swear that they are "consistent" in their positions, that, in short, they do not change. The one thing these candidates of change can't go out in public and say is something like: "Well, that was 2002, but in the intervening years, I've done a lot of thinking, had new experiences, grown, matured… changed, and so has my position on [you fill in the issue]."
Change may, or may not, turn out to be the Pied Piper of 2008 for the American voter, but it surely will remain the Scylla and Charybdis of twenty-first century presidential politics.