On the eve of the 1992 elections, novelist E.L. Doctorow reminded Nation readers why the bizarre and troubling pageants known as presidential elections matter so deeply. “The President we get is the country we get…. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul.” Thanks in part to mass-media suffusion, wrote Doctorow, the President has become “the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail. One four-year term may find us at reasonable peace with one another, working things out, and the next, trampling on each other for our scraps of bread.”
Don’t we know it–now more than ever. The truth (and implicit peril) of Doctorow’s observation has never been more evident than in the endless mudslide of domestic and foreign disasters that have darkened our horizons during George W. Bush’s six years in office. In Baghdad and New Orleans, prevailing conditions are stormy at best, bleak and seemingly intractable at worst.
America desperately needs new leadership, not merely a different face. It needs Democrats to do more than recapture the White House in 2008: The fiery tenor of the times also presents a historic opportunity to reverse the destructive course of a quarter-century of backlash-driven politics. Like the Great Depression of the 1930s and the civil upheavals of the 1960s, the unrelenting catastrophes of Bush’s presidency have pried open the settled minds of Americans. Ideologies are in flux–and so are partisan loyalties and identities. The 2006 midterms confounded the calculations not only of the GOP, whose culture-war wedges finally lost their magic, but also of the centrist Democratic establishment, whose thin gruel of fiscal conservatism, go-along patriotism and corporate-friendly policy prescriptions proved less attractive to voters than a few maverick Democrats’ hearty populist progressivism and unblinking realism about the horrors in Iraq.
Given our profoundly unsettled political climate–and the absence of a sitting President or Vice President in the field for the first time since 1928–it’s no wonder so many candidates have already, and so early, put themselves forward. Normally there would be no more dreadful prospect than a two-year campaign for President. But this time around, as they showed with some startling choices for Congress in 2006, more Americans are ready to rethink the givens. It can’t hurt–just this once–to have many months to sort through the strengths and defects of the contenders.
The early favorites come hearteningly close, for the first time in our history, to actually “looking like America.” It will be tempting for Democratic voters to get caught up in the symbolism of the candidates–not just the “firstness” of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bill Richardson but also the rise of John Edwards from blue-collar beginnings. The symbolic statement that Democrats need to make in 2008, however, runs broader and deeper than race, gender or class. More than a President who looks different, we need one who thinks–and acts–differently. We need a progressive champion who will boldly reassert government’s role as protector and uplifter of the people at home, and reinvent American foreign policy as a force for peace, not coercive power, across the globe.
At the same time, we need a leader who shuns the lordly powers that have gradually accrued to the office of the President, and that our current President has taken to lawless extremes. The huge shadow of the chief executive is part of what has deformed our political system, blotting out the rich, boisterous conversations and arguments from below and diminishing the competing influences that ought to inform and shape the national direction. No single person can deliver what we seek if that person isn’t both supported by and grounded in a small-d democratic revival–starting with the style and content of the campaign itself. We need a candidate who understands that he or she can’t succeed unless the people are standing alongside (ahead of the power brokers and money guys), ready to help enforce their will.
This magazine has already staked out its position on one of the day’s great challenges: ending the military occupation of Iraq. We will not support any candidate who does not call for a speedy withdrawal of our troops. But the nation confronts epochal challenges at home, too. The next President must reform outmoded immigration policies, tackle the national plague of resegregated communities and schools, and address growing economic inequities and insecurities. With whites fast becoming a minority nationwide, blacks still sitting at the back of the economic bus and a historic influx of Hispanics (who have already become the largest and least protected national minority group), there is a widespread racial and social unease simmering below the surface, all across the country. We need a President capable of recognizing it, brave enough to name it and strong enough to heal the breaches before they crack open.
Conservatives have preached for years that government is everyone’s problem and nobody’s solution–and with the Bush Administration, they have completed the process of turning their preachments into prophecy. The ongoing Gulf Coast catastrophe has exposed more than the racial and economic injustices of our Two Americas; it has also demonstrated the consequences of the effort to rip apart the safety net Democrats had been knitting since 1913. To pull it back together and resuscitate our common purpose, we need a President who can imagine other people’s suffering–the suffering of American soldiers and their families, the agony of Iraqi families being blown up and shot up by those boys and girls from Skokie and Mobile and Watts, and the grinding economic uncertainties consuming not just low-wage workers but, increasingly, the middle class. “Feeling pain” is not enough: The times require a President with the courage and vision to use the world’s most powerful office to stamp out misery, not multiply it.
Our money-drenched politics makes it difficult for such a figure to emerge. This campaign promises to kill off the notion of public funding for elections once and for all, as candidate after candidate, fearful in particular of being fatally outspent in TV ads, declines the matching public funds that come with spending limits. Thus will the corporations and the K Street crowd gain even greater access to power. It doesn’t help that the always problematic primary system, designed to produce stronger candidates by forcing them to woo voters personally in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, may collapse with early, big-money-driven contests in supersized states like California and Florida.
There is hope in the upsurge of Internet politics, which only began to flash its potential in 2004. When Howard Dean rocketed into the fundraising stratosphere courtesy of a legion of small online donors, and when beleaguered progressives began to connect and organize through web-driven vehicles like MoveOn.org, it became clear that the next technology to dominate politics had the potential to cut in a drastically different direction from the last. With YouTube exposing every candidate’s “macaca moment,” it has suddenly become vexingly difficult for candidates to hide their warts and control their public image. And the Internet’s unprecedented potential for creating unlikely bandwagons and raising big, fast money–especially for long-shot insurgents–could shake up American politics in larger and even healthier ways.
As this issue goes to press, 636 days remain till that most welcome of dates: November 4, 2008. Let us–all of us–use this generous gift of time to do more than look for a “winning” candidate. Let us imagine, and insist upon, the election of a President with the broad heart, the sharp but open mind and the principled passion to seize the opportunity that now exists for a long-term political realignment in America–who can set not only Democrats but a strong national majority back on track toward the goals of equality, opportunity, true democracy and social justice.