The Choice

The Choice

Here’s why Obama is the left’s best chance to take back the country.


It’s gotten to that time in the primary contest where lines are drawn, camps are solidified and conversations around dinner tables grow heated. My friend Dan recently put it this way: “You start talking about the candidates, and next thing you know someone’s crying!” The excellent (and uncommitted) blogger Digby recently decided to shut down her comments section because the posts had grown so toxic. The recent uptick in acrimony is largely due to the narrowing of the field. While once the energy was spread over many camps, it is now, with the exits of Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, concentrated on just two, leaving progressives in a fierce debate over whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would make the better nominee, and President.

According to polling data as well as my conversations with friends and colleagues, progressives are evenly split or undecided between the two. This is, to me, somewhat astonishing (about which more in a moment), but it also means that at a time when other subgroups within the Democratic coalition are leaning heavily toward one candidate or the other, progressives are at a moment of maximum leverage.

Insofar as the issues discussed during a presidential campaign are circumscribed by the taboos and pieties of the political and media establishments, they tend to be dispiriting for those of us on the left. Neither front-runner is calling for the nation to renounce its decades-old imperial posture or to end the prison-industrial complex; neither is saying that America’s suburbs and car culture are not sustainable modes of living in an era of expensive oil and global warming or pointing out that the “war on drugs” has been a moral disaster and strategic failure, with casualties borne most violently and destructively by society’s most marginalized and–a word you won’t be hearing from either candidate–oppressed. And yet, this election is far more encouraging (dare I say hopeful?) than any in recent memory. The policy agenda for the Democratic front-runners is significantly further to the left on the war, climate change and healthcare than that of John Kerry in 2004. The ideological implosion of conservatism, the failures of the Bush Administration and, perhaps most important, the shifts in public opinion in a leftward direction on war, the economy, civil liberties and civil rights are all coming together at the same time, providing progressives with the rare and historic opportunity to elect a President with a progressive majority and an actual mandate for progressive change.

The question then becomes this: which of the two Democratic candidates is more likely to bring to fruition a new progressive majority? I believe, passionately and deeply, if occasionally waveringly, that it’s Barack Obama.

Had you told me a few years ago that the left of the Democratic Party would be split between Obama and Clinton, I’d have dismissed you as crazy: Barack Obama has been a community organizer, a civil rights attorney, a loyal and reliable ally in the State Senate of progressive groups. For the Chicago left, his primary campaign and his subsequent election to the US Senate was a collective rallying cry. If you’ve read his first book, the truly beautiful, honest and intellectually sophisticated Dreams From My Father, you have an inkling of what young Chicago progressives felt about Obama. He is one of us, and now he’s in the Senate. We thought we’d elected our own Paul Wellstone. (Full disclosure: my brother is an organizer on the Obama campaign.)

That’s not, alas, how things turned out. Almost immediately Obama–likely with an eye on national office–shaded himself toward the center. His rhetoric was cool, often timid, not the zealous advocacy on behalf of peace, justice and the dispossessed that had characterized Wellstone’s tenure. His record places him squarely in the middle of Democratic senators, just slightly to Clinton’s left on domestic issues (he voted against the bankruptcy bill, for example). As a presidential candidate, his domestic policy (with some notable exceptions on voting rights and technology policy) has been very close to that of his chief rivals, though sometimes, notably on healthcare, marginally less progressive.

But while domestic policy will ultimately be determined through a complicated and fraught interplay with legislators, foreign policy is where the President’s agenda is implemented more or less unfettered. It’s here where distinctions in worldview matter most–and where Obama compares most favorably to Clinton. The war is the most obvious and powerful distinction between the two: Hillary Clinton voted for and supported the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since Vietnam, and Barack Obama (at a time when it was deeply courageous to do so) spoke out against it. In this campaign, their proposals are relatively similar, but in rhetoric and posture Clinton has played hawk to Obama’s dove, attacking from the right on everything from the use of first-strike nuclear weapons to negotiating with Iran’s president. Her hawkishness relative to Obama’s is mirrored in her circle of advisers. As my colleague Ari Berman has reported in these pages, it’s a circle dominated by people who believed and believe that waging pre-emptive war on Iraq was the right thing to do. Obama’s circle is made up overwhelmingly of people who thought the Iraq War was a mistake.

Clinton’s fundamentally defensive conception of how to defuse the Republicans on national security (neutralizing their hawkishness with one’s own) is an example of a larger problem, rooted in the fact that so many of her circle served in her husband’s Administration. Their political identities were formed in the crucible of crisis, from the Gingrich insurgency to the Ken Starr inquisition. The overriding imperative was survival against massive odds, often with a hostile public, press or both. Like an animal caught in a trap that chews off its leg to wriggle away, the Clinton crew by the end of its tenure had hardly any limbs left to propel an agenda. The benefit of this experience, much touted by the Clintons, is that they know how to fight and how to survive. But the cost has been high: those who lived through those years are habituated to playing defense and fighting rear-guard actions. We know how progressives fared under Clintonism: they were the bloodied limbs left in the trap. Clintonism, in other words, is the devil we know.

Which brings us to the one we don’t. A President cannot build a movement, but he can be its messenger, as was Reagan. Part of what tantalizes and frustrates about Obama is that he seems to have the potential to be such a messenger and yet shies away from speaking in ideological terms. When he invokes union organizers facing Pinkerton thugs to give us our forty-hour week, or says we are bound to one another as “our brother’s keeper…our sister’s keeper,” he is articulating the deepest progressive values: solidarity and community and collective action. But he places more rhetorical emphasis on a politics of “unity” that, read uncharitably, seems to fetishize bipartisanship as an end in itself and reinforce lame and deceptive myths that the parties are equally responsible for the “bickering” and “divisiveness” in Washington. It appears sometimes that his diagnosis of what’s wrong with politics is the way it is conducted rather than for whom.

In its totality, though, Obama’s rhetoric tells a story of politics that is distinct from both the one told by Beltway devotees of bipartisanship and comity and from the progressive activists’ story of a ceaseless battle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. If it differs from what I like to hear, it is also unfailingly targeted at building the coalition that is the raison d’être of Obama’s candidacy. Consider this passage from Obama’s stump speech:

I’ve learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you. And although the Republican operatives in Washington might not be interested in hearing what we have to say, I think Republican and independent voters outside of Washington are. That’s the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have in this election.

Obama makes a distinction between bad-faith, implacable enemies (lobbyists, entrenched interests, “operatives”) and good-faith ideological opponents (Republicans, independents and conservatives of good conscience). He wants to court the latter and use their support to vanquish the former. This may be improbable, but it crucially allows former Republicans (Obama Republicans?) to cross over without guilt or self-loathing. They are not asked to renounce, only to join.

Obama’s diagnosis of the obstacles to progress is twofold. First, that the division of the electorate into the categories created by the right’s culture warriors is the primary means by which the forces of reaction resist change. Progress will be made only by rejecting or transcending those categories. In 1971 a young Pat Buchanan urged Richard Nixon to wield race as what would come to be known as a wedge issue. “This is a potential throw of the dice,” he wrote, “that could…cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.” Obama seeks to stitch those halves back together.

Second, that the reason progressives have failed to achieve our goals over the past several decades is not that we didn’t fight hard enough but that we didn’t have a popular mandate. In other words, the fundamental obstacle is a basic political one: never having the public squarely on our side and never having the votes on the Hill. In this respect the Obama campaign is uniquely circular: his political appeal is rooted in the fact that he’s so politically appealing. This means that when he loses, the loss affects him worse than it would other candidates, since it also cuts against his message. But when he wins, particularly when he wins big, as he did in Iowa and South Carolina, the win means more because it reinforces the basic argument of his campaign.

The question of who can best build popular support for a progressive governing agenda is related to, but distinct from, the question of electability. Given a certain ceiling on Clinton’s appeal (due largely to years of unhinged attacks from the “vast right-wing conspiracy”), her campaign seems well prepared to run a 50 percent + 1 campaign, a rerun of 2004 but with a state or two switching columns: Florida, maybe, or Ohio. Obama is aiming for something bigger: a landmark sea-change election, with the kind of high favorability and approval ratings that can drive an agenda forward. Why should we think he can do it?

The short answer is that Obama is simply one of the most talented and appealing politicians in recent memory. Perhaps the most. shows a series of polls taken in the Democratic campaign. The graphs plotting national polling numbers as well as those in the first four states show a remarkably consistent pattern. Hillary Clinton starts out with either a modest or, more commonly, a massive lead, owing to her superior name recognition and the popularity of the Clinton brand. As the campaign goes forward Clinton’s support either climbs slowly, plateaus or dips. But as the actual contest approaches, and voters start paying attention, Obama’s support suddenly begins to grow exponentially.

In addition to persuading those who already vote, Obama has also delivered on one of the hoariest promises in politics: to bring in new voters (especially the young). It’s a phenomenon that, if it were to continue with him as nominee, could completely alter the electoral math. Young people are by far the most progressive voters of any age cohort, and they overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama by stunning margins. Their enthusiasm has translated into massive increases in youth turnout in the early contests.

Finally, there’s the question of coattails. In many senses there’s less difference between the two presidential candidates than there is between a Senate with fifty-one Democrats and one with fifty-six. No Democratic presidential candidate is going to carry, say, Mississippi or Nebraska, but many Democrats in those states fear that the ingrained Clinton hatred would rally the GOP base and/or depress turnout, hurting down-ticket candidates. Over the past few weeks a series of prominent red-state Democrats, most notably Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, have endorsed Obama. When I asked a Democratic Congressional candidate in the Deep South who he preferred at the top of the ticket, he didn’t hesitate: “Obama is absolutely the better candidate. Hillary brings a lot of sting; he takes some sting out of them.”

Whoever is elected in November, progressives will probably find themselves feeling frustrated. Ultimately though, the future judgments and actions of the candidates are unknowable, obscured behind time’s cloak. Who knew that the Bill Clinton of 1992 who campaigned with Nelson Mandela would later threaten to sanction South Africa when it passed a law allowing the production of low-cost generic AIDS drugs for its suffering population–or that the George W. Bush of 2000, an amiable “centrist” whose thin foreign-policy views shaded toward isolationism, would go on to become a self-justifying, delusional and messianic instrument of global war? In this sense, Bill Clinton is right: voting for and electing Barack Obama is a “roll of a dice.” All elections are. But the candidacy of Barack Obama represents by far the left’s best chance to, in Buchanan’s immortal phrasing, take back the bigger half of the country. It’s a chance we can’t pass up.

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