When’s the Idea Primary?

When’s the Idea Primary?

This should be a time for vision and bold ideas, yet caution is the order of the day–and activist voters are demanding more.


Will Hillary apologize for her vote on Iraq? Will Obama disavow David Geffen’s gibe at Bill’s character? Should Edwards have hired and/or fired the blasphemous bloggers Swift-boated by the wing nuts of the right? Who can match Hillary’s muscle and machine? Will Obama sweep the Facebook primary? The 2008 presidential election isn’t for another twenty months, but coverage has already descended to tabloid sensation and horse-race handicapping.

To quote John Edwards, it doesn’t have to be this way. The 2008 election has the potential to mark a dramatic turn. For the first time in decades, there is no incumbent or logical successor. Americans have clearly turned their backs on the follies and failures of the Bush Administration and the right-wing extremes it represents. People are worried, mad and looking for a new way forward. With Democrats on the rise, the A team is on the field and the leading candidates–Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards–stir passion and mobilize energy.

The election comes when the challenges the country faces are increasingly stark. Iraq is lost, and we are racking up trade deficits and foreign debts that can’t be sustained. Our broken healthcare system is bankrupting families and the government alike, while lack of investment in everything from schools to sewers makes America less competitive and less habitable. Corporations are shredding the social contract as inequality grows. Al Gore won an Oscar for telling the inconvenient truth that catastrophic climate change is a danger, real and present. The list goes on.

Surely it is a time for vision, for bold ideas. Yet in the early days of this campaign, caution is the order of the day.

Hillary, the odds-on favorite for the nomination, is a candidate smart enough to carve out a very different course not only from Bush but from the rear-guard politics that characterized her husband’s years. Yet she has chosen to present herself as a restoration, saying, “We’ve lost something these last six years,” and pledging to “regain it.” She trumpets not her new ideas but her experience and grit: “Bill and I have beaten them before, and we will again.” Indeed, she seems almost averse to leading; she offers a conversation, not an agenda. Her position on the war lags behind the passions of her party’s activists and the needs of the country. She has only belatedly begun to step up to her signature issue of healthcare. Meanwhile, her campaign spoils for a fight. It stands ready to carpet-bomb any Democrat with the temerity to mention the misadventures of the Clinton years, as illustrated by the assault on Obama after Geffen’s comments surfaced. Yet by emptying Hillary’s campaign of captivating ideas, that same team makes character and history her calling cards and, inevitably, matters for debate.

This sets up Barack Obama. He was tone perfect when he wrote that Americans are ready to move on from the bloodletting of the baby boomers: “The time for that politics is over…. It’s time to turn the page.” As the one leading contender who was right on the Iraq debacle from the start, he has the stature to drive a larger debate about America’s role in the world. As a former community organizer, he could call America to invest in areas vital to its future and summon the young to new national service. Yet he seems to have decided to run–à la Gary Hart in 1984–on the notion of new ideas without actually offering any. He suggests we suffer not from an absence of sound policies but from “our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.” But bipartisan compromise with a Republican Party dedicated to the proposition that all government is evil (except the military) doesn’t offer much hope. It isn’t clear, at this point, whether Obama wants to move us in a new direction or simply insure that we have better manners. This is all packaged as a New Age form of candidacy, liberated from policy and elevated to vision. But it’s hard to think of a strategy more likely to remind voters of how little experience Obama has.

John Edwards could profit from Hillary’s and Obama’s reticence. He has a powerful message about the “two Americas.” Over the past four years, he has earned real respect for his work on poverty, the minimum wage and union organizing campaigns. He’s laid out a universal healthcare plan and had the courage to call for taxing the affluent to pay for it. But he has already let himself get trapped in a silly debate about whether Hillary should join him in apologizing for voting for the war in Iraq. He suggests that admitting the mistake is a measure of honesty. But voters, sensibly, are less interested in confessionals about the past than perspectives on the future. The question isn’t whether Hillary admits she made a mistake; it’s whether she and Edwards learned anything from their politically convenient error.

In this regard, neither of them offers much reassurance. Both play into the Administration’s new campaign on Iran, pledging that Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon and threatening that, in Hillary’s words, “no option can be taken off the table”–including, presumably, pre-emptive military strikes. Hillary even channels Joe Lieberman, slurring some (unnamed) opponents who “tell you we don’t face a real threat from terrorism. I’m not one of them.” She argues that the President must get authorization from Congress before striking Iran–but he did that before going into Iraq, and Congress went along.

Regrettably, such caution reflects the Democratic consensus. Democrats have been in a defensive crouch since the Republicans, under Newt Gingrich, took control of Congress in 1994. Conventional Democrats now support spending more, not less, on the military, and want to add more troops better able to go more places and do more things. Few question our commitment to policing the world. Most are timorous about taxes. While public anger drives increasing concern about lost manufacturing jobs and immigration, Democrats offer no comprehensive alternatives. Bush has a failed agenda–top-end tax cuts and corporate trade policies–for economic growth. Democrats don’t seem to have any strategy at all except fiscal restraint. In Washington, the reactionary excesses of Bush and the Republican Congress mask Democratic timidity. On the campaign trail, there is less cover.

In these early days of the campaign, voters and activists have begun to fill this vacuum, pushing candidates to be clearer and bolder. Antiwar sentiment has already moved the candidates to tougher positions on Iraq. Concern over healthcare has led Edwards to advocate a strong plan on universal healthcare. Hillary started with a pledge to cover all children, and Obama with an emphasis on technology and prevention, but both now pledge to reach universal healthcare by the end of the first term (Obama) or second (Hillary, with characteristic caution). The overwhelming popularity of energy independence and the Apollo message–creating jobs by putting resources into alternative energy and energy efficiency–insures that this defining issue is trumpeted, at least rhetorically, by all.

Activists, particularly in the early primary states, should continue to demand more. We need a debate on fundamentals: on our global strategy, our imperial commitments, our trade and investment policies, on how to make this economy work for working people, on how to meet threats, from Al Qaeda to climate change. We need that debate now, in 2007, during what should be the “idea primary.” We need the next President to win not just a majority but a mandate.

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