As this year’s front-loaded primary calendar took shape, capped off with the February 5 Super-Mega-Duper Tuesday, many voters once again resigned themselves to watching from the sidelines as a few early states got the privilege of choosing the party’s nominee. Yet despite a schedule tailor-made to benefit the establishment candidate and confer an early victory, we are, somewhat miraculously, in the midst of the most contested primary race in twenty-four years. We are all Iowans now.
This state of affairs is thanks almost entirely to the campaign of Barack Obama, who, because of his background and his relatively brief time in the national spotlight, is a truly improbable contender for the presidency. This magazine has been critical of the senator from Illinois for his closeness to Wall Street; his unwillingness to lay out an ambitious progressive agenda on healthcare, housing and other domestic policy issues; and for postpartisan rhetoric that seems to ignore the manifest failure of conservatism over these past seven years. But as Christopher Hayes argued in our cover story last week, Obama has also exhibited a more humane and wise approach to foreign policy, opposing the Iraq War while Clinton voted for it, and has been a reliable progressive ally over the course of his career. While his rhetoric about “unity” can be troubling, it also embodies a savvy strategy to redefine the center of American politics and build a coalition by reaching out to independent and Republican voters disgruntled and disgusted with what the Bush era has wrought. Most important, we feel his candidacy, in its demonstrated investment in organizing and grassroots activism as well as his personal appeal, represents the best chance to forge a new progressive majority. For these reasons we support Obama for President.
Obama’s brand of grassroots politics should serve him well in the coming weeks. He has already galvanized a new class of supporters, delivered on the promise of turning out new voters and raised an astonishing amount of money from hundreds of thousands of small donors. In the February contests in caucus states, he can leverage his superior organizing, and in liberal primary states like Maryland and Wisconsin, he can leverage his progressive support in the wake of John Edwards’s exit. But the Obama coalition is relatively weak among Latino voters, as well as among the core Democratic constituencies of the elderly and the working class, who are most focused on bread-and-butter basics: making the economy work for the nonrich. As a moral and political imperative, he would do well to seize the mantle of equitable redistribution and broad economic security for those who live their lives on the precipice of bankruptcy and disaster.
While some will fret about the effect on the eventual nominee of a prolonged battle, the upwelling of small-d democratic enthusiasm in this primary–all those impassioned e-mails, phone calls, canvassing sessions and Facebook postings–has reaped real results: record turnout in the first four contests and on Super Tuesday. While the GOP appears to be on the verge of nominating old war(mongering) horse John McCain, Democrats will likely remain divided, and that’s quite all right. Primaries are more than just the means of choosing a nominee; they are an opportunity to weave together networks capable of pushing the country, inch by inch, in a new direction. There’s nothing quite like the novel experience of casting a meaningful vote to stoke the aspirations and energies of citizens of conscience. As we move toward November, we’ll need all the energy we can get.