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.