Hang On, Hillary

The extended campaign isn't hurting the Democrats

It should come as no surprise that John Edwards is reluctant to make an endorsement in the presidential race. It must be difficult in the extreme for the populist Edwards to imagine either one of these business-as-usual pols in the White House at this troubled juncture in our history.

While he was still in the race, Edwards had to drag them kicking and screaming toward anything that vaguely resembled an original idea. Hillary Clinton is recycling DLC proposals going back to the Reagan era. Barack Obama's approach to making policy, apparently, is to position himself just to Clinton's right, no matter how off-center that may be. Edwards may be as disheartened as many of his followers are by the outcome this year, whichever way it finally turns out.

When Edwards bowed out just before Super Tuesday I, a lot of people assumed that he favored Obama. To me it appeared obvious that it was a tactical move specifically intended to stop Clinton. With Edwards out of the way, the anti-Clinton vote could coalesce around Obama enough to deny the New York senator the win conventional wisdom said she was headed for.

Unfortunately for Edwards, "Stop Hillary" succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Any hope that he could come back into the race or that the party would turn to him as the un-Hillary-who-can-win evaporated when Obama surged into the lead.

When the endorsement of Obama didn't come after Super Tuesday I, a rumor floated around the blogosphere that Edwards was withholding because his feelings were hurt that the very junior senator from Illinois had continued to make fun of him -- gratuitously -- after he dropped out of the race. The story made both of them sound petty.

It made sense that Edwards, like Al Gore, would hang back until the convention to see how the primaries turned out. There is no point in having a convention -- or superdelegates -- unless it is to express the collective judgment of the party after the candidates have been heard, the rank and file have entered their opinions, and the delegates and superdelegates have had an opportunity to weigh all the factors that might affect the outcome in November.

For many Democrats, it will be important whom Gore and Edwards decide to support. Obviously Edwards is not held in the same degree of affection by Democrats as Gore (or Teddy Kennedy, for that matter), but he is widely respected, and he's more than that among those of us who thought 2008 could mark a turning back toward that moment when the United States stopped evolving into a social democracy.

(When was that moment, anyway? If I had to choose, I'd say April 12, 1945, the day FDR left us to fend for ourselves. In his 1944 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt laid out an "economic bill of rights" that all the current candidates, Edwards included, should read with shame. We've had our progressive moments since then -- Truman kept us from becoming South Africa, at least, and Johnson almost got us back on track -- would have, too, if the siren call of empire hadn't distracted him -- but, over all, our political life has been dominated for the last 60 years by a long, steady, rust-never-sleeps war of attrition against the New Deal.)

I continue to hope Edwards won't make an endorsement soon, at least not without getting concrete assurances that the issues that fired his supporters, especially a program that seriously addresses chronic poverty and a genuinely universal health care plan, will be given high priority early in any Democratic administration. I think it is telling that so many Edwards people have gravitated toward Clinton, because, whatever her limitations, she is clearly serious about matters of policy. The jury is still out on whether Obama has thought about anything beyond his carefully crafted public persona.

All this is by way of pointing you in the direction of an article in New York magazine (Who'll Stop the Pain by John Heilemann, New York 2008-03-28) speculating on whether anyone, including Gore and Edwards, has the clout to bring down the curtain on the Clinton-Obama show. It is the first couple of paragraphs that concern us here; to me, they have the ring of truth.
In the days after John Edwards’s withdrawal from the Democratic race, the political world expected his endorsement of Barack Obama would be forthcoming tout de suite. The neo-populist and the hopemonger had spent months tag-teaming Hillary Clinton, pillorying her as a creature of the status quo, not a champion of the kind of "big change" they both deem essential. So appalled was Edwards at Clinton’s gaudy corporatism—her defense of the role of lobbyists, her suckling at the teats of the pharmaceutical and defense industries—that he’d essentially called her corrupt. And then, not least, there were the sentiments of his wife. "Elizabeth hasn’t always been crazy about Mrs. Clinton" is how an Edwards insider puts it; a less delicate member of HRC’s circle says, "Elizabeth hates her guts."
This part, from general knowledge and personal contacts, I know to be true. Here's where it gets interesting:
But now two months have passed since Edwards dropped out—tempus fugit!—and still no endorsement. Why? According to a Democratic strategist unaligned with any campaign but with knowledge of the situation gleaned from all three camps, the answer is simple: Obama blew it. Speaking to Edwards on the day he exited the race, Obama came across as glib and aloof. His response to Edwards’s imprecations that he make poverty a central part of his agenda was shallow, perfunctory, pat. Clinton, by contrast, engaged Edwards in a lengthy policy discussion. Her affect was solicitous and respectful. When Clinton met Edwards face-to-face in North Carolina ten days later, her approach continued to impress; she even made headway with Elizabeth. Whereas in his Edwards sit-down, Obama dug himself in deeper, getting into a fight with Elizabeth about health care, insisting that his plan is universal (a position she considers [rightly - jg] a crock), high-handedly criticizing Clinton’s plan (and by extension Edwards’s) for its insurance mandate.
The striking thing about this story is how perfectly in character everyone is. I've said before that, of all of Obama's achievements so far, one has impressed me most (because I thought it just shy of impossible): making Hillary Clinton look good. Here she is again, wonkish to be sure, but earnest, serious, prepared. And here is Obama as we've seen him before, too: glib, shallow and not serious enough about the game to make the big play when it's needed.

This campaign is keeping the opposition off balance. The Right is unsure whom to target, while the Democrats are free to pile on John McCain. Until there is a single Democratic contender, it is difficult for the corporate media to return single-mindedly to the horse race metaphor -- too many Democrats have the regrettable tendency to muddy the waters by bringing up issues and talking about ideas.

Plus, the longer it goes on, the more the candidates will feel pressure from policy-oriented primary and caucus voters and superdelegates to offer concrete proposals about ending the war and pursuing economic reforms. And, maybe, if it's allowed to go to its conclusion, the nominating process will result yet in a consensus satisfactory to most nominal Democrats.

Heilemann ends his entertaining piece with a depressing conclusion, an Obama-Clinton ticket that loses to John McCain in November, but I commend it to you anyway for his insight into the factors that might yet rescue the Democrats from their apparent division, even if he can't quite conjure up a happy ending.

Also: Don't Stop Campaigning (The Washington Post, 2008-03-29)


Anonymous said...

John Edwards voted for the war. How would any independent left-leaning voters, like myself, honestly vote for him? I will only vote for Obama or Gore. The democratic party is usually so full of BS that I ignore them completely and vote for the green party as a protest vote. This time, however, I don't want another 100 years war and can't trust Hillary or Edwards to stop it.

John Gabree said...

Alas, we can't trust Obama either. He has made it very clear that he is every bit the imperialist that Clinton is, even going so far as to threaten to unleash the military on Iran and Pakistan. At least Edwards has been willing to admit he made a mistake on Iraq which indicates a capacity for growth. As his politics have evolved, he reminds me of no one so much as Robert Kennedy. And the war, as wasteful and tragic and horrible as it is is not the only issue.

I also have to say that I don't think it is helpful to mischaracterize the positions of our opponents, because they can then make the issue our accuracy rather than their policies. There is so much wrong with McCain that it shouldn't be necessary to attack him for something he never said. It's true that when someone asked him at a campaign stop about the possibility of staying in Iraq 50 years, he interrupted with "Make it a hundred." But he then said, "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so," adding, "That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed....It's fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintained a presence in a very volatile part of the world." If you think that position is different from Clinton's or Obama's, I think you're going to be disappointed by an administration led by either one.

Edwards, if he succeeded in moving the nation's priorities in the direction of economic justice, would have reined in the military-industrial complex as a matter of course. I can't see any evidence that either Obama or Clinton intends to do that.

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