04 February 2008


A couple of indecisive friends have asked my opinion about the forthcoming primary election.

First, a quick word for California voters baffled by the referenda on Indian gaming. The propaganda on both sides of this is unhelpfully blathery, but I managed to track down someone who knows what's actually going on. Basically, the casinos are going to happen, one way or another. The question is what the specific terms of the agreement with the State of California will be, primarily around tax revenue. If the referrenda fail, there will be another round of political negotiations, and the bottom line will almost certainly be a better deal for the state. Given that with California's deeply broken budget, we need every nickel we can get, I'm voting No on all four of 'em.

And then there's these candidates for President.

I want to start with some comments about John McCain, in case I have any readers who are tempted. I have an embarrassing admission about the Senator: I spent a few months in 2000 as a registered Republican so I could vote for McCain in the primary. I wasn't sure I wanted him to be President, but I was curious to see what would happen next. It's tempting for me to dismiss it now, but for a while there he really had fallen under this weird spell where he was telling the truth. The main thing was the role of money in politics, but it extended to a number of other things, as well. His record as Senator had been reflexively conservative, right along the Republican party line, but because he was having real conversations with journalists it looked like he was thinking seriously about some questions for the first time. Most famously, there was an incident where he was saying the usual stuff about opposing abortion, and a journalist asked him the old what-if-it-was-your-daughter question and McCain reflexively snapped “that would be different” ... and according to folks who were there, he paused, obviously having that waaaait a minute moment which what-if is supposed to provoke. He was evolving right in front of our eyes, and I respected that, and so I voted for him in the primary.

But while the press still love him because of that time, it turns out that what he evolved into was a monster. The Republican kingmakers kicked his ass with dirty tricks during those primaries, which is why he didn't end up the nominee. The Senator learned his lesson, and has spent the last seven years carrying water for the Bush administration. On his two signature issues—campaign finance reform and the use of torture—he's delivered some pretty good rhetoric (and gods bless him for that) but then he signed toothless “compromise” legislation. More significantly, he's one of those folks who just snapped on 9/11. It turned him into a bloodthirsty warmonger. He's been a cheerleader for the Iraq war from the beginning, the “surge” was his baby, and he routinely talks about a decades-long occupation of the country ... as well as attacking Iran, Syria, or anyone else he can get his bloody hands on.

Enough about McCain. The real question: Obama or Clinton?

On one level, this choice is an embarrassment of riches. They're both strong, electable candidates, and they're both very smart. Given the roster of lame Democratic contenders in the last few decades, this is heady stuff.

Both of them have policy positions that are pretty good. For the record, neither is the progressive policy wonk I'd really like; that was my man John Edwards, who was very serious about the problem of poverty in America and very forthright about specific policy details. But the press hated him, and he could only get traction among bourgeois White liberals like me. It's pretty bizarre that the antipoverty populist progressive only had rich White guys supporting him in this race, but then American politics is pretty bizarre all around. With that caveat, both of Obama and Clinton are still pretty good on policy, and there aren't terribly substantive differences between the two ... with one big exception.

That exception is the Iraq war, and what it means for America.

Senator Obama's story is that he was an articulate opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning. There's a touch of exaggeration in that claim, but only a touch; it's evident that he saw clearly that it was a bad idea, for all the right reasons. It's pretty clear that he will look to withdraw the US from Iraq as quickly as possible, and won't be pulling any other military adventurism as President.

Senator Clinton's story, on the other hand, is complicated. She supported the war early on, and evolved into a critic of it ... though a pretty tepid one. They lied to us. They conducted the war poorly. True enough, but even if the Bush administration's claims were true, and even if they had conducted the war intelligently, it was still both stupid and evil. Senator Clinton hasn't said that and I fear that she doesn't really understand it. This plugs into how as a Senator, she has worked very hard in a number of ways to overcome the unsurprising distrust of folks at the Pentagon, and carefully built a credible reputation as A Democrat Tough On National Security.

If I can wax feminist for a second, I believe that Senator Clinton has decided that, as a woman, she has had to overcompensate and act more-warlike-than-thou or face inevitable sexist criticism that “she isn't tough enough to be Commander in Chief.” Unhappily, she's probably right. So what I'm doing here is criticizing her for doing what she has to do to succeed in the face of a sexist society. My criticism is, in an important way, a further reïnforcement of sexism: damned if you do, damned if you don't. I don't feel real comfortable doing it.

But. Right now, A Democrat Tough On National Security is a serious liability, both as a President and as a candidate. We need a President who can rebuild some American moral credibility on the world stage in the wake of the Iraq war fiasco; we need to make Bush an aberration, not show that Americans are warmongers across the board. And the Democrats need a candidate who can tell the American people, who have soured on the war, that they will end this war and not get us into another one like it.

And this takes us to what is, ultimately, a style thing. It's tricky, and an embarrassingly important question in what candidate to choose.

The case for Senator Clinton is that she's a street fighter who can win the election in November and win legislative victories as President. Recall that George W. Bush, who pulled strings to avoid serving in Vietnam, defeated John Kerry, the decorated infantryman, by convincing people that Kerry was a coward. The Republican slime machine is inescapable and can attack anybody. This is the counter-argument to “Hillary has too much baggage.” By the time the Republicans are through, everyone has “baggage;” the Democrats could resurrect George Washington and run him as the candidate and the Republicans would find a way to manufacture “baggage” for him. If anything, this is an argument in favour of Clinton: she's the best-vetted candidate in history, and we can be sure by now that there's no new dirt to dig up on her. Even more importantly, after what she and Bill Clinton went through during his administration, there is no greater expert in the world in fighting that Republican slime machine than Hillary Clinton.

This is no small advantage. In my more pessimistic days, which are legion, I think tha the right thing for Democrats to do is to accept this process as reality and just get tough about fighting it. In which case, Hillary Clinton is near enough to being the ideal candidate.

Barack Obama is a very different answer to the same problem. His candidacy is a bet that the American people are sick of the Republican propaganda machine's nasty, polarizing effect on the political process, and that it's possible to rise above that process, to run as a voice of moderation, and win.

Clinton is the candidate of winning the game, Obama is the candidate of changing the game.

Obama's powerful “bringing America together” rhetoric—and his mushiness on policy—are both characteristic of this approach. What does Obama stand for? It's hard to tell, beyond changing the style of American politics. But right now changing the style of American politics is a worthwhile goal. The question is whether it will work, and I go round and round about that. It may be that Obama is simply naïve, and that the Republicans will find a way to slime him too and make his ploy impossible. But with a deeply unpopular Republican President and weak Republican candidates, this year may be the best opportunity we'll get to change the face of American politics. On the other hand, I said that last time, with Bush the unpopular author of unpopular policy, and he trounced a pretty strong Democratic candidate who just couldn't find a way to beat the Republicans' propaganda.

So Clinton is the safe bet, and Obama is rolling the dice and hoping for greatness. I think that this goes not only for the campaigns, but the Presidential administrations they would produce. It's easy to imagine the Clinton presidency: smart, pragmatic, moderately liberal, politically crafty, winning many small battles in Congress. It's very hard to imagine what the Obama presidency would really be like. Bold, effective new coalitions winning big victories that Americans want like ending the war in Iraq and fixing American healthcare? Or mired in political clumsiness in which very little actually gets done? Or something else? Who knows?

I'll be satisfied with either candidate, and contribute heavily to their campaign. And I think there's no dishonour in voting for either one.

But for me, I can't get past Hillary Clinton's tacit support for the Iraq war. And I'm ready to roll the dice and hope for greatness. I think we're overdue for it.

And. Seriously. A Black man named Barack Obama as President of the United States? Just try and tell me that ain't a victory worth voting for.