Wayne M. O’Leary

Progressive Choice

Obama or Edwards; Edwards or Obama. It’s a dilemma for progressive-minded Democrats, who will shortly have to make a hard decision (if they haven’t already) over which of these two agents of change to support for president.

The Democratic primary and caucus lineup includes a wealth of attractive candidates with generally left-of-center credentials. Unfortunately, most of them (Biden, Dodd, Richardson, Kucinich, Gravel) can’t be nominated, either because the mass media won’t take them seriously, or because their campaigns and/or political personalities are fatally flawed in some respect.

Joe Biden is his party’s resident expert on foreign policy and a staunch champion of the working class. He’s knowledgeable, an accomplished stump speaker, and the best pure debater of the bunch. His weaknesses? He’s too much the Washington insider, lacks money and organization, and carries the aura of an old-time pol. Chris Dodd is in the same predicament as Biden: He’s experienced to the point of overfamiliarity, underorganized, and comes across, white mane and all, as central casting’s idea of a classic Irish political pro — Frank Skeffington reborn, with equal parts eloquence and blarney. In addition, Dodd’s considerable speaking skills and courageous (albeit little noticed) stance on the Iraq war are offset by an uncomfortably close relationship with the banking industry and its interests.

Scratch the Irish tag team of Biden and Dodd [who withdrew after poor showings in the Iowa caucuses]. That leaves three members of the single-digit polling brigade. Bill Richardson somehow remains afloat politically, despite a series of verbal gaffes and malapropisms that would have sunk another candidate. The New Mexico governor is trying to prove that a proclivity for muddled thinking and tangled syntax can be offset by executive experience, likeability, and the electoral appeal of being Hispanic in a year when the Hispanic vote will be key. From a progressive perspective, however, Richardson’s conservative positions on too many issues (health care, gun control, the death penalty) make him a poor option.

Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel bring up the rear. Both have long records of gallant service on the progressive ramparts, but here again, their personas make them effectively unelectable. Kucinich is smart, gutsy, and policy-savvy. He knows his mind and speaks it, and he has performed creditably in this year’s debate format, despite being disrespected by the moderators every step of the way. At the same time, his penchant for taking the furthest left position on every issue places him too far out of the mainstream. Mike Gravel’s one-man campaign, meanwhile, has amounted to puncturing the pomposities of the more established contenders and providing comic relief. This is not an inconsiderable contribution, but not one leading to the White House.

In the last analysis, if you’re a serious progressive, it comes down to Obama or Edwards. Some will argue for Hillary Clinton, but Hillary, like husband Bill, is not truly a progressive at all; she’s a centrist, more in the tradition of postwar Eisenhower Republicanism than Democratic New Deal liberalism. Furthermore, the New York senator is essentially a compromiser not a crusader, a pragmatist not an idealist, someone who revels in politics as usual and eschews soaring rhetoric in favor of the art of the deal. Mostly, she represents establishment sensibilities, whether economic, military, or diplomatic. A Clinton administration can be expected to take a reactive hard line on perceived terrorist threats abroad, but a soft line on corporate power and dominance at home.

To digress, one of the political outgrowths of the Clintonian 1990s was that the Democratic Party became (and continues to be) every bit as much a business party as the Republicans. The sources of its corporate support are somewhat different: Democrats court new-economy and entertainment money (high-tech entrepreneurs and Internet moguls, along with Hollywood), while Republicans tend more toward traditional business and the Wall Street establishment (energy, transportation, manufacturing, media, and financial interests). What the two parties have in common is a dependence on corporate funding; both love today’s venture capitalists, hedge-fund managers, and private-equity groups, and the love is reciprocated.

The bottom line is that the nexus between business and politics is not likely to be broken under Hillary Clinton’s leadership; neither is a commitment to the essence of the Bush Middle East policy, despite the revisionist claims of both Clintons to have always been against the Iraq adventure, claims having no basis in fact. A fundamental shift in policy, for those who want it, will come only with a Barack Obama or a John Edwards administration. But there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room that’s thus far preventing either of the two change candidates from gaining full traction. The large, dominating presence astride the process is Bill Clinton himself.

Apparently, legions of potential Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers have convinced themselves that, should Hillary win, Bill will be behind the scenes pulling the strings in the White House. It’s an updated version of the old two for the price of one gambit. In this scenario, a Hillary Clinton administration will actually be Bill’s third term, and for those nostalgic for a 1990s golden age that never existed, it’s an appealing prospect.

It’s increasingly obvious that to derail the “Hill and Bill” juggernaut, the progressive challengers will have to join forces at some point, Edwards supporters moving to Obama or vice versa. The 2008 nomination race is beginning to resemble 1976, when the relatively conservative Jimmy Carter won because the left-leaning Democratic primary and caucus vote was split three ways between Mo Udall, Fred Harris, and Sargent Shriver. Clinton is the 2008 Carter, with Obama and Edwards potentially dividing the majority left-of-center vote to Hillary’s ultimate benefit.

Unless the issue is made moot by virtue of the decisions in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic progressives will soon have to make a choice or cede the nomination to their party’s centrist bloc. Will it be Obama, the inspiring, rhetorically gifted newcomer, whose uplifting personal biography and Kennedyesque world vision have the potential to repair America’s tarnished image abroad and restore its international leadership position? Or will it be Edwards, the fearless and passionate advocate for change at home, whose critique of corporate power and clarion call for social justice promise to reverse our domestic decline? It’s time for progressives to fish or cut bait.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2008

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