Although there are fifteen state primaries to go, the air is thick with what feels a lot like an Obama victory. The string of consecutive contests he's won and the sometimes shocking margins (64-35% in Virginia? 68-31% in Washington??) by which he's defeated Hillary Clinton smell a lot like a tipping point. So it's worth stopping for a moment to consider what we're doing -- who we want our nominee to be, who we want our next president to be, and what we want him, or her, to accomplish.
In 2004, on the eve of an expected Howard Dean landslide, John Kerry started to make the "electability" argument, viz. that he could defeat President Bush and Dean could not. Dean was too confrontational, he said, too angry. Never mind that this was exactly the line the Republicans had been cynically proffering -- Dean's anger as disqualification to lead -- Kerry went on to victory on the heels of a charm offensive. He was a nice guy. He had great teeth. He had friends on both sides of the aisle. (He even asked his "friend" John McCain to be his running mate!) Democratic primary voters bought it, and nominated a smile in a Brooks Brothers suit to run against the Republican meat grinder. I won't bore you with the rest of the recap.
My question is obvious: Are we about to do the same thing again?
This is not a pro-Hillary column. I spent much of 2007 bemoaning the seeming inevitability of Hillary's nomination. It didn't have much to do with her politics, or with so-called "Clinton Fatigue" (I can think of a hell of a lot of things I'm more tired of than the Clintons...), but with my fear that a Clinton nomination would subject us to another year, perhaps more, of vicious, slanderous, sexist, foaming-at-the-mouth Republican smear campaigns; and also with a sneaking suspicion that many people would blame the victim (as many people have done in Bill's case) for the poisonous, vicious, filthy, rabid, etc., political atmosphere; and that the combination of attacks and blaming the victim and general reluctance to elect a woman president made it unlikely she could win.
In other words, my fear of Hillary was actually fear of the Republicans. The good liberal in me hoped for a more rational, less bloodthirsty political environment and hoped a less polarizing nominee might appease the party of Rove, O'Reilly, and Coulter. My attitude had everything to do with a Clinton campaign, and nothing to do with a Clinton presidency. And that, I fear, is the dynamic driving the surge which has brought Obama within a hair's breadth of the nomination.
Obama has branded himself as the candidate of Hope and Inspiration, the candidate who can bring people to the table -- whether Mitch McConnell or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and calmly work out compromises, the candidate who can usher in a New Age of Cooperation in American Politics. What a great story! What a thing to, um, hope for! It's no wonder he has captured voters' imaginations -- we are all, it's true, exhausted and dispirited. We are all tired of the streetfight, of getting kicked around and rolled over and generally screwed. And we're tired of losing. Many columnists have also adopted Obama's inspirational rhetoric. Robert Creamer's recent editorial serves as a good example: "Obama would be the best president to pass a progressive program of structural change... We won't pass this agenda if we rely on the insider game in Washington. Success will require a massive, ongoing mobilization of people across America. That will require inspiration." Terrific!
But here's my next question: Who do Obama, Creamer, et. al. think we're dealing with?
The Republican Party doesn't do compromise. They don't do friendly negotiations or charm offensives and they don't give a flying fuck about massive mobilizations of people across America. (Anyone remember the massive mobilizations against the Iraq invasion?) The Republican Party does winning. They do Swiftboating. They do recalls and threats and arm-twisting and rule changing and Nuclear Options. They aren't concerned with keeping their hands clean or making friends -- when they want something they get down in the dirt and break as many kneecaps as necessary to get it, and I am sick and tired of the Democrats being the party of "Let's All Just Get Along" that walks into a streetfight with an outstretched hand only to get kicked in the balls and spat on and lose.
It would take a dozen columns to review all the ways in which the Republicans have refused to compromise, or have reneged on compromises, in the last seven years. Remember the Gang of 14, which preserved the filibuster from the so-called Nuclear Option -- only to see Republicans threaten the Nuclear Option the instant Democrats objected to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court? Remember the bipartisan torture ban -- which President Bush promptly annulled with a signing statement? Look no further than the current struggle over the Protect America Act -- the bill to modernize surveillance laws: The Democrats have essentially dropped all opposition to the Republicans' desire to make it easier to spy on Americans -- and yet Republicans refuse to pass the law, and President Bush has threatened to veto it, unless it also includes retroactive immunity for corporations that spied on their customers.
This has been the pattern with everything from No Child Left Behind, to the Medicare Drug plan, to the Patriot Act, to countless bills funding the war in Iraq: Democrats cave to 98% of Republican demands, only to be called traitors and obstructionists and cowards and to get beaten with pillowcases full of soap until they give the other 2%.
I don't see Hope getting in the way.
What I see is the need to return this country to the principles on which it was founded. I see a need to restore the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments, which have been shredded by Bush and his Republican subordinates. I see a need to restore Habeas Corpus. I see a need for our country to stop torturing people, stop sending them to other countries to be tortured and killed, stop imprisoning them without charge, without counsel, without trial. I see a need to close down the obscenity that is Guantanamo. I see a need to finally do something about climate change. I see a need to address the drastic widening of wealth disparity in this country. I see a desperate need to reform the health insurance system, which is not only leaving 40 million people without health care but destroying American businesses.
Do you want these things, too? Well, I know for a fact that the Republicans don't agree with you on any of them. So who is it we're going to win over with the Power of Hope? When Senator Obama talks about compromise, what, exactly, does he mean? Are we willing to forget about, say, the 4th and 5th Amendments, if we can get some movement on the 1st and 8th? Are we willing to allow waterboarding on even-numbered days only? Won't we all feel better when there are only 20 million people in this preposterously wealthy country who can't afford to see a doctor?
The Republicans lost big in the 2006 elections -- and yet there are more soldiers in Iraq now than there were 18 months ago. How's that for compromise?
I'm not interested in a president who wants to sit down over coffee and talk compromise with people who are not going to compromise. I'm interested in someone who is going to fight like hell to move the country back in the right direction.
So let's all take a deep breath and think about what we're being offered by the candidates. Let's think about the political reality the next president will have to face, and what's coming from the Republicans once we have a nominee. As admirable and dignified as Barack Obama is, what we've seen so far when the going gets rough is thin-skinned whining: calling the Clintons racist (are you kidding?) because Hillary said LBJ was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act; crying foul when an aide referred to the drug use that Obama wrote about in his memoirs. Read Hendrik Hertzberg's piece in The New Yorker slamming Hillary for her "egregious... coldly premeditated" objection to Obama calling the Republicans the "party of ideas." Hertzberg, usually the smartest pundit in print, resorts to the equivalent of a sixth-grader's defense: That's not what he meant!
I've got news for you: If you think this is dirty, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
This kind of huffiness is just blood in the water for the Republicans, and "compromise" to them is a synonym for "sucker." The sooner we all get over the fantasy of the group hug, the sooner we can nominate someone who will step into the ring ready to fight the crucial battles that need to be fought. So let's stop and reconsider what we want out of the next four years: a friendlier atmosphere, or a better country. Because we're not going to get both.