03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Primary Is A Great Democratic Opportunity

Conventional wisdom is that a continuing primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will damage the Democratic Party. This may well be, if the race turns into a mutual hurling of kitchen sinks, in which each candidate undermines the other and feeds the GOP attack machine.

But the prolonged debate offers a real opportunity not only for Democratic electoral victory in the fall, but for democratic politics beyond. The opportunity is provided by the intense attention that the race focuses on politics, policy and the potential for social change. Both candidates could use the time and space they have to try to strengthen people's understanding of what kinds of policies might help solve the problems and provide concrete hope for positive change.

Instead of continued harping on 'who is ready for day one,' and the endless reiteration of mantras about experience and judgment, how about trying to lay out what it would actually take to end the war, and bring the soldiers home, explaining why such a course isn't 'surrender,' and how the enormous resources wasted in the war might be concretely used in behalf of real security and strength.

How about emulating Al Gore's pedagogical adventure on global warming, by creating a national teach-in on health care and the various pathways toward a universal healthcare system? How about an effort to dramatize concrete ways that government policies can create jobs? And a real effort to explain what a fair trade agenda involves?

Turning the race into a great moment of public education and discussion, focusing on alternatives to stale free marketeering and right wing nationalism, would enable the campaign itself become a vehicle for the change so hungered for by the millions turning out at the polls and caucuses.

One way to do this would be to continue the candidate debates, but insisting that the debates be focused substantively. But why not strive for innovative public presentations: Gore-like multi media presentations by candidates, situations where the candidate gets to moderate a debate on some key issues among his/her advisors, public hearing style events, where people can get to speak their concerns and ideas. The recent Obama efforts to stage town meetings where he stands there for an hour answering questions, have turned out to be disappointing exercises, Instead of the candidate having to pretend to be the fount of all wisdom, why not create theaters of ideas, showing the candidate as open to a variety of alternatives, and, like a good teacher, helping the audience think about and evaluate what they are hearing.

Of course the candidates need to respond to questions that challenge their credibility and competence and electability. There are big questions that each needs to deal with. Hillary has to start explaining and overcoming the fact that polls show her unable to beat McCain, even though the majority of voters want to elect a Democrat. Obama needs to explain and overcome the fact that white working class voters are not supporting him. These questions are ones that can only be answered in action -- that is for each to find ways of connecting to constituencies that now seem alienated.

We have a chance in the next few months to experience a growing partnership between a popular majority and these two leaders in a common quest for a new direction, But not if they try to tear each other down in personal quests for power.