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Gary Hart

Gary Hart

Posted: January 9, 2008 01:48 PM

The Democratic Crossroads: Stay With the Known or Accept a New Generation of Leadership


For the party of the status quo it is always easier. Who best represents "stay the course." The only complication this year is how to be the candidate of stay the course without mentioning the president from whom you are inheriting the course.

For the party of reform, it is always more complicated. If it really were about who best represents change it would be easier. But there is also the human factor of power. For better or worse not everyone gets into politics to carry out reform. Some seek power, what most people think politics is all about. For those who have had power and seek to keep it or recapture it, they can claim to be for change and reform but they cannot bring it about because there are too many old arrangements, too many deals, too many old networks. They all prevent transition to a new age.

The Democratic party is once again faced with a decision: whether to stay with the known, the familiar, and the "experienced" or whether to accept a new generation of leadership composed of those who have not had power or the experience of governing. If you believe, as I do, that the early 21st century is an age of huge transition -- of globalization, of information, of failed states, of climate change, of rising new powers, and so on -- then leadership hamstrung by old arrangements and commitments will not do.

The contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is further complicated by unusual factors. Her gender. His race. Many women will vote for her simply because she is a woman. Many minorities will support him simply because he is an unusual black-American. That is human nature and to a great degree understandable. But gender and race cannot and should not obscure the larger realities. America is stuck. Those of us who met in Oklahoma City (the "Ben-Gay forum") think we are stuck in large part because of bitter partisanship. But we are also stuck because our leaders cannot see over the horizon ("the vision thing"). They do not see that we are living in an age of huge revolutions. They refuse to understand that we cannot resolve complex security issues merely by changing America's character and making this Republic an empire of unilateral intervention and occupation.

I have personal experience of the Democratic party at a generational crossroads. In the mid-1980s the Democratic party could play it safe and stay with a candidate they knew and with whom they were comfortable and familiar. Or they could take a chance with a new generation of leadership with a new understanding of a new age and new policies and ideas. They chose the former and they lost.

Democrats and Americans are faced with a big decision. Will we play it safe? Or will we embrace the future? This is not a time to put gender or race above what is best for the country or to make superficial choices. We have huge debts and deficits. The climate is rapidly approaching a tipping point. We are stuck in the Middle East. Most of the people in the world do not like us or trust us. Our education system is declining. And the list goes on.

Only a new generation of leaders can solve these new challenges, because only a new generation of leaders is unbound by old policies, old commitments and arrangements, old deals and old friendships. This is a time when America must leave old politics behind. This election is about transition not power. We will either move forward or we will go back.