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James K. Galbraith Headshot

Take the Pledge: Don't Pay Attention

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In December 1970, 36 years ago this month, I replied to a very small ad in the Harvard Crimson, and in that way became the very first student volunteer for the undeclared presidential campaign of Senator George S. McGovern.

On the basis of that thin and ancient credential, I now declare: it's too early to pay attention to the 2008 Democratic presidential race.

Yes, I know: exploratory committees are being formed. Consultants are being consulted, funds raised, speeches written, strategy plotted, triangles triangulated, and candidates are going up to New Hampshire, out to Iowa, and off to Nevada or wherever else one only goes to show off presidential ambition. Meanwhile the all-important question is under discussion: when should a presidential campaign admit the obvious and declare its own existence?

Forgive me for tuning out. The voters will start paying attention sometime in January of 2008. Why should anyone not angling for a rich campaign contract do otherwise?

And as for the field so far, is there anyone in it with as much actual leadership experience as, say, the governor of Texas had six years ago? Anyone above the rank of junior senator (Clinton, Kerry, Obama, Edwards, Bayh; OK, there's Biden) or governor of a very small state (Vilsack, Richardson)? Have any of them shown actual leadership on the first-rank issues? In particular, were any of them powerhouses of national resistance to the corrupt, reckless and now-discredited Bush?

Apart, that is, from the one guy we haven't heard from, whose name is Al Gore?

Arianna wrote a few days back about Hillary Clinton's decline. If she's right, I'd guess the reason isn't the rise of Barack Obama. I'd guess it's the fact that the Democrats actually have a new actual leader. With an actual record of leadership. Who happens to be a woman.

Her name is Nancy Pelosi. Soon to become Speaker of the House. And there she is: charting a direction, setting policy, making tough decisions, like them or not. Think of it: Pelosi opposed the Iraq war when it was risky, back in 2003. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will set the political tone next year. And they'll be joined by other senior leaders, the men and women who've been around and done things. To name a few--Conyers, Waxman, Leahy, Kennedy--they'll be heard from next year.

That's trouble for the presidential set. They mostly thought the Republicans would stay in charge. Accordingly, their plan was to run from a vacuum of power, on themes, symbols, and talking points, rather than, well, an actual political record. But who will really follow them now? What's the interest in it? A better show is opening on another stage.

And maybe, just maybe, that could cause Democratic voters to think again, come 2008. What do we really want, in an actual President of the United States?

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James K. Galbraith is the author of Unbearable Cost: Bush, Greenspan and the Economics of Empire, just published by Palgrave-MacMillan.