The closing arguments by the leading Democratic candidates in Iowa aren't about agenda. They aren't focused directly on who has the best chance of being elected. The argument concerns who can best govern and bring about the change that the country desperately wants and needs.
Obama argues that we need someone fresh who can bring the nation together, and transcend the partisan battles of the past. Insurance companies can have a "place at the table, they just can't own the table." He seeks a mandate to build a broad, bipartisan coalition to address real problems. The contrast with George Bush's bitter and divisive partisan politics is apparent.
Hillary offers experience: working for "35 years"; someone "ready from day one" to deal with the incalculable. Bill's presence on the campaign trail in the final week personifies the argument that she knows how to do this stuff. The contrast with the incompetence of the Bush regime is clear.
Edwards argues we need a fighter, someone prepared to call out and stand up to the "corporate corruption" that blocks change in Washington. The contrast with George Bush's corrupt corporate cronyism is stark.
Each carries the contrast to his or her opponents. Edwards says "the status quo and good intentions" aren't enough to take on a Washington corrupted by corporate power. Obama says it doesn't make sense to "elect the same Washington gang playing the same Washington games" and expect different results and that "we've had enough heat, what we need is some light." Hillary contends that "Change isn't something you just demand or hope for, it is something you work for and Hillary has been working for it all her life. "
Absent from the exchange is any face-off on substance. There's no argument between escalating the war and getting out of Iraq. No argument between balancing the budget and investing in new energy. No stirring defense of NAFTA and the trade regime against attacks on it.
Progressives have been sensibly disgruntled about the limits of the debate -- the unwillingness to promise getting all the troops out of Iraq quickly (as Richardson has done), the abandonment of single payer health care, general timidity on or avoidance of a range of issues, but in fact, progressives have won the issues primary. Hillary, Obama and Edwards all pledge to end the war and bring the boys home. All promise health care for all, a big jobs agenda and industrial policy around energy independence and global warming, and new investments in affordable college and education. All commit to raise the minimum wage, empower workers to organize, provide tax relief to working people and tax increases on the affluent. All call for a new course on trade. All rail against the powerful lobbies -- health insurance, big oil, Big Pharma and the drug companies -- that block sensible reforms. All are liberal on social issues.
There are differences in emphasis and credibility, but in the conflict between the corporate wing of the party and the progressive wing, the latter have swept the field when it comes to Democratic primary promises. (The money wing of the party will weigh in, no doubt, after the election is over). In their closing arguments, the candidates are essentially assuming the argument about direction is over; the question is who can get it done.
Yet the debate is revealing, for these arguments lead to very different mandates. An Edwards victory would be the mirror image of Reagan in 1980 -- a progressive president elected on an overtly populist agenda with a mandate to clean out the stables and take on the interests. With Democrats gaining seats in both houses, he could drive a bold agenda early, but would face an immediate mobilization and hostility from the corporate world. An Obama victory would be electric, with a mandate to bring people together, but less clarity about the scope of change that would result. A Clinton victory would demoralize the right, but a Clinton restoration raises the obvious question of whether Hillary would emulate Bill and govern differently than she campaigns.
The closing arguments speak indirectly to the other major question plaguing Democratic voters after the smashups of 2000 and 2004: "Who can win? Which of these candidates is least likely to blow the election?" Each candidate implicitly offers a different path to a majority. The Edwards strategy is to rebuild a Democratic majority among middle and lower income working families, winning socially conservative "Reagan Democrats" back to the Democratic fold on economic issues. Obama's unifying rhetoric is designed to appeal to the suburbs -- more upscale independent and Republican voters alienated by the religious right and the war. Clinton's appeal to experience -- and Bill's appearance on the campaign trail -- reminds that despite her high negatives, her team does know how to win, even if it's with 49% of the vote, whereas the right's attack dogs haven't even begun to rough up her competitors.
It won't be an easy choice, and Democrats have been burned repeatedly in the past. Winnable races were lost or stolen in 1988, 2000 and 2004. And the political and personal triangulations of the candidate they did elect in 1992 and 1996 left conservatives in control of almost everything. This time, the closing arguments are addressing the right question. Voters are looking for a dramatic change from the Bush catastrophe. Democrats should nominate the candidate who is the most credible agent of that change. And progressives should continue to build an independent movement that can hold any nominee accountable to his or her own promises.