The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of Vietnam, which means that either you're a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you're a Tom Hayden Democrat and you're suspicious of any military action. And that's just not my framework.
- Sen. Barack Obama, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 4, 2007
Barack, I thought Hillary Clinton was known as the Great Triangulator, but you are learning well. The problem with setting up false polarities to position yourself in the "center," however, is that it's unproductive both politically and intellectually.
Politically, it is a mistake because there last time I looked there were a whole lot more "Tom Hayden Democrats" voting in the California primary and, I suspect, around the country, than "'Scoop' Jackson Democrats." In fact, they are your greatest potential base, aside from African-American voters, in a multi-candidate primary.
More disturbing is what happens to the mind by setting up these polarities. To take a "centrist" position, one calculates the equal distance between two "extremes." It doesn't matter if one "extreme" is closer to the truth. All that matters is achieving the equidistance. This means the presumably "extreme" view is prevented from having a fair hearing, which would require abandoning the imaginary center. And it invites the "extreme" to become more "extreme" in order to pull the candidate's thinking in a more progressive direction. The process of substantive thinking is corroded by the priority of political positioning.
I have been enthused by the crowds you draw, by the excitement you instill in my son and daughter-in-law, by the seeds of inspiration you plant in our seven-year old [biracial] kid. I love the alternative American narrative you weave on the stump, one in which once-radical social movements ultimately create a better America step by step. I very much respect your senior advisers like David Axelrod, who figured out a way to elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago. You are a truly global figure in this age of globalization.
But as the months wear on, I see a problem of the potential being squandered. Hillary Clinton already occupies the political center. John Edwards holds the populist labor/left. And that leaves you with a transcendent vision in search of a constituency.
Your opposition to the Iraq War could have distinguished you, but it became more parsed than pronounced. All the nuance might please the New York Times' Michael Gordon, who helped get us into this madness in the first place, but the slivers of difference appear too narrow for many voters to notice. Clinton's plan, such as it is, amounts to six more years of thousands of American troops in Iraq [at least]. Your proposal is to remove combat troops by mid-2010, while leaving thousands of advisers trying to train a dysfunctional Iraqi army, and adding that you might re-invade to stave off ethnic genocide. Lately, you have said the mission of your residual American force would be more limited than the Clinton proposal. You would commit trainers, for example, only if the Iraqi government engages in reconciliation and abandons sectarian policing. You would not embed American trainers in the crossfire of combat. This nuancing avoids the tough and obvious question of what to do with the sectarian Frankenstein monster we have funded, armed and trained in the Baghdad Interior Ministry. The Jones Commission recently proposed "scrapping" the Iraqi police service. Do you agree? The Center for American Progress, directed by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, is urging that all US troops, including trainers, be redeployed this year. Why do you disagree? Lately you have taken advantage of Hillary Clinton's hawkishness on Iran to oppose bombing that country without Congressional authorization. But you carefully decline to say whether you would support bombing Iran when and if the time comes.
This caution has a history:
- you were against the war in 2002 because it was a "dumb war", but you had to point out that you were not against all wars, without exactly saying what wars you favored;
- then you visited Iraq for 36 hours and "could only marvel at the ability of our government to essentially erect entire cities within hostile territory";
- then as the quagmire deepened, you cloaked yourself in the bipartisan mantle of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated leaving thousands of American troops in Iraq to fight terrorism, train the Iraqis until they "stand up", and sundry other tasks of occupation;
Perhaps your national security advisers are getting to you when it should be the other way around. Their expertise is not in the politics of primaries. If anything, they reject the populist peace pressure influencing elite national security decisions. The result is a frustration towards all the Democratic candidates for what the Center for American Progress has recently called "strategic drift." The political result is the danger of returning to John Kerry's muffled message in 2004. The policy result may be a total security disaster for our country, draining our young soldiers' blood and everyone's taxes on the continuing degradation of our national honor in a war which cannot be won.
Just for the record, let me tell you my position on Iraq. I think the only alternative is to begin a global diplomatic peace offensive starting with a commitment to withdraw all our troops as rapidly as possible. That is the only way to engage the world, including the Iraqi factions, in doing something about containing the crises of refugees, reconciliation and reconstruction. It means negotiating with Iran rather than escalating to a broader war. If you want to "turn a new page", it should not be about leaving the Sixties behind. It will be about leaving behind the superpower fantasies of both the neo-conservatives and your humanitarian hawks. And yes, it is to be "suspicious", as Eisenhower and John Kennedy came to be suspicious, of the advice of any Wise Men or security experts who advocated the military occupation of Iraq. Is that position as extreme as your rhetoric assumes?
Your problem, if I may say so out loud, and with all respect, is that the deepest rationale for your running for president is the one that you dare not mention very much, which is that you are an African-American with the possibility of becoming president. The quiet implication of your centrism is that all races can live beyond the present divisions, in the higher reality above the dualities. You may be right. You see the problems Hillary Clinton encounters every time she implies that she wants to shatter all those glass ceilings and empower a woman, a product of the feminist movement, to be president? Same problem. So here's my question: how can you say let's "turn the page" and leave all those Sixties' quarrels behind us if we dare not talk freely in public places about a black man or a woman being president? Doesn't that reveal that on some very deep level that we are not yet ready to "turn the page"?
When you think about it, these should be wonderful choices, not forbidden topics. John Edwards can't be left out either, for his dramatic and, once again, unstated role as yet another reformed white male southerner seeking America's acceptance, like Carter, Clinton and Gore before him. Or Bill Richardson trying to surface the long-neglected national issues of Latinos. I think all these underlying narratives, of blacks, women, white southerners and la raza - excuse me, Hispanic-Americans - are far more moving, engaging and electorally-important than the dry details of policy.
What I cannot understand is your apparent attempt to sever, or at least distance yourself, from the Sixties generation, though we remain your single greatest supporting constituency. I can understand, I suppose, your need to define yourself as a American rather than a black American, as if some people need to be reassured over and over. I don't know if those people will vote for you.
You were ten years old when the Sixties ended, so it is the formative story of your childhood. The polarizations that you want to transcend today began with life-and-death issues that were imposed on us. No one chose to be "extreme" or "militant" as a lifestyle preference. It was an extreme situation that produced us. On one side were armed segregationists, on the other peaceful black youth. On one side were the destroyers of Vietnam, on the other were those who refused to submit to orders. On the one side were those keeping women in inferior roles, on the other were those demanding an equal rights amendment. On one side were those injecting chemical poisons into our rivers, soils, air and blood streams, on the other were the defenders of the natural world. On one side were the perpetrators of big money politics, on the other were keepers of the plain democratic tradition. Does anyone believe those conflicts are behind us?
I can understand, in my old age, someone wanting to dissociate from the extremes to which some of us were driven by the times. That seems to be the ticket to legitimacy in the theater of the media and cultural gatekeepers. I went through a similar process in 1982 when I ran for the legislature, reassuring voters that I wasn't "the angry young man that I used to be." I won the election, and then the Republicans objected to my being seated anyway! Holding the idea that the opposites of the Sixties were equally extreme or morally equivalent is to risk denying where you came from and what made your opportunities possible. You surely understand that you are one of the finest descendants of the whole Sixties generation, not some hybrid formed by the clashing opposites of that time. We want to be proud of the role we may have played in all you have become, and not be considered baggage to be discarded on your ascent. You recognize this primal truth when you stand on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, basking in the glory of those who were there when you were three years old. But you can't have it both ways, revering the Selma march while trying to "turn the page" on the past.
This brings me back to why you want to stand in the presumed center against the "Tom Hayden Democrats." Are you are equally distant from the "George McGovern Democrats.", and the "Jesse Jackson Democrats"? How about the "Martin Luther King Democrats", the "Cesar Chavez Democrats", the "Gloria Steinem Democrats"? Where does it end?
What about the "Bobby Kennedy Democrats"? I sat listening to you last year at an RFK human rights event in our capital. I was sitting behind Ethel Kennedy and several of her children, all of whom take more progressive stands than anyone currently leading the national Democratic Party. They were applauding you, supporting your candidacy, and trying to persuade me that you were not just another charismatic candidate but the one we have been waiting for.
Will you live up to the standard set by Bobby Kennedy in 1968? He who sat with Cesar Chavez at the breaking of the fast, he who enlisted civil rights and women activists in his crusade, who questioned the Gross National Product as immoral, who dialogued with people like myself about ending the war and poverty? Yes, Bobby appealed to cops and priests and Richard Daley too, but in 1968 he never distanced himself from the dispossessed, the farmworkers, the folksingers, the war resisters, nor the poets of the powerless. He walked among us.
The greatest gift you have been given by history is that as the elected tribune of a revived democracy, you could change America's dismal role in the world. Because of what you so eloquently represent, you could convince the world to give America a new hearing, even a new respect. There are no plazas large enough for the crowds that would listen to your every word, wondering if you are the one the whole world is waiting for. They would not wait for long, of course. But they would passionately want to give you the space to reset the American direction.
What is the risk, after all? If "think globally, act locally" ever made any sense, this is the time, and you are the prophet. If you want to be mainstream, look to the forgotten mainstream. You don't even have to leave the Democratic Party. It's time to renew the best legacy of the Good Neighbor policy of Roosevelt before it dissolved into the Cold War, the Strangelove priesthood, the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala, the sordid Bay of Pigs, the open graves of Vietnam. It's time to renew the best legacy of the New Deal before it became Neo-Liberalism, and finally achieve the 1948 Democratic vision of national health care.
May you - and Hillary too - live up to the potential, the gift of the past, prepared for you in the dreams not only of our fathers, but of all those generations with hopes of not being forgotten.