Yesterday, John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race. Throughout his campaign, he brought some of the most important issues to the center stage. As the populist candidate, he made a valuable contribution by regularly addressing the huge disparities that exist between the rich as the poor; After all, the reason that we are now facing a slow economy with speculations about a possible recession is due to the expectedly failing supply-side economic policies of the Bush administration. John Edwards understood the extent to which poverty has been taking its toll on an ever-growing number of Americans, and he showed the courage to speak up about those disparities and the hope in the possibilities of this country to reverse such inequalities.
Following his departure from the presidential race, democratic supporters of John Edwards are left with two choices: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. These two candidates represent two fundamentally different philosophies within the Democratic Party.
One philosophy is one of centrism and belongs to the Clinton family. It is rooted in the idea that Democrats should sound more partisan and anti-Republican than they actually are in order to get votes; but at the end of the day, these Democrats believe that politics is an inevitable game with an unchangeable set of rules, and in order for Democrats to win elections, they must follow those rules. Finally, these Democrats believe that while we may be able to implement trivial positive changes to the old political system, there is ultimately little we can do to fundamentally change the landscape of the American political system or enact much broader, bolder and more progressive changes. Hillary Clinton demonstrated this attitude when she responded to Senator Obama's message of hope by saying that he shouldn't raise "false hopes."
When it comes to foreign policy and decisions on whether to take the country into wars, the Democrats must take the "safe" option and go along with the decision that looks more patriotic rather than the one that's best for the country. Sen. Clinton did that when she voted for the Iraq resolution and a more recent resolution on Iran. On trade, these Democrats believe that the party should ultimately surrender to the power of multinational multi-billion dollar corporations and expand free trade with little regard for workers in America and abroad as the Clintons did through NAFTA. And on welfare, they believe that once again, the only way for the Democratic Party to survive is to adapt to the agenda of Gingrich and Reagan and make a transition to gradually limit or ultimately eliminate many government entitlement programs without regard to its impact on inner-city neighborhoods. Bill Clinton did that when he passed the welfare reform without understanding how it would impact the poor in the Southside of Chicago.
On lobbyists, the Clintons and their centrist followers believe that it is too naïve and idealistic for progressives in our generation to envision and hope for a new kind of politics that is not based on corporate-funded special interests and campaign donations from lobbyists, but based on the power of people and their voices. It is the kind of mentality that has not only led Hillary Clinton to openly accept money from lobbyists but also made Mark Penn -- the CEO of the fifth largest lobbying firm in the world -- a chief strategist for her campaign. It's all part of the game, they say.
The Clinton philosophy is based on a cynical view of American politics that claims that major positive changes are impossible and as progressives, we must accept the boundaries and limits that the political elite set for us. They do not see political leadership as agents of major change, but ultimately, as reformist managers of a broken system at best.
However, there has always been a bolder and more idealistic tradition within the Democratic Party that the Kennedys embodied. John Kennedy did not run for office to continue to manage a system that did not work. He understood well that if this country were to make revolutionary progress on sciences or foreign relations, there would first need to be a leader who can challenge the citizens of this country to expand the limits of what they believe is possible and set the moon as our new frontier. He understood that real changes cannot happen with cynicism, but with optimism, the audacity to hope and the ability to believe in ourselves and what we can do. Today, Kennedy's tradition of idealism is represented in another candidate, Barack Obama.
Obama became an instant star in the Democratic Party when he gave his inspiring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Americans have ever since been continually learning about Obama's record throughout the past four years and the current presidential campaign. But it is important to put Obama's record within the context of the two philosophies within the Democratic Party.
On the issue of Iraq War, Obama opposed the war from the beginning at a time when the country was still on high alert, and as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he had everything to lose. The reason he did so was because he believed that the Democrats win not by making their decisions based on polls, but by trusting themselves with their more complete and mature understanding of world affairs and supporting a position that would end up being best for the country.
On the economy and poverty, Obama understands the impact of supply-side economics and assault on the poor. Following his graduation from Columbia University, he could have pursued a lucrative career on Wall Street. Bus instead, he spent five years doing community organizing and working with the families of workers who had lost their jobs as the result of Reagan policies at a time when Hillary Clinton was a corporate lawyer working for Wal-Mart.
On ethic and the power of lobbying, Obama understood that progressives have a responsibility to stay true to their idealistic values with a fundamental belief that not only progressives have the option of not playing the rules of the political game, but they have an obligation to end the game. It was this idea that led Obama to support the broadest ethics reform in the Illinois legislature and the biggest lobbying and ethics reform in the U.S. Senate shortly after his election. That is also why he has run his entire presidential campaign without accepting any money from lobbyists and Political Actions Committees.
Supporters of John Edwards who may now be considering other Democratic candidates to support will hear an argument that is regularly offered from the Clinton camp. They argue that because the Clintons were not able or willing to push a broad progressive agenda in the 1990s, no other Democrats can because they will all have to deal with Republicans. But this reasoning is flawed. It is completely okay for progressives to like people who are partisan in their policies. But the issue with the Clintons was/is that they are more partisan in their attitude and than they are on policies. In other words, they sound more liberal than they act. They look at politics as an epic battle between the left and the right and feel that the only way to materialize our liberal policies is to defeat the right. But the problem with that approach is that it is rooted in the misconception that this country is intrinsically as divided as the media tells us. The fact is that time and again, polls have shown that the vast majority of the Republican voters voted how they did because they thought the Republicans' policies were better for the middle-class! And the reason they felt that way is partially because the Democrats have continuously pursued the policy of not talking to the Republican constituents and their aspirations.
That is why not only Obama's positions on issues make him the most progressive candidate in this campaign, but he has also been able to get more things done in the Illinois legislature and U.S. Senate than Hillary Clinton. How is that possible? Because he doesn't vilify the Republicans and independents who are willing to listen and even come to progressives' side to form a majority coalition if they feel like we are reciprocally listening to them too. Dean Rusk said, "One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears -- by listening to them." Progressives cannot ignore the red half of this country and think that they can still get anything done.
John Edwards was another candidate from the Kennedy tradition in the sense that he, too, believed that the next president has the ability to bring about meaningful and broad changes and move the country in a fundamentally new direction. With John Edwards no longer in the race, I want to ask all progressives who have been supporting John Edwards to take a serious look at Barack Obama as he is now our party's best hope to inspire a new generation of leaders to bring about the major progressive changes that we need and deserve.