The Political Process
I am a liberal Democrat deeply involved in the political process. This primary and election year I have been reading, looking, and listening obsessively to political analyses by New York Times columnists, NPR, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and even CNN’s often banal, image-driven, repetitive political reportage, polling, and commentaries. I feel it’s urgent to drive the Republicans from power, and I plan to back the Democratic candidate who I think can win the election—rather than supporting the one who agrees with me on all the issues, or is politically less compromised than the others. I have no interest, in these volatile dangerous times, in giving a litmus test to the candidates to judge their political purity and consistency. In my opinion, demanding a spotless record from the candidates before voting for them is politically self-destructive.
In this year’s elections it’s not the most experienced and knowing politician who will garner the nomination. If that were the case then Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd would have not dropped out of the race after being unable to make a dent in the primaries. The Democratic nomination will probably go to the candidate whose persona inspires the most positive feelings from the electorate. (Witness Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, partially due to her sudden display of “feminine vulnerability.”) I’m not saying that style and personality should be sufficient criteria for becoming President, but none of the Democratic candidates are devoid of intellectual substance or merely a handsome or pretty face and an amiable personality. (We already have had the rank misfortune of an ostensibly affable ‘regular guy’ beating a more qualified and knowledgeable, but emotionally remote, Democrat for President, and then running the country into the ground for the last eight years.) The candidates are all people whose ideological and programmatic differences are marginal rather than profound.
But there are stylistic distinctions between the candidates that may make the difference between winning and losing the election. Of course, I have no prophetic gifts, and I’m unable to tell you if Clinton, Edwards, or Obama will do better against the Republicans in the ultimate contest. And I can’t predict what fresh revelations, gaffes, and foreign and domestic occurrences might explode during this endless campaign period—events that could change the dynamics of the run for the nomination.
As it appears now, Obama is self-confident, charismatic, eloquent, and a candidate with uncharted potential, and he arouses my sympathy because he’s a self-reflective and introspective man—qualities rare among politicians. Also, he is a bi-racial politician whose appeal transcends race—though, as we have quickly learned, his staff—likely with his permission—are not immune from playing the race card. His popularity tells us that, though racism lingers on in this country (and though it could still have a significant impact on Obama’s ultimate vote), there are politicians like Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick who project such engaging, unthreatening images that they allow a sizeable portion of the white electorate to repress whatever negative racial feelings towards blacks they harbour.
Inspiring speeches like the one Obama made after his primary victory in Iowa, where in his words, “We finally beat back the politics of fear, and doubt, and cynicism; the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up”—are very seductive. However, what the oratory means in political and social terms is open to question. Is Obama merely advocating a politics that rises above partisanship—as a consequence, offers solutions built on consensus? By doing that he’s trying to deal with the journalistic commonplace that asserts that our political life is trapped by paralytic divisiveness and polarization, and that our politics are so tied to ideological polarization that problems like global warming and health care never get addressed.
It’s true that little legislation has gotten passed in the last two years, but it’s not the Democrats who have pursued an obstructionist, right wing line in Congress. In fact, the Democrats have recoiled from confrontation, while the Republicans have basically held a monopoly on an unyielding and punitive partisan style. So, unless Obama can miraculously mesmerize the opposition, or sustain a movement that becomes inexorable, he won’t be able by oratory alone, if he becomes president, “ to bring people together” and carry out the changes he is trumpeting, though articulating the notion of unity and hope with great flair may make it possible for him to win the election.
I am not blind to the fact that compromise and consensus is necessary to govern in a country as politically divided as ours. But I can’t say that it wouldn’t give me visceral pleasure for the Democrats (if they get into office) to go on the attack against the corporate interests like the drug, auto, and oil companies. And any gift for political conciliation will have to be merged by the new president with a talent for twisting arms, banging heads, and directly challenging the Republicans when it’s imperative.
I assume an untested Obama will be a quick study (I understand he could be a tough infighter when he was in the Illinois legislature), and will master some of these skills. His two opponents are more experienced politicians, and though the cautious Clinton has great clarity and knowledge when discussing the nuts and bolts of policy, she arouses the irrational hatred (sexism at work) of too many people. And though I agree with Edwards on most policy issues, I feel there is something inauthentic about him, and seemingly so do the primary voters.
I am still unsure about whom to vote for. All the Democratic candidates have virtues, but I also know that the electorate will not be won over by substance alone. It will be personal style that will provide the winning margin in the primaries, and most likely, in the general election itself.