Monday, November 06, 2006

A Rambling Prelude to Midterm Elections

To properly address today's midterm elections, we must return (and regrettably so) to John Kerry's gaff of last week. I don't want to anatomize intentions as much as I want to focus on the trajectory of the story itself, especially within the Democratic party.

Let's begin with a simple synopsis.

What Happened:

- John Kerry misspoke, so that a joke intended to darkly and viciously criticize the Bush Administration instead seemed to criticize American troops.
- Kerry initially made a strong statement in which he refused to apologize and quite nicely shifted attention to the original intentions of his joke, hoping to begin a conversation about the war in Iraq instead of a diversionary conversation about troop intelligence and Democratic patriotism, which was what ultimately ensued.
- Prominent Democrats and Republicans alike demanded that Kerry apologized.
- As a result of mounting political pressure and the failure of his own statement to initiate public discourse, Kerry eventually apologized and retreated sheepishly to one of his many homes.

What Did Not Happen, Why It Didnt Happen And Why This Fills Me With Rage:
- Democrats did NOT promulgate a unified message that stood behind the intent of Kerry's original joke and attempted to direct the media towards the more significant errors and missteps of the Bush Administration in Iraq. This indicates the serious and continued lack of a functional Democratic media machine. This also indicates increased divisions within the Democratic party, especially in this election cycle as Democrats have been forced to run moderates in order to pick up key Congressional seats. Moderates in close elections were forced to run to the right in order to avoid aligning themselves too closely with a prominent Democratic leader like Kerry. This does not bode well for a party just months away from a potential Congressional takeover.

- This enrages me because: Democrats or, more broadly, liberals, have failed to author and promote a grand vision for change in this country. Democrats may win individual seats across the nation and there may be significant pickups for the party nationally. But without a unifying theme, message, vision, etc..., these victories will remain isolated, fragmented: they will fail to coalesce into the sort of movement that is truly necessarry to shift public opinion in a significant and lasting way.

I don't want to belittle or deride the gains that will be made possible by a Democratic takeover of Congress. These gains will not be insignificant, but they will be insufficient.

To move the country towards the left, the Democrats need to abandon politics, as it were. The political landscape in this country is, in a way, fully mapped. Without the invention of a new language, a new way of speaking about our values and speaking to people about these values, any movement left or right will be temporary and small.

The sort of grand vision I'm speaking of is a progressive one, a new cultural narrative that recaptures the romanticism of the American dream, a narrative of broadd gestures and rhetorical flourishes that fills the country once again with a sense of urgency towards an abstract but emotive end. I understand why progressives are frightened of broad, romantic gestures because of the violence that has occurred beneath the flourishes of language and because of the socio-political nuance that romance inevitable overwhelms. But history should not be a reason for inaction, it should merely fill us with an increased sense of caution and responsibility.

If progressivism takes hold in this country, it will be because of a political leadership able to make American believe in them, a political leadership able to make seemingly disparate issues and causes coalesce within a single, synthetic, dialectical vision of the future.

We need a political leader who can talk about the future as a time of promise, who can be honest about the challenges we will face as we move towards these promises, and who can bridge the gap between private and public lives so that politics might once again become the charge of America instead of a task left to those in power.

I think the next president will be someone who can perpetuate the story of America's greatness without resorting to isolationism or ethnocentrism. It will be someone who can talk about economic competition and the rise of power in Asia, and someone who can define these new areas of the world as foreign policy priorities. It will be someone who can talk about the nation's infrastructure and get people to support its wholesale improvement so that our nation can become a symbol of innovation and efficiency. It will be someone who can talk about diversity as a foundation of democracy and borders and walls as antithetical to this foundation without resorting to the tired metaphors of multiculturalism.

America needs a new vision. Only once we have a vision, an imagined future, can we begin to talk about how to get there. Without a telos, imaginary (and dynamic) as it will inevitably be, all politics are moot, only tepid adjustments to the status quo.

More on this later, but allow me to close with a bold pronouncement: Russ Feingold will be the darkhorse candidate in 2008.

Thoughts on 2008? On how the next two years will influence 2008? On Obama or Clinton or even Gore? And maybe even on who will get the Republican nomination? (You don't need to be registered to comment, by the way).

7 comments:

Diana M. Gauvin said...

I saw Obama speak about his "audacity of hope" (a la his book title) on Sunday, and it reminded me a little of the intelligent idealism of your post. I agree with you entirely, and the odd thing is that I think a very large portion of the liberal-leaning types in this country do, to. The problem is, there is no easy solution to the problem. Who is going to be the braintrust of the democratic party, charged with creating their unified vision? And until there is a clear answer to this question, there will be nothing clear within the party, either.

I hope Obama doesn't run in '08. We're not quite ready for him, and I want him to be president at some point. It would be wonderful if another democrat won and he were a vp or any other prominent role in the administration, though. Personally, I think that we're all going to wake up in 08 and find that, to no one's particular pleasure, Hillary Clinton is the leading candidate. And she's not going to win.

McCain is the obvious name for the Republicans, but just like last time, I think he's beatable in the primaries. He'd probably win it all if he were the nominee though.

John A. Atchley III said...

Obama adds an interesting dimension to all political conversations these days, and, in particular, to my concern over the Democrat’s lack of vision. I think, in many ways, the leadership role within the Democratic Party will fall on the shoulders of yound, energized members of the party, but also on the shoulders of those who have thus far played quiet roles in mainstream politics. What I think is becoming increasingly evident with the party is a division between moderates and progressives, and I would ultimately like to see increased conversation between the progressive members of Congress (Obama, Feingold, and many new electees) in an attempt to organize at least one wing of the Democrats.

That being said, I don’t think moderate Democrats are necessarrily a bad thing as long as they can successfully define themselves against moderate Republicans. What is risky about the next two years is the Democrat’s need to become a party that is more than the anti-Bush party, because ultimately they will be succesful in the future because they moved us past this epoch of neo-conservativism. I suppose what I mean is that Democrat’s should be wary of going after conservative leaders to viciously, issuing articles of impeachment, or being too self-congratulatory with investigations and subpoenas, etc… They need to be the party that makes Bush’s politics irrelevant, not the party that is caught up in skirmishes with what we already know to be a fading ideological wave on the right.

I suppose I haven’t come any closer to answering your question about who the braintrust of the Democratic party will be. Obviously, in an ideal world, they would all sit down in a conference center, have it out for a few days, and develop a framework of principles of sorts. Principles are nice because they have a lot of emotive energy behind them, without necessarrily forcing everyone who has those principles to agree on specifics. Now of course we don’t occupy an ideal world, so again I point to the party young, and the party sidelines, and also to the liberal society at large. We should be careful not to forget the immense power think tanks, media outlets, bloggers (ha), and others have on the shaping of politics in this country. What it really comes down to I suppose is people just beginning to talk about things in a new way and slowly having people in the country go “Hey, I like the way he/she said that. I think I could believe in that.”

For me, the real key is to not, well, fuck up, over the next two years, because if the Democrats can maintain even the trappings of coherence, organization, and power until then, I think the 2008 presidential cycle will be the time for candidates to really experiment with language and how the relate to their beliefs (and, most importantly, how they relate their beliefs to the voters).

This is why I think a candidate like Feingold, though peripheral now, has a chance of making a significant impact in the next election cycle. I saw him (on tv) speak this summer alongside Mark Warner, who has since decided not to run in ‘08, at the New Hampshire Democrats meeting. He is an incredibly impassioned speaker and was very succesful at weaving together a functional and impressive ideological picture. He recognized and was honest about problems America faces but was even more focused on how we will face those problems, sketching a very convincing picture of progressive politics as the solution to today’s insufficient status quo. He was someone who recognized the tiredness of some of today’s critical issues and was very competent in highlighting important national issues (minimum wage, universal healthcare, etc…) in ways that would appeal to average votes across party lines who have been hardhit economically by Bush’s slow gutting of the middle-class.

And this is really where the 2008 race will be exciting, if the right people can direct it there. The middle-class, the rural and urban poor. It will be about an America where the American Dream has become more difficult to pursue, where the vast majority of Americans feel left behind, and where core American values have been co-opted by transparent politicians for a brutal 8 years. And it will be about reclaiming an America that is viable for all those who choose to live here.

Now, to specifics: If Obama runs, I could see Hillary dropping out, and indeed there have been whispers of that. Obama, especially since his name has such power these days amongst progressive voters, would force Hillary to run to the right. If McCain were running, this would be a dangerous and ultimately losing movement. Again, the key in 2008 will be definition and political ingenuity. Obama would also siphon support from people like Evan Bayh (Obama would have the midwestern credentials) and Russ Feingold (Obama would have the progressive credentials and also distance from the war in Iraq as he didn’t have to vote on it). Obama already has a team around of him of seasoned political veterans, a number of whom have significant experience in Iowa, which, as always, will be the first and most telling state of 2008.

Without Obama, Clinton would obviously be the immediate, go-to favorite, though I, like Diana, do not think she’d be able to defeat Mccain. (That being said, I’m still not certain of Mccain’s ability to get through his own party’s primary. Though this election showed that, in many cases, voters were fed up with the far-right, I do think Mccain’s inability to connect with conservative voters on key moral, religious, and family values issues would make the primary’s a tough fight for him. He could obviously raise the money, but other conservatives have been more than successful on that front as well - in particular, former MA governernor Mitt Romney).

Other people who are difficult to figure into this mix are John Edwards, John Kerry (please don’t run again), and also Al Gore (whispers abound about his potential candidacy in ‘08).

So we shall see. The most important thing now is for congressional Democrats to make significant headway on key issues that can be billed as bi-partisan and ensure that their party hopefuls have a firm foundation from which to launch presidential bids in ‘08.

zach said...

my uneducated thoughts on obama

now, i don't know anything about illinois politics, but if the numbers stack up, why don't we get obama in via the governor's chair. he'd be much more likely to win the presidency out of an executive chair instead of a legislative one where they could attack his voting like they did to kerry.

unless, obama just goes vp. which i could get behind, and i don't get behind much.

zach said...

oh, and mr atchley...

who do you think could run as VP under russ? it could not possibly be someone who was not compatible with this fresh vision, because that would certainly tax on the energy of that vision.

John A. Atchley III said...

Zach,

I agree with you about getting Obama into a different position. There is always the statistic that a Senator (especially a Democratic Senator) has not won a presidential competition in 40 years or something (I'm not really that great with statistics). But the reason behind that is the visibility of your legislative record.

I think its also because politics are so blithely categorized and pigeonholed at a national level. You're always involved in issues that are divisive within one demographic or another. As a governor, the increased locality of your purview allows for what appears to the public and may very well be, bipartisan legislative advances, etc...

Specifically for Obama, this would allow him significant leadership experience in a very short time. Obviously part of the problem with Obama is that his celebrity might fade as he gets more invested in the Senate. Another 6 years in the senate after 2008 could really squelch the phenomenal support he has in the party now. A 2 year gubernatorial term would be ideal in its length and in the credibility and experience it would add to his resume/candidacy.

Logistically, don't know if its possible. No idea what Gov. Blagojevich's plans are or even how well liked he is anymore.

That all being said, I've heard a lot of whispers on various discussion boards that their might be some ethical gaffs pulled out if Obama were to run for anything more than Senate. Evidently his district in Chicago is a hot-bed of organized crime and to be a sucessful politician you apparently have to appease this element somehow. Of course, these have all been rumors and noone really knows Obama's level of involvement, but something to be aware of and something to keep your eye on.

The 2006 elections showed me again why Obama shouldn't run: he makes an incredible campaigner for other candidates. I think he'll be invaluable in 2008 as someone who can rally the base. Essentially, he needs to stay out of the race to lend his credibility and fervorous support to whoever gets the nomination.

As for Russ, unfortunately he is out. He announced last week that he won't be running and has no aspirations in that direction at the moment. Basically he thinks he can get more things accomplished now that Congress is controlled by the Dems. I think he's wrong, but I'll probably write about that later.


Right now I'm researching and getting back into the Wes Clark candidacy. I was pretty dissapointed when Russ dropped out because noone else gets me excited politically. But Wes Clark is getting a lot of press time on political blogs/discussions. Its a question of who he gets paired with. Edwards surprisingly has a lot of pull, based on hypothetical polling done earlier this month. 2004 didn't harm him at all (whereas it definitely did Kerry. Kerry better not fucking run.) Edwards has also been pushing an agenda that I think will play very strongly in 2008: that of economic populism. He's been working very strongly with the unions and seems to have matured significantly since 2004. We'll see though.

Those are the only two people I like now, so I'm purposefully ignoring the bland others until I'm forced to (but hopefully not) give them attention.

As always, arguments for Wes Clark are his decorated military service (though he was involved with Bosnia/Serbia which is a contentious issue on the far-left, but who cares about them, right?), his multi-lingualism, his impressive intelligence, his early opposition to the Iraq war, and his ability to raise significant money very quickly. And also he's from the south and doesn't have a legislative record to attest to.

As always, working against him is his personality. He needs some serious work with a media consultant to make him warmer, get him to kiss more babies, etc...

So we'll see.

Anyway, if you go to blog.washingtonpost.com/the fix, I believe the first entry parses some of the polling data just in about Democrats in 2008. Polls at this point are relatively meaningless, but they do show who is going to have to do less work in the beginning of the campaign cycle. Its mostly just name recognition at this point which, I think could actually work against some of the big name candidates (like Hillary).

Diana M. Gauvin said...

A good friend of mine from Chicago worked in Obama's Chicago office. She doesn't know or suspect any strong involvement with organized crime, but then, you probably need to be a lot closer to the guy to know for certain.

zach said...

bj... or john atchley as the case may be...

i was actually talking with a man the other week who is heavily involved in fund-raising for the democratic party and knows a lot of big shots. kerry, teddy k, even barry goldwater.

he is actually a friend of wes clark and he told me some interesting things. for one, clark doesn't have the same kind of political fight in him that let's say, howard dean, has. my source said that wes clark essentially wanted to be annointed the golden boy instead of muscling through campaigning.

to put it in the simple terms spoken to me: wes clark thinks wes clark is the shit. and he thinks everyone should recognize that. when people didn't, he was more baffled than driven to put up a solid fight.

that ain't gonna win a campaign on a national level.