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Not Bad. Not Half-Bad
American politics sucks, doesn't it?
C'mon, face it. You know it does. You know 'cause you've experienced it your whole life. You (and I) have made a career out of sitting there watching in helpless astonishment as dweebs like Mike Dukakis and John Kerry stood by hopelessly looking on in election after election, while crypto-fascist punks like Dick Nixon and Little Bush handed them their lunch. Only then to go on and rack up nearly as much damage in the world as imaginable, while using hate and divisiveness to maintain support at home. Right?
Your whole life teaches you that to be a progressive in America is to make Sisyphus look like a slacker. Hey, at least he got to the top of the mountain once in awhile! Even if it was all for naught, that's still a lot more than we've been getting across the better part of a lifetime. Right?
Maybe, just maybe, the long, regressive winter of American politics is coming to a close. And maybe, just maybe, it is doing so with the extra kicker of a righteous wrath bringing its fury down on those most deserving of a generation's worth of rage and contempt.
If you think I've gone off my rocker into a naive Wonderland so absurd that it would make Neville Chamberlain squeamish, try on this little thought experiment to see what I mean. Cast yourself back to the dark days of 2003 or 2004. The country has gone off on some 9/11-induced mass hysteria making Salem look like a picnic. The dumbest and the meanest amongst us are in charge. They are telling palpable, demonstrable lies about imaginary enemies, and the public is rallying behind their insane plans for Armageddon (in some cases quite literally), even (s)electing them for a second term. Their job approval ratings have skyrocketed to 90 percent. They are demonizing as traitors anyone who even feebly disagrees with them, even as they shred every major provision of the Constitution all claim to revere. And very few do dare to disagree with them - certainly not leaders of the completely misnamed opposition party. They are on a roll, fueled by a religious-like (and religious) fervor, and it looks like there is no end in sight. Remember?
Cast yourself back to that time, and ask what you could have reasonably imagined - back then - for February of 2008. What could you have reasonably dreamed of for this moment, back in those dark days? What would have been fair to expect with all that as predicate?
Could you have imagined that George W. Bush would become a hated and reviled president, widely despised by the same public that once gave him 90 percent approval? Could you imagine that the Republican Party would be in tatters and that - with an irony more delicious than any gourmet meal - Bush himself would be the architect of his own party's undoing? Could you imagine the principles of Bushism completely rejected by an angry and sobered (pun fully intended) American public?
Could you have imagined anything as perfect as the tale of Mitt Romney? A guy who told every lie imaginable to shamelessly and embarrassingly slobber all over the freaks who still control his party, only to lose anyhow? Could you have hoped to see this weenie would drop $40 million of his own hard-stolen cash in order to get stomped by what passes for a 'liberal' in the Republican Party? Could you have hoped for an irony as rich as watching the party of religious intolerance dump this smarmy turd because his Mormonism was too scary to even this lot of nutty zealots? Could anything be better than to see the door smack this guy in the ass on his way out, after saying in his surrender speech, "We need to teach our children that before they have babies, they get married," and, "I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror" by staying in and helping the Democrats to win? Do desserts come more just than that?
Could you have imagined a guy running for president of 9/11 actually getting unceremoniously dumped by his party, despite talking about that day incessantly? True, it would have been slightly better if Giuliani had hung around longer in order to more fully expose his serial divorces, his public extramarital sexual affairs, his marriage to his cousin, his children's hatred for their dad, his record of arrogance and ugliness as mayor of New York and his legion of Bernie Kerik connections. But hey, most of that is fully out now, and Giuliani's price on the lecture circuit has literally plummeted while he stands naked and utterly rejected, even by the scary monsters of the GOP. I can work with that.
Could you have imagined the once fearsome Republican Party machine being blasted to bits, with all the junior high kids running it, turning in on each other and viciously attacking their brethren? Could you have hoped that they would nominate someone for president that they basically hate and don't trust? Could you have dreamed that certifiables like Ann Coulter and James Dobson would say that they'd campaign for Hillary before they'd support John McCain, the very nominee they're stuck with? And wouldn't it really have been too much to ask for to have a guy named Huckabee stick around in the race, embarrassing the supposed heir apparent?
Could you have wished that to win the GOP nomination the successful candidate would have to tack way to the right of an American public that is moving rapidly the other way? And that - because having done so still fails miserably to placate his own base - he'll be unable to tack toward the center after securing that nomination? And that McCain will very likely have to pick someone far more conservative than himself, and therefore less attractive to most voters, as a running mate in order just to get his own voters to drag themselves out to the polls in November?
Could you have dreamed that the petulant pissants of the religious right who have previously forced so many to bow and scrape before them and their agenda of sexual obsession would be left fulminating in irrelevance, vowing not to support the Republican candidate for president, leading legions of voters away from the party, and committing mutual political suicide in the process?
Could you have hoped that the Clinton Collaborators who expected to be shoe-ins for the corona... er, nomination, would not only be rejected by Democratic voters, but would additionally be humiliated in the process? Would you have not paid serious money to watch the Anointed One's composure disintegrate before your very eyes as the ground receded from beneath her feet? Can you imagine her sheer fury at having sold out everything and everyone to be president, only to be left holding the bag, her butt good and well kicked by a funny-named nobody from nowhere? Firing her campaign manager (which has only succeeded in alienating Hispanic voters), the rest of her staff going off the payroll (they're just being thoughtful and dedicated!), spending $5 million of her own money, getting out-fundraised three-to-one, bringing out the big hubby gun for a crude shotgun blast of smear venom - all this and still getting absolutely obliterated by a guy who doesn't even pander? Could you have hoped even in your wildest dreams that Bad Bill's true colors would finally be exposed to his idiotic supporters who never saw him for the Republican he always was? Would you have dared write a script in which deploying Bubba to play hardball on the campaign trail instead had the effect of alienating his most supportive bloc of voters and actually driving votes away from Hillary?
Most delicious of all, would you have ever believed that the bloody-handed enablers of the Iraq war - Clinton, Edwards, Kerry - all of whom knew exactly what they were voting for, and all of whom did it to advance their personal ambitions over the dead bodies of Iraqis and Americans alike, that these disgusting opportunists would have been handed their walking papers, in no small part because of this vote? And that the guy who had the courage to oppose the war from the beginning would perhaps be rewarded with the presidency - over their dead political bodies - in part because of that stance? My goodness, it's enough to make you believe there is a god, after all. And that she's taking very careful notes.
And could you have hoped that those other bloody-handed enablers of Bush, Bushism and Iraq at the New York Times would be dumb enough to embarrass themselves by endorsing Clinton on the eve of her destruction, utterly missing what is possibly the most significant political wave of our time? (By the way, Memo to Paul Krugman: You are a great voice of sanity now massively tarnishing your reputation by using nasty smear tactics to try saving a ship that has already sunk anyhow. If you don't know what I mean, go to an encyclopedia and see: "Clinton, Bill - New Hampshire and South Carolina". Then knock it off.)
Could you have dreamed, in 2003 or 2004, that poll data would show the public having turned further to the left than anytime since 1968? Could you have imagined record voter turnout among Democrats in primaries this year, while demoralized Republicans can barely get up off the couch from watching "Lost" to go vote? Would you have let yourself hope, back then, that young people are especially energized, and that they want nothing to do with the disaster that is the Republican Party? Especially knowing that these are party affiliations probably set for life, could you have let yourself even dream of these developments? To think of the day when to be labeled a conservative would once again be considered an embarrassment, especially for anyone under 30?
Would you have dared to imagine a tsunami of factors - ranging from sheer anger, to incumbent retirements, to economic meltdown, to the accident of twice as many GOP Senate seats up for election in 2008, to an epic 180 degree reversal in traditional fundraising fortunes, to complete despondency of the Republican base and historically high mobilization of the rest of us - that all of these will likely combine to produce the biggest congressional landslide since 1932?
And could you have ever dreamed in 2003 that five years later America would elect a black progressive president you'd never even heard of? A guy who is Kennedy-esque in his inspirational qualities - to the point where many Republicans are actually attracted to him - and who can use that appeal to sell his agenda? A guy who will end the war, who will take the global warming crisis seriously, who will put economic justice back on the agenda, who will restore the country's place in world opinion, who will bring fiscal sanity to the government, and who will respect democracy and the Constitution?
I must confess, the more I see Obama in action, the more I like him. I've warmed to him slowly, particularly because I'm very wary of charismatic figures, especially those with light resumes and speeches full of platitudes. But I have nevertheless warmed to him. I think he's authentic. I think he's smart intellectually and I think his campaign shows that he's smart politically too. I don't think he is running because he needs to be president to soothe his emotional deficiencies. I think he's in it for the right reasons, an unbelievably fresh concept after decades of Clinton joyriding and Bush/Cheney kleptocracy. I admire the fact that he could have written his own ticket to serious financial success after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, but chose instead to be a community organizer.
And as for those platitudes, they have either diminished, or else I'm listening more carefully now. Check out some of what Obama said the other night, after winning the Potomac trifecta:
We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and somehow expect a different result, because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing. We are going to put this game to an end.
It's a game where lobbyists write check after check and Exxon turns record profits, while you pay the price at the pump and our planet is put at risk. That's what happens when lobbyists set the agenda, and that's why they won't drown out your voices anymore when I am president of the United States of America.
It's a game where trade deals, like NAFTA, ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wages at the local fast-food joint or at Wal-Mart.
It's what happens when the American worker doesn't have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment, and that is why we need a president who will listen not just to Wall Street, but to Main Street, a president who will stand with workers not just when it's easy, but when it's hard, and that's the kind of president I intend to be when I'm president of the United States of America.
It's a game where Democrats and Republicans fail to come together year after year after year, while another mother goes without health care for her sick child. That's why we have to put an end to the divisions and distractions in Washington so that we can unite this nation around a common purpose, around a higher purpose.
It's a game where the only way for Democrats to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like Bush-McCain Republicans, while our troops are sent to fight tour after tour of duty in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged.
That's what happens when we use 9/11 to scare up votes instead of bringing together the people around a common purpose. And that's why we need to do more than end the war; we need to end the mindset that got us into war.
George Bush won't be on the ballot this November.
George Bush won't be on this ballot. My cousin, Dick Cheney, won't be on this ballot.
But the Bush-Cheney war and the Bush-Cheney tax cuts for the wealthy, those will be on the ballot. When I am the nominee, I will offer a clear choice. John McCain won't be able to say that I ever supported this war in Iraq, because I opposed it from the start.
You know, that's good enough for me. For now, at least. I want someone who will end the war and provide healthcare. I want someone who will call the regressive nightmare of the last decades what it is. I want someone who will not stand by watching while he gets swiftboated by the right, taking our dreams and aspirations down the toilet along with the incompetence of his campaign. Right now, I think Obama is all those things and quite possibly a lot more. I don't think it's a matter of just settling for the least worst alternative to embrace what he's offering.
And I won't hold Obama's eloquence against him. To listen to him is to truly realize, in a comparative sense, the unbelievable sheer political poverty of the regressive era - to be reminded of how low we've sunk, not only in actions and rhetoric, but in ideas and aspirations too.
It took me some time before I came to agree with the notion that Obama is a charismatic figure. I saw several of his speeches which I thought were okay, but not that impressive. Since Iowa, though, I've watched him closely and I have to say that he is indeed inspirational. And that counts. I had lunch this week with a friend and colleague who told me that fifty years later he still feeds off the exhilaration that John Kennedy implanted in him as a ten year-old, one day back in 1960. We should always approach charismatic politicians with a boatload of caution. That way be dragons. But not so much caution that we become permanently cynical, and not so much that we can no longer recognize a good and powerful thing what it presents itself to us, as it sometimes will.
Look, I know that we won't be getting Eugene Debs for president in 2009. That's a shame, and it's a rightful critique of the poverty of American politics (not to mention the politics of American poverty) that that won't happen anytime soon. (Or will it? The conditions for a serious break to the left in this country have probably never been better at any time since 1932.)
And let's be honest. There's also still an awful lot that can go wrong. Clinton could rally in Texas and Ohio and pull this out, especially by engineering some skanky superdelegate coup. Or she could do a lot of damage, seeking to wreck that which she can't win, so she can run again in four years. McCain could successfully swiftboat Obama. Perhaps there is a skeleton in the latter's closet that even the much vaunted Clinton opposition research team hasn't been able to find (or fabricate). Cheney could arrange an October Surprise national security emergency to tip the election in McCain's direction and insure that Dick doesn't have to do jail time. Herr Diebold could steal another election for the fuhrer's party. Obama could win and turn out to be a nothingburger after all. Deadbeat regressives could block his agenda using the filibuster or endless allegations of faux corruption and bogus sexual peccadilloes. Etc., etc. The list goes on and on.
But let us not grow so cynical that we can't recognize a hopeful moment, even when it slaps us upside the head.
It wasn't supposed to go down like this, remember?
Karl Rove was supposed to have built a permanent majority for the Republican Party. Instead, he has brought it to ruin.
The Iraq invasion was supposed to be a cakewalk, leaving George W. Bush a literal master of the world, able to smack down Syria, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. Instead, it killed his presidency and contributed mightily to killing the cancerous conservative movement which he personifies.
Hillary Clinton was supposed to have the nomination sewn up, especially because of having Bill as an asset, and because of her 'correct' vote on the war and her ultra-safe (non-) position on every imaginable issue. Instead, she has turned herself into a soulless robot who is getting clobbered in part because of all those very same factors.
Nobody not completely infected with the sickness of the right was supposed to be able to win the GOP nomination. Instead, its most progressive candidate (which is a far thing from saying progressive) now has it all but sewn up.
The Republican right was supposed to be monolithic, disciplined and authoritarian. Instead, it goes into the general election furiously divided, with each faction savaging the others.
Democrats were supposed to be too cowardly and stupid to fight back effectively. Instead, Obama is already showing signs of knowing how to win a political battle, and even to do so while appearing to stay above the fray. I strongly suspect that McCain will find it equally impossible as Hillary has to throw a punch at Obama without having it instead come back around and punch himself in the face.
As shocking as it may seem to those of us who've been down so long that we've forgotten what up looks like, this is a moment of great portent, a time quite pregnant with hope (and not just the focus-group buzzword kind). Obama could very well be a transformative figure - an FDR to Little Bush's Herbert Hoover. Americans crave change badly, and - contrary to what Ann Coulter might tell you - there's really only one direction to go, unless Germany in the 1930s is your cup of tea.
Moreover, that is exactly the direction the public wants. Less war, more healthcare. Less arrogance, more diplomacy. Less destruction, more environmental protection. Less kleptocracy, more economic security. Less sexual obsession, more quality education. Less Katrina-style grand failures, more Apollo-style ambitious successes.
There's a reason that Dick Cheney isn't on the ballot this year, folks, and it ain't simply because he's got all the charisma of a sawed-off tree stump. Even Republican voters could figure this one out when they dumped the pretty-boy version of Cheney - Mitt "Say Anything" Romney - over the side of their party yacht. The rheumatic hound doesn't want to get up anymore. Ol' Regressive is showing his age. That dog don't hunt and they know it. (Though I wish they didn't. Romney getting ground under Obama's tracks would have made Goldwater's 1964 routing look like Sherman's March to the Sea by comparison.)
The public is ready for a turn to the left, and Obama wants to give it them. Young people have abandoned the GOP in droves. As importantly, conservative policies and politics have been discredited for a generation or more, especially if some Democrat could unplug their brain from life-support long enough to just say so. Obama is saying so.
To be sure, there is much work to be done. And there is incredible damage - perhaps too much damage - to be undone. There are pitfalls ahead, and even if there weren't, Barack Obama (probably) doesn't have the politics of Paul Wellstone.
All that said, there is reason to be happy and hopeful. There is reason to believe that our forty long years in the desert are now mercifully coming to an end.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.