I had plans to write a whole series of posts with my thoughts on each of the Democratic candidates as the primaries drew near. But here we are on the day of the Iowa caucuses, and I never got around to it. While it's likely that all the candidates will stick it out at least until New Hampshire (it's only a week, after all), the race changes as soon as real votes are cast (or real corners are stood in, as it were). So this is the abridged (yet still monstrous) version. (I'm presenting the candidates in rough order of their usual standing in the polls.)
I'm not concerned here with the candidates viability, or electability, or any other such strategic questions -- my prediction record is dismal enough for me to wave off making those judgments. What I am concerned with is this: Do I trust this person to move the country in a generally and substantially progressive direction?
The title of the post gives away the punchline: none of the candidates meet the bar for me. All of them seem too likely to maintain the status quo, stepping back from the worst excesses of the Bush years but not leading us in any transformative steps forward. If I had to choose, at this point I would lean towards Obama. For reasons detailed below, I would not call myself an Obama supporter
. But in the absence of any candidate that can inspire me, I'll take one who can break a glass ceiling, and Obama is more progressive than Clinton or Richardson. Plus, being a precinct captain for Obama and going to caucus trainings by Cornell West has apparently radicalized my mother-in-law's views on race.
It probably shouldn't be necessary to say this, but to forestall any willful misinterpretation: as disappointed as I am with the Democratic field, they're saints compared to the ogres of the Republican party. If Arizona is in any danger at all of being a close race (or if the Libertarians are the only third party on the ballot again), I will without hesitation vote for the Democrat -- whichever one it may be -- in November.Mike Gravel
I have to give Gravel credit for thinking big. Where most of the other candidates follow cautiously behind the idea folks, adopting the least boat-rocking versions of proposals, Gravel has two big ideas: a national sales tax, and a national referendum system. Unfortunately, neither of these big ideas are progressive ones.
The sales tax is the most obviously regressive. I've written before about why it's a bad idea. In summary, while progressives should be advocating a tax system that demands proportionally more of the well-off and expands aid to the less-well-off, Gravel's tax proposal would be flat if considered on a purchase-by-purchase basis and regressive when you take the full set of each person's expenditures into account (and the basic structure is not changed by putting a small kink in the bottom to take the pressure off the poorest).
The referendum sounds potentially progressive (and it has roots in early 20th-century progressivism, which instituted it in many states -- unlike the sales tax, which originated on the right). Progressives should be looking for ways to make policymaking more democratic, expanding democracy beyond just elections. But I don't think referenda are the way to go. Legislatures are able to deliberate -- to get together and discuss bills, creating counter-proposals and adopting amendments and coordinating between different areas of law. However imperfectly ("very") this happens in practice, it is practically impossible in the case of a referendum. Voters are presented with a bare up-or-down choice on a single version of a proposal (or worse, simultaneous up-or-down choices on several competing versions). What I would rather see is increased use of deliberative public participation in administrative rule-making (and even legislation-drafting).Dennis Kucinich
If you were to go purely by their policy white papers, I should be endorsing Kucinich. He's the only candidate who supports single payer health care and same-sex marriage (without supporting additional bad ideas like Gravel). But then I have to ask whether Kucinich would actually get the job done. And here he comes up short. Kucinich, to put it bluntly, does not play well with others. He'd rather draw a line in the sand than figure out how to get things done. He gets credit for choosing leftism as the substantive agenda about which to be self-righteous and purist -- though his conversion to the cause is very recent, as is apparent when you trace his voting record on abortion back past the start of his '04 presidential run. There's definitely a role for an uncompromising conscience figure in the party. But "president" is not the right job to put that person in. Kucinich would be too petulant, too quick to sabotage progressive legislative efforts to prove his progressiver-than-thou bona fides, to make an effective leader of the country. Chris Dodd
Dodd generally looks good. He's got a solidly, though not exceptionally, liberal voting scorecard in the Senate. And he's showed some leadership in the past (Family and Medical Leave Act) and in the present (FISA). Nevertheless, it's notable that I'd never really heard of him until he declared he was going to run. There have been many times when someone should have stood up and made a serious filibuster threat -- many of them more important than the latest FISA bill (e.g. the original FISA bill, or the Alito, Roberts, or Mukasey nominations) -- and Dodd didn't do it (nor, to be fair, did any of the other Senators in or out of the presidential race). And indeed, over the years he has voted for a variety of bad laws, whenever the Democrats decided to go along with the right -- NAFTA, the 1996 immigration law, the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, etc.
Dodd is also too much of an insider. Though the establishment has thrown its weight behind Clinton, Dodd doesn't challenge them much. After all, he announced his candidacy on Don Imus's show (and didn't repudiate him during the "nappy-headed hos" scandal). And his conventionality is reflected in his positions on the issues, which are all about what you'd expect from Generic Democrat. For example, he made a point of being against giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and used that to slam Clinton when she was wavering -- hardly an instance of progressive leadership.Joe Biden
Biden's selling point is his foreign policy knowledge. I don't doubt that he's a very smart and well-informed man on this topic. But then I consider his most noted foreign policy proposal -- partitioning Iraq into three semi-independent regions. Whether or not this is the best route for Iraq to go, it signals a wrong direction for America. The partition plan is not supported by most Iraqis. And even if they did support it, a change of that monumental import should be done by Iraqis, not by America. We should be getting out of Iraq and letting it set its own course, not continuing to try to push solutions to fix the country. It seems Biden has let his confidence in his own foreign policy smarts erode the humility that a post-Bush foreign policy requires. In general, I worry that Biden's ego will get in his way.
Then there's the fact that Biden is in the pocket of the banking industry (I'm sad that mergers have killed the "D-MBNA" joke, since "D-Bank of America" doesn't have the same ring to it). The structure of modern capitalism is a key problem in today's society, and while I don't expect any of the candidates to make huge strides in changing it, Biden is the most likely of the Democrats to try to support it.Bill Richardson
Way back at the outset of this campaign, I had positive feelings about Richardson. This inspired me to learn a little more about him ... and I came away convinced that he's probably the most conservative candidate in the race. His experience is a plus, but much less of one than most people make it out to be because he was using that time in office to practice being a moderate, not a progressive.
Richardson's big theme has been the war. I can't entirely fault him for turning into a one-trick pony, since that may be what you have to do to get the media to start paying attention to you (and it worked for Dean last time around). Nevertheless, he chose to make a mountain out of the molehill's worth of difference between the candidates' stated plans on Iraq, when his own position on the issue is not entirely trustworthy. Richardson has been no long-time war opponent -- in fact, he supported the war when it started.
I do have to give Richardson credit for his stance on the environment, which -- because of the way he highlights the importance of controlling sprawl and boosting public transportation -- seems to indicate more engagement with the issue than the other candidates have. Nevertheless, he seems terriby uninformed about the substance of many issues. For example, he made embarassing stumbles in the first debate when he cited Byron White as his favorite Supreme Court justice and thought Roe v. Wade was decided in the 1980s, and in the gay rights debate when he said homosexuality is a choice. This may actually be a good quality in a mediator -- it's useful to be free of pre-concieved notions and agendas about the solution. But it's a terrible quality in a president who should be showing progressive leadership.
Finally, I have questions about Richardson's governance style. One of the most damaging aspects of Bush's presidency is the nepotism, the privileging of loyalty over competence. Based on what I've read about how he runs New Mexico, I'd say of all the Democrats running, Richardson seems the most likely to give us another "heckuva job, Brownie" moment.John Edwards
Of the three leading candidates, Edwards appears the most progressive in terms of his policy proposals and his rhetoric on the stump. He gets more credit than anyone else for bringing new ideas to the race -- about poverty and the fundamental brokenness of our corporate system -- and trying to shift the conversation rather than just cautiously follow it. (Gravel tried this, but his new ideas were bad and nobody would listen to him.)
The problem is that these new ideas are pretty new to Edwards, too. His campaign this year is strikingly different from the affable centrist image he ran on in 2003-2004. The 03-04 Edwards is more consistent with the Edwards who represented North Carolina for a term in the Senate. There, he got consistently mediocre-for-a-Democrat ratings from various issue groups. And most damningly, he co-sponsored the Iraq war resolution.
Perhaps his conversion -- which, to his credit (much like Howard Dean, whose netroots support he inherited while, inexplicably, never really becoming the "netroots candidate") he portrays as a conversion -- is real. But I can't find any way to trust that for sure. Or perhaps, as some Edwards supporters have argued, he was a progressive at heart all along, but was just pandering to his red-state constituents. If that's the case, he's likely to slip back as president -- because the USA, while bluer than North Carolina, is significantly redder than the Democratic base he's playing to right now.
Even if his recent conversion is genuine, Edwards has no experience governing as a progressive. Everyone else in the race is campaigning as the same kind of politician they've been in their most recent office. But Edwards left the Senate before his transformation into a progressive, and spent the intervening three years preparing himself to run for president. Without meaning any disrespect to the current candidates for North Carolina Senator (about whom I know almost nothing), I would be quite happy to see the current incarnation of Edwards make a bid to get back into Congress. He's a young guy, so he could spend four to eight years (depending on how the '08 election turns out) learning how to put his new rhetoric into practice and proving himself before trying to become leader of the free world.
Sometimes, Edwards' shakiness on his new progressive feet shows through -- notably for me on the issue of same-sex marriage. Most of the other candidates are pretty straightforward in showing that they're not serious about this issue, regurgitating the same unresponsive formulas about "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," then trying to change the topic. Edwards, on the other hand, has made a clumsy attempt to present himself as thoughtful and earnest -- but without actually adopting the progressive position. He gives us a tortured story about how he's "not there yet," winking to progressives that maybe he'll support them when he's in office, but pointedly not triggering the "oh no, Edwards likes the gays" reaction from non-progressives. The journey metaphor grates on me, because when it comes to beliefs, if you know your destination, you're there already. The only way to be on a journey is if you're unsure where you should end up.Barack Obama
I think Obama is basically a progressive at heart. If he could wave a magic wand and get the substantive outcomes he wanted, they'd fall basically in line with what I'd realistically hope for from a candidate I supported.
The problem is, Obama doesn't seem to care about the substantive issues that much. Instead, he fetishizes the bipartisan process that he thinks will get us there (and himself as the one anointed to lead this process). This means, on the one hand, that his grasp of the content of the issues sometimes fails -- for example, in his early endorsement of "clean coal" (which he was able to sort of back down from), or the lack of a mandate in his health care plan (which he tried to spin as the central virtue of his plan). It also means he's prone to adopting right-wing frames, from "Democrats hate God" to campaigning with ex-gay entertainer Donnie McClurkin to "trial lawyers are evil" (the recent claim that he bashed Gore and Kerry is, I think, baseless -- but he set himself up for being misinterpreted with his larger pattern of attacking his party from the right).
For someone dedicated to creating a new kind of politics, he's shown very little leadership in the Senate. For example, he couldn't even bring himself to vote against the Kyl-Lieberman bill rattling our saber at Iran (though he happily knocked Clinton for voting for it), nor could he get himself back to DC to take a stand on the FISA bill last month.
Lack of experience is another issue. The experience charge is a bit rich coming from all the Edwards supporters at DailyKos, given that their man's government experience is a big one term in the Senate, and his pre-government job as a trial lawyer, admirable as it may be, is not as relevant to governing as Obama's background as a law professor and community organizer (though I'm still not clear what exactly he accomplished in his organizing). Obama is no neophyte, but what he's lacking is the kind of experience possibly most important to a president (since it's the arena he has the freest rein in): foreign policy. It's great that Obama spent part of his years growing up in Indonesia -- but citing that ends up making the opposite of the point he wants to make if that's his best or only experience dealing with foreign countries.Hillary Clinton
The obvious reason not to support Clinton is her hawkishness. She's positioned herself as a moderate on many issues (perhaps as a reaction against the right-wing meme that she's a crazy pinko), such as her ill-advised strike against violent video games. She voted for the Iraq war, and has pointedly refused to apologize for it. She's been the most aggressive toward Iran (and the most sincerely so -- Obama's occasional saber-rattling, for example, comes off as just a pander). I think the lesson she learned from the Bush years is not that military intervention is a bad way to conduct foreign policy, but that you need someone competent at the helm, such as herself, to make it work. While I doubt she'd start World War III, she's likely to repeat her husband's use of force abroad.
She also seems to have learned the wrong lesson about the expansion of executive power. While most of the other candidates run on a message of changing the system, Clinton's message is that we just need a better person to play the system. I have trouble envisioning her rolling back the Bush-era arrogant assumption of power by the executive branch.
My last problem with Clinton is that she's clearly the establishment candidate. I don't hate the party establishment out of pure contrarianism or love for the underdog. Rather, I hate it because the particular Democratic establishment that we have today is rotten. It's a club of short-term thinkers in the grip of a variety of powerful but detrimental myths about politics and policy, more concerned with their own advancement and looking good in front of other establishment figures (on both sides of the aisle) than with making substantive changes for the good of the country. Clinton (as well as Dodd, Biden, and Richardson, and to a lesser degree Obama) would listen most closely to these people, and put them in charge of running things.