Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sorry, Hillary

For the first time in our lives, my brother and I hope to vote in November for the same presidential candidate: Barack Obama.

This is significant not only because I was originally backing Senator Hillary Clinton in the current race; but because while I have always been a Democrat (and have in fact voted for only one Republican in my life--Norm Maleng, the late King County, Washington, prosecuting attorney), my younger brother, Matt, followed in our family’s footsteps, marking his ballots for GOP presidential candidates for as long as he’s been legally able to vote. He backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, then threw his support behind George H.W. Bush in 1988 (and even showed up at a Michael Dukakis rally once in order to heckle the candidate). But his faith in the Republican’t Party waned when the aged former Senator Bob Dole took on President Bill Clinton in 1996. And Matt refused to back George W. Bush at all, saying that the black sheep of the Bush “dynasty” wasn’t up to the task of leading the United States--a conviction that’s proved remarkably prescient. In the current presidential contest, Matt found something he liked in TV star and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson. But when Thompson quit after lackluster showings in the early primaries, Matt looked around at the remaining GOP field--and decided that he’d had enough, that for the first time in his life, he was going to vote for a Democrat instead, first-term U.S. Senator Obama of Illinois.

My mother-in-law has made the same choice. She and I have argued periodically over the years about politics, she being another died-in-the-wool Republican. But not this year. After seeing the mess that Bush has made of the presidency, the economy, and the country in general over these last seven years, she’s already announced that she cannot in good conscience back his philosophical successor, John “100 Years War” McCain. She’d probably never support Hillary Clinton, due to years of GOP propaganda about the supposed evils of former President Clinton; but to her, Obama is a much-needed clean slate, and she hopes to cast her ballot on his behalf in November.

My own conversion to Obama didn’t come easily. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected Clinton to make a run for the White House, knowing as she surely did how fanatical the Republican’ts are when it comes to all things Clinton, how ready the GOP hate machine was to take her on and destroy her. But when she did finally choose to pick up the presidential campaign gauntlet, I stood by her. I was a strong supporter of President Clinton, especially after Republican’ts launched their (ultimately unsuccessful) coup against him in 1998, over the matter of an intern, a soiled dress, and an error of judgment that wasn’t really anybody else’s business but his family’s. And I have always found Hillary Clinton to be a woman of strength, of character, and of conviction. If she thought that her moment had to come to lead the nation, then who was I to argue?

But as the race has progressed over these last few months, I’ve been more and more impressed by Obama--by his confident presence, moving speeches, and the rapidity and sharpness with which he has responded to political attacks. My initial concern about the junior senator from Illinois was that he couldn’t handle the loudmouthed hatred, propaganda, and outright deceptions destined to be fired by the GOP at whoever the Democratic candidate is in the fall of this year. However, I now believe that concern was unfounded. I haven’t seen anything in Obama that reminds me of the foolhardy hesitancy with which Senator John Kerry answered the Swift Boaters in 2004--and which cost him the election against a White House occupant determined to stay in office, even if he had to make Americans frightened for their lives at every turn and suspicious of every stranger in their midst. Obama has hit back fast, and he’s hit back smart, not ugly.

Having originally stood up for Hillary Clinton, I didn’t make a big deal of my possible switch. Friends and colleagues who had supported Barack Obama longer than I had felt the need to excuse themselves in my presence, whenever they said something complimentary of the rising-star Illinois senator. Phrases along the lines of “With all due respect for your point of view, of course ...” And I didn’t let on to many people that I was having second thoughts about my vote. It wasn’t until early February, when Democrats in Washington state held their caucuses, that I had made up my mind. Even then, I think, my wife was a bit surprised to see me holding up my hand in support of Obama. As it turned out, I was in the majority that day: Washington Dems went overwhelmingly for Obama.

What tipped the scales for me? It had little to do with popular sentiment; I’ve never been one to back causes or people simply because others do, or to abandon convictions because they might have fallen out of favor. No, what finally decided it for me was the inevitability of John McCain becoming the Republican’t candidate for president this year. Once thought of as a political maverick, somebody better than the habitually corrupt GOPers with whom he trafficked, McCain has spent the last seven years with his lips firmly pressed against George W. Bush’s sorry ass--despite the fact that Bush and his henchman, Karl Rove, did their best to destroy McCain during the 2000 campaign, even spreading rumors that he had a half-black child. (Shades of the 1920 race, during which it was bruited about that Senator Warren G. Harding was partly African American himself--an accusation that may in fact have been true.) McCain has even come out lately against his own previous position on waterboarding as torture (siding with the right-wingers, instead) and in favor of making Bush’s deficit-increasing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans permanent, despite having opposed such a move in the past--further proof that McCain is just as much a flip-flopper as his former Republican’t rival, Mitt Romney. And although he’s hinted at various times that Bush made a royal mess of his 2003 invasion of Iraq, McCain now not only insists that last year’s so-called “troop surge” was a success (bullshit!), but seems perfectly willing to continue the debacle in Iraq for decades to come, even though it would cost the lives of thousands more American soldiers and destroy the U.S. economy. Of course, McCain’s already admitted that he doesn’t understand the economy any better than George W. Bush did--and look at where that’s gotten us.

McCain’s continued support of a bigoted pastor, his cozy relationship with lobbyists (despite protestations that he’s holier than thou), his willingness to disown any longstanding convictions (his opposition to the execrable Jerry Falwell, his support of campaign finance reform, etc.) in order to become president--those are not the characteristics of a worthy candidate. They’re traits of a desperate and untrustworthy one. And the fact that many Republican’ts who once opposed John McCain vociferously are now siding with him is further evidence, if anyone needed it, that they lack anything like guiding principles. All the GOP wants is power.

Sizing up the coming race, I can imagine that Hillary Clinton would give the Republican’ts a hard fight. She’s a strong campaigner and an extremely intelligent person. In a face-off against McCain, she’d likely win on debating points. The problem is, winning on debating points doesn’t get you into the White House. (Just ask President Kerry.) Additionally, Clinton would be hampered by her having given Bush the same authority McCain did to make incompetent war on Iraq. With Clinton as his general election opponent, McCain would effectively be protected on what even he acknowledges is his weakest flank--his backing of Bush’s endless, disastrous war. All he has to say is, “She voted for the war, too.”

Obama, on the other hand, wouldn’t be in that position. He didn’t back Bush’s bellicosity--if only because he wasn’t in the U.S Senate at the time. And he’s spoken out firmly against the Bush-McCain position, that the Iraq conflict should continue as long as the generals want it. (Since when were generals in charge of U.S. policy, anyway?) Furthermore, Obama represents a fresh face in national political circles. He doesn’t come bearing Hillary Clinton’s ponderous baggage, or her high-negative ratings among Republican’ts. He’s a compelling speaker, with his rich baritone voice--an obvious contrast against McCain’s squeaky ejaculations. But he also has something to say (he and Hillary Clinton are nearly alike, policy-wise), and his optimism is palpable and moving, without being naïve. (I do, though, still think he should trust less in bipartisanship to fix the nation’s woes, than in political strength.) Obama reminds me of nobody so much as Bill Clinton, when he ran in 1992 against the calcified GOP establishment embodied by George H.W. Bush. Clinton’s point back then was that Americans didn’t have to be satisfied with rising prices and worsening employment and despair of things ever improving. A national reorientation was necessary, Clinton said in 1992, and he would help deliver it. I have come to believe that Obama could do the same thing today, help deliver Americans from our presently depressed economy, falling dollar, home-loan bankruptcies, and international disgust with the United States--all of which are legacies of George W. Bush.

As I said before, I have reached this position slowly, logically. I don’t believe that Barack Obama is some kind of saint or the second coming of John F. Kennedy (who was not himself an ideal president). He’s just a man, but a seemingly wise, skillful, progressive, and highly qualified one at a time when America desperately needs competence again in the White House. That Obama is also a black man is a particularly potent symbol, too--a demonstration of just how far this nation has come, and how far it must still go, when you consider the odds against Obama rising to the top of a national ticket.

I can imagine the presidential debates in the fall, with a young, charismatic Barack Obama schooling cranky old white pessimist McCain on why America can’t afford to continue Dubya’s disastrous war policies, dubious economic plans, and arrogant indifference to the rest of the world. It will make great television and energize the electorate.

I feel for Hillary Clinton at this juncture. With the delegate count trending against her, and word that 50 Democratic superdelegates are all ready to endorse Obama (thus cementing her opponent’s lead), she’s got to be hoping to change the game entirely with wins today in Texas and Ohio. Polling doesn’t suggest that anything like overwhelming margins are going to turn out on her behalf, however, and if she comes out of these contests with only one win, or none, she’s going to have a hard time convincing voters to stick with her any further. Especially if she continues to rail against Obama, rather than simply bloodying McCain. Already, polls show that Obama has a significantly better chance of beating McCain in November than Clinton does. Yet she holds on, presumably out of pride and hoping to change the minds of voters and delegates both, wishing for a miracle in Denver in August that would make her the nominee, rather than Obama.

I think that such an outcome, though, would be detrimental at this point to the Democratic Party. When I attended the Washington caucuses in February, I was struck by the fact that so many young people had showed up, excited and ready to back Obama. There was an energy and confidence in the room that I hadn’t felt in 2000 or 2004 (especially the latter). While the Clinton camp touts a recent Pew Research survey that shows a quarter of her primary supporters defecting to McCain in November, if Clinton isn’t the Democratic nominee (contrasted with only 10 percent of Obama’s backers saying they would support McCain), I suspect that’s a consequence of heated feelings at this stage, rather than a reflection of what those Dems would actually do in November. Both Clinton and Obama would make fine presidents, and either would be a far superior choice to stay-the-course warmonger McCain. Every committed Democrat knows that, and I doubt that outcome-swaying numbers of Clinton supporters would entrust their futures to McCain in the end. However, I do worry that denying Obama the nomination through some backroom dealing would deflate the interest of those young people who showed up to back Obama, finally believing that their votes mean something.

Much rides on today’s big Democratic contests in Ohio and Texas. If Obama wins both, it will be very hard for Hillary Clinton to stay in the race. If they split the wins, commentators (and right-wing zealots like Rush Limburger) will encourage Clinton to keep competing, if only because they like the excitement--and damn the consequences to America’s future. As hard as it is for me to say, having been a Clinton backer for so long, I hope that Obama comes out of these primaries with decisive backing, enough that Clinton realizes it would be a waste of time and money to continue her pursuit of the presidency. (Her smartest move might be to drop out of the race and throw her support behind Obama--after winning from him a promise to place her on the U.S. Supreme Court, or in some similar position where her influence could be felt.) I think it’s time for the Democrats to choose a nominee and firm up their backing against McCain in the fall. For the first time in my life, I look forward to voting for the same presidential candidate as my brother.

READ MORE:The Cold Price of Hot Blood,” by Gary Kamiya (Salon); “McCain’s Age May Figure in Choice of a Running Mate,” by Michael Cooper (The New York Times); “McCain: The Way Out of This Hole Is to Keep Digging,” by Robert L. Borosage (The Huffington Post).

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