With the Iowa caucuses for Presidential candidacy less than a week away, I’ve gotten one or two emails asking me which candidate I prefer. I can see where my opinion – being a foreign national who does not vote in American elections and all – is dramatically important, of course.
Now, it’s important to preface that most of the Democratic candidates would likely make anywhere from decent to excellent presidents, except for Dennis Kucinich. (Yes, Kucinich agrees with me on certain positions, but you know who agrees with me on every position? Me! And yet, I would likely make a terrible President. Competency in the duties of the job itself is just as important as having the right agenda, and Kucinich just doesn’t have that competency.)
And it’s also important to preface that the Republican candidates are barely worth mentioning. This is one of the weakest slates in Republican presidential history, if not the weakest period: a blowhard former mayor with a tendency to explode his own campaigns and an agenda that essentially amounts to “let’s blow up everything,” a former actor who doesn’t even seem that interested in running for President, a out-and-out theocrat who’s at least honest about his prejudices, and Mitt Romney, who is, I think, an android. John McCain, despite being eleventy thousand years old and touting his executive experience as a former Pharaoh on the campaign trail, manages to be the least offensive by being willing to say things like “torture is wrong” and “guess what, you can’t deport twelve million people, it just doesn’t happen” – which of course hurts his chances with the Republican base.
But back to the question at hand.
It seems to me that the three leading Democratic candidates – Obama, Edwards, and Clinton – are essentially equivalent, at least on the basis of policy and platform. All three have plans to advance the socialization of healthcare in America (which is good); the fact that Obama chooses to for the moment argue for a plan without a universal mandate, while bothersome in principle, is essentially meaningless in practice, because no plan advanced now will end up quite like what they manage to pass, assuming the Senate Democrats grow something resembling a spine. All three have very good cap-and-trade emissions plans, and all three have good energy infrastructure plans, which are vitally necessary. All three are – despite the various campaigns’ efforts to argue otherwise – very likely to not be insane as regards foreign policy, and all three will likely budget and spend responsibly, or at least more responsibly than George W. Bush has (not that this latter achievement is hard).
Thus, the campaign has shifted from policy issues to those of electability and core competence – who stands the best chance of becoming President, and who will make the best President once elected?
Hillary Clinton’s argument for both competence and electability is “experience” – her experience as a de facto senior staffer in her husband’s administration, and the fact that the right wing has painted her so vociferously as the devil incarnate for the last fifteen or so years that, really, what more can they do? However, I find both arguments problematic. Firstly, “de facto senior staffer” is not executive experience; all of the candidates have experience doing things that require one to be really smart, but actually being In Charge Of Stuff is a whole other deal, and one where I find Clinton’s experience lacking. (Moreover, the one executive-level operation where Hillary was definitely in charge was the 1993-94 initial attempt at universal healthcare, which failed miserably – and Clinton’s performance by all available records as the leader of the initiative was miserably bad. Which isn’t to say she’d necessarily repeat such a performance; after all, presumably she’s learned something. But it’s not a glowing recommendation, is my point.)
Clinton also is, for better or worse, the candidate of the status quo as regards the Democrats; it’s worth remembering that in her youth she was a country club Republican, and she’s spoken during the campaign about returning to the politics of her youth. (This isn’t to dismiss her for having been a country club Republican back when such things still existed and when the Republican party tolerated such heterodoxy. Sensible conservatism has its place in political debate.) She doesn’t want to move the political axis left, not particularly. As such, although for some this makes her preferable, for me it’s (probably rather predictably) the opposite. Sorry, but income inequality alone in the United States indicates to me an economy with severe problems; a shrinking middle class is something I believe to be, like, bad.
All of that having been said, Clinton is a savvy political operator, very very smart and tenacious, and she can give as good as she gets. In terms of her electability, I don’t think she’ll get any less popular; that having been said, I don’t think her (large) negatives among the general public will shrink as much as some of her defenders believe it will, and more importantly, any personal popularity on her part won’t have any coattails further down the ballot, which is important. Whatever President we get will need a Congress they can work with, and Clinton seems the least likely to get it (although I would wager she’s also the most able to work without one).
Barack Obama is simultaneously inspiring and frustrating to me, and to many other liberals-slash-progressives-slash-whatever we’re calling ourselves this week. Obama is clearly intelligent and ambitious. Furthermore, although the politics of meaning are limited, I think it would be deliberately obtuse to suggest that electing a black man President – and especially one as brilliant a speaker and communicator as Obama is (this is not to repeat the “he’s so well spoken for a black man” silliness from earlier this year, but merely to say that Obama is a fucking great orator by any standard) – would not have its own significant impact both on America’s racial divide and on foreign opinion of America worldwide.
But his steady willingness to appropriate conservative positions and speak of “bridging the divide” is bothersome. Triangulation has had its day in the sun, I think, and the moral of triangulation is the moral any lawyer learns about mediation: if you have one side willing to concede ideological ground and the other completely unwilling to do so, all that results is that the second side mostly gets what it wants and the first side mostly gets screwed. The modern Republican party is, almost to a man, unwilling to concede any ideological ground whatsoever; they are obstinate to a dizzying fault. Triangulation and cooperation with the right simply will not work, and the left has years and years of evidence to back up this argument.
Some Obama supporters have suggested – and it’s not an unappealing suggestion, by any means – that Obama is using this genteel triangulation language specifically because the American media loves it so dearly, and that beneath the genial exterior lies the mind of a modern-day Machiavelli. It’s actually not unfeasible. Obama is intelligent enough to pull something like that off, I think. But I find it hard to endorse a candidate based on a potential gaming of the media that I don’t even know exists for sure.
That leaves me with John Edwards. I like Edwards, mostly because he’s got a firm idea of what he can do with the Presidency: namely, use it as a bully pulpit. When Edwards threatens to go to individual districts and campaign against any member of Congress who doesn’t back the legislation he wants to advance, you know he’s got a good grasp on the outside-to-in application of political power that many other modern-day political candidates (especially as regards Democrats) simply lack. When he threatens to cut off Congress’ health care if they don’t pass his health care program, regardless of how politically unfeasible it might be – it’s just good politics, and it’s something average people can understand. It amazes me that some people see Edwards’ combativeness as a minus. Voters like it when politicians display metaphorical nutsack, people.
Edwards is also the only candidate talking seriously about poverty issues in America, so much so and so eloquently that other Dems have been forced to pay the issue at least token lip service. (How poverty issues can be ignored so deeply in an America where New Orleans is still largely a ruined city is beyond me, but there you go.) He’s concerned about income inequality and the decaying standard of life for most Americans in a way that other candidates just aren’t, and it’s not just good politics or good economics to have a strong, stable middle class, it’s common sense for the stability of the nation as a whole.
And it might be callous to say it, but nonetheless – Edwards is white and male, and as a Presidential candidate he puts states in play (like the Carolinas) that Clinton and Obama simply do not. Edwards’ matchups against all the Republican candidates are uniformly the best by four to five percentage points or better. This is not to say that Edwards won’t be viciously and baselessly smeared by his opponents, because he will – but there’s no little voice in the back of anybody’s head saying “don’t vote for the white male guy,” especially when the opponent, guaranteed, is another white male guy. I honestly believe Obama and Clinton will get at least a statistically significant amount of vocal support that won’t translate into actual votes within the security of the voting booth.
So, for now, I’m endorsing Edwards. Again, though, I’d like to stress that Edwards is merely what I consider the best of a very strong slate of Democratic candidates, and Clinton or Obama – or even Dodd or Biden, for that matter – would make perfectly decent candidates and/or Presidents. But, from a global standpoint, the next President of the United States absolutely has to be a Democrat, and a committed one. And that’s Edwards.
(Of course, if Edwards doesn’t win or very very nearly win Iowa, his campaign is done anyway, so…)