The Democratic Party has promised the electorate change, but is not always clear about what this will mean in practice. There is Obama change with its emphasis on bipartisanship, and there is Big Momma change with its emphasis on taking back the country for liberals. The first kind is an easier case to make to the American people, but it is the second kind that might actually make life better for them. The question becomes one of which candidate is more likely to unite these messages of change and push a liberal agenda in a constructive way. As it is, compromise and unity are gaining currency as buzzwords, but the party is jeopardizing its standing as an ideological institution. Change means different things for different people, and the more it becomes a message of bipartisanship, the less effective it becomes as a rallying cry for Democrats and independents who actually want to change policy. Hilary is unlikely to unite the country, but can Obama win armed only with a vision of cooperation? Will this cooperation compromise Democratic values? The situation at present seems to be working in Obama’s favor, but for him to seriously challenge the Republicans in the fall he needs a liberal platform.
The problem with the kum bi ya kind of game is that bipartisanship is necessarily a two-way street. The prospect of fighting John McCain in a general election leaves Democrats in an uncomfortable position. McCain is a civil, intelligent, and well-respected public servant. Insofar as voters are looking to escape the stink of partisanship, he is as valid a choice as Obama or Clinton as at numerous points in his Senate career he has crossed party lines. If changing Washington means only changing the way Democrats and Republicans talk to one another, if it just means unity and bipartisanship, then perhaps McCain is the best candidate. Just as he is tactful in pushing his foreign policy vision, Democrats must be sure of where they stand on issues and keep them at the forefront of national discourse.
There are certainly ways to paint McCain as a purveyor of a dated and morally bankrupt ideology, but Democrats must be very careful about how and when they do it. They would do better to counter him with a positive message. It would require no great effort on their part to point out McCain’s Islamophobia and link it to an aggressive defense policy that will only imitate the most egregious blunders of the Bush administration. If one can get past McCain’s irritating rhetorical habit of referring to everyone in earshot as “My friends,” one will hear alarming predictions that border on promises. “There will be other wars,” he says. Does he mean that if war doesn’t come of its own accord that he’ll start one himself? Just as he was unpopular for supporting the surge, he may again dig his own grave if he can be goaded into threatening Syria or Iran directly.
While such concerns about McCain are well justified, Democrats should think twice before adopting this line of argument. If there is another terrorist attack or if Iran again seriously threatens U.S. forces as they did last month in the Straight of Hormuz, Democrats will be caught with their pants down. And as Billy Bob Thornton memorably put it in Primary Colors, the 1998 film adaptation of Joel Klein’s novel about Clinton, “No one wants to die with their dick hanging out.” The problem with McCain is that he sees no daylight between prevention and preemption, a serious moral concern. However, if the United States is attacked, the distinction will appear academic at best and unpatriotic at worst.
The secret for the Democrats will not be to push McCain, but to advance a platform that embodies changing the course set by the Bush administration. This will mean protecting the environment, funding research in alternative energy (and not just useless corn ethanol), funding education mandates, and fixing America’s grossly corrupt healthcare system. For years, Republicans have set the agenda and Democrats have had to play dress up. As countless liberal would-be Congressmen have learned, any time a fake Republican challenges a real one, odds are voters will take the real deal. McCain’s record of voting against his party makes him a prime target on which to turn the tables. This year it is the Democrats that have raised the money, bedazzled the media, and generally rocked the vote. If voters can be made to believe that we can change not just the way we talk with those who disagree, but also fundamentally change the way we run the country, they will respond.
Senator Barack Obama appears to be the man to do it. Obama outpolls Clinton in rural areas and the South, and it is not just the black vote. There aren’t many blacks in Iowa. Rather, Obama has campaigned in a way that does not alienated voters, particularly evangelicals. Nicholas Kristof recently explored the possibility of the Democrats courting the evangelical vote in a New York Times op-ed piece, suggesting that this year the mega-churches will talk more about poverty here and AIDS abroad than about abortion. If either Democratic candidate is able to talk about issues like homosexuality and abortion in a way that evangelicals can even remotely tolerate, then this election is over. And it is no great mystery which candidate has had a better rapport with non-party-base voters.
There are two major problems with Hilary that have nothing to do with the way she dresses, when she cries, or whom else her husband has slept with. First, it has often been remarked in the press that McCain and Senator Clinton might run a very civil race, as neither wishes to offend the many noses now allergic to the effluvium of “Washington” rancor. Moreover, as Senate colleagues the two have apparently gotten along famously, nowhere more so than in Estonia where the two had a friendly vodka drinking contest only a few years ago. Being the polarizing figure that she is, Hillary is unlikely to pick up more undecideds than McCain, and a boring race will not change the equation. The second problem is that they are too much alike for her to get a monopoly of attention or to control the agenda. They are old, white, rich members of the establishment, and Hilary’s supposed foreign policy and defense experience will look absurd next to McCain’s, even to those who find his ideas disagreeable. If anything, McCain will be the spokesman of bipartisanship in a Hilary-McCain race.
Enter Obama. Picture Barack Obama and John McCain on the stage. There you have a real contrast. The young man and the old man. The hopeful and the angry. And in Iraq, if one is to agree with most Americans today, the right and the wrong. It is by no means won, but when you have a candidate who opposed the war from the beginning and a man who is willing to keep it up for a hundred years, at least you have a ball game.
The problem for the Democrats is that Obama could run out of things to say. McCain’s Straight Talk Express has track in front of it for as long as money persists in politics or Islamic extremists continue to hate us. These are actual issues next to which message of nothing but hope sound naïve and uninformed. For the Democrats to seriously challenge McCain they must nominate Obama, and for Obama to win he must bring together hope and purpose, because they are not the same thing. Democrats need to grab the microphone while it dangles in front of them and let Republicans play catch up.