HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 4, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Democratic Fuzziness
January 29, 2008

In the American Prospect on January 24th, Matt Yglesias had one of the most discouraging columns I've seen over the past several months. He points out that neither of the two Democratic candidates is speaking about foreign policy in a way that can effectively counter John McCain's super-patriotism.

Hillary Clinton, he says, has allowed herself to drift far too close to the Republican mantra that we should use military force everywhere all the time. And Barack Obama won't allow himself to say anything and continually retreats to yet more imprecise abstractions in an attempt to avoid the issue. Trouble is, it's not going to be avoidable once a Democrat has to face a Republican candidate.

Yglesias does offer some hope. Clinton, he says, is actually an open-minded, intelligent person who's capable of taking good advice, once she's out of campaign mode. And Obama may well have sharper thoughts about foreign policy which he's now hiding because they will bring him into conflict with the yahoo community whom he continues to think he can court with sweet words of unity.

I would add to Yglesias's analysis that a great many Democrats are now so twitter pated about the thought of falling in love with a candidate they are giving no thought to how the Republican entry can be defeated in the general election. They have forgotten that in a campaign in order to win it's you have to beat somebody.

The sad truth is that the Democrats are weak on foreign policy because their main candidates don't have one -- or at least don't have one that can be enunciated. They are terrified by the thought that a majority of Americans have become militarists and that if a Democrat says anything to oppose the new form of corporate/militaristic imperialism he or she will be swept away by a flood of flag-waving. They are right to see it as a serious difficulty. But the problem won't be solved by running away from it. Nor will it be solved by adopting Republican goals but arguing that Democrats can pursue them more skillfully.

The issue comes down to power and how it is exercised in the world. The Democrats have to show that the more we have used military power, the more our actual power has declined. We are now a far weaker nation than we were before George Bush began to launch invasions in the Middle East. It would take boldness to explain this to the American people, but it's the kind of boldness which, if pursued intelligently, could lead to victory. But at the moment we don't see either Clinton or Obama stepping up to the challenge. And that hesitancy could be marching us towards a bleak November.


Departure
January 31, 2008

All in all, I'm sorry that John Edwards concluded that he had to get out of the presidential race. I don't think his leaving will substantially benefit either of the two remaining campaigns. His followers will probably split fairly evenly between Clinton and Obama. But both of them will be able now to slide away from features of the debate that are important for strengthening our democracy. And whichever of them goes on to the general election will be less able than he or she would have been had there been a necessity to keep on taking Edwards's message into account.

We have not yet reached the stage in this country where a major politician dares to speak frankly about the depredations of what increasing numbers outside the United States call criminal capitalism. The leaders of the military corporate security state have been generally successful in equating freedom with the ability to shove people into poverty in order to make vast amounts of money quickly. American politicians don't dare to point out fully what has been going on for the past several decades, and at an accelerated rate during the Bush administration. But John Edwards was willing to hint at it more openly than any other politician with a national audience. That's doubtless why his campaign never really had a chance of success. Even so, he did manage to get some thoughts into public discourse that heretofore have been squelched by the charge of radicalism. And if we're going develop decent politics in America those ideas have to continue to move into the mainstream.

It would be pleasant to think that John Edwards would be offered a prominent place in either a Clinton or an Obama administration. But I don't expect it. Neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to be that bold. But I guess there's no harm in hoping, and so I hope that John Edwards will continue to appear regularly in news reports for years to come.


Clear Choice
January 31, 2008

Steve Benin, writing today for the Washington Monthly, says now that John McCain is the likely Republican candidate, the Clinton and Obama campaigns will have to concentrate on which of them can best defeat him in November. Benin is right about that but it also needs to be said that the arguments the two Democrats are putting forward at the moment will have to be sharply modified to make a strong enough case against McCain. That's because winning the presidency is not so much about being appealing as it is about beating someone else.

Have we already forgotten 2004? John Kerry's policies were more pleasing to the American electorate than George Bush's were, but that didn't matter after Bush beat Kerry into the ground. When the American people vote, for the most part they're voting about who won.

What those who want a Democrat in the White House should be examining is who is most likely to do to McCain what Bush did to Kerry. I'm not suggesting the Democrat should use the same tactics Bush did. I am suggesting the truth can hit just as hard as a lie if it's wielded correctly. That's what Kerry never managed to do-- make the truth his weapon. Remember, he was asked once during a televised debate if he was accusing Bush of using lies to lead the country to war. All he had to do was say yes, and the presidency would have been his. But he didn't have the fortitude to do it.

The Democrats can't afford to have a candidate this year who won't seize such a moment. Who is likely to grasp it and who is likely to back off is the prime question Democrats should seek to have answered before they pick their candidate. I don't think McCain will be beaten unless he can be convincingly presented as a militarist who will lead the country towards perpetual war and into the kind of economy that accompanies perpetual war. Making that case won't be easy. McCain will try at every turn to paint himself as a patriot and his opponent as someone who doesn't really believe in America. And there are lots of Americans who are saps for that mode of appeal. He'll get at least 45% of the vote for that reason alone.

The Democrat has to persuade 55% that McCain's country will be a nasty place for their children and grandchildren to inhabit. To accomplish that he or she has to show that though McCain himself may not be nasty, his vision for the future is nasty. It's not enough to say that he's merely mistaken. The Democratic candidate doesn't have to be dishonest or insulting, but he or she does have to be sharp and does have to be willing to go for the kill. Whether it is Clinton or Obama who can do that more effectively remains to be seen. But I hope the answer will emerge clearly before the nomination is settled.


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