Apr/May 2008 Salon

Snapshots of a Campaign

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

By the time this sees print--technically, is pixilated--the primary contest for the Democratic presidential nomination may be over. Or at least the final stage will have been reached, though today, in the last week of February, there is still much talk about the nomination being decided only at the convention in August by the so-called super-delegates. At the moment, though, the day of the last Democratic debate before the Texas and Ohio primaries, Barack Obama is generally seen as the party's likely candidate, and his opponent Hillary Clinton is gaining more media attention for her failure as the candidate of what used to be seen as a massively unstoppable organization than for any aspect of her candidacy that may still be viable.

This week also marks another significant event, admittedly more significant to some of us than to others and with widely differing reactions to those who have paid it any real mind. This past Sunday on Meet the Press, Ralph Nader declared his own candidacy for the presidency. The two Democratic candidates reacted to the announcement with, on the one hand, an uncomfortable sneer--Obama's response, who said that the trouble with Mr. Nader is that he's not happy unless you go along with 99% of his agenda, and on the other Hillary Clinton, who was told about the Nader announcement in flight and responded with, "Wow," and then went on to remark that Nader's previous candidacies had been bad for the party and "bad for the country."

One never knows how much of the spontaneous reactions of candidates is in fact spontaneous. It should have come as no surprise to either of them, never mind amounting to a "wow" moment, that Nader had thrown his proverbial hat into the ring. He had threatened for some time to do so if Hillary Clinton got the nomination, and even though she seems almost eliminated from the race at this point, there has been virtually no daylight between her positions and Barack Obama's on the major issues that concern Nader: healthcare, the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (neither candidate has even dared to mention that issue, Nader points out), international trade agreements that hurt American workers--just to name a few.

Nader maintains that even an Obama presidency--he calls Obama a person "of substance"--would prove ineffectual because Obama's positions on these and other issues are so weak and out of touch with what the American people actually want, according to repeated polling data: single-payer health insurance, an end to NAFTA, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation that respects the rights of the Palestinians as well as those of the Israelis. An Obama presidency, Nader argues, would have no mandate to achieve any of these goals--toward which Obama may well be sympathetic--because he had not espoused them in his campaign and after his victory would have to deal with the graybeards in charge of key congressional committees who will not put their own careers at risk for legislation for which their new president received no mandate.

This seems like reasonable enough thinking to me. But just mentioning the name of Ralph Nader is enough to infuriate almost all the Democrats I know. The only time I have ever actually seen someone turn the color purple was when I brought up his name. Half of my Democratic friends consider Nader to be a malicious, self-aggrandizing "spoiler" who cost the Democrats the White House in 2000. The other half see him as a hopeless idealist who doesn't know when it's time to step aside and let real politicians working in the real world get something done.

One can of course understand the bitterness of those unwilling to forgive-and-forget Democrats who hold Nader responsible for Bush's election in 2000 when one recalls the failure of the massive street demonstrations that took place in response to the Supreme Court's decision to shut down the Florida recount--many of the same Democrats, no doubt, who turned out two years later to protest the illegal war Bush was about to wage in Iraq. Need we also mention the unforgettable general strike that followed that hijacked election or the boycott of oil companies and other corporate supporters of the thieving Republican administration? And who can forget the sacrifices involved in the nationwide carpooling that went on throughout the cold winter of 2000-2001 in order to deny the oilogarchy at least some of their profits? Those were heady days, if ultimately bitter ones, for Democracy in America.

But wait. Maybe that's Kenya or Armenia or the Republic of Georgia I'm thinking of, where the theft of an election results in more than purple-faced outrage at one of the minor candidates, and supporters of the party that has been denied legitimate victory actually do take to the streets to make their voices heard and risk being tear-gassed or worse.

In any case, how could we know George W. Bush was going to be such a disaster? How could we know he was not just going to be Al Gore's slightly uglier twin? How could we know about 9/11 (though W as president sure as hell should have). And Gore, we might remember, actually did start talking about the overweening influence of corporations on the American body politic towards the end of the campaign when it started to look as if Ralph Nader might pull as much as 5% of the vote (he ended up with 2.7%). According to one academic study, Gore actually picked up votes as a result of Nader's influence. What most of us remember from the 2000 campaign was an endless, boring dialogue between two stiffs about whose "lock box" would better secure future Social Security benefits. Is it any wonder so many people voted for third-party candidates?


Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Last night I watched the Ohio debate between the two Democratic candidates. Lo and behold, Obama sounded just a bit like Ralph Nader when he took a swipe at the malign corporate influence on the political process in America. He also seemed clearly more poised than his opponent, who varied between looking rattled by allegations about her political record and mean-spirited in her personal attacks on her opponent.

Obama is in a difficult position. If he espouses a more liberal agenda, he runs the risk of losing the votes of the independents and disgruntled Republicans who have supported him thus far. If he sticks to what is safe, he risks making himself seem like just a more vigorous and magnetic version of his Democratic opponent--not to mention his not having a mandate in November to get anything done except a cautious, middle-of-the-road agenda that will inevitably disappoint those who elected him with an expectation of real change.

Based on last night's debate, I suspect Obama's response to this objection is that we would be electing him not just for his policies but for his judgment. He has, for instance, said that it's not enough to do something about the decision that brought us into the Iraq war, it is also necessary to address the mentality that was behind it. In other words, he believes he can, with the help of the American people, alter the way the government in Washington works in a fundamental way.

The reference to needing help of the American people is, I think, not just a throwaway line. I suspect he understands, as does Ralph Nader, that change must come from the bottom up, that political figures, whether congresspersons or presidents, will only respond to the pressure of concerted and well-articulated public opinion. That is the point Nader is making in a different sense when he says that Obama will not be able to make any change unless he is elected with a mandate with specific goals in mind, given the way that congressional committees and politicians in general operate.

Obama claims that his candidacy, and we can only assume his presidency, is an opportunity for the American people to exert that kind of pressure, not just on him but even more so on their elected representatives in Congress: to enact universal health care, withdraw the troops from Iraq, close down Guantanamo, redress the assault on civil liberties that has been in progress, not just for the last seven years but for at least the last fifteen. Without that kind of force behind him and behind Congress, no president can be very much more than a figurehead or a tyrant. How Barack Obama intends to mobilize and keep mobilized that force is something he has not directly addressed, to my knowledge, however many times he reminds an audience that this is essential to the success of his candidacy and his presidency. If Nader's candidacy provides such an impetus not just to Obama but to his supporters, it will have served the American republic well.

The issue of Nader's right to run seems to me almost too ridiculous to bear addressing. It's the same argument that is made in totalitarian states against the legitimacy of second-party candidates. 250,000 registered Democrats in the state of Florida voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Tens of thousands of other voters cast their ballots for third-party candidates other than Ralph Nader. Investigative reporting by responsible news media concluded that Al Gore did in fact win the popular vote in Florida and would have been declared the president-elect if counting of the vote had been demanded more vigorously by the Democratic Party and the American people, with or without the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court. One of our constitutional historians, I think Garry Wills, has pointed out that at least some of the founding fathers believed that the ultimate authority in our nation was not the U.S. Supreme Court but the will of the American people. What does the Supreme Court do, in any case, but reflect public opinion, approving slavery or segregation, torture or abortion rights when those are the accepted positions of the day, and then outlawing them when the winds of public opinion change? We like to think it is otherwise, that the nine justices stand above the fray--at least when they represent the opinions of the party we vote for--but when they take off their black robes and emerge from their Greek temple, they are not in fact gods but highly partisan political operatives like everyone else.

That same historian tells us the myth of three equal divisions of our national government is in fact not what the founders had in mind, certainly not those who saw popular power as a good thing. Congress was to be the preeminent organ of government, with the presidency second and the Supreme Court, especially in those days, restricted to resolving disputes between states. Even in a presidential election year, especially in a presidential election year, we should bear in mind that any policies of any presidential administration are only as strong as Congress makes them. To ascribe to a Bush presidency, a Clinton presidency or a Reagan presidency total responsibility for policies and laws that were enacted by overwhelmingly Democratic congresses (in the case of Reagan) and Republican congresses (in the case of Bill Clinton) is absurd. Whatever praise or blame Reagan deserves, at least as much is due to Tip O'Neill, the powerful speaker of the House of Representatives, and his colleagues during Reagan's administration. In retrospect, Richard Nixon seems a flaming liberal, not because his instincts were any more democratic than George W. Bush's, but because he knew what the American people would and would not stand for based upon the kind of men and women they elected to Congress.


Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Hillary Clinton will live to fight another day—in Pennsylvania and beyond. But neither candidate will garner enough electoral delegates to win the nomination outright. That means the nomination will be left to the so-called super-delegates, unless we get an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket agreed upon beforehand. Not likely.

Meanwhile, Obama and Clinton have both voiced support for the Colombian government's recent incursion into Eduador to "take out" a high-level commander of the guerilla insurgency in that country. Never mind that the FARQ are as much a drug-running organization now as a revolutionary one. The matter should have been left to the Organization of American States, not a Maoist group at last report. But, no, both candidates had to weigh in on the side of the right-wing "friend" of the US in the region, Colombia's President Uribe, who is as such seen as a proxy for American imperialism throughout South America, even by countries well to the right of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Ecudaor's Rafael Correa. Encouraged both by the OAS and, probably more so, by his self-appointed mission as David to the U.S. Goliath, Chavez is now making war-like noises against his neighbor, and all trade between Venezuela and Colombia—including food and other essentials—has ground to a halt (presumably cocaine is still moving across the border without impediment).

Nor has either candidate condemned the brutal treatment Israel has been inflicting on Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, though human rights organizations are doing so without equivocation and have declared its illegality under international law (collective punishment of civilian populations for the acts of terrorists). Indeed, both Obama and Clinton seem to be sticking to their stated policies of all-but-unconditional support for Israel despite American public opinion on the issue. It's easy to figure out why they do so even if they privately hold other positions. But their current backing of Israel's criminal acts in Gaza and illegitimate occupation of Palestinian lands--adjudged so by the World Court unanimously--point up the difficulty either one of them will have taking another tack after she or he is elected. And meanwhile thousands more will die for lack of clean water, food and medicine thanks to the actions of our closest ally and most dependent client state.

I still want to believe that Obama will bring a judgment and inspiration to the White House that will mobilize American citizens to demand of their government that they do the right things. I also do not see the American presidency as a semi-royal dynasty, whether the family name is Bush, Clinton or Kennedy. Kings and Queens are just Mafia dons with an Oxbridge education. I may or may not hold my breath and vote for Obama if I get that opportunity in November. In the meantime, I will write a check for the Nader campaign in the hope we can scare the Democrats in the general direction of virtue despite themselves. And I'll take Mr. Obama at his word about change being effected from the bottom up, meaning in this case letting him and Mrs. Clinton know they are both dangerously close to the kind of moral bankruptcy we are all too familiar with from past, prospective, and sitting presidents.


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