For all the heated disagreements between the Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the policy differences between the two senators are pretty minimal. This can easily be missed while watching (and, for a lot of excited Democrats, participating in) the most interesting nomination fight in a generation. But the fact is both candidates support the urgent, fully defined, and popular Democratic agenda that has emerged after eight years of George W. Bush's catastrophic presidency.
Under Bush, the number of Americans without health insurance has soared from 39 million to 47 million; the gap between rich and poor has reached an unprecedented and precarious divide thanks in part to Bush's top-down tax cuts, with the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now earning nearly 25 percent of all income; and the $275-million-a-day fiasco in Iraq continues with nearly 4,000 American troops and 700,000 Iraqis dead.
This would seem to be a political environment in which it would be impossible for Democrats to lose. But we have felt this confident, and been burned, before. Thus, the crucial question facing the Stranger Election Control Board was this: Which candidate is best suited to take on the formidable and conniving GOP—and Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and America's cowed "liberal" media—in November? The SECB believes the answer to this question is Barack Obama.
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It is hard to believe today, but as recently as three years ago the Democratic party seemed in the midst of a crippling identity crisis. Its leaders could not figure out how to connect with a country that had become unrecognizable to most liberals. Now this same party—having won control of Congress in 2006—is speaking to a voting population that has, by and large, caught on. Democrats are advancing a focused agenda to achieve universal health care, end the occupation of Iraq, combat global warming, reestablish the United States as a respected international leader, reverse the erosion of civil liberties at home, and make the economy work for the middle class again.
Obama, a once-in-a-generation political orator with a bold message of unity, is the best bet for moving that agenda into the Oval Office. For starters, he would be better against the GOP on the campaign trail than Clinton. The SECB admires Hillary Clinton, and not in a damning-with-faint-praise sort of way: She's a wonk, and she can be a tough, even ruthless campaigner. But we have reservations about nominating a candidate who's so polarizing. If we were Republicans—which we're not, because Republicans are always fucking over people who live on SECB wages—we'd be terrified about having to take on a superstar like Barack Obama.
An Obama candidacy would be buoyed by his inspirational life story—a mixed-race kid abandoned by his father who made it to Harvard Law and the U.S. Senate, with a stint as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago in between. His candidacy will also be buoyed by his charisma. A single, profound speech about unity at the 2004 Democratic National Convention made him a sensation. And the eloquence has continued with goose-bump moments during his "In the face of impossible odds" speech in Iowa, and his "It is not about black versus white... it's about the past versus the future" speech in South Carolina.
What encourages the SECB most about Obama's oratory is that he uses his gift to open people's minds, unify them around progressive values, and challenge them to do better. At his Martin Luther King holiday speech in front of a black congregation in Atlanta, for example, he condemned the scourge of homophobia and anti-Semitism in the African-American community. By contrast, Clinton sticks to the standard politics of shameless pandering, telling interest groups only what they most want to hear.
On the less impressionistic side of things, there are the numbers. Where Clinton rallies support from staunch, partisan liberals—people whose votes are already firmly Democratic—Obama appeals to an all-important category, given the closeness of the last presidential election: the nearly 30 percent of America's electorate who identify themselves as independents. Nationally, Obama has an 11-point lead over Clinton among independents. These independents are infusing energy into the Democratic primaries—and were it not for Obama drawing them there, they might otherwise drift to John McCain.
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At first, Obama's appeal for unity put us off. In his efforts to reach across old divides, he sometimes mimics GOP rhetoric about Social Security. He put out a mailer in South Carolina proclaiming himself a "committed Christian." He refused to cancel appearances with an antigay gospel singer. The SECB is not interested in "reaching out" to people whose political goals are inimical to liberal values.
But all we had to do was look at Obama's record and policy proposals to realize that he's committed to a liberal agenda. (Shhh—don't tell the Republicans.)
He has a 96 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and cosponsored a righteous and aggressive proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders (VT-Socialist?) for an alternative cap-and-trade proposal to curb global-warming emissions. He has eloquently defended abortion rights on the campaign trail, and his votes in the U.S. Senate have earned him a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. He wants to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act and he denounced the pandering flag-burning amendment.
Most significantly, Obama was openly opposed to the war when that position was unpopular, warning in 2002 that "even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." He's voted for withdrawal timelines and he voted to restore habeas corpus.
As for Social Security, he's not raising alarm bells because he wants to privatize it. He's raising alarm bells because he wants to extend the payroll tax to tap fatter incomes. And while his health-care proposals look slightly more cautious than Clinton's, he's thinking ahead. Where punitive mandates may very well derail Clinton's proposed program before it gets off the ground, Obama's more palatable, incentive-based program could muscle through Congress and immediately expand access to quality health care.
Obama's liberal voting record, his position on the war, and his campaign priorities are firmly progressive. His promise lies in his ability to appeal to a wide cross section of Americans, and hopefully persuade them that these and other long-standing Democratic goals are mainstream no-brainers. It just might work.
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Polls have found that when Hillary Clinton supporters are asked the main reason for their choice, almost as many point to the fact that she's married to Bill Clinton as cite her own experience. (An embarrassing 58 percent of Hillary Clinton voters in New Hampshire said that if third terms were allowed, they'd prefer Bill to his wife.) These stats point to a deeply troubling aspect of Clinton's campaign. She has a legitimate claim to an historic candidacy, but she has undercut it by playing up nostalgia for the 1990s. By rewarding old loyalties, Clinton is inflaming old ideological battles—battles that some of us on the SECB find dull. If she's able to squeak past the Republican nominee and secure the White House—and that's a big if—she could find herself paralyzed by the same partisan warfare she used to secure the nomination in the first place.
And about John Edwards: His shrink-wrapped anticorporate rhetoric sounds more like a campaign tactic than a firmly held belief. We like that he helped to focus his rivals on poverty and the environment, but a quick glance at his voting record in the U.S. Senate is all you need to understand that he's either a dilettante or a schizophrenic. We don't think Edwards—with his dismal showing in Nevada (which was supposed to be his populist union turf) and South Carolina (where he was born)—is much of a campaigner.
The election of Obama to the presidency would be a jump cut in American history, something the up-and-coming generation is clamoring for. President Bush's ugly politics have felt like a culmination of divisive culture wars dating back to the 1960s. Obama, who was born in 1961, represents a chance to move on, finally.
That's the energy of this election, and Obama, not baby-boomer Clinton, is the one who best represents our interests. Certainly, the SECB recognizes the history-making value in the possibility of a woman president, but Obama offers the chance for a truly seismic shift. And no, it's not about race (although we don't underestimate the symbolism—to the rest of the world—of electing a black man after eight years of cowboy diplomacy). It's about transcendence. Barack Obama, with his rhetorical appeal to the center, is poised to make the Democratic Party the mainstream political voice in America.
If you live in Washington and want to help choose the Democratic nominee, you have to caucus in person on Saturday, February 9 at 1:00 pm (handy caucus-finerfind your caucus site here). You can register for the first time or change your address at the caucus site, and you're eligible even if you're 17 now but will be 18 on November 4, 2008. The results of the separate presidential primary later in the month are being used by the Republican Party, but they'll have no impact on the Democratic race.