Friday, January 19, 2007

Where's the Beef?

It was 1984 and a youthful looking Colorado Senator named Gary Hart was getting traction as the candidate of “new ideas.” Presumptive front-runner, former Vice President Walter Mondale appeared to be a dinosaur as Hart scored an upset in New Hampshire.

The two candidates were about the same age but the combination of Gary Hart’s hair and “new ideas” slogan propelled him to the top tier. Only fifteen at the time, I was astounded how Gary Hart succeeded while offering so little substance.

You may recall a popular television commercial for the fast food chain restaurant, Wendy’s at the time. Gray haired Actress Clara Peller stared at an unimpressive looking hamburger and asked, “Where’s the beef?” Mondale effectively neutralized Hart’s momentum by asking the same question about his rival's program.

I happen to respect Gary Hart. Our country should have heeded the report about terrorism he co-authored with former Senator Warren Rudman. This country would be far better off if we had. However, in 1984 Gary Hart was a platitude machine hiding behind the slogan of “new ideas.”

This week Barack Obama announced the formation of his exploratory committee to run for president and he noted the public wanted “something new.” Reading that I immediately thought of Gary Hart and Clara Peller. Where’s the beef?

As E.J. Dionne observed in today’s Washington Post, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is running on specifics. Edwards has stated his immediate priorities are not balancing the budget but addressing the nation’s investment deficit. Dionne writes:

“Most Democrats don't like to talk about it, but somebody's taxes are going to have to go up. Edwards, at least, is willing to say which taxes he would raise to keep the deficit from going through the roof. He would start by eliminating Bush's tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners, which he defines roughly as those earning more than $180,000 to $200,000 a year.

He wants to increase the capital gains tax for an interesting reason: In an interview this week, he argued that it's wrong to tax income from work at a higher rate than income from capital -- an extension of his long-standing theme that the country should not value ‘wealth over work.’ He also favors a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.

But since health coverage and ‘transforming the energy economy of this country’ are first on his to-do list, Edwards says he is prepared to disappoint voters who make a balanced budget their top priority.

Edwards deserves points for honesty and for stating the politically difficult truth that both fiscal and social balance demand a comprehensive health-care fix.”
My favored candidate for 2008 was Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold but he’s not running. My next preference is former Vice President Al Gore but it doesn’t appear he has the fire in the belly anymore.

As I’ve written previously, Edwards record about the Iraq War troubles me. I believe he supported the congressional resolution supporting President Bush’s misguided venture in Iraq out of political expediency. I can’t help but wonder if his “apology” for supporting the war is also about political expediency. War requires a higher standard of leadership than he’s provided. Yes, today he’s speaking out but seventy percent of the public is with him now. We needed Edwards to speak out in 2002-2003.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the progressive campaign Edwards is waging on domestic policy and the specifics he’s offering. In 2004, I regarded Edwards as a Ken Doll and his “two Americas” campaign a mere slogan. This time it appears he’s rising above platitudes.

Do platitude machines Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have any beef to offer? A cynic might recall how Walter Mondale was honest and specific. He told a nationally televised audience at the Democratic National Convention:

“President Reagan will raise your taxes. So will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
The deficit was out of control but Reagan promised not to raise taxes, won in a landslide and raised taxes for the middle class anyway, which he called “revenue enhancements.” And he got away with it.

An optimist however might note John Edwards on his worst day is far more charismatic than Walter Mondale ever was on his best day. Perhaps Edwards is just the candidate to sell a specific progressive program and earn a mandate for real change. Without either Feingold or Gore in the race I don’t know which candidate I’m going to volunteer for yet. For damn sure I want more than platitudes such as “something new” offered by Obama. I want to know where the beef is.

1 comment:

liberal journal man said...

As your post points out, Edwards is putting forth a smart, ideas with substance, grassroots campaign. He had a 'Real Solutions' booklet in 2004 full of policy proposals, but he didn't beat his drum on it because I think he was jockeying for the VP spot. I like him, but I'm going to wait and see.