As a liberal Democratic Party activist, I’ll know the candidate I support when I’m compelled to knock on doors and phone bank in get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. Activism is disruptive to one’s life. It has to be coordinated around one’s work schedule and personal life. Often done after hours, on weekends and at the expense of more pleasurable activities.
Hence, I need to be inspired by a candidate before I sign up and help in their effort to become president. Inspiration is not something easily quantified. We know inspiration when we feel it. So, what are the ingredients that inspire activists to stuff envelopes and get doors slammed in their faces? What are we looking for in our next president?
Henry Adams, an American historian and the grandson and great grandson of two presidents once said that a president "resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek." The first President Bush contemptuously described this as “the vision thing.”
Inspiring vision may come from unpredictable sources. Not many regarded FDR as a transformational figure prior to 1932. He was an ambitious politician often talking out of both sides of his mouth. Ironically, one month after becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1932, FDR criticized incumbent President Herbert Hoover about government spending:
"Let us have the courage to stop borrowing to meet continuing deficits. Revenues must cover expenditures by one means or another. Any government, like any family, can, for a year, spend a little more than it earns. But you know and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse."Ultimately, FDR governed with a very different vision and responded to the Great Depression with heavy deficit spending. The New Deal combined with FDR’s leadership in World War Two elevated this deal-making pragmatist into a transformational agent of change. Through an activist government, FDR presided over a vision of economic fairness and helped liberate millions from Hitler’s tyranny.
In 2004, activists such as myself were inspired by a single vision: deposing Bush. Bush/Cheney had set the American house aflame and I wanted him out of power before it burned down completely. I didn’t sense much of a vision from Kerry and I didn’t care. He wasn’t Bush and that was enough.
Now I’m looking for a candidate who can “force the spring” as Bill Clinton put it in his 1993 inaugural speech. I want to support a candidate that is an agent of transformational change and renewal. Admittedly, I am setting the bar high. There is no perfect formula for determining which if any candidate meets such a criteria. In most campaigns for public office I ask myself three questions about prospective candidates:
1) What do they know?
2) What have they done?
3) What are they going to do?
At this point, there is only one candidate among the announced field in the Democratic Party that intrigues me: John Edwards. His record on Iraq troubles me but I’m starting to believe Edwards is sincere about learning from his mistake. Edwards has also demonstrated life perseverance following the loss of a teenage son. His wife is an inspiring model of perseverance as she supports the campaign in spite of cancer.
Several years ago my Dad and I were talking about a particular individual who seemed to lack empathy. My Dad observed this was someone who would benefit from life, “knocking him on his ass.” Edwards has the knowledge of someone who has been “knocked on his ass” through emotional trauma. I’m impressed with how both he and his wife responded to tragedy.
This is also a self-made man. His critics or as Katie Couric would put it, “some people” might say you can’t trust a man who made his fortune as a trial lawyer. I see a man who rose from humble beginnings and became a champion advocate for aggrieved individuals against concentrated corporate power. That is what Edwards has done with his life. Indeed, Edwards life is far more impressive to me than a garden-variety insider’s resume. When conservatives speak of tort reform they’re talking about stopping effective advocates such as John Edwards from helping the common person stand up to entrenched power.
To this point Edwards has been admirably specific about what he intends to do. His healthcare plan is serious and substantial. On issues ranging from global warming to taxes, John Edwards has not shied away from articulating an activist progressive agenda. Listening to John Edwards makes me think of FDR when he spoke of the “forgotten man” in 1932:
"He works, he votes, generally he prays - but he always pays - yes, above all, he pays. He does not want a political office. He is the one who keeps production going. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He gives no trouble. He is not in any way a problem (unlike tramps and outcasts); or notorious (unlike criminals); or an object of sentiment (unlike the poor and the weak); or a burden (unlike paupers and loafers). Therefore, he is forgotten. All the burdens fall on him - or on her, for it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman."I’ll wait a bit longer. I want to observe how the candidates conduct themselves through the fishbowl of presidential politics for a few more months. Perhaps Al Gore will surprise me and join the fray. Maybe Barack Obama can demonstrate he’s more than a platitude machine. Ironically, Obama today reminds me of John Edwards in 2004. Perhaps Bill Richardson can convince me he’s not simply an agent of the establishment. For damn I won’t support Hillary Clinton. At this time, John Edwards appears to be the one with the “vision thing.” And that means, I’ll likely be phone banking, canvassing and stuffing envelopes on his behalf in a few months.