Monday, December 31, 2007

Sitting On the Fence Is Creasing My Activist Butt

Warning, this is a long post. It’s long because supporting a presidential candidate for me is deeply personal. It’s not simply deciding which candidate I will pull the lever for in the privacy of a voting booth. Rather I approach the decision as an activist and ask myself: after weighing all the virtues and flaws of the declared candidates on whose behalf am I willing to devote my free time?

In my darker moments I’ll ask myself, “Do any of these lying corporatist whores deserve my support? Why bother with any of them?” The ship has long sailed on my days of being a "true believer."

Ultimately, in spite of my disenchantment, I believe in the power of the vote. Even with the sordid history of stolen elections and broken promises, I remain convinced the best way to change the system is through participation in the political process. And the best vehicle for progressive reform is by leveraging the Democratic Party – flawed as it is. Which means I have to finally stop creasing my butt, get off the fence and choose a candidate.

Picking a candidate this primary season has been especially agonizing. My top choices were former Vice President Al Gore and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. I would’ve volunteered for either in a heartbeat. When both opted not to run I was left cold and preferred to wait until the race sorted itself out.

Meanwhile, this past year I amused myself reading blog postings on Daily Kos and elsewhere expressing certitude about the virtues of particular candidates while trashing rival campaigns. The theme was usually along the lines of “only my candidate is the true progressive with a chance to win while so and so is simply an enabler of the corporate pro-war plutocracy who will destroy the Democratic Party and eat your children.”

The only certitude I felt was disenchantment with Hillary Clinton whom I believe would govern entirely from weakness and be an agent of the status quo. Furthermore, I never bought into the Clinton rationale about “experience” because of her tenure as First Lady. For what it’s worth, as a New Yorker, I believe Clinton’s done an admirable job of constituent service in the senate. But on the broader issues of war and peace, bridging the gap between rich and poor and being a progressive advocate, Clinton’s record is under-whelming at best.

Otherwise the remaining field left me uncommitted. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Barack Obama are all compelling figures with many virtues as well as flawed agents of a corrupt political system. And yes that includes Edwards who despite his populist message is also not a white knight. None of them are.

I appreciate much of what Dennis Kucinich has to say, resent how he was denied access to a recent debate but never seriously considered supporting him. As a protest candidate Kucinich has contributed and I respect his supporters. But he was a failure as Mayor of Cleveland and would have as much chance winning a national election as I do of dating Scarlett Johansson.

If I were twenty again, I might find stuffing envelopes, canvassing and phone banking on Kucinich’s behalf the right way to go. But that doesn’t feel right this time. Rather I believe it imperative Democrats avoid the calamity of nominating Hillary Clinton and supporting a protest candidate won’t get that done.

Clinton’s original support of the Iraq war was a callous and cowardly act of political expediency. Her tepid ‘if I knew now what I knew then’ explanation regarding Iraq is neither believable nor acceptable. War and peace requires a different standard of leadership. Not calculating cynicism resulting in needless bloodshed.

In 2007, Clinton’s vote labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization for example was irresponsible at best. One can presume that as president the political fifty-yard line will be looked upon as the Holy Grail and doing right a secondary consideration. Senator Clinton has managed to achieve a rare political feat: she is both a polarizing figure and without a principled core.

As long as Clinton is regarded as a polarizing figure anyway, it boggles the mind why she refused to stand for something as senator. Clinton's had six years to put her prestige on the line for the working poor, human rights and a judicious foreign policy. Instead she only enabled the neo-cons and is now regarded favorably by the drug and pharmaceutical companies.

Whereas Bobby Kennedy became a tribune to the underclass as senator, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as a reassuring figure for corporate special interests. Tell me Senator Clinton has scheming to achieve centrist nirvana taken the edge off your polarization in any way? Clintonism undermines the progressive cause just when the center of political gravity is in our favor. Conservatism is sucking wind and we can’t allow this moment in history to be squandered by nominating another Clinton.

Edwards and Obama are the only Democratic candidates who have any chance of defeating Senator Clinton and prevailing in November. Hence, supporting any of the other candidates, regardless of their principles, personal virtues and credentials is a waste. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. I wish it were otherwise because the field beyond Clinton, Edwards and Obama is far more accomplished in my opinion. Unfortunately, our political system rewards style over substance. If I didn’t feel it so imperative to stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination I’d likely support Chris Dodd. But under the circumstances I’m left to choose between Obama and Edwards. There are positives in the biographies of both men.

Obama could have pursued a career as a corporate lawyer after Harvard Law School and dedicated himself to making money. Many in his position would’ve done exactly that. Instead he chose community activism. That impresses me.

As an Illinois state legislator, Obama skillfully navigated the complex web of race, entrenched power and ego that comprise Chicago politics to be an agent of pragmatic reform. It was there that Obama’s political persona was defined: he fights fire with water. That has translated into a presidential campaign of progressive advocacy with the soft rhetoric of unity.

In my blog writing I’ve occasionally referred to Obama as a “platitude machine” in frustration at his reluctance to forcefully indict the agents of corporatism and militarism that have plagued our country. Too often this year Obama appeared content to utter polite words about bringing everyone to the table under the mystical aura of bipartisanship.

Yet Obama has shown remarkable growth in recent weeks and found his voice. I am impressed at how he’s drawn distinctions without coming off as shrill. The fist in the velvet glove is a rare gift in politics and Obama seems to have it. He’s been especially effective at contrasting himself with Clinton’s institutional/machine oriented politics of restoration entitlement.

I also note that among Obama’s foreign policy advisors is former Bill Clinton National Security Advisor Tony Lake. Unlike other members of the Clinton Administration currently advising Senator Clinton, Lake opposed the war with Iraq from the beginning. And of course so did Obama himself.

For a time I was ready to jump on Obama’s bandwagon, excited at the prospect of his potential for knocking off Hillary Clinton. Also, symbolism does indeed matter in politics and statecraft. A dark skinned president named Barack Hussein Obama, with part of his childhood spent in Indonesia and possessing Kenyan ancestry is powerful. Domestically the very idea of a President Obama is unifying for a nation sundered by race and baby boomer culture wars. Moreover, Obama’s international profile offers the promise of helping America return to the community of civilized nations. The temptation to support him is almost irresistible and I was nearly seduced by it.

America however needs far more than what Obama offers. Class warfare waged from the top has metastasized under the Bush Administration and must be forcefully reversed. Yes, water is usually the best antidote for fire. But this moment in history requires someone willing to make an omelet by breaking some eggs.

Politics is a fight and the quest for fairness in our current gilded age won’t be accomplished without a determined struggle. Edwards as we all know rose from humble beginnings to take on predatory corporations in the courtroom and he won big. Whenever Republicans talk about tort reform it's code, to prevent advocates such as John Edwards from helping regular folks against entrenched corporate power. The fact Edwards earned a fortune at the expense of predatory corporations only angers the predatory conservative establishment even more. Remember the plutocracy considered FDR a traitor to his class too.

As previously noted, Edwards is not a white knight. For much of 2007 I leaned toward Edwards but his original support of the Iraq War and dabbling in hedge funds bothered me. Was his apology for originally supporting it genuine or merely politically expedient? How can any of us really know? Politicians have a nasty habit of being chameleons as it suits them.

Yet even as politicians pander to win over a public more interested in Hollywood scandal then global warming, it is possible to identify a core in some of these people. Al Gore for example, was a tactile politician who could shift with the prevailing winds but believed and worked for reversing global warming before it was popular. And John Edwards has spent much of his adult life standing up for ordinary people against predatory corporate power. This is a man who remembers where he came from.

Some consider the John Edwards message one of anger and prefer the soothing rhetoric of Obama. I find the Edwards message empowering. As Paul Krugman wrote in today’s New York Times,
“There’s a fantasy, widely held inside the Beltway that men and women of good will from both parties can be brought together to hammer out bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.”
As we saw six years ago, even with no mandate, predatory conservatives had no interest in sensible bipartisan solutions. Instead they shamelessly exploited the symbols of patriotism and war to finance crony capitalism at the expense of consumers, small business owners and the very old and young. One can’t negotiate power with these people. Power must be taken from them. For the first time in a generation we have a window to facilitate a true progressive reformation if we’re willing to fight for it. We negotiate when we’re cutting our losses. We fight when we have hope. This blogger is opting for the audacity of hope and supporting John Edwards.


Mortart said...

I seem to share your views right down the line and am more optimistic than you about Edwards. I think he's a good guy, and what a first lady Mrs. Edwards would be! The piece in today's NYTimes really sold them to me as a couple.

buelahman said...

With this very paragraph you have denied the name of the post.

"I appreciate much of what Dennis Kucinich has to say, resent how he was denied access to a recent debate but never seriously considered supporting him. As a protest candidate Kucinich has contributed and I respect his supporters. But he was a failure as Mayor of Cleveland and would have as much chance winning a national election as I do of dating Scarlett Johansson."

Dennis has been undone just as much by liberal activists as he has by the lack of MSM coverage. You agree with "much" of what he says... compared to the others, I might ask?

Also note that many people from Cleveland (and Ohio) consider Dennis a hero for his "failure" stance against the power companies. His principals had a temporary negative effect on perception, but were right all along. Just as in every other issue instance I can think of (Iraq war and its continued funding, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, etc, etc, etc.). The same can't be totally said for Edwards.

However, I do like him and he was my second choice.

I think it is time for a man of principal and that has been right all along.

But, the man most always consider with an asterisk, even tho obviously the right man for the job, is waved away by the people he matched the most in ideology.

Sad, but a win for the MSM.

slag said...

The thing I like about Edwards is that he's actually saying something that I can fully support. His "take back our country" rhetoric is right where it needs to be. And it's our job to make sure he follows through with it. He works for us.

christian_left said...

I agree with your endorsement. I was a strong Kucinich supporter in '04, but I've shifted to Edwards in '08. Like you, I think his core message of taking on powerful corporate interests is just what we need. Edwards is not perfect, but I am very excited that someone with such a strong progressive message actually has a serious chance (and by happy coincidence seems to have the most favorable match-ups against Republicans in the general election!) I believe this is a golden opportunity to elect the most progressive President in my lifetime (I was born in the 70s), and we will all regret it later if we don't seize the moment.

Nelson M. said...

Hey Rob,

SOrry for the off-topic comment, but I just read a story at Counterpunch about activists being denied access to Jerrold Nadler's office, and knowing that you interviewed him a few months back, I want to hear your reaction:

Here's the article:

Robert Ellman said...

Hi Nelson -

This is the first I heard of it. During our interview about a year ago he was against impeachment. So that doesn't surprise me. At the time he rationalized there was insufficent time and it would be too much of a distraction with a presidential election on the horizon. That view has likely intensified on his part. Curiously, I do remember him saying that if military action against Iran was initiated without congressional authorization "even Republicans might support impeachment." I think that's how put it. I'd have to listen to the podcast again.

My own view is both Bush and Cheney should've been removed long ago and still should be. Initially, I was against the idea because I didn't think we get both of them and didn't want Cheney in the White House scheming to hold onto power. But I came to the point of view that both should be impeached, convicted and frog marched. We could then have Speaker Pelosi. Let her cobble a coalition administration together until a new president is elected.

I am be curious to learn Nadler's side about what happened with the activists though and will try to find out more if I can.