Nothing brings the readers of this blog together like politics -- every time I write about it I transport some of you into a warm, fuzzy world of smiling dolphins, hopping bunnies, fluttering butterflies, and candy-scented breezes. NOT. But what the hey, it’s been on my mind lately, so I have decided to comment on how the 2008 race for president is shaping up.
Readers who may have missed the fact should know at the outset that I am a lifelong Democrat, a liberal with libertarian leanings, and that I think George W. Bush is the worst president since James Buchanan, who let the nation slide into Civil War. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read “I never thought I’d miss Nixon” and realized how sad but true it is
I do not think the GOP has always been the rudderless pastiche of business interests, religious zealots, fearmongers, neo-conservative ideologues, and opportunists that it is today. Lincoln was perhaps our greatest president, Teddy Roosevelt was a credit to the nation, Ike was a decent man. Nixon, by comparison to Dubya, was at least smart and based his foreign policy on reality rather than fantasy. Reagan could talk in complete sentences, even if I thought many of his policies were misguided. Bush’s father was actually a halfway decent president, handling the end of the Cold War with aplomb and responding appropriately to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. I supported that Gulf War; I have never supported the disaster that Junior has unleashed, which is now the central focus of the 2008 campaign.
All this is apropos of the fact that when I look at the candidates, I try to look as an American as well as a Democrat, to figure out who actually might have the mettle to do the job in these difficult times. So far, I am surprising myself in how my thinking is evolving.
Before the Dems began their debates a few months ago, I was basically in the anybody-but-Hillary camp. I saw electoral disaster written all over her, and I was not fond of her support for the Iraq war resolution. She was about my fourth or fifth choice for a nominee, and I was looking more seriously at some others: Barack Obama, whose spidey sense about the war jibed with mine from the start and who is indeed a new, fresh face in a country tired of the same-old same-old; John Edwards, who seems to have learned from his Iraq mistake, who is addressing health care in big way, and who has the potential to run well in regions like the South where Democrats have had trouble; Bill Richardson, who brings a great resume to the job and who as governor of New Mexico might help my party make dents in the Mountain West, a traditionally Republican region that is making its way leftward in fits and starts.
Then I saw the debates, all three so far. And I realized that the one thing I want in a president is an adult, someone who does not need on-the-job training. We are still suffering through George W. Bush’s on-the-job training and look at the disasters it has wrought. Now, admittedly, most presidents are faster learners than Bush -- no, he's not smarter than a fifth-grader, to borrow from the title of the popular TV game show -- so I am willing to forgo a little experience if a candidate seems to have the right sense of judgment, depth, and wisdom.
Looking at the field, I see two good presidents: Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Clinton has distinguished herself mightily in the debates, scoring points for concise and sensible answers, for her bearing, and for her skill in taking advantage of her opponents’ mistakes. Her performance has erased any doubts I had that she could stand up there on a stage and best whomever the Republicans nominate, and I can also see her in a room being tough and smart and commanding when meeting with foreign leaders.
Joe Biden was a surprise to me; direct and to the point, experienced, with a plan for a political solution in Iraq. Alas, he has neither the money nor the following to get nominated.
Obama has been, on balance, a disappointment. He has “good bones” to use a real estate term, but like a house with great potential he needs work. The recent flap over “Would he meet with foreign leaders?” like the presidents of Iran, North Korea, and Cuba shows his inexperience. Hillary is right; a president keeps her cards close to her vest, lets underlings do the groundwork. Then Obama made things worse by announcing that he’d send troops into Pakistan, if need be, even without the permission of the government there. Now, we may have a secret plan to do just that, and if a president were to strike when the iron was hot to get Bin Laden there would be few complaints. But, again, presidents must hold their cards close; sometimes it is best not to telegraph such intentions, which risk destabilizing an important but shaky ally, just to prove you can be a tough guy. This is all rookie stuff, and it puts me off.
Edwards has great hair. Once again the media and the pundits are focusing on the inconsequential when there are real issues to be had. I have always sort of liked Edwards (though I voted for Howard Dean in 2004) and I have always sort of felt uncomfortable with him. Anyone running for president is ambitious, but I have always detected more ambition than depth in Edwards. Nonetheless, he is hitting the right points on many issues such as health care and the corporate influence in Washington and I have not ruled him out. He has the potential to run well across the board and we Democrats should never keep “electability” far from our minds.
Richardson has been the biggest disappointment. His debate performances have been lackluster and tongue-tied. His answer to health care is “more preventive medicine,” which is not exactly what I am looking for when it comes to access to insurance, insurance for those with pre-existing conditions such as CLL, and the like. He just doesn’t seem to have the bearing and quick thinking that would get him through a presidential campaign. (Now, vice president, that’s another story . . .)
There are the others: Chris Dodd, who is almost a caricature of a senator, Dennis Kucinich, who says many things that appeal to me viscerally but who looks like an elf and could never be nominated or elected; and crazy Grampa Mike Gravel, who reminds me of Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live character “the Grumpy Old Man.” But it’s great to have him there, on the end of the stage, keeping them honest and lobbing politically incorrect bon mots.
Finally, there’s Al Gore, my hands-down favorite and the man whom I truly believe was elected president in 2000. I wish he would run but he won’t. I have always sensed that Gore was in search of his soul -- and now, with his global warming crusade, he seems to have found it. His mission is important, and I hope he wins that Nobel Prize, and I still shed a tear for my country that a 5-4 vote of the US Supreme Court blocked a recount that would have probably led to a different, better path for us all.
Ah, what a great time to be a Democrat. The Republicans have a crop of flawed candidates and are about to sink the only one who might actually stand a chance next year.
I used to be afraid of Rudy Giuliani as a nominee. There was the thought that he’d run well in Democratic areas such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the more I see and hear his rather shrill and grating personality, the more that comes out about the backstory to 9/11, the more we see of his family relationships, the more I think he will start to sink like a rock at some point in the general election. Bring him on, GOP. As one commentator said, he’s like Bush on steroids. People are tired of Bush, and they’re tired of people who think the only way to get elected is to use fear of terrorism as a mantra. The man has no national experience, and he’ll turn off large numbers of conservative Christians. Go Rudy! Go Rudy!
Mitt Romney is pretty good on his feet in a debate but he suffers from a couple of problems. One is that he’s said a lot of liberal things in the past that make him look all the more opportunistic now that he’d trying to appear conservative. The other is his bearing, which is, how shall I put it, rather John Kerry-esque. There’s an elitist sense about him and it won’t play all that well in the heartland. Unfortunately, his religion -- Mormonism -- makes some people uncomfortable. From a cynical political point of view, this is an advantage for the Democrats, but as a country I hope we have gotten beyond irrational prejudice in our deliberations. Like Obama's race, Clinton's sex, and Richardson's ethnicity, Romney's religion should make no difference to our vote.
Fred Thompson is the great unknown, at least to me. I don’t know how well he’ll come across, and whether he’ll be able to build a coalition beyond the GOP. I do get the sense that there’s nothing exceptional or extraordinary about him, and I don’t really see him capturing the national imagination. He is probably more of a placeholder than a force, and can probably not muster a groundswell of support or affection as Reagan did.
Which brings us to the last of the major contenders, John McCain, my home state senator. I kind of like McCain. I don’t agree with him on enough things to actually vote for him, but I appreciate his independence of mind, his sense of humor, and what I see as a genuine desire to do right, to be a good public servant. History often turns on “what-ifs” and I wonder how things might have been different today had McCain, not Bush, been nominated in 2000. John McCain could have been, and probably would be, a capable president.
Alas, we are where we are, and McCain suffers from his own dedication to the truth as he sees it. Americans complain that they don’t like to be pandered to, but when candidates takes unpopular positions they go unrewarded. McCain’s enthusiasm for the war is something I regard as misguided but it is at least genuine; his support for the failed immigration reform package sealed his fate with those in the party who see no room for dealing with the realpolitik of the situation. McCain, who was a prisoner of war, is also is the only Republican candidate willing to take a strong stand against the abuse of detainees (and how sad is that, here in the land of habeus corpus). This is to his credit, and McCain would still play pretty well in a general election. But his odds of making it that far are getting slimmer and slimmer.
The spouse in the White House
The GOP has a tough road next year regardless, but it lacks an inspirational figure who can unite the party, let alone the country. As much as Hillary might be hard to take for some people -- and I think for some, a strong woman of any stripe is off-putting -- she is likely to grow on people with time. Nobody doubts that she’s tough, or that she’s smart, and those are qualities we want in a president.
There is always talk of presidential spouses and how they help or hurt; Michelle Obama stands out in a positive way, as does Elizabeth Edwards. Bill Clinton stands out most of all; ever popular in the heartland of the country, he will be of immeasurable help in making Hillary a more accessible personality to those who may be a little unsure about her.
I vote on February 5, which is becoming known as Super-Duper Tueday, the day when something like 20 states vote. I figure by then the Democratic race will be down to Hillary v. Obama or Hillary v. Edwards. Much to my amazement, I am leaning toward Hillary. I have a feeling that come November 2008, a lot of other people will be surprising themselves, too.
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