Tuesday, March 4, 2008

From The Infield

We're getting closer to the finish line.

Voters in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont are going to the polls today. This primary season has taught us to expect the unexpected, but today if Barack Obama can triumph in the two bigger contests it will seriously undermine whatever argument Hillary Clinton has for remaining in the Democratic race.

Looking at what Hillary Clinton has left for argument in her favor, I found, via Matt Yglesias, someone at Huffington Post making this argument for Hillary Clinton based on her credibility regarding matters of national security. To hear this person tell it, Hillary Clinton can "stand toe-to-toe with John McCain on national security."

You often hear mainstream media outlets saying that Democrats lack credibility on national security issues.

But at this stage I don't want "credibility" on national security, at least not in the sense that term is commonly understood. The people who think that the way to be "credible" on national security is be hawkish, to give the defense industry and military infinite funding, and keep thinking of new ways to sell new foreign invasions and adventures, and consider these things important, have their party and their candidate already.

Even if I didn't think that this type of thinking was insane...Hillary can be as hawkish as she wants to be and she's not going to move those voters away from John McCain and the Republicans. Those among us who think this Iraq war was a good idea and want to see more like it have their man, a man who happens to believe in the Bush Iraq strategy more than Bush himself ever did.

Furthermore...when a Democrat seeks "credibility" on "national security" the way that John Kerry did and Hillary Clinton is trying to, that Democrat is fighting on Republican turf. John Kerry's veteran status didn't help him much, and neither did Al Gore's for that matter. Hillary's tough talk won't help her much either. As long as those are the ground rules, the Democrats are going to be the "wimp" party, the "defeatist" party. That so many of them decided to strategically capitulate concerning the original Iraq War authorization, and then signed on to an effort to lay the same sort of groundwork for a war with Iran, makes observers think that they are either a watered-down imitation of the Republicans or a band of insincere, pandering politicos who want to have it both ways - neither one of which is particularly attractive to voters.

If the party marginalizes voices saying something like "This war was a fool's errand, that wasted countless lives and resources, and damaged our credibility worldwide in such a way that those who praise it can scarcely be trusted concerning other foreign policy matters, and those who called for it in the first place should have known better" like a majority of Americans actually believe at this point, the party is in effect narrowing its appeal.

I prefer someone willing to stand up to the ceaseless din of the war drums. "before George Bush decided to invade Iraq, there was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq."

Not that I expect the American public to be swayed overnight - but there are 8 months between now and Election Day.

And there is yet life beyond Election Day; it is time for liberals and progressives, and the Democratic Party as a whole, to think more than one cycle ahead, something we haven't done much of in recent years. You can see that in the rightward drift - sometimes slow, sometimes abrupt - of the country's politics over the last generation plus, a drift that is the product of a deliberate and at least partially orchestrated campaign by the conservative movement to change the national conversation. Note that this is distinct from and a little different than simply winning elections. If you're deft enough and can exploit positive short-term trends, you can win an election or two, or achieve the occassional policy victory. Every so often you can win an argument or an election on the turf of the opposition - they will sometimes stumble or self-destruct through overreaching, infighting, or personal scandal, or sometimes your side will have someone of enormous skill to level the playing field somewhat. But that doesn't change the fact that you're fighting an uphill battle from the start, and that under those conditions you will lose more often than you win.

Given the spin coming from the Clinton camp about their campaign as a whole, it's clear to me that they're effectively treating this election cycle as a one-and-done discrete event. This state doesn't matter, but that one does, and Obama can't win this bloc of key voters or Obama got too high a percentage of his support from this constituency or that demographic. While some of these things are not entirely inaccurate from the horse-race perspective of an outsider analyst, they betray a distinct tunnel vision regarding why elections and campaigns exist in the first place. Those of us who follow politics and stalk opinion polls like the paparazzi on Lindsay Lohan can gauge the electoral maps, mentally color the states, and add up the tallies, and it's important for a campaign to have people who are able to do that stuff.

But all that is different from what it takes to build a party, around a message and a narrative, a party that's well-positioned to win future elections. And the Democrats are to an extent missing that at the moment. What do Democrats stand for? That they stand against George W. Bush might be sufficient to do well in a mid-term cycle where Bush is deeply unpopular, but is insufficient for any purpose beyond that. Do they stand for the idea that there might be a better way to deal with global terror networks than picking fights in random Middle Eastern countries? That as the cost of lethal force grows ever cheaper, that other levers of power beyond overwhelming military strength, might be necessary? That the system of health care that provides the most profit to certain companies might produce inferior results in terms of actual health outcomes for the population? That shifts in taxation policy that make life easier for those who already have it relatively easy, and harder for those not so fortunate, might be unwise to undertake? That incarcerating 1% of the adult population might not be the best use of our fiscal and human resources alike? To the extent that these questions go unasked, they are replaced by generalities about "strength" and "morality" or the overall vapidity of celebrity gossip shows.

And lest the reader think I am talking about eschewing style for substance, I am assuredly not. Style can be crucially important. To get voters to the polls, you have to get people with a sort of natural, built-in apathy, to want to go stand in line on what might a cold, windy, or rainy day. You need to inspire, and the two most effective ways known to do so are to inspire either hope or fear. The cynic might say that fear is a more powerful motivator than hope is, and he might even be right. While I cannot say that the party to which I belong has never used fear as a motivator before, I can say that as things stand at the moment, the opposition is better positioned to motivate through fear (fear of terrorism, fear of foreign countries, fear of immigrants) than we are.

As such, we are left with hope.

And that is a big part of why I have chosen to support who I support, more than the fine points and distinctions drawn by their specific policy prescriptions, more than whoever is more or less "electable," more than anything else. It sounds fuzzy and naive but I think there's a strong practical element to it.

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