David Eisenbach is, by his own terms, "not a political professional." As a Columbia University professor specializing in media and politics, Eisenbach had never personally invested himself in government affairs until he met former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska.
"We got to talking, and he said 'why don't you come out to lunch?'" recounted Eisenbach. "After a few beers, I realized this guy is something special." Eisenbach now serves as Communications Director for Gravel's 2008 presidential bid.
This was just one example of the personal touch that characterized Monday night's Upper West Side Democratic Presidential Forum, an event held jointly by five Upper West Side political clubs: Community Free Democrats, Three Parks Independent Democrats, Broadway Democrats, Park River Independent Democrats, and Ansonia Independent Democrats.
The forum featured representatives from the campaigns of six Democratic contenders: Senator John Edwards, D-N.C., Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Governor Bill Richardson, D-N.M., Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Gravel. Each representative gave a brief stump speech, followed by a question-and-answer period via written cards from the audience. Moderated by Edward-Isaac Dovere, editor of City Hall News, the forum was intended to help members of the five political clubs decide whom they should support, as each political club will soon meet to officially endorse a particular candidate.
Middle East policy was a point of emphasis, with all candidates urging for the fastest possible withdrawal from Iraq, cutting funding for oil companies and the defense budget, and efforts to repair the damage that the Bush administration has done to America's international reputation. Eisenbach's fears for America's foreign policy were the most severe, especially regarding the possibility of war with Iran in the name of fighting terrorism. "There will be some pretext, some Gulf of Tonkin incident over the next few months, and the Bush administration will use that as justification for a strike back," said Eisenbach.
Ken Bulko, representing Richardson, stressed the governor's personal experience with diplomacy, noting that Richardson has met with "some of the worst dictators in the world" to negotiate the release of New Mexicans imprisoned by foreign regimes such as Sudan, North Korea, Burma, and Cuba. Bulko often cited Richardson's programmatic innovation, particularly his proposal to alleviate college debt by expanding the national service corps, whereby graduates would have their student debts nullified in exchange for public service.
Education and training were emphasized as key solutions to the job outsourcing problem. The representatives for Obama and Edwards in particular pointed towards faulty incentives and imbalanced trade restrictions as the cause of the loss of American jobs to overseas employers. "There is an issue with not only re-examining the fair trade agreements, but ensuring that we are properly enforcing the fair trade aspects of the agreements that currently exist," said Brian Mathis, the representative for Obama. Mathis also tied this to Obama's plan for campaign finance reform. "You've got to make sure that candidates aren't taking campaign contributions from the lawyers and the lobbyists that represent those interests [moving jobs overseas]," he said.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-Manhattan, representing Clinton, echoed a similar hard-line policy in regards to tax laws. "We need to stop encouraging the outsourcing of jobs through our tax system," he said. "We need to penalize the outsourcing of jobs, not subsidize it."
For the most part, the representatives agreed on the basic issues. The commentary that seemed best received by the audience was that which provided insight into the candidates' personal perspectives on America's condition. Leo Hindery, representing Edwards, cited the senator's biggest concern as a persistent and stubborn income gap.
"It's inconceivable," Hindery said, "that in 2007 half of America's income is earned by 300,000 taxpayers and the other half by 150 million. ... I grew up as a migratory farm worker, and I achieved the American dream that is becoming increasingly unavailable to so many." Hindery noted that America's inequality is rooted in the deregulation of the international marketplace, adding that "trade is no longer fair, just free."
Victoria Butler-Borrer, speaking for Kucinich, warned against the "commercialization" of politics which can distort the real goals of democracy. "The candidate who has the biggest fans and most exposure can tell us who to buy," Butler-Borrer said. "We [the Democrats] can not afford to be a pre-packaged party."
The mechanisms of American politics, according to Butler-Borrer, have taken many important options off of the table-options that Kucinich wants to explore, such as universal health care and withdrawal from the World Trade Organization.
In the end, the underlying mission of the forum was best described by Nadler. "For the most part, the candidates agree with each other," he said. "The question is over who has the political wits to bring change about."
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© 2007 Columbia Daily Spectator via U-WIRE