Progressives' Best Hope? It's Obama

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., campaigns during a town hall meeting in Beaufort, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
This column was written by Christopher Hayes

It's gotten to that time in the primary contest where lines are drawn, camps are solidified and conversations around dinner tables grow heated. My friend Dan recently put it this way: "You start talking about the candidates, and next thing you know someone's crying!" The excellent (and uncommitted) blogger Digby recently decided to shut down her comments section because the posts had grown so toxic. The recent uptick in acrimony is largely due to the narrowing of the field. While once the energy was spread over many camps, it is now, with the exits of Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, concentrated on just two, leaving progressives in a fierce debate over whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would make the better nominee, and president.

According to polling data as well as my conversations with friends and colleagues, progressives are evenly split or undecided between the two. This is, to me, somewhat astonishing (about which more in a moment), but it also means that at a time when other subgroups within the Democratic coalition are leaning heavily toward one candidate or the other, progressives are at a moment of maximum leverage.

Insofar as the issues discussed during a presidential campaign are circumscribed by the taboos and pieties of the political and media establishments, they tend to be dispiriting for those of us on the left. Neither front-runner is calling for the nation to renounce its decades-old imperial posture or to end the prison-industrial complex; neither is saying that America's suburbs and car culture are not sustainable modes of living in an era of expensive oil and global warming or pointing out that the "war on drugs" has been a moral disaster and strategic failure, with casualties borne most violently and destructively by society's most marginalized and — a word you won't be hearing from either candidate — oppressed. And yet, this election is far more encouraging (dare I say hopeful?) than any in recent memory. The policy agenda for the Democratic front-runners is significantly further to the left on the war, climate change and health care than that of John Kerry in 2004. The ideological implosion of conservatism, the failures of the Bush Administration and, perhaps most important, the shifts in public opinion in a leftward direction on war, the economy, civil liberties and civil rights are all coming together at the same time, providing progressives with the rare and historic opportunity to elect a President with a progressive majority and an actual mandate for progressive change.

The question then becomes this: which of the two Democratic candidates is more likely to bring to fruition a new progressive majority? I believe, passionately and deeply, if occasionally waveringly, that it's Barack Obama.

Had you told me a few years ago that the left of the Democratic Party would be split between Obama and Clinton, I'd have dismissed you as crazy: Barack Obama has been a community organizer, a civil rights attorney, a loyal and reliable ally in the State Senate of progressive groups. For the Chicago left, his primary campaign and his subsequent election to the U.S. Senate was a collective rallying cry. If you've read his first book, the truly beautiful, honest and intellectually sophisticated Dreams From My Father, you have an inkling of what young Chicago progressives felt about Obama. He is one of us, and now he's in the Senate. We thought we'd elected our own Paul Wellstone. (Full disclosure: my brother is an organizer on the Obama campaign.)

That's not, alas, how things turned out. Almost immediately Obama — likely with an eye on national office — shaded himself toward the center. His rhetoric was cool, often timid, not the zealous advocacy on behalf of peace, justice and the dispossessed that had characterized Wellstone's tenure. His record places him squarely in the middle of Democratic senators, just slightly to Clinton's left on domestic issues (he voted against the bankruptcy bill, for example). As a presidential candidate, his domestic policy (with some notable exceptions on voting rights and technology policy) has been very close to that of his chief rivals, though sometimes, notably on health care, marginally less progressive.

But while domestic policy will ultimately be determined through a complicated and fraught interplay with legislators, foreign policy is where the president's agenda is implemented more or less unfettered. It's here where distinctions in worldview matter most — and where Obama compares most favorably to Clinton. The war is the most obvious and powerful distinction between the two: Hillary Clinton voted for and supported the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since Vietnam, and Barack Obama (at a time when it was deeply courageous to do so) spoke out against it. In this campaign, their proposals are relatively similar, but in rhetoric and posture Clinton has played hawk to Obama's dove, attacking from the right on everything from the use of first-strike nuclear weapons to negotiating with Iran's president. Her hawkishness relative to Obama's is mirrored in her circle of advisers. As my colleague Ari Berman has reported, it's a circle dominated by people who believed and believe that waging pre-emptive war on Iraq was the right thing to do. Obama's circle is made up overwhelmingly of people who thought the Iraq War was a mistake.

Clinton's fundamentally defensive conception of how to defuse the Republicans on national security (neutralizing their hawkishness with one's own) is an example of a larger problem, rooted in the fact that so many of her circle served in her husband's Administration. Their political identities were formed in the crucible of crisis, from the Gingrich insurgency to the Ken Starr inquisition. The overriding imperative was survival against massive odds, often with a hostile public, press or both. Like an animal caught in a trap that chews off its leg to wriggle away, the Clinton crew by the end of its tenure had hardly any limbs left to propel an agenda. The benefit of this experience, much touted by the Clintons, is that they know how to fight and how to survive. But the cost has been high: those who lived through those years are habituated to playing defense and fighting rear-guard actions. We know how progressives fared under Clintonism: they were the bloodied limbs left in the trap. Clintonism, in other words, is the devil we know.