It has been more than a year since the first group of Democratic hopefuls announced their candidacy for president of the United States. Seventeen debates or forums have been staged, and more than $150 million has been spent on advertising, polling and other campaign expenses. Pundits have pronounced their conventional wisdom, so easily reversed, on who is most "electable," "presidential" or "inevitable." Celebrities and surrogates have rung their appeals, and the deforming machinery of electoral money and math has whirled into place. And yet despite all this, something remarkable, almost magical in its resilience, will take place on January 3. Thousands of neighbors will gather in schools, churches and public libraries across Iowa to caucus. It's an imperfect, curious system -- one that privileges the indirect democracy of delegates and the momentary passions of a state that is, demographically speaking, unrepresentative of America. Nonetheless, during the evening hours, when candidates and campaign staff are relegated to the sidelines, the circus of democracy will be suspended and something approaching actual democratic deliberation will unfold. But who should the voters of Iowa -- and then New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and the states that follow in this crowded primary season -- select as the Democratic Party's standard-bearer?
This is not an easy question to address. To put this election in context, it is the first time since 1928 that a sitting president or vice president has been absent from the field. The calamitous administration of George W. Bush has slashed and burned its way through Iraq, our Constitution and the remnants of the social safety net. It has pursued imperial aggression, lethal incompetence and crony capitalism as if they constitute official policy, leaving the next president with a multitude of crises, from Iraq to New Orleans to Guantánamo Bay.
But to take a page from the free-market gospel: where there is crisis, there is opportunity. Indeed, throughout this uncommonly long election cycle, beyond-the-Beltway progressives have driven their issues to the forefront of the Democratic agenda. The leading candidates share positions that were considered political suicide as recently as 2004, and topics once shunted aside, like global warming, are of central importance. Withdrawal from Iraq, which John Kerry couldn't bring himself to call for, is embraced by all the current candidates, albeit on varying timetables. Unfettered free trade, a hallmark of the Clinton administration, is now viewed by most Democrats as an untenable position. Health care for all, an idea that many thought would doom Hillary Clinton's candidacy, is a mainstream proposition. And it is not just these issues that have taken center stage but the core progressive values they represent: diplomacy over militarism, workers' rights, the responsibility of government to see that social needs are met. Meanwhile, the Republican campaign has seemingly taken place in an alternate reality, with GOP candidates competing to win the title of Most Likely to Nuke Iran and Most Xenophobic.
With Democrats running left and Republicans slouching right, we believe this election presents a historic opportunity to precipitate a progressive realignment. There is ferment in the air, a yearning for change and for a resuscitation of America's most inspired dreams of justice and equality. The kindling is in place, but the right spark has not yet been struck. There is a danger that many of this campaign's most contentious issues could find resolution in policies even more malign than the status quo. The question of immigration reform combined with the rhetoric of economic populism could lead to a jingoistic backlash against the most vulnerable workers in America. The war in Iraq could slide into a Democratic-led occupation with no end in sight; worse, it could spill over into Iran. And then there are the issues, already neglected, that could fade from view: a progressive tax policy that would eliminate breaks for corporations and the mega-rich; public investment in schools and urban infrastructure; an end to the "war on drugs" and a reorientation of our criminal justice system; a plan to address media consolidation; and a robust agenda for urban renewal.
What is needed most now is not a candidate but a movement to surround that candidate, to brace his or her resolve, to press for the best platform and to hold him or her accountable for implementing it if elected. For this reason, we choose not to endorse a candidate for president at this time but rather to call for the rise of a broadly based small-d democratic movement, as only such a movement can create the space necessary to realize this moment's full potential. Nonetheless, we see differences among the candidates that reflect their relative willingness and ability to foster this movement and advance its agenda.
In his stands on the issues,comes closest to embodying the ideals of this magazine. He has been a forceful critic of the Bush administration, opposing the Patriot Act and spearheading the motion to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. He is the only candidate to have voted against the Iraq War in 2003 and has voted against funding it ever since. Of all the serious candidates, only he and Governor propose a full and immediate withdrawal from Iraq. And only Kucinich's plan sets aside funds for reparations. Moreover, Kucinich has used his presidential campaigns to champion issues like cutting the military budget and abolishing nuclear weapons; universal, single-payer healthcare; campaign finance reform; same-sex marriage and an end to the death penalty and the war on drugs. A vote for him would be a principled one.
But for reasons that have to do with the corrupting influence of money and media on national elections as well as with his campaign's shortcomings -- such as its failure to organize a grassroots base of donors and web activists -- a democratic mass movement has not coalesced around Kucinich's run for president. The progressive vision is there, but the strategy necessary to win and then govern is lacking. In most cases, the rules of the Iowa caucus require that a candidate reach 15 percent of the vote to achieve "viability"; supporters of candidates who fail to do so can choose another candidate. Simply put, many Iowans will soon face a question that the rest of us may have to answer later: if not Dennis, then who?
In contrast, Barack Obama and John Edwards are reaching for new ground. Each also presents the risks -- and promises -- of unknown potential.
On the campaign trail Edwards has displayed a smart, necessary partisanship -- denouncing corporate power and its crippling influence on government. He has argued with conviction that government does best when it does more for its citizens. His campaign has met some roadblocks. He has not managed to consolidate the traditional Democratic base, and while he has loyal supporters among organized labor, he has not sewn up union support across the board, nor has he excited a cohort of previously disenfranchised voters. Perhaps some have been turned off by the media's relentless fixation on the "three H's" -- haircuts, hedge funds and houses -- symbols of the gap between his populist rhetoric and his lifestyle. Nonetheless, he has been at his best when taking on spiraling economic inequality. In a series of bold initiatives, he has called for an end to poverty in 30 years, universal health care, a hike in the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2012 and an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 -- accomplished in part by the creation of a green-collar jobs corps. His policy proposals are not always perfect, but they are uncommonly detailed and crafted in conjunction with progressive organizations. Most important, his programs were announced first, and they clearly pushed Clinton and Obama in a progressive direction. His health care plan stops short of a single-payer program, but it unapologetically includes employer mandates and tax increases. Likewise, although he voted for the Iraq War and his plan to end it doesn't commit to full and immediate withdrawal, he has repudiated that vote and proposes a faster pullout than his two main rivals. And Edwards is the only leading candidate to connect the war and the home front, bravely arguing that an ambitious domestic agenda would require cuts to the military budget. His is the campaign that has most effectively responded to the spirit of progressive populism that lifted congressional Democrats to victory in 2006.
Many observers have attributed a talismanic power to the personage of Barack Obama -- his mixed race heritage; the circumstances of his birth and childhood; his middle name, Hussein, often discussed as if it were in and of itself a foreign policy. But beneath the surface of symbols is a politician who was not only born different but who made different choices from other Beltway-bound Ivy Leaguers -- especially in his early career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Of all the leading contenders, Obama shows the most potential to energize disaffected voters. He has campaigned for himself and others in states long written off by the Democratic establishment, and when he appears on the trail it is often alongside grassroots organizers and ordinary citizens. His team of advisers includes familiar former Clinton staffers but also experts plucked from academe and activism whose presence in Washington would represent genuine and welcome change.
An Obama presidency would contain fresh faces -- but would it have fresh ideas? We would like to answer with a resounding yes, but Obama has lagged behind Edwards in offering innovative policies and politicizing neglected issues. His health care plan is virtually identical to Hillary Clinton's -- except it does not include mandates, a conservative feature he has curiously decided to emphasize. Likewise, his plan to exit Iraq exhibits the "strategic drift" toward leaving behind a significant residual force, as if fewer troops could accomplish what more have failed to do. Like Clinton, once in the Senate he has continued to vote for funding the war. These last two matters are especially unfortunate because they undermine what ought to be one of his greatest assets: Barack Obama was opposed to the Iraq War from the very beginning. When so many Democrats backed Bush's military adventure, Obama exercised fine judgment -- a quality his campaign has stressed. Since then that judgment has seen some praiseworthy reprises -- as when he bucked conventional wisdom by insisting on face-to-face negotiations with Iran, Cuba and Syria -- but it has often tilted toward caution and centrism. Obama has skillfully cultivated the image of a postpartisan leader, one with enormous appeal to broad swaths of voters alienated from politics as usual. But if he governs that way, how will progressives who want to take on entrenched interests fare in his administration?
In the following weeks, The Nation will continue to cover the campaign, and the candidates, with the hope that a progressive insurgency will make its influence even more deeply felt. The front-loaded primary schedule -- with individual states elbowing one another into the first days of 2008 -- could dampen that hope. There is a possibility that the election will be over in the blink of an eye, before progressives have had a chance to gather momentum. But American electoral politics is a strange and unruly beast -- defying expectation as often as fulfilling it. No matter which candidate is chosen, progressives will have to build the public support vital not simply for winning the election but for capturing the opportunity to transform the country. It is that task to which we lend our support and our endorsement.
By the editors of The Nation
Reprinted with permission from The Nation