Thursday, May 3, 2007

Bravo for Edwards (Sort of)

The bad news this morning (May 3) is that the Party of Pusillanimity (POP) is about to unleash yet another Profile in Cowardice. Once Bush, Pelosi and Reid work out a “compromise” – that is, a way for the Democrats to save face – Bush will get his blank check for murder and mayhem in Iraq. No surprise there. But there is good news too. There is now at least one “serious” candidate for President, John Edwards, who seems to have broken free from the Clintonites – carving out a genuinely center-left position. It remains to be seen whether Obama will follow suit.

First, some definitions. [For more elaboration, see my POLITICAL KEYWORDS (Blackwell, 2007).] What left and right mean is impossible to explain precisely because, being spatial metaphors, they are relational notions; left is defined in contrast to right, and vice versa. This is why they have no fixed meaning. Political parties and social movements that everyone understands to be on the Left, in the notional sense that has been current at least since the French Revolution, have left and right wings, as do movements and parties of the Right. As with any continuum, there are also finer gradations. How many there are, and how they should be described, depends on the context. For Democrats today, the left is comprised of a handful of progressives in the so-called Progressive Caucus, and a few members of the Black Caucus. Most of these left Democrats are now organized into the Out of Iraq Caucus. They are a small group, far smaller than the constituencies they speak for. Before the 2006 election, they could have all fit into an airport limo with room left over for luggage. Now, there are a few more of them. Unlike their opposite numbers in the Republican Party of the early Clinton years, they have never managed to leverage their power by acting strategically. They have no Newt to show them the way and, so far, nothing even approximating his Contract on America. Like many (probably most) Americans, the Democratic left wants to defund the war, and bring the troops home now. There is only one Presidential contender so far among them: Dennis Kucinich, a non-starter. Russ Feingold, a Senator of no fixed political orientation, appears to have joined the left on this issue. When the fix is finally in, it will be interesting to see how many Senate allies he has.

The Democratic right is for timetables and redeployments and the like. I’ll examine their tortured logic in a subsequent posting. Its moral and intellectual level rivals Bush’s, though its conclusions are marginally less inhumane. It appears that there are two wings among the Democratic right: the true believers in a more competent “War on Terror,” and the classical Clintonites, who only want to position themselves in what they take to be the most advantageous way for the 2008 elections. Again, it remains to be seen whether Obama must be counted among them.

The political center is almost never a figurative midpoint between the left and the right. Neither is it an ‘intermediary’ or ‘golden mean’ in the sense familiar from Aristotle. Aristotle’s terms denote positions that are appropriate to prevailing circumstances. There is no reason to think that centrist positions are always or, for that matter, ever appropriate in this sense. Rather, what counts as centrist is whatever is proper to the political mainstream at particular times and places. Center is therefore even less amenable to a general characterization than left and right. Typically, the Center leans towards one or another pole on the spectrum. However, it is almost always at some remove from these poles. The center is also where most political leaders gravitate insofar as they are susceptible to pressure from the constituencies they purport to represent. The Democratic right is obviously not very susceptible to such pressure: it targets the median dollar, not the median voter.

In a political ad, quickly contrived and supposed to air today, the Edwards campaign breaks definitively with the right. It calls on Congress not to cave on a funding deadline; in effect, to stop aiding and abetting Bush’s war. This is a centrist or, better, center-left position in the current context in the sense that it is friendly to the idea of defunding the war, without quite going “all the way.” In this respect, Edwards’ position on Iraq now resembles his position on health care. There too he does not quite call for what the left does – universal coverage under a single payer plan run by the government, not by parasitic insurance companies. But his plan, which I also intend to discuss in subsequent postings, is open to this possibility in the sense that, if implemented, it could devolve into the left position. There is clearly a pattern here.

For a party still mired in Clintonism, a genuinely center-left alternative that can win over the Grand Old POP is a trend to encourage. It’s a step away from lesser evilism and therefore welcome news.

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