Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Turning Point?

Ronald Reagan got a lot of mileage out of his Eleventh Commandment – “thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.” If only the Great Communicator had joined his Eleventh with God’s Ninth, the one about “bearing false witness,” the world would have been spared much drivel. Then he and his followers would have had to be silent on the Republican Question, inasmuch as there is nothing good to say about them that is even remotely truthful. But, of course, for all Republicans and nearly all Democrats, truth, and therefore the Ninth Commandment, is the first casualty of electoral politics.

Lately, Democrats have come to lionize Ronald Reagan – a phenomenon even stranger than the Republican lionization of Harry Truman. But the Democrats have not yet made his Eleventh Commandment their own. This is why the October 30 debate promised to be – and was -- interesting. It was “speak ill of Hillary” night. Why not! Since she’s been on a roll in the polls and in collecting money and endorsements, it’s a good strategy or at least a desperate one. Besides, more than any of the other candidates, she deserves it.

Since Barack Obama was the only other candidate getting much media attention, the hype going into the debate was that he would finally take Hillary on “aggressively.” He did, sort of. Like everyone else on the stage, he faulted her vote on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, authorizing a Bush war in Iran. [Without quite conceding her commitment to the déjà vu all over again principle, Hillary claimed Kyl-Lieberman only authorizes “diplomacy.”] He also faulted Clinton for not making her (Bill) Clinton era papers available sooner rather than later (when it will be too late). This is a reasonable point: since she claims experience in governance, one would expect that she would be eager to back up her claim with supporting evidence, if there were any. From Obama’s quarter, that was about the extent of it. He landed a few (gentle) punches. But he didn’t exactly kick ass -- maybe because he’s too nice a guy; maybe because he’s now running for Vice President.

This is why we must be grateful to Chris Dodd for turning the tables by raising the obvious question of Clinton’s electability. It’s all well and good to point out that her policies are Republican Lite; that, much like John Kerry in 2004, what she offers is a more competent approach to the same old catastrophic same old. Of all the candidates, she is plainly the most Clintonite, though with the exception of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, none of the others are free of the taint. The Democratic “base” is far to Hillary’s left. But many of the voters who like her politics least think that, because she is to the right of the others, she’s the one most likely to hand the Republicans a thrashing. They don’t care for her (right) centrism, but they think they should vote for her because of it. It’s this thinking that got John Kerry the nomination in 2004. It was wrong then; it’s even more wrong now – not just because the Cheney/Bush administration is more obviously a failure than it was back then, but also because until he became the Democratic candidate, Kerry was not an obsession of the entire “great right wing conspiracy” but only of a tiny part of it comprised of a handful of psychologically damaged Vietnam veterans. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is and long has been hated (for the wrong reasons) by the whole god-fearing lot of them. Nothing anymore can mobilize this key part of the Republican base as well as she can and will. It’s hard to believe, even so, that the Democrats can lose, but it’s also hard not to worry that they somehow will. Clinton’s politics is lousy, but the Democratic base already knows that. What they need to hear is that, despite her politics, she’s the candidate most likely not to win.

John Edwards got it. As of today, his campaign has picked up the ball. Edwards also did what Obama was supposed to do far better than Obama did. Not only did he fault Hillary on Iraq and Iran and on “business as usual in Washington” and the rest of it; he caught her talking out of both sides of her mouth on New York state’s proposal to issue drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Obama jumped on that too, but Edwards got there first and more incisively. He’s a better debater than Obama is -- quicker on his feet -- and, more importantly, as I’ve pointed out countless times, his policies are better too. I hope Edwards now becomes the new second in line. Then the media won’t be quite so able to ignore his campaign. If that happens, he’ll put the attention to good use – something Obama did not. Then who knows! He’s our best shot for blowing Hillary out of the water. He has a good chance in the Iowa caucuses and a fair chance in the New Hampshire primary. As they go, maybe, so will the nation.

Ironically, the drivers’ license issue resonates with the electability issue, since the one thing that is so far working for the Republicans – or rather for their sizeable nativist and borderline racist element -- is illegal immigration. Immigrant bashing is the new gay baiting. Clinton has now made herself more than usually vulnerable on that score.

I confess that I have no ear for the mood of the electorate: I still don’t understand why any Republican since Eisenhower got more than a handful of votes. But for what it’s worth, I think the Philadelphia debate was a turning point. It’s still Hillary’s race to lose. She didn’t – and won’t -- make a fatal gaffe. But while the Clinton juggernaut seemed unstoppable the day before yesterday, she now seems vulnerable. Is this wishful thinking? The next few weeks, perhaps even the next few days, should tell.

NOTE: The other debate highlight, besides Clinton’s Clintonizing on drivers’ licenses, was Dennis Kucinich’s claim in response to a Tim Russert question that he once saw a UFO. If only the rest of what he had to say got as much attention! The debate could have been better in other ways too. It would have been better if Mike Gravel had been there. After all, he’s the one who spoke ill of Hillary (and of the other Clintonites) first. No one pillories Hillary better. It would have been better too if somebody had pointed out that notwithstanding his self-congratulations, Bill Richardson’s position on the war is not the best of all the candidates: it’s the third best, after Kucinich’s and Gravel’s. It would have been better if Dennis Kucinich’s repeated efforts to talk about impeachment hadn’t been so thoroughly ignored. It would have been better if someone, anyone, had mentioned Israel, the nine hundred pound gorilla in the room, when the topic was Iran. Still, the October 30 debate was quantum levels better than its predecessors – not just as entertainment, but for its content as well. Perhaps it will turn out to have been a welcome turning point too.

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