Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I Like Mike

I confess: I’ve given money to John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich – not much, even by my standards, but some. I may give more – to both of them. In Edwards’ case, it’s because I think he’s better than the only other contender with any chance of sending the Clintons packing. [They could use their time away from the White House to write a joint memoir. For a title, I suggest How We Completed the “Reagan Revolution” and, With Sanctions, Bombs, and “Humanitarian Interventions,” Made Cheney’s and Bush’s Wars, Including their War on the Rule of Law, Possible.] To be sure, Edwards’ “all options are on the table” speech (with regard to Iran) in Herzliya last January was unforgivable. I understand that “serious” Democratic contenders have to pander to the Israel lobby; but this was over the top. Still, he’s better than Obama – on just about everything, but especially on trade and support for organized labor. I could live with Obama, though, if it comes to that. What makes the flesh crawl is the prospect of a Clinton leading a Clintonite Restoration. Where is Monica Lewinsky now that we need her!

Kucinich is better than anybody on the issues. He’s even better than Mike Gravel, whose campaign is too feeble to have much to say about many of them. It’s wonderful that Kucinich is able to make his points in the “debates,” even if what he says is ignored by the other candidates and the media (except when UFO sightings are involved). But the Kucinich campaign still leaves me uneasy; and it isn’t just because the candidate doesn’t seem “presidential.” My problem with the Kucinich campaign is that it exemplifies what the Left has become in recent decades. Bereft of all but the palest vision of what a better world might be like, and not very interested even in understanding how the actual world works, the Left has devolved into a motley of good causes, without much of an idea about how to get from here to there or, for that matter, about what there there is.

This was my problem with the Nader campaign in 2000 as well, though that was about more than just “issues.” It was also about party building. [Another confession: I supported that campaign financially to the maximum extent allowable at the time, and I don’t regret it.] In 2000, there was the prospect of getting the Green Party out of limbo; a goal that turned out to matter less to Nader himself than to many of his supporters (like me). A “third” party, clearly to the left of the Democrats that is too big to be marginalized would be a major boon to our political culture. To me, this mattered more than that Nader was good on the issues. In the end, though, the hopes I and others had for the Nader campaign were blocked by “liberal” Democrats campaigning against him rather than George Bush, and by the institutions twentieth century Republicrats installed to maintain their duopoly. But it was a noble effort. If we lived in a country with more open political processes, where political parties can enter and exit more easily, or even where ballot access is more readily and inexpensively available, it would have done much good. In the actual world, it was, in retrospect, a fool’s errand – but still one not to regret. Kucinich’s attempt to change the Democratic Party from within is also a fool’s errand. It just can’t be done by being the best on the issues. Change is possible, but not that way. What the Democrats need is a leader who can unleash a popular dynamic for progressive change – much as FDR did for a brief portion of his long reign. That’s why I want Edwards to be the candidate even if, by a miracle, Kucinich could somehow win. I agree with Kucinich more, much more, on the issues at hand. But that’s just not where the action is.

It is said that politics is “the art of the possible.” That’s not the same thing as getting the issues right. It’s understanding the constraints and, more importantly, understanding how to change those constraints – how to open up new possibilities – and therefore to make new issues. This is not to say that it isn’t important to be good on the issues currently in view. It’s good that somebody is. But if that’s all it’s about, why stop where Kucinich does or, for that matter, where Nader did? For more than two centuries, the world has abounded with proposals for changing life for the better – in ways that the positions Kucinich defends barely touch. In the political culture of recent decades, those proposals have been derogated as “utopian” or ignored as naïve and depassé. I don’t think they are. But I do think that the case against radicalism that afflicts what passes for a Left today applies, say, to Kucinich’s single-payer not for profit healthcare plan – obviously preferable to what the other candidates have in mind -- nearly as much as it does to leaping more boldly forward into the realm of freedom. Good policy positions are indispensable. But they are also radically insufficient. The way forward now, as it always has been, is by building collective movements organized around coherent visions of what can be, and sound understandings of what now is. Taking all that for granted and just being better on the issues pales in comparison.

Which brings me to Mike Gravel. He’s good on the issues too, though perhaps not quite as good as Kucinich. But, unlike Kucinich, he’s a breath of fresh of air. For Democrats these days, that seems possible only for septuagenarians no longer interested in being Washington “players.” [This might seem like an odd thing to say about someone running for President, but I think it fits the case. It’s also why, though I like Mike the best, I’m more reluctant to throw money his way rather than Kucinich’s or Edwards’.] Jimmy Carter is another example. To the dismay of the Democratic leadership, he’s free to state the obvious – about the Apartheid character of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example. Similarly, Gravel is free to speak truth of and to the other candidates, especially the front-runners. Thus, within the bounds of decorum, he takes every opportunity, as goody-goody Kucinich does not, to point out that the others, Hillary Clinton especially, are full of shit.

In this regard, the Iran portion of the December 4, NPR radio debate was particularly revealing. Only Gravel dared say that Iran poses no threat, with or without nuclear weapons, to the United States; that it never did and probably never will. He might have added that the United States long has and still does pose a very serious threat to Iran. Instead, he said something almost equally obvious – that it is Israel that wants the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that if we do it, it will mainly be for them. He might have added that it is the Israel lobby in the United States, in conjunction with their neo-conservative co-thinkers in the Vice President’s office, who are mainly behind this move towards yet another war. Saying such things is unthinkable in the United States where there is a strict taboo against speaking ill of the state of Yahweh’s Chosen People – my state, I suppose, though I want nothing to do with it. Gravel violated the taboo; he might as well have farted in public, the way the others pretended not to notice.

They ignore Kucinich too; Joe Biden is especially good at it. Biden is a case. It’d hard to believe that anyone could be as good at foreign policy as he thinks he is, or that anyone (this side of the Republican Party) could have as many dumb ideas about foreign policy as he does. His plan to dismember Iraq is at the top of the list, but it’s not the only item on it. Still, his performance during the China part of the NPR “debate” strains credulity. It’s fine that he wants the United States to be tough on human rights in China – not that it has any moral standing left in that department. But then he went on and on about how the Land of the Free would never let any ally – he mentioned France and Germany, specifically – get away with what it lets China get away with. Well, Joe, what about the dearest ally of all, Israel? He could hardly have forgotten about it; after all, he’s even more deeply ensconced in AIPAC’s deep pockets than the rest of them, including Hillary Clinton. If anyone needs a 257,000st reason to send the Clintons packing, think about this: Hillary is as likely as not to give that piece of work the job he’s always coveted – Secretary of State.

But to return to Mike Gravel, imagine that Israel/Palestine somehow was discussable. Here’s what I think he would say: he’d say that America should look out for its own interests, not Israel’s, and that there is no good reason for the United States to support that country financially and diplomatically to the extent that it now does. He would say, most likely, that the United States should treat Israel the way it treats other countries – not the way irresponsible parents enable their out of control children by letting them get away with anything (at no matter what cost).

On the other hand, in the rare instances when he cannot avoid the question, Kucinich says that the United States should throw its support behind the Israeli left. That’s a fine idea; better, by far, than the usual practice of giving carte blanche to the government of Israel. But it’s the issues thing all over again. What are the political, strategic and military constraints shaping American policy? How constraining are those constraints? Is a “two state” solution, the goal of the Israeli left, even possible anymore? To these and other pertinent questions, Kucinich is oblivious. Like so many others on today’s left, he seems to think that niceness is enough. But even with the Christmas season upon us, is there anybody who thinks that “good will to all” is a viable strategy? Mike Gravel understands that it is not. That’s why I like him.

NOTE: On Iran, Gravel also pointed out that the intelligence community has finally shown courage by digging in its heels to the great consternation of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons. With the just released NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) indicating that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons plans in 2003, the bureaucracies of sixteen agencies “dropkicked” the administration’s war plans right off the field. Gravel’s hope may be premature, but his observation is well taken. It is worth noting too that the information on which the NIE report is based has been shuffling around in government precincts for some time, and that it was well confirmed even before the 2006 elections. The Cheney/Bush government was able to suppress the news until now. Evidently, they no longer can. [For more on who knew what and when, look here.] Where were the Democrats while this was going on? To be sure, a few of them, like Dennis Kucinich, insisted all along that Iran is not a threat. But the vast majority played along with the neo-cons; indeed, as of the NPR debate, they were still at it. Yes, they favor “aggressive diplomacy,” not bombs (for the time being). Yes, they all – except Hillary -- reject the Kyl-Lieberman amendment effectively authorizing Bush to go to war. But the view of Iran that they project is no different from the view George Bush and Dick Cheney would have us all believe. How pitiful is that!

No comments: