Friday, February 1, 2008

Could John Edwards' Sudden Withdrawal from the Primaries Have Been a Shrewd Strategic Move?

NOTE: what follows is an exercise in wishful thinking. Even I don’t quite believe it. But I do think that the argument is plausible.

It occurred to me, in the opening minutes of the CNN/Politico/LA Times “debate” last night, before it degenerated into a nauseating spectacle of mutual admiration and civility, that maybe Edwards didn’t exactly take himself out of the race after all. It almost seemed obvious – watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make their pitch to Edwards supporters by lavishing praising on their erstwhile candidate. Of course, it’s not obvious, and probably not even true. But isn’t it relevant that Edwards said he was “suspending” his campaign? Rudy G said he was ending his. Isn’t it relevant that he didn’t endorse Obama, even though, like any other moderately progressive person, he obviously prefers an Obama presidency to an outright Clinton Restoration? Isn’t it relevant that Clinton and Obama agreed that one or the other of them would be elected President of the United States in November? Since they’re wrong about almost everything, why not that? Here’s why I think the answer to each of these questions is “maybe.”

The one sure thing is that our system for selecting candidates is worse than ludicrous; it’s patently undemocratic. It confers incalculably more power to the median dollar than to the median voter. And it accords inordinate political influence to small handfuls of voters, effectively disenfranchising almost every one else (except, of course, the moneybags).

Given that the Edwards campaign, like all the others, had to compete under these conditions, it is clear, in retrospect, that all was lost by the end of the Iowa caucuses. Edwards did come in second in Iowa; and it did seem, for the next few days, that Hillary Clinton was the big loser. But the fact is that to have had a chance at the nomination – in the face of so much opposition from the corporate and corporate friendly media and from other interests his presidency would challenge – Edwards would have had to win in Iowa. The reason why is clear: the candidate who posed the biggest problem for him was Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton. White and Latino racism could still do in Obama’s chances to win in November. But Iowa showed that he could win handily in a nearly all white state, at least among persons willing to caucus under the aegis of the Democratic Party. That validated his candidacy. That’s why Obama was able to win nearly 80% of the black vote in South Carolina and why he could raise some $32 million in January. That’s why, even after she bounced back in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton is still not the clear front runner. Edwards could probably have won the nomination on the anti-Clinton vote alone, if Obama was out of the picture. But he didn’t have a chance against Obama one on one – not if the African American candidate is seen as viable – and, in a three-way race, running also against a woman, his prospects were even worse. No matter that his politics were better than Clinton’s or Obama’s, for women and African Americans along with nearly everyone else. For Democratic voters this year, the prospect of nominating the white guy, when there’s a black man and a woman in the running, was just not going to fly.

Thus it became increasingly obvious that Edwards was unlikely ever to finish better than third. He worked Nevada hard. Had the Culinary Workers Union evinced a glimmer of loyalty, he would have had strong labor support. He should have had strong support in rural areas as well. Instead, he lost his shirt in Vegas. Then he came in third in South Carolina, the one primary he won in 2004. In all likelihood, he’d have come in third in each and every Super Tuesday primary.

If there is no clear winner between Clinton and Obama after Super Tuesday, and if no winner develops in the weeks that follow, Edwards might then have emerged as a “king maker.” He probably would have had enough delegates. But all that would come from that is that Obama would be crowned king. If Obama can’t make that happen on his own, running against Hillary Clinton, then he doesn’t deserve the title, and his chances in November would be poor, even running against the likes of John McCain or Mitt Romney and after eight catastrophic years of Dick Cheney and George Bush.

However, the scenario that would make Edwards a king maker if he remained in the race, could also put him back in the running if he bowed out when he did. Obama and Clinton would first have to fight each other to exhaustion, with no clear winner emerging. Then, it would have to become clear to more people than it now is that Hillary Clinton would unite an otherwise divided Republican Party. It would also have to become clearer than it now is that racism could stand in the way of an Obama victory. It would help too if Obama’s detractors dig up evidence – there’s plenty of it – that before he had national political ambitions, his position on Israel/Palestine was not nearly as servile to the Israel lobby as it now is. [This is true to a much lesser degree of Hillary Clinton as well, but she has more than made up for it through diligent ass kissing from the moment she decided to run for the Senate.] One could imagine AIPAC and the others getting behind John McCain in the general election. After all, many of them believe, to this day, that the Bush boy has been good for Israel. That possibility could cause many Democrats to rethink the Obama question.

In the meantime, Clinton and Obama and every other Democrat in captivity will be heaping praise on the fallen John Edwards, just as they did in last night’s debate. In much the way that JFK, the paradigmatic “inspirer,” did well for himself by getting killed, over the next few months it is likely that Edwards will be transformed from a pariah into a hero – a living one at that. Then maybe, at the convention if not before, the Democratic Party will turn to him, as the recalcitrant French turned to DeGaulle to end the Algerian War and restore France’s “grandeur.” Stranger things have happened. If nothing else, it would make Democratic Party politics interesting for the next few months. Otherwise, expect Clinton or Obama, whoever comes out on top, to run even more to the right (or, as the corporate media would say, the center), as they become even more beholden to their corporate paymasters, and as they go after “independents.” Then expect the winner to star in a truly nauseating spectacle of self-congratulations this summer as the Democrats coronate one or the other their standard-bearer.

* *

Oh yes, then there was the rest of that “debate” between McCain Lite (Clinton) and the Rorschach Test for clueless do-gooders (Obama). If you look hard enough, you can see that behind last night’s cordiality, a few differences on “the issues” did come up. All of it was painfully familiar.

But things aren’t quite as clear as they seem. On health care, Clinton (following John Edwards’ lead) favors universal coverage; Obama does not. On the Iraq War, Clinton is still unrepentant for her part in authorizing Bush to go to war, while Obama claims a less ambivalent anti-war record. But lets look at the facts. On health care, there already is a Clinton “legacy.” Thanks to her pandering to insurance and pharmaceutical companies in her first try at reforming the system, she shattered a coalition in favor of universal coverage that had taken years to forge, setting the cause back a generation. Even worse, she assured the continuing marginalization of the obviously best policy – not for profit, single-payer insurance. After Dennis Kucinich was shut out of the debates by The Des Moines Register, and then by the Disney Corp (ABC) and Time Warner (CNN), the single-payer solution became a non-issue in Democratic Party circles again. Hillary is better on health care, even so; but she’s hardly the paragon she makes herself out to be. On the war, it is true – in 2002, before he could do anything about it and before he was a national political figure, Obama was a genuine opponent. But since coming to the Senate, he and Hillary have been of one mind – or, at least, on the same side when push came to vote. Bill Clinton isn’t right about much, but he was right about that.

As I’ve maintained in countless entries, the reason to favor Obama over Clinton is not that “hope” beats “experience” or that his policy proposals are better than hers. On health care, they’re slightly worse; on nearly everything else, they’re about the same. The reason is that she is likely to restore Clintonism more thoroughly than he will; more likely especially to reempower the old Clinton hands. Last night, Obama couldn’t say enough in praise of the (Bill) Clinton years; he is certainly not going to launch the kind of discussion that is called for in a country almost as much in need of de-Clintonization as it is in need of reversing the additional – and more salient -- depredations of the Cheney/Bush years. If Obama understands this, as he well might, he shows no sign of it. This is why last night’s one on one exercise in cordiality was good for one and only one thing: as an emetic.

Unless I’m right about Edwards’ tactical shrewdness, and maybe even if I’m wrong (and Edwards really is out of the picture), there’s only one more thing to say: Run, Ralph (or Cynthia or somebody), Run!

1 comment:

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Andrew, I share your frustration, but Ralph Nader has become a crank. It's just not an option at this point. I also think a decent banker (Hillobama) is better than an incompetent, fear mongering banker (McCain and the rest of the Republican clown-candidates). Plus, the House and Senate if they remain Democratic controlled may finally give our nation some daylight to see that some things can get done for the better of our nation.

I wish you prove right about Edwards. I keep hoping Gore can become a draft nominee, but that seems too much of a dream at this point too...