Saturday, February 02, 2008

Obama for President


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

This was the year California was supposed at long last to have a say in who the major-party Presidential nominees would be. Though moving the California primary to February 5 was in large measure an attempt by a corrupt political cabal in the state legislature to extend their terms artificially through Proposition 93 — which essentially would restart the clock for existing legislators and allow them to serve 12 years more, while maintaining the blatantly gerrymandered redistricting system that has essentially eliminated party competition for legislative and Congressional seats in this state — it was also supposed to have the effect of making our votes count once again. No more would California be voting at the tail end of the process, after smaller states with earlier primaries and caucuses had already had their say.

Except it didn’t work out that way, because 23 other states set their primaries for February 5 as well. Hamstrung by the Republicans’ and especially the Democrats’ bizarre, inexplicable fealty to the arrogant demands of Iowa and New Hampshire for perpetual primacy in the process — so much so that the Democratic party this year denied Wisconsin and Florida any convention delegates at all for scheduling their primaries “too soon” — over half of all American voters will have their say at the ballot box, if at all, on what’s been called “Super Tuesday,” “Super Duper Tuesday” or even “Tsunami Tuesday.” Already the early states have decimated the field and forced such high-flying early favorites as Rudy Giuliani out of the race — and among the casualties have been my top two choices in the Democratic field, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, respectively.

With the choice for the Democratic nomination now down to Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the choice is no choice: no self-respecting Democrat who wants to see his or her party win in November can do anything other than vote for Obama. In an election in which “change” has become the mantra, the Holy Grail voters are seeking, the choices are between a candidate who represents the past and one who represents the future. In a country that has been riven by intense partisanship, where surprising minuscule differences in the two major parties have become the currency of bitter-end battles, the Democrats’ choice is between a woman who — largely through no fault of her own — epitomizes partisanship and partisan hatred, and a man who at least offers the tantalizing hope of being able to reason across the aisle.

What’s astonished me most during the primary season — since I wrote my article “Hillary: Democrats’ Death Wish” for the November 2007 Zenger’s — has been how the support between Clinton and Obama has broken down. According to the pollsters, Clinton’s strength has been among working-class people, people with less education, “core” Democrats and partisan Democrats, while Obama has been strongest among the college-educated, the middle-class and independents. And the reason that astonishes me is that, as President, Hillary’s husband systematically screwed over the very constituencies his wife is now relying on as her base. Much of the damage Bill Clinton did to the American working-class and middle-class was part of a long-term bipartisan project since 1973 to redistribute America’s wealth and income away from working people and towards the rich — but much of it was uniquely his.

Though the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated under the administration of the elder Bush, it was Bill Clinton who pushed it through a reluctant, Democrat-controlled Congress and also signed on to the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). NAFTA and the WTO have been unmitigated disasters for America’s working people; they have accelerated the flow of jobs overseas and wiped out avenues of economic advancement that previously moved millions of Americans from blue-collar jobs to the middle class. What’s more, by opening the Mexican economy to cheap grain from U.S. agribusiness, NAFTA dispossessed and displaced virtually all of Mexico’s small farmers — forcing them, for their own survival, to emigrate to the U.S. America’s current immigration “crisis” and the success of the radical Right in exploiting it for their own racist, xenophobic agenda are direct results of the Clinton legacy on “free trade.”

What’s more, though America’s two wars against Iraq were started under the two Presidents Bush, it was Clinton who ordered air attacks on Iraq in 1993 and 1998 and the Clinton administration that insisted that the United Nations maintain its ruinous regime of economic sanctions against Iraq that led to the deaths of over 1.5 million Iraqis between 1991 and 2003. It was also Clinton who involved the U.S. in the Yugoslavian civil wars on the side of the Muslim extremists in Bosnia — repeating the mistake of the Reagan administration in Afghanistan that brought about the Taliban, al-Qaeda and 9/11. And need I remind anyone reading this that Hillary Clinton not only voted to give the Bush administration the green-light to wage its illegal war of aggression against Iraq but (unlike John Edwards) has never repudiated that vote or apologized for it?

It was Clinton — not Bush — who signed into law the first version of the USA PATRIOT Act (the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”) into law in 1996, eviscerating the right of habeas corpus and paving the way for Bush and a later Congress to destroy it completely. It was Clinton — not Bush — who started the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” by which the U.S. essentially kidnaps individuals and, rather than holding them in this country, ships them overseas to countries where they will be tortured. And for my Queer readers, it was Clinton, not Bush, who signed into law the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military (which is not only an offense against civil rights but has hamstrung our ability to deal with the Muslim world because it’s led to the mass discharge of Arabic-speaking linguists) and the “Defense of Marriage Act” banning legal recognition of same-sex marriage by the federal government.

Another frequent comment from Hillary’s supporters I can’t fathom is all their references to her “experience.” Experience at what, actually? Watching her husband be President for eight years? It’s true Clinton has been in the U.S. Senate longer than Obama has, but counting his tenure in the Illinois state legislature he’s had far more time in elective office than she has. It’s amusing that the Right-wing propagandists on talk radio, who during Bill Clinton’s presidency delighted in portraying him as a shuffle-footed idiot chasing girls around the White House while Hillary actually ran the country, are now working overtime to convince the American people that Hillary had nothing to do with any of the decisions of the Clinton presidency — but, quite frankly, aside from the health-care debacle of 1993-94 (which she was directly in charge of, and ran with a level of internal secrecy and demands for “loyalty” that anticipated the current President and his administration), there’s no evidence that Hillary did have anything to do with the decisions of the Clinton presidency.

Finally, a lot of Hillary’s supporters argue that in a race in which the economy is emerging as a major issue, we should support her because Bill Clinton’s years in the White House were good times economically. This is nonsense. In fact, the Clinton and Bush records on the economy are surprisingly similar: Clinton’s presidency was a period of artificial prosperity generated by an unsustainable boom in high-tech stocks that collapsed in the last year of his administration, while Bush II’s was a period of artificial prosperity generated by an unsustainable boom in real estate that collapsed in the next-to-last year of his. It’s true Clinton wasn’t quite as blatant as Bush II in ensuring that the rich would get richer and the poor poorer as a result of his economic policies, but by buying into the Wall Street consensus and using the tax money generated from the boom to pay down the national debt instead of helping working-class people and rebuilding America’s infrastructure, Bill Clinton showed his true center-Right colors.

In fact, it’s clear from the record of the Bill Clinton presidency that both Clintons are center-Right politicians, and Hillary’s election as president will no more bring about a progressive revival than Bill’s did. Indeed, not only is Hillary Clinton almost certainly unelectable — when polls indicate that 40 percent of the American people regard you as the candidate they most want to prevent from becoming President, the writing is on the wall and it spells near-certain defeat — but even, if by some fluke she wins, she won’t be able to govern. The Republicans in Congress, even if they don’t regain their majority (which they probably will if someone as bitterly hated in Middle America as Hillary Clinton heads the Democratic ticket), will still have enough seats to block anything and everything she tries to do. Hillary Clinton’s presidency will be four years of brutal partisan gridlock, at a time when the nation can ill afford it because of the crises we face, both domestic (the threatened meltdown of the U.S. economy) and foreign (the fallout of Bush II’s malevolent unilateralism and the human-rights abuses committed in the name of the “war on terror”).

But there are more reasons to vote for Barack Obama than the fact that he isn’t Hillary Clinton. The flip side of his “inexperience” is he’s blessedly bereft of the wrong kind of experience. Maybe he just lucked out by not being in the U.S. Senate yet when the vote to authorize the Iraq war was taken — and he didn’t have to listen to the siren calls of the so-called “realists” who told Clinton, Edwards and John Kerry that anyone who didn’t vote for the war would be killing his or her future political credibility — but the fact remains that Obama has been against the war from the get-go while Clinton can’t even bring herself to say she’s against it now. Obama’s supporters have compared him to Abraham Lincoln and John Firzgerald Kennedy, and while this has given Clinton’s backers conniption fits, the fact remains that both comparisons are appropriate.

When he became President, Lincoln had even less experience in elective office — just three terms in the Illinois state legislature and one in the U.S. House of Representatives — than Obama has now. (Indeed, William Seward, the early front-runner Lincoln beat for the 1860 Republican nomination, made the same kinds of “inexperience” arguments against Lincoln that Clinton and her supporters are making against Obama.) Lincoln gained national prominence the same way Obama did: by making a series of inspiring speeches on the major national issue of the day during a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois — a campaign Lincoln, unlike Obama, lost (admittedly against a far stronger opponent).

The comparisons between Kennedy and Obama are even stronger — so much so that I suspect Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama may have been motivated by how much Obama reminds him of his late brother. Though Kennedy had served in the U.S. Senate longer than Obama has, he’d been chronically ill much of his term and therefore had little more “face time” on the floor than Obama’s today. Like Obama, Kennedy deliberately kept his election promises vague, committing less to specific positions on specific issues and more on a pledge to “get America moving again.” Like Obama, Kennedy saw the presidency largely as a platform for inspirational leadership rather than the nuts-and-bolts of policy wonkery. And the most important parallel between them is that they both ran for the highest office in the land despite repeatedly being told that no one of “their kind” could ever win. Kennedy successfully challenged anti-Catholic religious bigotry, and I think Obama is uniquely qualified (largely because he’s the son of an African immigrant rather than the descendant of slaves) to challenge America’s lingering racism. Indeed, one of the most inspiring aspects of Obama’s candidacy is he's running for the highest office in a country that until 40 years ago had laws on its books designed to prevent people like him from even existing.

For me, the issue in the Presidential election is a simple one: where do we want this country to go? If you want a continuation of the policies of the 2000’s, the unending “war on terror,” the destruction of the U.S. Constitution in the name of “security,” the preservation of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and the hatred with which we are greeted through much of the world, vote for the Republican nominee. If you want a return to the trivial gridlocked politics of the 1990’s, when Republicans and Democrats alike quibbled over the semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress while Osama bin Laden organized his jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan, vote for Hillary Clinton. If you actually believe that America has a future, and can do better than it did in either of those two sorry decades, please, please, please vote for Barack Obama.