By David Broockman ’11
The Left is accustomed to being labeled eternally idealistic not as an accolade, but an epithet. But every four years, the Democratic Party’s establishment enjoys labeling other Democrats naive. John Kerry said it about Howard Dean in 2004 and it stuck, leading to Dean’s demise. In this election cycle, Hillary Clinton, calling Barack Obama’s campaign a “false hope,” has thrown at him the word “idealist” hoping to achieve the same end.
As commendable as Hillary’s experience is, I believe it takes more for presidents to win legislative battles than simply having experience fighting them. Significant progress can only be made by winning Congress’ crucial voting center, comprised of moderates from swing districts to whom party loyalty takes a backseat to winning their own re-election. Mainstream Democrats often slander these recalcitrant congressmen as “DINOs,” or “Democrats In Name Only.” Yet, because of the nature of their constituencies, these congressmen have no choice but to vote for the “other side,” frequently forcing the failure of important legislation lest they lose their seats to someone who would have voted similarly anyway.
It’s already a challenge to sell a progressive agenda to voters from states like Montana and Alabama. In such areas, Hillary’s status as a symbol for the radical Left would make it even more difficult for these congressional moderates to vote for the Democrat’s agenda. With a president around whom critical congressmen would feel significant pressure to rally against rather than around, the “DINO” paradigm would continue and there would be insufficient votes to pass crucial legislation, leaving the status quo intact on far too many central issues and perpetuating the perception of Democrats’ inefficacy. We may despise their political calculus, but no progress can be made without finding a way to get, paradoxically, moderate congressmen both to toe the party line and remain popular in their districts to ensure their reelection. For example, Bill Clinton was adept at the former, but he paid dearly for his inability to do the latter in 1994.
In contrast, Obama’s eloquence and emphasis on a united America will reap us benefits in Congress, where he will be able to credibly represent the American people in the way Kennedy did — with a powerful aura of legitimacy Hillary can never hope to command. Democrats in close districts would be able to frame support for progressive legislation as support for President Obama, “riding his coattails,” rather than being forced to vote against progress. It’s no wonder so many Democratic candidates for public office from Red states like mine, Texas, have endorsed Obama.
Furthermore, support and opposition to legislation are not black and white, but lie on a continuum. With Obama, Senate Republicans would be more likely to vote against progressive legislation but stay in their chairs. With his credible rhetoric of reconciliation and exclusive focus on positive campaigning, it would be difficult to rally support for a filibuster against his agenda lest Republicans alienate voters at a time when Americans crave a positive message. It would be a crime to squander such a unique moment. In contrast, Republican senators would love nothing more than to air commercials of themselves filibustering a Clinton health care or climate change bill, symbolically “standing up to” the radical Left.
While the Clinton machine may have mastered campaigning, the Bush era has discredited the idea that Karl-Rove-style divisive politics can support legislative success; even in our broken system, attempts at clever legislative deal-making are no substitute for the congressional votes brought by genuine public support. The contrast between the legislative results Reagan achieved under a Democratic Congress and Bush’s legislative impotence even with a Republican Congress speaks volumes to this point. Mandates matter.
A Clinton presidency would not be a sufficiently sturdy platform upon which to build the changes that our common challenges demand. Her image would plunge the country into years of legislative deadlock for which Democrats would be blamed. In order to capture the American people’s support for legislation on health care, climate change and Iraq, the Left needs a president who can speak to the place where a resilient, audacious Liberalism resides in every American — their heart. Experience is meaningless without the ability to persuade, unite and inspire.
It is the Democratic Party’s establishment who is out of reach with reality, stubbornly believing we can win votes on Election Day or in Congress with Hillary Clinton as our nominee when history and common sense say otherwise.
In 2008, the realistic choice for change is not one of the most divisive figures in American politics, but someone who has demonstrated the ability to bring people together and win over moderates even in this season of political antagonism — Barack Obama.