About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Its Kerry, Mike, not Dean

the short summary: what i believe about politics, why i'm not supporting Dean, and why i'm leaning back and forth between Clark and Kerry (today, leaning a little toward Clark, after watching a very impressive speech he gave yesterday to a VFW post in New Hampshire).

read this David Brooks piece from the NY Times on the Iowa Caucuses, if you haven't already. he's a conservative, but i think he's hit on something here, whether we like it or not:


on the caucuses: David Corn's article (http://www.thenation.com/capitalgames/index.mhtml?bid=3&pid=1196) is a good one. i spent the evening watching the caucuses, with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. i'm not as bothered or surprised by the result as many are, i think (more on this in a moment), but what glimpses i caught of various caucuses on C-Span disappointed me for sure. though i've never participated in a caucus, i like the idea of it -- one of the deep flaws of american democracy today, i believe, is how individual and anonymous it is. being citizen involves walking into a booth, pulling a lever, and hoping someone actually counts your vote. in theory, the caucus aspires to a more public, social, and deliberative idea of democracy: that being a citizen involves knowledge, persuasion, coalition building, and compromise, not just choosing a candidate like you choose toothpaste. since i still believe that parties are (or should be) important, caucuses (again, in theory) seem like a valuable way for a political organization to build support behind a candidate or candidates.

that said, corn's criticisms were right on. while a lot of folks i saw on the TV seemed to know what they were talking about, and attempted to deploy the tools of persuasion with one another, i also saw a lot of barely concealed political bribery, and the kind of insipid personality assessments that pundits like to engage in so much ('he lacks gravitas,' 'he's angry,' 'he's running a positive campaign,' etc.). personality does matter for electability of course, whether it should or not (i think most voters unconsciously use the traits of personality as a substitute for what they really mean, which is character and the ability to communicate and persuade, which do matter). i would just hope that in a room full of political activists, a partisan for a candidate could come up with something better.

I've been trying to make sense of Iowa as well. i've also been trying, for some months now, to figure out which Democratic candidate to support. i've just been unwilling to pull the trigger on dean -- and like you, for me 'pulling the trigger' means a lot more than just pulling a voting lever. it means selecting the person that i intend to spend a good part of the next 10 months of my life working for. i'm still trying to put my finger on why i can't bring myself to support him. in the end, i guess for me it comes down to a few things.

first, here are a few basic assumptions or beliefs that underlie my thinking about all politics. they pretty much govern my thinking about Dean and the others.

1. for lack of a better term, i consider myself a democratic socialist, or a social democrat. i have no expectation whatsoever that i will ever see a viable presidential candidate in my lifetime who even comes close to approximating my beliefs. i don't have a checklist of things that a candidate i vote for has to believe in or reject, in order for me to vote for them. example: Clark supports the School of the Americas? that sucks, but i don't give a shit. i'd rather have him than Bush. Clark is against flag burning? see 'don't give a shit,' above. as a result, all politics for me is an exercise in lesser-evilism. i have absolutely no qualms about that. if you believe in democracy, that's the way it goes. if my views are to ever get a national hearing, it will only come during a period of liberal Democratic political dominance, as it has in the past (Progressive era, 1930's, 1960's). thus, the only path, for me, to 'no-evilism' is 'lesser-evilism.' to believe that things will have to get worse before more radical ideas get a hearing is folly, i think. human history indicates that after things get worse, they get much much worse.

2. at the national level, i think third parties make absolutely no sense whatsoever. if this view had been a little more widespread on the left 4 years ago, we wouldn't be in this mess. if a leftist view of things is ever to become a part of america's political common sense, it will come through the Democratic Party. period.

3. the best way to move the political spectrum to the left is find candidates (or become a candidate) that can express ideas of social justice in basic political keywords that thinking Americans can understand -- to 'speak American,' as it were. make leftist ideas sound moderate (the 'vote for the living wage law because its good for the economy and small business' argument). hard to think of any examples in our lifetime, but to go back a bit -- think of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy at the end of his life, and FDR. i always thought Mario Cuomo was pretty good at it too. I have hopes for CLark on this.

4. the Bush Administration is not just another right-wing, pro-corporate, white Christian male-dominated presidency, like Reagan or Bush I. it is ideologically driven, deeply hostile to democratic politics and the rule of law, and is smartly and systematically undermining the structural basis not only of the kind of changes that Democrats and most Americans desire (by running up deficits, seeking to cripple labor unions, appointing ideologues to the judiciary, privatizing social security, destroying medicare, changing Congressional rules, redistricting, changing FCC rules to allow further corporate concentration of the media, ignoring the FReedom of Information Act, etc), but also the basis of the Democratic party's core constituencies. not to mention democracy itself (An absolute must-read on this:http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/print/V15/2/kuttner-r.html). it is a danger not only to what most Democrats hold dear; it is a danger to what many Republicans hold dear. it thus matters much more that a Democrat win, than that any particular Democrat win. THis is why i would even vote for lieberman, if it came down to it. the argument, long favored on the left, that there is no difference between the two parties, is as untrue as it has been since the 1930's. besides, the GOP will retain control of both houses of congress, meaning a Democratic president won't be able to do much anyway, other than veto things, avoid making offensive appointments, issue executive orders, and do his level best to help Democratic win the mid-term elections.

now for Dean: like many in Iowa, who strongly agreed with dean on the war (as do I), i have serious questions about his electability. unlike the mainstream media, i don't question his electability because i think he's too liberal (he's not, not even close), or because he's supposedly made several misstatements on foreign policy (the one everyone seems to jump on in the mainstream media -- when he said that the capture of Hussein doesn't make us any safer -- is of course entirely accurate, not a misstep).

in the end i'm just not sure he's a very good candidate, in the superficial (but not unimportant) sense: his personality is off-putting to many people, he's not terribly persuasive, he has a tendency not to explain his positions very well (the Confederate flag thing being a good example -- he was right, but couldn't convey it). it simply isn't enough for him to be right. he has to be able to bring people at least part of the way towards his conclusions, help them make the steps. he just isn't good at it. he hasn't exactly distinguished himself in the debates. at first blush i like what he says, particularly about the war, because i've already made the steps. he states my conclusions, and expresses my anger and frustration that others (including, of course, much of the Democratic party) haven't done the same. much of the country, including most Democratic voters, aren't there yet. they are basically skeptical of the pre-emptive war doctrine, in so far as they understand it, and skeptical of unilateralism, probably too. that skepticism has to be directed, focused, toward the question that will ultimately stir most voters -- is Bush's foreign policy competent, and will it keep us safe? Clark is much, much better on this than Dean is. despite his vote for the war, i'm not sure kerry isn't better at it too (more on him later too). clark , to most voters, is more credible on this issue as well.

i just can't bring myself to use the vote on the war as a litmus test for which candidate i will support. especially given the deception and rush to judgment that went in to the passage of the resolution. i would certainly prefer if Kerry would just straight out say, as others in the COngress have, that he voted for it because he believed the President, he is angry because he was lied to, and he now realizes that the war was unjustified, and this history makes it clear that George Bush is not qualified to run this country. he's not far from this now, and his long career before this tells me that our foreign policy would be very very different under Kerry than it is under Bush. Kerry has always been a voice for international institutions, multilaterialism, and diplomacy. His father, a diplomat in the 40's, 50's and 60's, made the same arguments. it is one thing to criticize Kerry for voting for the resolution; he should have known better, and one does have to wonder whether he just decided to play politics with his vote, knowing that he was soon to be a presidential candidate. these are fair criticisms, though i'm not sure his argument (he assumed Bush was being honest, he assumed Bush wouldn't go to war without a broad coalition, he assumed Bush wouldn't go to war without a post-war plan) isn't genuine, even if we don't (and didn't) agree with it. but we cannot then make the leap from 'he voted for the resolution' to 'he's no different from Bush.' up until now, Kerry hasn't done a very good job of explaining the evolution of his position on the war; though of course, up until now, no one other than political junkies was really paying attention anyway. Iowa Democrats appear to have bought his explanation, and i suspect NH Dems will too.

but rather than examining the voting record on the resolution, it makes more sense to me to ask this question: if this candidate had been president 2001-2004, would we be at war in Iraq? the answer to me is clearly no for Dean, Kerry, and Clark. if this candidate had been president, would we have radically altered our military and foreign policy towards pre-emptive war and unilateralism? again, no for the three. if this candidate had been president, would his administration have falsified intelligence reports, attempted to use leaks to the media to intimidate whistle blowers, committed the impeachable offense of lying to Congress and the American people in the State of the Union, and caused our diplomatic apparatus to atrophy, alienating nations around the world? again, no. the differences between these Democratic candidates on basically all issues, including the war, are miniscule compared to their differences with Bush (i'm not including lieberman in this discussion, because he is much closer to bush than the others, and has no chance of winning). Given that, and given the question of electability (and i'm very open to counter arguments on this one), and the interchangeability of their domestic agendas (see below), i'd much rather support Kerry or Clark than Dean. ultimately, the goal has to be to defeat Bush. for me, i honestly care much less WHO becomes president, as long as it isn't Bush. he's that dangerous. and i'm not even really referring to foreign policy.

and ultimately, i think you are going to see a ticket with Clark and Kerry on it, in whatever order (for a very good article by Robert Kuttner in American Prospect on Kerry's viable use of populism as a candidate, see http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/webfeatures/2004/01/meyerson-h-01-22.html). dean will sink as a viable candidate once we get into the SOuthern primaries, though his $ may allow him to stay around until the convention as a power broker (at which point he will endorse Clark, i'm guessing).

given the fact that there is very little separating these candidates from one another on domestic policy -- which is what will ultimately drive the election, unless something unforseen occurs on the world stage before November -- i can't see supporting Dean. on social and economic issues, he's certainly not to the left of the other viable candidates (meaning Dean, Kerry, and Clark -- i don't buy Edwards, not this year); if one includes his record, along with that of kerry, dean is probably to the right. clark's domestic proposals actually strike me as the most progressive. kerry has had a consistently liberal record going back many years, including a history of raising important and very uncomfortable (for some -- Iran Contra, restoring relations with Vietnam) questions about foreign policy. their military service, for whatever reason, buys them just enough credibility on foreign policy to allow us to slip liberal domestic politics in through the back door.

in the end, i wasn't very surprised about what happened in Iowa (though i was certainly surprised about Edwards). core Democrats (which caucuses do speak for, imperfectly) are SO angry about the Bush Administration -- they know just how radical and dangerous it is, in many cases -- that electability was ultimately what made the decision. if Dean doesn't play well in a state that he visited many times, and among Democrats who wholeheartedly agree with his position on the war, he's got no shot at wooing the couple of million fence-sitters he'll need to grab in the general election. the new voters he will mobilize will be vastly outnumbered by the millions of evangelicals that the GOP will get out to vote this time (this may happen to the Democratic nominee anyway). we don't need Dean to mobilize the Democratic base. George W. Bush (and you and I!) will do that.

of course, all could change with the debate tonight...