March 6, 2008

Democratic Self Destruction

Here's my take on the election at this grim juncture in the road, when the Democrats are now on the verge of flying into scorched earth campaigns against each other, and Bush, McCain and Cheney and the whole rotten crew is sitting back drooling and grinning. This is a pretty serious situation. Think of how much is at stake if the Republicans can continue to control the White House! It's hard to find language that can express the damage that has been done to this country since that election that never should have happened in 2000, when Bush slithered into office on board the sleaziest political con game ever seen on that level. The vigilance of the American people lapsed and look what slipped into power!

It does matter who is president. Ralph Nader was wrong when he said in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore. It matters a great deal who is president and these people who now hold power so tightly are not going to give it up easily. They are standing by eagerly awaiting the cockfight that will rip the Democrats to shreds. Giving in to the impulse to do negative campaigning right now on the Democratic side is mass suicide. It reminds me of the Carl Sagan fable of two people in gasoline up to their knees threatening each other with matches. Let us recognize the greater common interest, or the greater threat, and come together to try to amass whatever strength in numbers can be used to try to dislodge the current heirarchy in Washington.

Yes it's true that much of what goes on in Washington is a charade. As Gore Vidal expressed it, there is the provisional government, that which we see on TV, and there is the permanent government, which stays behind the scenes. It's true that the charade of the elections is largely a distraction from the real issues, and the political system makes sure that anyone who is a threat to it will quickly be weeded out. As Noam Chomsky said, if democracy just means you cast your vote and go home, then it doesn't amount to much. Democracy is only valid to the extent that people participate. But even so, it does matter who is president. Just think Bush-Gore and I rest my case.

Some people have recently asked questions that forced me to search my own soul for what I prefer and what I believe about this election. Number one, worth restating ad infinitum: The ultimate objective is to purge the nation of Bushism as much as possible, and that means first do not allow John McCain to get his hands on power. Do you want 100 years of war? That is the John McCain vision, a slight adaptation in style from the Bush vision. Derailing that vision is the critical objective that would serve the great majority of human and other life on the planet. That is primary.

Hillary Clinton certainly brings a great deal to the table. If she were to take the oath of office I would breathe a tremendous sigh of relief. I'm sure she would be a thousand times better steward than what we've become accustomed to. My reason for preferring Obama can be drawn to one thing, one event that brings the rest into focus. It's the war, the mother of all issues. It was the defining moment of this era when Bush was gearing up for war and he was getting everyone he could to sign on with him. The trouble was, there wasn't much enthusiasm for his idea anywhere, not in the states and not overseas. The Americans were pummeled with a relentless PR scare campaign and after a few months the Bush regime got the approval rating up to about two thirds and then they had to launch the thing quickly because they knew it would never last. The idea never sold well overseas. Though Bush managed to get Tony Blair to sign on, support was tepid at best around the world.

To launch their phony war they needed every possible endorsement because their case was so transparently flimsy. After the attacks of 9/11 there was the big anthrax scare, using anthrax that was traced to the Pentagon, then the Patriot Act was rammed through congress, giving the government almost total power to do anything to anyone as long as they call it terrorism. They launched their PR campaign for the Iraq war right after 9/11 and kept it going relentlessly till early 2003 when they launched the invasion. That was really a moment of truth for the country. People were so scared they were going along with whatever the strong man said.

But many people, ordinary people in America saw through the illogic, the lies, saw how patently unnecessary the whole exercise was. Plenty of people saw it, but the people in Washington did not respond. They went along with the power. I marched with thousands in New York and Washington many times, but the powerful did not listen to us. With a few exceptions, those who were in the position to make a difference would not speak out against the war. Here is what Barack Obama said in October 2002, when Hillary and most of the rest of congress were approving a Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq.

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

He was exactly right, in my opinion. It was how I felt and how great numbers of moderate Americans felt at the time. But we weren't in power to do anything and the ones who were weren't listening to us. The corporate donations might have dropped off if suddenly a senator was seen as unpatriotic. It was politically risky at the time. Some have said, "Obama was only in the state senate, so he didn't have to vote on the resolution." And therefore he was not forced to take a stand, as Hillary was. But he did anyway. And he may have been lower on the scale, but he risked his political career just as much as she would have risked hers if she'd taken the stand.

I'm sorry, but I can never believe that Hillary Clinton was so naive as to take Bush at his word. That's her excuse now for supporting it. But she supported it because it would have been politically awkward at the time for her to do otherwise. And in the short term, she was right. Already planning her run for the presidency she was thinking the first woman president can't appear to be "soft on defense". So she voted to support what she knew better than to believe. Whatever you may say about Hillary Clinton, you can't say she is stupid. And Bush is a terrible liar.

It was no crime, but it certainly wasn't a profile in courage, and if we'd had a few more profiles in courage at the time, we may have averted that war. It was worth speaking out against it anyway. What Molly Ivins said about Hillary before her death sums it up. Enough of triangulation, what we now need is someone with conviction. Hillary is brilliant and a very calculating politician. But she has lacked the strength of her convictions. I do believe Hillary did have the right instinct on that situation. I believe she did understand what was happening, as so many Americans did. But she didn't go with her heart, she went with her calculating mind.

They had their chance to take a stand. Americans were crying out for leadership, strength. Obama spoke out, took the risk in a political climate when people were afraid to oppose the all-powerful administration. She didn't. She failed that test of courage. Some people like to say that Obama's success all about giving a good speech, as if that was some sort of superficial theatrical performance, but in fact his ability to inspire people is based on his message. And the fact that he spoke out against the war while others didn't, that he had the courage of his conviction, underlies the strength of his message.

That's why I go with the new generation on this. To Hillary and her generation of congresspeople I say, Where were you when we needed you? You could have opposed this war when it counted, but you didn't. That's the difference to me. I'm going with judgment and the courage of conviction over years of experience.

If you take that element out, they are pretty even to me. Both bring a lot to the table. But with that element, at a time like this, it's the person who not only has the right instinct and understanding, but also has the courage to act on his or her convictions. I understand that under the surface is a more complex situation, and that Obama is not the second coming. His record is certainly flawed from my perspective, but look at the company he is in! He must be compared not to perfection but to the other choices that are available.

The fact that one is not inclined to entirely trust Obama, sees contradictions or lack of substance in him is perfectly appropriate to a realistic view of democratic government. Our system is designed for flawed people, that's why the checks are built in. But the democratic mechanisms must be activated by people. It's not conceived to install royalty, just public servants. On this point I keep going back to Howard Zinn, who recently wrote that yes it did make a difference that Roosevelt was elected president instead of Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt would probably not have instituted the reforms he did if he had not been forced by events, if he and others in the power structure had not felt it would be dangerous not to find ways to calm the civil unrest that resulted from widespread poverty.

Whoever becomes president, the public must keep up the pressure in all the ways people force their public servants to listen. If Obama is elected, it will be obvious that he was elected on a mandate from the people for change. There will be no denying that fact and it will be difficult for a president elected by the response to his call for change to go back on everything. That is the clearest choice we are presented with. McCain will be the candidate of the utter status quo, an extension of the Bush administration. It is vitally important that the message of change is the one that dominates in the election. Only 19 percent approve of Bush now. Having this minority continue to run the country is not acceptable.

-- David Cogswell

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