Sunday, February 3, 2008

Super Tuesday reviews

Because some of you asked for it, here is my review of the two
remaining contenders, based on observations of each one as they
campaigned locally over the weekend. Feel free to cut to the
recommendation at the end if I'm boring you with the details.

Barack Obama. What a guy. I should be in love. Demographically,
there's a lot to like here. Born to a mixed-race, cross-cultural
couple, raised in Asia (yes, Hawaii is a US state, but that is a
political distinction; it is on the same side of the Pacific Rim as
Indonesia, and geographically in Asia) with roots in Africa and
Kansas, he's risen from a street-level slot as a community organizer
to the front-runner with 3 years experience in the US Senate. He's got
the lyrical, rhythmic ability that Dr. King exemplified--it's not only
the tone of his voice but the timbre of his words that call to the
best inside all of us.

He's smart and thoughtful. His speeches are thronged by people who you
might not expect to vote at all--younger and less connected than the
Democratic Party than the primary voter in your mind. Obama can say
things to these potential voters that no white person can say, and
he's leveraging their hopes in an intriguing way. Obama offers himself
and his life as the proof that we are better than how we've been
acting recently.

From Obama's presentation, I didn't get a sense of exactly how he'll
accomplish the change we need. He's not the chosen candidate of the
black establishment, because John Lewis and Robert Johnson have worked
all their lives to get access to the levers of power on its own terms,
working inside the system for incremental change. He certainly
believes that the kind of Democratic majority he'd like to carry on
his coattails into Congress would be progressive and dedicated to
getting things done. He may well be right. His appeal to Americans who
have been left out of machine Party politics has the potential to
swing the two-party democracy we're stuck with into new territory, a
land in which one of those parties represents liberalism, not centrism.

To those of us who have spent our adult lives in a centrist-Republican
wasteland politically--on our best days, the question was not 'can we
eliminate structural forces that make poverty inevitable' but 'how
hard does the Democratic president have to kick moms on welfare in
order to stay in office'--this vision of transforming politics is a
shiny apple indeed. It's tempting to pluck it from the tree while
asking, How badly could this turn out? The party politics that have
been the only game in town have failed to create the society
progressives want to live in. What if he's right, what if he really
could get more people involved in politics, create a majority out of
engaged progressives and the disengaged? Wouldn't that be something?

What we don't know about Obama, what we can't know before we pull the
lever on the slot machine and find out if this country is lucky enough
to have pushed through our racial stereotyping, is whether he can
command a majority of votes among all those who actually do vote. If
the promise of pulling a progressive majority into the legislative
branch, along with a majority of the electoral college, is left
unfulfilled, our grandchildren will be cleaning up the mess from our
night of wild hope.

Hillary is the girl you remember from college who was always ready for
the exam. You might not have wanted to marry her (twice) like I did,
but you knew that without her, your study group would degenerate into
a beer-chugging bullshit session. She's warmer than she looks on TV.
She has a sharp sense of the ironic, and makes jokes about her history
in politics that are actually funny. Hillary's speech was cheered
wildly by a crowd that looked a lot like the Democratic Party: women
40 and older, with their kids or husbands or dads, screaming with rock-
concert intensity at the suggestion that indeed we can fix the health
care system. That we can create green-energy jobs. That we're better
than the last mismanaged 7 years make us look.

The worrisome aspect to Hillary: She thinks we're in this mess because
the Republican majority is incompetent, not because the plan was to
extract the value from public infrastructure and leave a trail of
waste. She seems to believe that the health care crisis, the housing
bubble, and the collapse of the infrastructure left to us by our
parents and grandparents are symptoms of bad management, not bad
faith. This bespeaks a touchingly naive view of what the problem is
and how to address it. However, most of what's wrong is so clear-cut
that she doesn't have to be a visionary genius to be effective, she
only has to be capable of flexing the political muscles to enforce
changes that are obviously needed.

What I noticed about Hillary that surprised me: She's an idealist.
After all that she's been through personally and professionally since
1991, she genuinely believes that she is the most qualified manager
for the most difficult job in the world. She's not politicking when
she declares this, she's praying. When she looks at her grown
daughter, swallows hard, and says 'You'll do anything for your kids'--
she means it. This is not the person who has been portrayed as a cold,
calculated and controlled power-seeker. Hillary wants to fix this
country's problems.

The frightening and depressing part of meeting Hillary was the gap
between the person I saw up close and the person that the media have
told us Hillary is. They just hate her. Really, really hate her. She
is the opposite of Sally Field that way. Is there an explanation for
why this lovely, brilliant, articulate and competent woman is disliked
by so many people other than sexism?

This is the field the game is being played on, and her campaign does
an extraordinary job of making lemonade of it. There is a name for the
only woman in any sales department whose numbers are consistently at
the top of the charts and never makes the coffee; a name for the woman
whose work product breaks the curve and forces the easy-As professor
to demand more of the entire class; a name for the night-shift manager
who makes everyone, even the cool kids, take a turn picking up the
butts from the smoking area. That name is 'bitch'. And it's no
coincidence that the song Hillary's campaign plays as she walks on to
a screaming crowd of women who have worked a day shift for pay and a
swing shift for love is Dolly Parton singing '9 to 5'. She speaks to
the numeric majority when she asks, Isn't it time we had a woman in
the West Wing? These women vote.

So which one should you vote for on Tuesday? I think the answer to
that question is: How lucky do you feel?

I don't feel particularly lucky. I'm afraid that John Lewis knows
something I don't about the truth of how this country sees race,
something that was beaten into his head on the bridge in Selma,
something that I want desperately to protect my daughter from ever

I am certain too that Hillary knows how to work the system better than
any man of her ability needs to, and that she can get us out of the
mess we're in if anyone can.

But in the end, this is a choice about what you believe. Do you think
that a woman who is overqualified by many measures can pull the
strings of a closely divided government with such precision that she
can get the right things done? Or do you think that an outsider,
relatively speaking, can bring in more hands to do the work?

I'm going with the hopeful one, because I think the process of making
a President out of Barack Obama will do more to make this country what
I want it to be than the process of getting Hillary over the top by 1%
ever could. If I lose that bet, and get a President McCain for my
troubles, you're all free to blame those of us who were naive enough
to hope.