Friday, February 01, 2008


I certainly hope that everyone reading this had a chance to watch both the GOP and Democratic debates these past two evenings. You want to talk about a study in contrasts. On January 30th, Mitt Romney and John McCain illustrated that ol’ cliché from the world of sports: “They flat out just don’t like each others.” I say those words and I’m picturing Keith Jackson announcing an Ohio State-Michigan game, or Bud Collins talking about Connors-McEnroe. I often wondered if that was just hype, in the sports context, but it was obviously quite genuine in the case of the two leading Republicans. In answer after answer, we saw antipathy, sarcasm, and sometimes, downright meanness. They came across less like men than middle schoolers. In fact, McCain looked especially silly and spiteful. Perhaps it’s partly because of his age (septuagenarians don’t look dignified when they say the equivalent of “nanna nanna boo boo”), but I think it’s more than that. He, like the other GOP candidates this year, truly seem to resent Romney for being born with a silver spoon.

Remember, McCain is Mr. Campaign Finance Reform, but Romney has the one type of money that isn’t regulated by the campaign finance laws: his own! It was incredible watching McCain tell a group of Republicans that, unlike Romney, his own background included working for “patriotism, not profit.” Where did that come from? Karl Marx? Since when is it problematic for a guy who has devoted many years of his life to public service to also have spent years running businesses? The last I checked, that would make Romney the ideal Republican candidate, and yet McCain saw fit to mock him for having private sector experience.

That was resentment on display, folks. Pure, unadulterated resentment. And the result was pure, unadulterated immaturity. I almost expected McCain to say: “Oh yeah? Well … your momma wears Army boots!” It was that kind of evening.

That was Wednesday night. Thursday’s event was altogether different. There, for the first time, we could see the two “historic” candidates alone during a debate. One is vying to be the first Presidential nominee who is non-white, the other to be the first who is non-male. I was actually nervous before the debate and had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, we were treated to a love fest. It was almost like watching a happy married couple – sure, they highlighted their differences, but they also couldn’t wait to point out how small those differences were compared to their common ground. Because of all the civility, you actually were able to better take note of what they stood for. And the result was obvious: on the issues themselves, their positions are pretty damned similar … and extremely different from those of their opponents, John McHatfield and Mitt McCoy.

(Of course, that’s not surprising, since all political candidates tend to espouse the positions taken by the mainstream of their parties, and the Donkeys and Elephants still have plenty of substantive differences on policy.)

The tempting question to ask, when one watches a debate, is “Who’s winning?” In fact, part of the beauty of last night’s debate is that it transcended that rather shallow question. If there was a winner last night, it was whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in the fall. Both candidates seemed to erase some of the concerns people have had about them.

In the case of Obama, he showed his substance on the issues better than he’s ever done before. He showed that he can stand toe to toe with Madame Policy Wonk for 90 minutes and at least hold his own. I say “at least,” because on the one issue where there was most clearly a winner (Iraq), he won big. It’s awfully hard for Hillary to defend her vote on the Levin Amendment, and she sure couldn’t do it last night.

In the case of Hillary, she showed how likeable she can be (when she wants to be). And lest you be cynical about this, remember that this is a woman who has worked very well with Republican senators ever since she came to Capitol Hill. Make no mistake, Hillary has been a very effective senator, and she showed last night how she can use some of those same diplomatic skills if she were elected President.

The next few days will be very interesting on the Democratic side because of what might happen, but probably will not. There are two extremely important Democrats yet to be heard from in the endorsement mix. We’re talking Gore and Edwards. This race is so close that if either candidate garners one of their endorsements and the other is shut out, that might tip the scales. But at this point, I’m beginning to worry that neither Gore nor Edwards will step up to the plate, which I think is sad. Courage is a virtue in very short supply in the politics of the Democratic Party. When in doubt, bet against it.

Stated another way, the reason why Ted Kennedy, the one Democratic giant who has made an endorsement so far, is called a “liberal lion” is because he is the one consistently progressive statesman who actually has a backbone. Now please, ladies and gentlemen, name for me one more man or woman worthy of the term “liberal lion” who is prominent in politics today. Just one.

Yeah, I can’t do it either.

But I can name a “moderate lion.” And his name is John McCain. Perhaps the single most significant thing that is happening this month in politics has nothing to do with the Democrats, even though my party is trouncing its opponents in terms of the number of voters showing up at the polls. Ever since 1980, conservatives have dominated GOP politics. Between the still-fresh memories of the Reagan Revolution and the rise of right wing talk radio, GOP moderates have been as quiet as church mice. Well, folks, in John McCain, you don’t so much have a GOP moderate as a GOP maverick. This dude actually voted against the Bush tax cuts in part because they involved economic redistribution in favor of the rich. That is as close as it comes to sacrilege in the Republican Party. And that is but one of a number of solidly liberal positions that McCain has taken in recent years.

Just as every Republican’s favorite Democratic candidate is rapidly becoming Barack Obama (who at least treats them with respect), every Democrat’s favorite GOP candidate has for a long time been John McCain. Sure, he’s a war monger. But he’s got the courage of his convictions, and those convictions swing to the left nearly as often as they swing to the right. That’s why Rush hates McCain. That’s why the GOP base might stay home if he’s nominated, just as progressives like me have pledged to stay home if Hillary is nominated.

I still don’t believe I can vote for Hillary in November, but I have to admit – last night made me at least question myself on that score. Certainly, she appeared infinitely preferable last night to McCain two nights ago. But I’m going to disregard his little spat against Romney and reflect, for a moment, on how far we’ve come as a country in the past month. Right now, we have two articulate, bright and knowledgeable Democrats who are pledging (sort of) to usher in universal health care, stop the war in Iraq, address global warming, and tackle poverty. And just as importantly, we have a Republican front runner who has a history of opposing some right wing initiatives and supporting some progressive ones. Finally, in the party that is currently dominant in the polls, we have an increasing sense that the tone of the campaign just might become civil and substantive. It’s all beginning to make me wonder if maybe, just maybe, we can have a campaign in November that we can all be proud of, ushering in a new administration that is actually poised to make some real progress and defeat the forces of gridlock.

One can always hope, right?

I want to leave you with an image from the last month. It comes from New Year’s Day. I happened to turn on the TV around the middle of the afternoon that day, and instead of watching football, I tuned in a hockey game. Ever since the North Stars left Minnesota, I haven’t been a huge National Hockey League fan, but this game was must see TV. It was played in outdoors in the snow in Buffalo. And it was watched by 60 or 70,000 people, all of whom sat on their freezing tushes and screamed. The home team lost, but the game was close, and really, the stars weren’t the players but the fans -- for showing up in freezing weather, sitting on their butts for hours, and expressing their love for sport amidst beautiful snow showers.

I felt proud to be a sports fanatic that afternoon. But more than that, I asked myself if someday, and I mean someday soon, millions upon millions of us could come to love politics and public policy half as much as we now love sports. With the current crop of candidates – and yes, especially with a candidate like Barack Obama – I could actually pose that question with a straight face.

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