Lately, I’ve been noticing some new developments on the national political stage – Republicans are fighting Republicans, Democrats are fighting Democrats, and it’s getting nasty. Thank God. My hope is that we are seeing just the beginning of elephant-against-elephant and donkey-against-donkey verbal warfare.
As a Democrat, I’m particularly happy when my own side fights it out. Some might view that reaction as perverse, but I believe that a healthy political party in a two-party system is one (a) with leaders who care deeply about causes and ideologies, (b) that encompasses a substantial political spectrum (otherwise known as a “big tent”), and (c) whose members aren’t fearful about taking aim at anyone who tries to assert “party orthodoxy.” Surely, this is a formula for failure in a totalitarian state – or, for that matter, in any military organization. But I don’t want my party to impose martial law on its members. I want to see a free, vigorous, internal debate over ideas. I want to be given a choice among competing visions. And now that that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that it has marginalized itself as your great, great grandfather’s party (assuming that “you” are a white Christian), if we’re going to be given the lively debate we deserve, we need to hear that from competing Democrats.
During the past week, the Pacific trade bill has woken up the Democratic populists, and they’re taking square aim at the bill -- and by implication, the policies of the Democratic President who supports it. When Elizabeth Warren talks about the bill, there’s no avoiding the implication of her message: one too many times, this Administration has neglected the interests of working class and middle class Americans. According to Warren, this bill, the details of which are hidden from the American public, figures to put yet another nail in the coffin for the jobs of many blue collar workers, and the President seems to have washed his hands of their fates. President Obama, for his part, called out Warren for being flat out wrong on trade. He sees her brand of protectionism as bad for consumers, bad for America’s opportunity to compete on the international stage, and bad for the economy as a whole. He obviously sees himself as the guy who saved that economy from falling off a cliff in 2009 and is equally proud of measures like the Affordable Care Act that were intended to help the middle class. But let’s face it: if Elizabeth Warren were President, marginal tax rates would be higher, inequalities would be lower, and MAYBE (and here’s the real issue) the median American standard of living would be higher as well. It’s that MEDIAN standard of living figure or the poverty rate figures that matters to Warren much more than such figures as the aggregate GNP or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
So there you have it – distinct policy approaches, competing visions, and enough self-confidence on the part of the combatants to air their grievances. I call it a healthy debate.
Frankly, prior to the last week or so, I’d grown sick and tired of my Party’s sleepwalking through one potential ideological battle after another. Where have the Democratic critics been of this Administration? Have they taken him on regarding Afghanistan? How about Iraq policy? Syria policy? Drone policy? Government surveillance policy? Tax policy? Wall Street reform? Israel/Palestine policy?
I’m not saying here that the Administration has been wrong in all these areas; whether I personally agree with Obama or not is missing the point. The problem is that on the Democratic side, we’ve hardly had a real debate – and I mean that we haven’t had a real debate in AGES. Even when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama in 2008, their ideological differences were minimal. (Yes, Barack took Hillary on for her vote in support of the Iraq War, but did that reflect a difference in policy or merely that Hillary was a U.S. Senator at the time and Obama could afford to cast his no vote in a much more forgiving forum?) Both of these politicians were center-left pragmatists who rarely took a public stand for any cause that was not favored by a majority of the American public.
It has been virtually an entire generation since the Democratic Party was up for grabs between two or more largely contrasting visions of governance. That’s one reason we haven’t seen any young Democrats emerge as visionaries. The talent on display is mostly old, and their interests seem to be more geared toward how to get elected than how to govern once elected. Just think about the so-called “young talent” on the Democratic side. Who comes to mind? I’m still waiting. What’s that you say -- the Castro brothers from Texas? Fine, they’re handsome, they’re well-educated, they speak Spanish. Now tell me one cause about which you’ve heard them effectively demonstrate their knowledge and passion on a national stage. I can’t think of one either.
Let’s face it -- my Party has been going on automatic pilot, and it’s time to let some flesh-and-blood statesmen and women take the wheel rather than to cruise through another election cycle by counting on the Republican Party to crash their plane first.
I sorely miss not having a contested Democratic Primary in 2016. I think it just stinks. But I’m reconciled to the fact that nobody with a snowball’s chance in hell is willing to take on the Clinton machine. So instead, all I can do is sit back and hope that there will be more intra-party battles in which the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. Maybe some other Democrat will show that they actually care enough about some principle or cause that they’re willing to piss off the powers-that-be. At least we have the one -- Elizabeth Warren. Her cause is fighting economic inequality, and there is no doubting her commitment to that cause. The problem is, she’s not running for President and she’s already 65 years old.
Warren may well become as influential as Ted Kennedy was after Chappaquiddick. But I’m more interested in the Party developing candidates who are as influential as Kennedy could have been were it not for Chappaquiddick. The only way we’ll find them is if our politicians become true pugilists who will fight anyone and anything that gets in their way. Let the hair pulling, ear biting, and kickboxing begin.