Any old candidate won't do this time

January 06, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

My favorite Irish-American-Roman-Catholic-conservati ve-small-business-owner-and-sports-fan sat in a comfortable couch in his comfortable living room a day after Christmas and declared that the United States of America "isn't ready to elect a black man president." On the wall behind him was an image of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president and the first Catholic to hold that office. I was tempted to point out that a lot of people felt the nation wasn't ready to elect a Catholic in 1960, but it was the holiday season, with that holiday feeling and whoop-dee-doo and dickory-dock. I wasn't about to start an argument.

Not that I disagreed with the guy.

Winning Iowa was impressive, but Barack Obama has a long way to go. Still, if you can't get excited about the prospect of historic numbers of Americans exhibiting colorblindness as they select a presidential candidate, then you need to have your vital signs checked.

Two percent of Iowa's population is black. Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq before it started, kicked butt out there. John Edwards, with a strong populist message against corporate greed, finished a solid second. The Democratic establishment's favorite candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, finished third.

It's encouraging. People aren't just looking for a change from what we have now - possibly the worst presidency in the nation's history, a tragically costly war of dubious benefit, and a long period of bitter domestic politics - but a major change. As made clear by the straw vote in Iowa, that doesn't simply mean they are looking for any old Democrat.

Any old Democrat won't do.

Those, like Clinton and her husband, who appropriated themes from the Republicans, formed neocon beliefs and developed political strategies during the party's gloomy, post-Reagan era of self-examination, now find themselves running behind the clock. They are old school already.

As testimony to his celebrity smoothness, Bill Clinton remains a popular figure in American culture. But what, besides a budget surplus, was his legacy? His second term was an opportunity squandered and a national embarrassment. The Clinton branch of the Democratic Party is as co-opted by special interests and big money as the Republicans are, and when John Edwards sounds his populist themes he is speaking as much to corporate greed as he is to the government's bipartisan complicity in it.

Last June, during one of the Democratic primary debates, Hillary Clinton said, "The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major."

That's what she and her husband would like Democratic voters to think, and in some regards - the exploitation of the religious right, for instance - I guess it's true.

But it's certainly not true in numerous other ways.

Certainly not on the war in Iraq - an issue that I believe is underestimated as a voter motivator. (Last month, in a Los Angeles Times poll, nearly six out of every 10 military families disapproved of Bush and his handling of the war, rating him only slightly better than the general population does and saying the war was not worth the cost.)

The war has lasted close to five years, with 3,909 troops killed and nearly 29,000 wounded. In November, a congressional committee estimated the war's cost at $1.3 trillion through the end of 2008. (In late 2006, a Johns Hopkins study estimated Iraqi civilian deaths from the war at 655,000.)

The Democrats have had a majority in Congress for a year now.

What's the result of all their braying about defying Bush and bringing the troops home? Not much.

Just a couple of weeks ago, 21 Democrats in the Senate, including Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, voted another $70 billion in war funding with no deadline for troop withdrawal. (In the Times poll, nearly seven in 10 Americans said they favored a withdrawal within the coming year or right away. Close to six out of 10 military families felt the same way.)

Hillary Clinton supported Bush from the start.

Edwards, the former senator, also voted to give the president the authority to invade, but he has since called his vote a mistake.

Obama, who was an Illinois legislator at the time Bush asked for authorization, opposed the war, but since then, as a U.S. senator, he has voted billions to fund it.

So he's not a full-throttle opponent of the war - not as completely in opposition as the liberal branch of his party would like. And Obama's votes since coming into the Senate, cast to protect the Illinois senator from accusations that he does not support our troops, probably diminish his contrast with Clinton over the war.

But not much. The Iowa vote provides some evidence that it's a distinction with a large difference - larger than Clinton would like voters to believe.

Americans just might be angrier about this war than they have let on. They see the escalating price of crude oil and gasoline, and the exorbitant profits of fuel companies, and they feel the onset of a recession. They can reflect now on the first estimates of the cost and duration of the war, and the number of casualties since Bush's victory lap aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. We have all been too complacent about the war - and, therefore, complicit in its duration. The first Americans to get to vote for a presidential candidate in 2008 are trying to make up for this complacency and complicity. They won't settle for any old Democrat, for a change. Any old Democrat won't do.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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