Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thank you, George Bush

I know it's a little late to first be writing my post-election reflections, but, as usual, I've been busy, so here goes:

I wanted to start with an unpublished piece I wrote the day after the election 4 years ago:

On the night of November 2, some of us stood outside in the cold, and sometimes rain, for 8 hours, waiting for John Kerry to come out and speak to us. He never did. Some of us are still waiting. Some of us will always be waiting. No, John Kerry was not a perfect candidate, but he offered hope. Hope for an America that not only fights for freedom abroad, but protects freedom at home. Hope for an America where no one who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Hope for an America where economic success is measured by how committed we are to protecting the weakest members of our society. Hope for an America where health care and quality education are rights of all people, not a privilege of the wealthy. Hope for an America where no one forces one worldview on anyone else but where we all take responsibility for each other’s physical well-being. Hope for an America where protecting our air and water for the next generation is never a controversial issue, and where politics is never put before science. For all this we must continue to wait. True, this is not our first loss, and true there will be more opportunities. But this time represented something special. Those of us who have been involved in politics for a while, certainly remember what it was like when Al Gore lost. This time, though, is so much more depressing. When Al Gore lost, we were still in high school, still living with our parents, still not able to vote, and not able to have that much impact on the election. It was sad, but we knew there would be another time. This time, we are in college. We put everything we could into it, and we lost again. Sure, there will be another time. But who knows where we will be in 4 years. We will no longer be college students. We will have jobs, and maybe families. We may no longer have the time, energy, and optimism of youth. This was our big chance to make a difference in the world, and our hopes were crushed. We must pass the scepter onto the next generation of college students, but we must not give up the fight. We must not lose hope entirely. No matter where life takes us, we must find time to fight for what is important to us, and we must not stop caring the way we do today. When Teddy Kennedy conceded the 1980 nomination to Jimmy Carter, he spoke words that are as relevant and meaningful today as they were then. “For me, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

When I reread this, I relive all the emotions of 4 years ago. I can't help but think just how different the last 4 years could have been if John Kerry had won that election. This election had an anticlimactic quality for me. Four years ago, I spent election night at a national campaign headquarters. This year I was at home, watching the results on TV by myself. I never really got involved with the Obama campaign the way I got involved with the Kerry campaign. I'm out of college and past my prime as a political activist. All I do these days is cheer from the sidelines. Obama may have been an objectively more inspiring candidate, but John Kerry was the candidate I put my heart into.

And yet, I think a tremendous opportunity may have been presented by John Kerry's loss. He would likely have had to govern with an opposite party congress, and a Democratic Party still deeply divided among itself as to how best to handle the Iraq war. I have no doubt he would have been better than Bush, but he would have improved things in small incremental changes, still basically playing on a Republican-defined field, in much the same way Bill Clinton did. His loss created the opportunity for the thorough collapse of the Bush administration. The continued failings in Iraq enabled the Democrats to take control of congress. The recent economic crisis has discredited conservatism as an ideology, breaking the the 50-50 gridlock that has defined American politics for the last decade. Barack Obama has the opportunity to usher in a sweeping new era of liberalism, in much the same way the Great Depression created that opportunity for Franklin Roosevelt. For this opportunity, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to George Bush (hence the name of this post).

Of course, just because the public has rejected conservatism, does not mean they have embraced liberalism yet. If he plays his cards right, he can build a generation-long liberal majority like Roosevelt did. If he screws up, we may revert right back to conservatism in 4 years. He may have opportunities that even Hillary Clinton would not have had, as people see him as a complete break from the past, and expect big things from him, not just the moderately liberal record of the Clinton years. If he wants to be successful, he needs to go big, and he needs to go visible. It can't just be the right idea, it has to be sold right politically as well. There needs to be something tangible that every ordinary person can see and say, "This is what president Obama and the Democratic Party are doing for me."

Another major factor in determining his success will be his ability to keep the Democratic caucus united. Will they stay together or will they splinter up like they did in 1993? Though nothing is set in stone, I think we have reason to be optimistic. First of all, the last vestiges of the truly conservative Democrats, who were still around at the beginning of Clinton's term, have long since retired or become Republicans. Of course, we still have our moderates and our progressives, but I think they are far more united than they were 16 years ago. Some might say they were only temporarily united in opposition to Bush, but I think it really does go deeper than that. Progressives have learned that you can help the poor and middle class without being so antagonistic to business. The recent crisis has taught the moderates that more regulation isn't necessarily bad for business. Even the moderates now see the need for a major overhaul of the healthcare system (even the American Medical Association and the health insurance lobby itself have come on board to varying degrees). Single-payer advocates are now willing to accept pragmatic compromise rather than fight tooth-and-nail and risk getting nothing. Even the hawks of the party have come to see Iraq as a mistake (of course this division may still be a problem at the next war being considered). I really think this time around, the different wings of the party may be able to converge on a single agenda in a way that hasn't been possible for the Democratic Party in over a generation. Plus, and thanks again, George Bush, for this one, it'll be really hard for anyone on the right to scream socialism at our expansions of government, after they just nationalized the banks.

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