"A vote for Edwards is a de facto vote for Clinton." So wrote a man identifying himself as David Evans in the comments to a story I wrote for L.A. Weekly's Web site pleading for John "distant third" Edwards to stay in the race. Many times I was tempted to peck out a comment of my own. "How many times has 'a vote for x is a vote for y' been used to silence expression in the voting booth?" I wanted to write. "It seems now is the time we can vote with our hearts, when the stakes are low." Every time I did this, though, I restrained myself at that last minute, on the grounds that a comment on my own story was somehow undignified.
But as the days wore on, another part of me also intervened. I had started to suspect this David Evans fellow was right — more progressive Democratic voters will likely side with Obama in Edwards' absence. Judging by the dissonant sense of relief I feel at Edwards' retreat, I think I knew he was. Many people wonder whether voters will pledge to vote for Barack Obama and then, in the privacy of the voting booth, heed their buried racism and vote for Hillary Clinton.
I, on the other hand, who had pledged in ink to vote for Edwards, was edging ever closer to secretly casting my vote in next week's primary for Obama. Only Obama is poised to beat Clinton in the California primary, and in the past week, the spineless, warmongering, dirty-dealing Clinton has proved herself unworthy of the Democratic nomination.
"Will you keep corporate lobbyists out of the White House?" Edwards demanded of her during the South Carolina debate. Clinton equivocated, mouthing something that sounded an awful lot like, "Lobbyists are people too!"
"Is that a 'no'?" Edwards fired back.
Wednesday morning, John Edwards gave a speech from New Orleans announcing he was dropping out of the race. He did not endorse either of the two who remain, but he did endorse a method. "With convictions and a little backbone, we will take back the White House in November," he said.
Convictions and a little backbone: qualities decidedly absent in the Clintons. In his first term, Bill Clinton, whose adaptability knows no bounds, lived up to every fear I had about him when I threw my vote away on someone else: He abandoned Lani Guinier, his fine first choice for assistant attorney general for civil rights, when right-wing yahoos in the Washington newspapers labeled her "quota queen"; he backed down on Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both nominees for attorney general, when they caused him a flicker of controversy. Then followed with severe cuts to welfare and, with the support of Vice President Al Gore, who breathed not a word about climate change back then, pushed through a telecommunications bill that we now can thank for the absolute dominance of a few big conglomerates over our mainstream media. He had a genius for coming up with novel ways to trash his party's serious and urgent agenda. I will never regret not supporting him.
But not supporting the Democrat, any Democrat, was a luxury back then. We don't have that luxury anymore. A vote for anyone but the Democratic presidential candidate in November is a vote for a Republican candidate who has not repudiated the current Republican administration, which has led us deeper into disaster than any of us ever thought possible. Still, I will be loath to trudge to the polls in November, clothespin on my nose, and punch a hole for Hillary. Please, please, don't make me.
Hillary Clinton might be a fine woman. As with John Kerry and Al Gore before her, it's hard to tell who she is in the middle of her heavily managed campaign. But as a presidential candidate, she represents more of the same — an unwillingness to stand for anything that might rankle the corporate forces that anointed her; a refusal to make the Democratic Party about something the Republicans by definition aren't: Economic justice for working people, relief for the people unable to work, support for families, single mothers. The sick, the elderly, the children born to poor families who need help to realize their dreams.
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John Edwards told stories about these people: the man who lived with a cleft palate well into middle age because he couldn't afford the surgery to fix it; the woman who covered her children in coats and blankets to keep them warm when she couldn't pay the heating bill; the fathers working three jobs to pay the rent. He reminded us, the way those images from New Orleans did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that a shattering poverty exists in this country; a poverty we don't want to face but will ultimately ruin us if we don't look it square in the face and do something about it.
Edwards has said that both Obama and Clinton, in phone conversations, have "pledged that they will make poverty and economic inequality the cause of their presidency." I do not doubt that Obama, who has a long history of working on the frontlines of economic justice, will give that pledge his best shot. I suspect that the Clintons are wondering even now how carrying such a message could work in their political best interest.
Was Edwards' "five-year quest for the presidency," as MSNBC termed it, worth it? For me, it was, and for millions of people living in this country who have longed for the word class, in all its varied meanings, to return to American politics, it was. I'm grateful that he stuck it out, relieved that he dropped out, and happy to cast a vote next week for a candidate who still thrills me.