There was a candidate who beamed hope for the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the folks who have been forgotten and passed over for decades, shut out and shut down… but enough about John Edwards. I want to talk about the two politicians who will actually be fighting for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. They are, of course, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Come Super Tuesday or Tsunami Tuesday or whatever other stupid handle we're calling February 5, the citizens of 24 states, including California, will decide who they want to represent their party in the 2008 presidential election. Unfortunately, Edwards' race has already been run. He is third and out.
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Too bad, because while the Dems' taking over the White House may seem like a fait accompli, it's not. What? How could the Democrats lose the presidential election after eight years of the utter crap we've been put through by the Republicans and Bush? How could we fail to harness the country's palpable, throbbing anger at Katrina and Iraq, the mortgage crisis and a system that's socially, politically and economically engineered to favor the top 1 percent of its population? I'll tell you how — by nominating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But we will, because we're Democrats. We should have “Born to Lose” tattooed on our forearms so we can be reminded of our ineptitude every time we pull a lever in a voting booth.
Dems have shown a unique ability throughout the sad shit storm since the Reagan Realignment (a.k.a. modern times) to keep themselves out of the White House by nominating the only people who could possibly lose the elections. I mean, who the hell couldn't have beaten Ronald Reagan in 1984? Remember, this guy got elected, with the help of Iranian hostage takers, promising “Morning in America” and promptly led the country — through a dripping-fang affinity for nuclear weapons, big bombers, disastrous bank deregulation and deficit spending — into the deepest recession the country had experienced since the Depression. In Pittsburgh, where I grew up, steelworkers were jumping off bridges 'round the clock, while Reagan displayed all the compassion that a tiger shows a wounded fawn. By early 1983, Reagan's approval rating was hovering somewhere in the mid-30s, kind of like where George Bush's is now, and his re-election was in doubt.
So, how did the Dems take advantage of their golden opportunity to get that crusty old nut job out of there? That's right, by nominating Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. I forget what the hell we were thinking back then, why we chose those two — did we think that Ted Kennedy couldn't get elected because his hair was too good? Or something about Chappaquiddick? Just thinking of Mondale-Ferraro at this moment for the first time in, oh, 24 years, I can tell you we weren't thinking very clearly. In fact, the only inspiring thing about them and their desultory campaign was Ferraro's hair — a kind of a Farrah-meets-Dorothy-Hamill 'do for the over-50 set.
Then there was '88, when George H.W. Bush, a guy who just reeked of being out of time, touch and place, a man with such a charisma deficit you wouldn't think he could be elected to the planning committee of a local Elks Lodge, never mind the presidency, was the Republican nominee. Who did we send up there to deliver the knockout punch to the reeling Reagan-Bush era (Reagan's approval ratings were again in the shitter because of Iran-Contra and because, well, that's where they belonged)? None other than Michael “The Duke” Dukakis, a guy who lacked the stature to get into most Disneyland attractions, let alone the White House — remember that ridiculous picture of him trying to ride in, not even drive, that tank? Remember that debate when he lost the election over a question about whether he'd favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife? “No, I don't… I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life,” he replied with all the emotion of a stone. Not that he should have favored the death penalty, but it was a loaded and cynical question, and he could have risen above it, or at least said something like, “As much as I'd like to strangle anyone who did that with my own hands, or even you for asking such a base question, we live in a country that's governed by law, not revenge… etc.”
Again, what the hell were we thinking? Shit, Al Gore was in that '88 primary — we could have had him then, before he lost and found himself. Thank God bat-shit crazy Ross Perot jumped in to raise the motherfucking roof in 1992, or Clinton would have also lost and slithered back to his Arkansas lair. And even Clinton, the only Dem prez in 28 years, wasn't supposed to happen. The party wanted Mario Cuomo, who was too busy having his Hamlet moment to summon the balls to take on H.W.
True to form, we somehow managed to turn the White House back over to its rightful owners after the Clinton administration, despite the general success of the Clinton years — budget surpluses, no debt, low unemployment, reduced crime nationwide, rolled-back welfare, downsized federal government, peace and prosperity. (One could argue that Clinton was the most successful true conservative since Eisenhower.) Clinton was a difficult man, and our country's relationship to him was and is as tangled as any we've ever had with a public figure, but the fact is, he left office with a 65 percent approval rating — the highest of any president since World War II. All we Dems had to do to beat George Bush, a smug, complacent silver-spooner — who by just about every measure of a man is what we used to call a punk, or a punk-ass, depending — was keep the momentum going.
Enter big mo' killer Al Gore. Not the been-to-the-desert-on-a-horse-with-no-name-and-I'm-back-to-save-the-world, Nobel Prize–winning Al Gore. Not the youthful, pre-Clinton Al Gore. No, we ran the wooden, disingenuous, say-anything, wear-cowboy-boots-if-I-have-to, turn-my-back-on-my-former-benefactor Al Gore. This was the Gore who seemed to have no clue who he was or what he stood for. The Al Gore who may have been the only Al Gore who could have lost that election, even if he kind of won it.
The Dems had a golden opportunity to seize the White House from the poseur and liar in 2004, when much of the country was slowly starting to realize we'd been swindled. All it required was someone to grab that opportunity, to crystallize the moment, to have the audacity to call it like it was, to show people how badly they'd been had. But instead of that man, Howard Dean, we picked John Kerry, a guy who is so stiff he makes the 2000 Al Gore seem like a limbo dancer. It's hard to imagine Dean, of the wrestler's neck and bulging veins, sitting by helplessly getting Swift Boated. More likely, he would have body-slammed the fools who tried to Swift Boat him.
All these missed opportunities have added up to years and years of public neglect of the state of our union. What were we thinking? Well, the answer is, we Dems don't think. We act emotionally, almost like children. We get swept up in things, like Ferraro's hair or Dukakis' Massachusetts Miracle, or whatever it was we liked about him.
And now, as I listen to Ted Kennedy in the background endorsing Barack Obama, talking about the new politics of hope and change and unity and about closing the door on the politics of fear and division, etc., I can feel it happening again. It's happening to me. The sweep of history is seductive. We're in a moment when a woman and an African-American are making real bids for the presidency of the United States, and you can bleat and protest all you want, but this moment, this momentum for Clinton and Obama, really is a lot about gender and race. And rightfully so. It's cool, man. It really is. I like it too. I want a woman and a black man as president, preferably a woman who is a black man. But then I realize that despite their power as metaphors, Clinton and Obama are politicians whose filthy-rich campaigns are stocked with money as dirty and loaded as any establishment politicians who have ever run. They walk in the door compromised.
And somewhere deep inside, I know this isn't about metaphors, or about unifying us (no one person can unify us). It isn't about empty Reaganesque catchwords like change and hope. No, as we head into a deep and structural recession brought on by the callousness, greed, incompetence and duplicity (permanent tax cuts and permanent war!) of the Bush years, I realize that this is about the same thing it was about when those steelworkers were jumping off bridges in my hometown — it's about economic terror and injustice in a land of winners and losers and very little in between. John Edwards really got this; did from the beginning. Too bad we didn't pick him.