Democrats Out of the Desert

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

For the better part of a year, I have been bumping into Michael Walzer, our nation's preeminent living political philosopher and my colleague at Dissent magazine, with inexplicable regularity, and having the same conversation with him every time. The discussion began last summer, when Michael asked me which presidential candidate I liked. Since the political differences among the leading Democrats were small, I said, I'd probably back the candidate who had the best shot at winning the White House and bringing in a filibuster-proof Senate.

Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out which candidate that was, and at each successive encounter I've been as clueless as I was at the first.

Barack Obama promises to turn out record numbers of young people and African Americans and to win the votes of upscale independents, but he has shown no great strength so far among working-class whites. Hillary Clinton commands more allegiance from the Democrats' working-class base and among female voters, but she also elicits far more antipathy than Obama does. Worse, in tandem with her husband, she has imperiled her prospects in the general election by estranging black and young Democratic voters -- a remarkable accomplishment, considering that the Democrats' historic rifts usually reflect major policy differences, of which this year's contest has none.

As for the Senate, the conventional wisdom, reinforced by an unscientific sample of red-state Democrats, is that the chance to vote against Clinton will bring every Hillary-hater to the polls, making it harder for Democrats to pick up seats. That's probably true, but who can say that the chance to defeat Obama won't prompt a redneck reaction of its own?

So much for handicapping my way to a choice, Michael. What else is there? For what it's worth, most of Obama's foreign policy advisers had the good judgment, like Obama himself, to oppose the Iraq war at the outset, while many of Clinton's, like the senator herself, supported the war then and turned against it later. Most of her economic advisers now question the wisdom of some of Bill Clinton's free-trade policies, while Obama's economists are a fairly conventional, centrist crew. But both Hillary Clinton and Obama are answerable to a Democratic base that wants a more measured, multilateral foreign policy and a more activist, populist economic policy.

So for guidance, I've turned to a book Michael wrote 23 years ago -- "Exodus and Revolution," and its discussion of why the Jews had to spend 40 years in the desert before they could reach the promised land.

As Walzer noted, both Maimonides and Marx, in very different ways, argued that the Jews who had lived in bondage had to die out, and a new generation that hadn't known the habits of slavery take their place, before the people could cross over into Canaan and freedom.

For 40 years now, since 1968, the Democrats have wandered in a political desert. From Nixon to Reagan to the current Bush, it's been a conservative era, and the genius of Bill Clinton, the most successful Democratic politician of that time, was primarily defensive -- devising stratagems as a candidate to keep the Republicans from winning over Democrats on social issues, and then as a president to keep Republicans from abolishing government altogether while conceding that the era of big government was over. The times themselves mandated incrementalism and triangulation, wars without movement fought behind battlements and moats, and no one learned the lessons of that era more brilliantly than Hillary Clinton. In a 51 to 49 nation, she is probably the best the Democrats have to offer.

But can the Democrats ever push beyond the politics of entrenchment?

Now that conservatism is in tatters, can they build a progressive majority that delivers us from an ideology that has led us to invest less and less in the American people? That will take a leader whose genius is not for the defensive wars of the past but for movement, for crafting a new majority, addressing the new, cross-party anxiety over America's future with a call to a common purpose, convincing us that we are divided against ourselves at our own peril. That leader may be Barack Obama, who already has shown himself more able than any American in a very long time to help us transcend some of our most crippling differences.

Or it may not be Obama, not yet, not ever; his power to persuade may fail to convince his compatriots that the country must change. But he is, at least, as Hillary Clinton cannot be, a leader with that transformative potential. The desert does not claim him; his promise is that he can end its hold on us.

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