The Heavyweights of 2008

Election '04

Political conventions are about the future. I don't mean that in the way scores of podium speakers have been saying, "This election will decide the future of our great nation." Conventions are where party leaders try to determine (and boost) their own futures within the party. Even when a decisive election is only three months away, there still is time and opportunity for politicians (and their handicappers in the media) to gaze further down the road.

Throughout the 2004 campaign, the post-2004 gameplan of Hillary Clinton, assuming she has one, has been on the minds of political junkies. Should John Kerry fail to oust George W. Bush, might she become the leading (and perhaps inevitable) Democrat in the 2008 sweepstakes? And when John Kerry chose John Edwards as his running mate, this first-term senator/whippersnapper became a presumed rival to Hillary Clinton and another potential heir to the nomination.

But other politicians are angling for a piece of the party's pie. Both Howard Dean, the governor-turned-insurgent, and Barack Obama, the Democrats' impressive candidate for Senate in Illinois, have laid claims to the future of the party. With a brilliant and well-received keynote speech on Tuesday night, Obama signaled he is a hot property. Dean still has some work to do, but he does seem willing to do the heavy lifting.

On Tuesday afternoon, Dean attended a rally/conference organized by Campaign for America's Future, which was also headlined by filmmaker Michael Moore. Nearly a thousand people were in the hotel ballroom, and thousands of disappointed rally-seekers had been turned away. It was unclear how many were Deaniacs and how many were Moore-iacs, though there is much overlap between the two constituencies. Dean received a hero's welcome from the assembled. In front of this group – which did not appear to include many (if any) delegates from the actual convention – Dean called for those who were inspired by his campaign to stay with him and "rebuild the Democratic Party." Voting for John Kerry would not be good enough, he said. He urged them to run for office – for local posts like school board and library trustee. "If you want democracy to work," he said, " your own campaign organization." He reported that his new outfit, Democracy for America, was working with 800 progressive candidates across the country. Noting that "95 percent" of Americans want the same four things – a job that pays more than the last one they had; health care for them and their kids; public education that works; and effective national security policies "consistent with American morality" – he voted to take the progressive message to spots considered unfriendly for lefties: Mississippi, Idaho, Alabama. Eventually, he said, people in these states "will get tired of voting on guns, god, and gays.... Whatever it takes, we will win America back."

Dean praised Kerry, but he repeated his primary season complaint about the Democratic Party (that it failed to stand up to George W. Bush) and spoke more about the need to beef up the party with progressive themes and candidates. He seemed to be positioning himself as the chief progressive champion in the party, and he was asking his troops to stick with him for an arduous organizing effort akin to what Newt Gingrich pulled off with his GOPAC group in the 1980s and 1990s.

The crowd responded enthusiastically. But what did that mean? Does it matter that hundreds of liberals in Boston applauded Dean's call to action? Were they more interested in Michael Moore? Would they heed Dean's advice, return to their homes, and run for local offices? After Moore spoke, the conference featured a talk by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, but the Deaniacs and Moore-iacs quickly cleared the room, showing little interest in hearing from the head of the key organization in the progressive coalition.

Later that day, Dean addressed the Democratic convention. In a short speech, he said nothing about his effort to organize a progressive, grassroots-oriented movement. He perfunctorily hailed Kerry and Edwards, thanked his supporters, and urged them to assist Kerry. He did utter one line that hinted at his desire to remake the party: "Never again will we be ashamed to call ourselves Democrats. Never. Never. Never." But this was an odd sentiment to share with this particular crowd. The delegates are proud Democrats. They don't feel shame for calling themselves Democrats. Dean was, in a way, insulting the delegates, not inspiring them. It was an indication that he has not yet mastered the inside-the-hall/outside-the-hall challenges of being an insurgent who wants to lead a progressive revival and force within the party.

Barack Obama, however, faced no troubles in establishing himself as the potential go-to liberal in the Democratic Party. His speech was the most effective convention declaration of the liberal dream since Mario Cuomo's address at the 1984 convention. He talked in personal terms – of his father, a Kenyan who grew up in a small village herding goats before coming to the United States on a scholarship, and of his mother, the Kansas-born daughter of an oil rig worker – as he described the best of America:

"I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me...."

"This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans – Democrats, Republicans, Independents – I say to you tonight: We have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn't have the money to go to college."

Obama, a 42-year-old state senator, is a classic liberal straight down the line. He opposed the war in Iraq, is against capital punishment, supports abortion rights, and calls for economic fairness and social justice. But he knows how to talk about these matters in modern terms:

"Don't get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach our kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things. People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice."

Note how he pulled a Bill Cosby without expressing anger. And with passion and grace, Obama articulated the best ideals of the Democratic Party:

"For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are all connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief – I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper – that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one."

"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America – there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

This keynote speech cemented Obama's standing as the fastest-rising leader of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards must have noticed. Karl Rove would have been negligent in his duties if, after watching the speech, he did not say to an aide, "get me something on this guy and let's try to stop him early." Obama's speech suggested that should he be elected to the Senate – and he is close to a sure thing at this point – he will quickly become the progressive voice of that body, the successor to Paul Wellstone. And it is not hard to imagine Obama going further. If the United States is not a minority-majority country in, say, 2012, it will be close by then, and perhaps the electorate will be open to a candidate with a blended racial heritage. (After Ron Reagan delivered his own powerful speech at the Democratic convention blasting Republicans for not supporting funding of stem cell research, I wondered if an Obama-Reagan ticket might be possible eight years from now. )

Predicting the future in politics is perilous. But now it looks as if Obama is trending in a strong direction and Dean has yet to establish firmly his relationship with his party. But place no bets yet for 2008, or 2012 – especially when it may not be wise even to wager on the election scheduled for November 2.

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