When in the course of human events one detects the promise of change in American politics, the cynics roll out the earplugs and explain that there really is nothing new under the sun. Politicians will tell you anything, Doubting Thomases note, and usually do. Politics at the highest level is about promising everything and delivering little.
"Politics," the iconoclastic journalist Ambrose Bierce wrote at the turn of the 20th century, is "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles," or "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage." Nowhere has Bierce's characterization been more apt than in describing the American political landscape over the past dozen years.
The political primaries, now popping up south of the 49th parallel like teenage skin eruptions, permit a clear view of the wreckage of recent American history wrought by Bill Clinton's neoliberalism and George W. Bush's wrongheaded war on terrorism and inability to locate anything anywhere remotely resembling a public interest. The Dayton-Stockton Professor of American History at Princeton University, Sean Willentz, is not alone in deeming the reformed Texas cocaine-user the worst president in American history.
Not surprisingly, "change" ranks as the all-embracing mantra for Democratic candidates, with the big three - New York senator Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards of North Carolina - attempting to outdo one another in the dance of change. Thus far, Obama stands as the clarion of a new political paradigm and day. He is of mixed race, a fresh-faced entry whose demeanour combines warmth, seriousness and a tough-minded and complex sensibility that expresses the hope of inclusiveness, so absent in recent years. Most important, he speaks clearly for a new generation that seeks to move beyond the battles of the past, a strategy that angers many Clinton supporters in the black community, especially former colleagues of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obama has done far better than pundits predicted. He has achieved frontrunner status with Hillary Clinton, taking the Iowa caucuses and losing a tight primary in New Hampshire. In response, Clinton also trumpets change, arguing that she is its better agent because of her experience, her "demonstrated ability" and her "willingness to lead."The two are running well ahead of Edwards, the North Carolinian who tells it like it is. Wealth in America, he argues, is being concentrated into ever-fewer hands; the middle class finds itself squeezed economically as never before; and greed and cupidity rule political and corporate elites.
Edwards' contention that most Americans suffer the inequalities of a second Gilded Age cannot be disputed. His populist campaign raises questions about first principles - about government of, by and for the people - a maxim honoured mainly in their abeyance by Bush and his cronies since 2000. Edwards, some readers may recall, ran as John Kerry's vice-presidential candidate in 2004, and he impressed observers more than Kerry.
Like a latter-day Hamlet in U.S. politics, Kerry could not decide during the election of 2004 whether he wanted to be a war hero with three Purple Hearts or the principled antiwar warrior who served in the leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He ended up with nothing, but recently bequeathed Obama his e-mail list and connection to potential donors that may help the newcomer keep up in the competition. Indeed, how can anyone entering this ultra-privileged process ever claim connection to "the people," given the need for billions of dollars to feed the media maw and reach this very population?
All three candidates have critical things to say about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but only Obama seems ready to rewrite America's relationship with the globe, arguing persuasively not only that the U.S. is in the world, but of it as well. Clinton and Edwards, meanwhile, are critical of the means employed to get at terrorists everywhere, and (with Obama) are rightly critical of the Bush administration's exquisite manipulation of the nation's economic base to finance the war. Indeed, all three Democratic frontrunners harp on the Grinch-like character of the Bush administration on most domestic and international issues, and on its profligacy in military and security spending.
The war on terror has now gone on longer than the Second World War, sucking up America's gross national product and a further fortune in taxpayer contributions. This imbalance threatens both the Republic and the global economy. Further, the conflict is being fought not by soldiers representing the nation as a whole but by a volunteer mercenary force of the least-favoured and ill-prepared. This makes the war on terror the strangest and saddest in American history. The Democrats sense that Republican leadership is bankrupt intellectually, and it is clear that the power of neoconservatism and right-wing evangelicals - the Republican power base - is much depleted.
The economy and foreign/security policy now stand as the two major inter-related issues in the primary campaigns. Obama and Edwards have shown signs of breaking with the past in both areas. Clinton has demonstrated her ties to the past, particularly her support for the war in Iraq and her connections with corporate elites.
The primaries will reach a crescendo with Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. That day, 24 states will hold primaries. Three will be Democratic only, two will be Republican and the rest will include both parties. By mid-February, 40 per cent of presidential convention delegates will be allotted, compared with only two per cent eight years ago. We'll know more a lot earlier, and the field will be winnowed sooner.
What about the Republicans? Here the wreckage is palpable, reminiscent of 1964 when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater went into Florida to campaign against social security, and Michigan to campaign against labour unions, while also supporting the limited use of nuclear weapons to help win the war in Vietnam. Rather than the three stooges of film fame - Larry, Curly, and Moe - the Republicans boast eight or nine stooges. All of the candidates have big problems. Mitt Romney acts like Elvis and looks like Barbie's Ken; former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani needs another 9/11 to save him; Mike Huckabee only plays well in evangelical regions; John "Lazarus" McCain is a blast from the past, a supporter of continuity in regard to Bush's Iraq policy; Ron Paul may have raised millions on the Internet as a libertarian against the war but he has racist skeletons in his closet; and the list could continue.
Primaries are extravagantly expensive routes to the nation's heart. That heart seems ready for change. And only Barack Obama has the slightest chance of delivering change.
Yet the meaning of "change" remains moot. Time, and Providence, will give the word meaning.
Geoff Smith is an emeritus professor at Queen's University and specialist in American history. This article appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard 21 January 2008.