If I were living in Iowa, I’d be caucusing for Barack Obama. It’ll be a month before my primary, and by then it may all be academic, so I may as well talk about it now.
I’ll start out by saying that I wouldn’t feel bad about caucusing for John Edwards, and I won’t have any problem campaigning hard on behalf of whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee. I think every one of them is competent to lead, has good ideas that will improve the nation, and would do vastly better than any Republican in the field could imagine doing. That’s why it’s taken me this long to settle down behind a candidate.
The fact that I met him is no small part of it. Or rather, the fact that he was willing to meet me. About two years ago, I sent an email to his Senate office, inquiring whether he’d have time to sit down with me. I even promised not to ask if he would be running for President. I didn’t think it’d work, but figured “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” His communications director emailed back enthusiastically, and we set up the meeting.
There were several things that I came away with from that meeting. First, the vision of politics that he articulated was smart, original, and clearly successful. He won a brutal statewide primary in Illinois, succeeded as a state senator before that, and won a Senate race in a deeply divided state with that vision. The goal is “common sense attitudes [which] cross party lines, cross divides of class and race. I think that’s important.” So do I. You can’t govern without that. I love that John Edwards is echoing Roosevelt’s attacks on the moneyed interests, but at the end of the day, I don’t know that the revolutionary spirit which filled Roosevelt’s sails would be there to cast the trusts out of a President Edwards’s way. I think he’d have a harder time getting 60 votes in the Senate, which means a harder time implementing progressive policy. I’m not convinced that Hillary could identify novel political solutions, nor that she could sway Republicans with even truly excellent ideas.
A second thing that I came away with from that meeting is a sense of a truly capacious mind at work. It was only five minutes, but I felt like he was thinking about the issues, and trying to find a unique way to express his ideas, one that would connect, clarify and convince. That’s an impressive ability, and the President of the United States has to be thoughtful. He has to be able to deal with people on that level, and I was impressed. The other candidates are also smart, but I never had a conversation with any of them, so I can’t really comment on that characteristic.
A connected factor is charisma. I’ve seen Obama and Edwards speak in person, and both of them have that sort of charisma that marks a true leader. Other candidates may have that as well, but if so, it doesn’t play on TV. Charisma is crucial, because it’s how you rally people around you when things look dire. It’s how you win your enemies over, and keep your coalitions together. That’s important domestically, and it’s important in foreign policy.
I could analyze this or that policy, and weigh Obama’s policy proposals against those of the other candidates, but I don’t think that would accomplish much in terms of who should be the next president. The Democratic candidates agree on the basic outlines of what our nation should be. Universal healthcare, a deliberate withdrawal from Iraq, victory in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda, sustainable approaches to climate change and energy policy, fiscal policy that favors working families, etc. The details are irrelevant at this stage because whoever gets elected will have to get those policies past a filibuster in the Senate, and will have to mollify the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The small distance between most of the major policy positions will be ironed out in Congressional debate, so I’m not hanging my primary vote on those differences.
As he told me two years ago:
I think what people should be looking for is: do the Democrats that they support care about the core values that are important to all of us.
Jobs at a living wage, health care for all people, educational opportunity for all people, environmental sustainability, foreign policy that is smart and not just belligerent. And if those values are important to whoever’s running, people need to be flexible in terms of recognizing that there may more than one way of doing things.
By that standard, all of the candidates are ready. What matters to me is that I buy what Obama is selling. What he’s selling now, and what he brought to tight Congressional races around the country in 2006 to great acclaim, is a politically progressive vision that all of America can and does get behind. That’s going to be great in this election year, and it’ll be even better when he’s President.
I don’t know that this will change any minds in Iowa or New Hampshire this week, but it’s why I’ll be doing what I’ll be doing a month from now. (Unless he makes a major gaffe, natch.)