The below is a guest editorial that will appear the coming week in Elet es Irodalom, a Hungarian weekly. (Hungarian journalists should please consider it embargoed until it appears there.)
Andrew Arato, Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor of Political and Social Theory, The New School for Social Research, New York
February 13, 2008
Is it possible? At least we have found a likely leader. The Battle of the Potomac is over. Despite the name that resembles the bloody exchanges of the Civil War, the mini civil war of the U.S. Democrats will hopefully not last very long. I am watching Obama’s victory speech from Madison, Wisconsin, a famous left wing university town. It is his best yet, combining the thoroughness of Harvard Law School and the emotional fervor of the Black Protestant church. Because McCain wants to stay in Iraq a hundred years, we should not give him four years…..The post-imperial candidate laid down his markers. The students (and myself even more) loved what we heard, expressed so clearly and so eloquently. Is it possible for an imperial Republic, after the failure of Athens and Rome, , for the second time in history after the lone British case, to willingly divest itself of a significant part of its imperial possessions that have become so dangerous for what makes the republican core still great? Yes we can is the Obama slogan, even if coined not exactly for the project that I have in mind. His personality and foreign policy ideas fortunately embody it. He was always against the Iraq war. He wants comprehensive negotiations with all regional powers of the Middle East. He wants to withdraw from Iraq relatively rapidly. But, and it is a big but, despite a series of successful battles, he has not yet won. Not yet against Clinton, and more importantly not yet against the other America, against McCain.
If Clinton loses it is not because she is a woman. In the Democratic Party that fact is rather a plus, ideologically and also because there are more women voters and more woman Democrats. It is because she is a woman, that she is still a serious contender in the race. She is losing instead, aside from Obama’s own strengths, because of her unforgivable two votes on the Iraq War in 2002 that already cost John Kerry (now an Obama supporter) the presidency. Making things worse, she still defends not only her positive vote on the Authorization of the Use of Force, but also the negative one on the Levin Amendment that would have required that the U.S. President go to the UN Security Council first, and, in case failure to get Chapter VII authorization under the Charter, to go back to Congress for explicit authorization to go to war. While in case of the Authorization itself, Clinton now says that knowing everything she knows today (i.e. that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Bush would abuse the authorization) she would have voted no, she does not say why it was right to trust this particular President and his circle at all, given all the planning for war. But in the case of the Levin Amendment the issue is even more serious. The proposal was eminently sensible as well as deeply constitutional. It is Congress’ constitutional power to declare war. This power cannot be delegated, because it is given by the constituent power. The only possible exception is a Chapter VII war, where under a binding international treaty signed by the U.S. the Security Council is the source of the authorization. This is what happened in the Korean War; the first time the Congressional right to Declare was seriously bypassed. Recently Congressional declarations have been replaced by Authorizations that however do not leave it up to the president to decide whether to go to war or not, as did the Iraq authorization in question. The aim of the Levin Amendment was to replace a “blank check” authorization, clearly unconstitutional, by the choice: either authorization by the Security Council or a more specific, Congressional re-authorization. It is this choice that Hillary Clinton still repeatedly represents in speeches, quite wrongly, as surrendering the powers of the United States to the United Nations. In reality however, she like Bush, wishes to keep the presidential prerogative free of both international and constitutional restraints.
We have seen the consequence of such a liberation from both types of law in Iraq, in Guantanamo, and all places where extraordinary rendition, kidnappings, torture, and detentions without due process have been practiced by U.S. authorities. Hillary Clinton may be an opponent of all that, but she does not attack the problem at its roots even if she goes further than McCain in the one and only case of Iraq. The empire is not only Iraq, and presidential power in an imperial setting would remain a danger also after an Iraqi withdrawal, assuming she would carry it out. As the famous colonel in the film Battle of Algiers said to the assembled French journalists: if you want an Algerie Francaise, you must put up with all that. If you want to protect the American empire as is . . . if you are unwilling to negotiate with all our adversaries without pre-conditions that is of course the pre-condition of orderly withdrawal . . . then you must put up with the means necessary to protect it. Clinton’s positions on negotiations with Iran indicate that she has not yet learned much from the past, indeed from the war in Iraq itself. And McCain is one of the most aggressive American politicians with respect to both continuing the war in Iraq and risking a new one with Iran. Only Obama, not Clinton, nor McCain in spite of his loud verbal opposition to torture is ready to do what it would take to end the situation in which there is any kind of imperial rationale (however mistaken technically) for torture. Obama (tutored here by Zbigniew Brzezinski) is the only realist among the three candidates still standing, in spite of his soaring rhetoric.
All polls currently indicate that the great majority of the country is with Obama on questions of foreign policy, and has been for two or more years, though they may not yet correctly identify his views on all the issues. But given the threat of recession, the issue of external affairs retreated behind that of the economy. In general this would be an advantage to the Democrats. It is also to Hillary Clinton’s advantage, because of the superior track record of the Clinton administration, her own obvious competence, and better thought out position on very much needed health care reform – where she is an expert paradoxically enough because of her dramatic failure in 1993, that led to the so-called “Republican Revolution in 1994. The Obama idea of “change” has to do mostly with the large issue of identity and foreign policy posture in the world, while Clinton’s slogan experience refers to her managerial abilities in the domestic sphere where there is very little difference between the two equally liberal (in the American sense = social liberal) Democratic candidates. In spite of small, probably tactical differences, they both have dramatic health care reform as the centerpiece of their social program, and they would both pay for it the same way, by refusing to make the outrageous Bush tax cuts that produced huge deficits permanent for the wealthy. They are lucky, because unlike Kerry in 2004 they don’t have to promise to pass new legislation to finance health expenditures . . . all they have to do is the much easier thing, namely to oppose new legislation to make reduction of governmental resources permanent. This will still be called raising taxes by the Republicans; but the stress will be on rescinding tax cuts to the wealthy! In any case, the Democratic electorate is asked to decide whether the more experienced but more polarizing Clinton, or the more novice Obama who is willing to work with Republicans is likely to accomplish a similar domestic agenda. And we still do not know how they will decide this question.
So far, before the three Potomac Primaries, the young, the educated, men and most dramatically blacks were with Obama, older voters, the less well educated, women, and Hispanic-Americans were with Clinton. Obama could win the majority of whites in caucus states where the politically active vote in a kind of township meeting setting that suggests participatory democracy, and where the young and the educated have an advantage. Clinton won the whites in the primary states, where normal elections with secret ballots take place, the form also favoring the Tom Bradley effect (a former losing black Mayor candidate in Los Angeles): the voter tells the pollster that he or she votes for the black but does not do so under the veil of secrecy. This was probably the reason for the huge discrepancy between polls and results in New Hamphshire and California, lost by Obama. Now in Virginia and Maryland, two primary states, the white vote was evenly split and there was no Bradley effect! (There may be now a Halle Berry effect, still racist of course: “she is the one black that I would marry”). Admittedly there is also Hillary hatred, but this is measured by the polls; since we still allow substitute languages for misogyny but not for racism: as “she is so aggressive” or “she is such a know it all”. It seems however that her collapse in Virginia and Maryland where she is liked and where she used to be leading is due simply to the rise of Obama.
Obama will most likely take Wisconsin, powered by the young and the educated. Then the big three hurdles will be Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. If his current momentum is real he may take all three or two out of three. If he takes both Ohio and Texas on March 4, or one of them and later Pensylvania he has won, and the so-called super delegates will have to fall into line with Carter, Gore and Pelosi leading the pack. If Clinton takes all three she will win, narrowly perhaps depending on the size of her win in proportional elections, to the tremendous disappointment of Obama’s young army, and the super-delegates whose majority is now with her will also fall into line. She would do well in that case to offer the vice-presidency to Obama in a convincing manner, if she wants to win against McCain. If Obama wins only one of the three, and is narrowly ahead, the super-delegates may still want to decide for Clinton. There may even be attempts to illegitimately give Clinton the delegates from the Florida and Michigan primaries where Obama chose not to compete on the orders of the DNC. In either case, in August we will have riots in Denver, the site of the Democratic Convention, that will resemble the siege of Chicago in 1968, and with Clinton playing the role of Hubert Humphrey the Democrats will go on to lose the election. So if Obama has a narrow majority in the end, the party leaders better quickly shift to him and manage some deal. Their choice will be also motivated by electability (that does not = Hillary hatred, pace Stanley Fish!) as an issue, namely the legitmate concern regarding who does better against McCain in the polls. Today it clearly seems to be Obama, but how much of a Bradley effect is hiding in the numbers? Noone knows. Clinton however is more vulnerable on the question of Iraq, exactly like Kerry was, than is Obama with his far greater consistency on the issue.
The electoral results will in any case be all important. Conventionally two things are said: First, that the one with momentum wins and that is now Obama, and, second, the one who can break through his or her prior demographic constraints wins, and that is Obama too, though only marginally. Clinton cannot hope to get the young, or the blacks or the educated to vote against Obama. But in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas she may not have to. If she can continue to get huge majorities among white women, the less educated, and among Hispanic Americans that may be enough. It is Obama who needs to break through his previous demographics, and he has not yet done so enough. Whether the momentum will do it for him remains to be seen.
If he does make it, the Democrats, unlike last time, will have a great convention, one for all the ages. And then debates will be incredibly exciting. McCain already admitted he knows little about the economy and economics, but has read Alan Greenspan’s book. Now that two bubbles (finance and real estate) Greenspan helped to create have burst, that should not be enough. Flip-flopping on taxes (first I was against them as unfair and unwise, before I was for making them permanent) and staying in Iraq permanently will not go over well in the debates with a clever lawyer like Obama. Just one issue remains for McCain: that of commander in chief in wartime, if we are willing to forget that we should not be in any war at all. And here McCain with his military experience looks more like such a figure, however wrong his policies! Obama will undoubtedly show that staying in Iraq even 5 and not 10 or 100 years makes the United States weaker in Afghanistan, weaker against the terrorists, less able to deal with new crises, more and more unpopular in the world and especially the Islamic world. What he then must be ready for is two things. To give a convincing answer to the question of how to withdraw from Iraq in a way that is not catastrophic for Iraq itself, and to deal with crises situations, external or internal, real or manufactured that probably will arise during the campaign, and do so in a very effective and presidential manner. He should be able to do these two things, but the other side that should have certainly lost in 2004 already cannot be underestimated.
We are not there yet. But it is already another country. I did not think I would say it so soon. After years of shame, I am proud of our democracy again. To nominate a very liberal black or a liberal woman, to force even the other America to choose someone with a human face, though largely the wrong policies that are not yet sufficiently known, is a clear repudiation of the politics of 2001-2008. The driving force behind all this is American civil society, and mostly the self-organizing young, and the gods of history have given us a perfect candidate to carry their message and their hope. The activists must not be disappointed by the eventual victory of McCain, or even Clinton. But the future is actually in their own hands. It is they who need to take their country back!