February 12, 2007
By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - Parlor game: Name the people currently running for President.
I did this at a dinner party recently, and it went like this: “Hillary.” “Obama.” “‘Articulate Joe’ Biden!” “Kucinich, right? Or was that the last time?” “McCain.” “The mayor of America.” “The mayor of New York?” “Um, ah, there’s a dozen more. Why can’t I think of them?”
Why not, indeed.
Coming up short at the dinner table were not only the “Why-are-they-even-doing-this?” bunch like Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and former Arkansas Governor Tom Huckabee, but also some “I-knew-thats” like John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. If you can’t remember them, is it because they’re forgettable?
It’s less than a year before New Hampshire and the Iowa Caucuses, probably followed by all those proposed February primaries, California’s included. By that time, some candidates will be forgotten, some you’ll wish you could forget, and one that you’ll remember in the voting booth. It all depends, but on what?
Joe Biden had it right, though in a very wrong context. The operative word in this campaign really is “articulate,” both as adjective and as verb.
The root word in Latin means “join” or “put together.” The winning candidate will be the one who can join comprehensive and detailed proposals on the crucial concerns of the nation with a rhetoric and personal image that unites and energizes the nation to implement them.
In past elections of recent memory, it was enough to nourish the base and entice the undecideds with slogans and negative ads and vague promises, but all that has changed, and with astonishing speed. Two years ago, very credible scholars were writing articles and books predicting a permanent Republican hold on all branches of government, thanks to the mastery of political vocabulary by strategists like Karl Rove. All of that imploded in last November’s election. The sturdy base of “family values” and the agenda of the Christian Right, once seen as a juggernaut, was engulfed by Iraq; the real family value now is to get the troops back to their families.
But that isn’t all. Another political vocabulary is emerging, also at astonishing speed. The whole conceptual infrastructure of “conservatism,” born of Goldwater, fed by Reagan, furthered by Gingrich, and enthroned by Bush, is destroying itself by its own hand. Beginning with the proposed privatization of Social Security, more and more people started feeling uneasy. They started to see that the rhetorical ploy of the “ownership society” was just another word for a final, multi-pronged attack on social and fiscal policies and institutions that they didn’t know they cherished - or depended upon - so much. And now the attack is coming not just from politicians but from their own employers: Job security is being made laughable by downsizing, and for those that are left, medical and pension plans are being cut back or eliminated.
Add to that the growing realization that global warming is now not just a theory but a threat, and a new, old vocabulary begins to appear: a vocabulary of “the common good.”
The politician who will succeed in this election will be the one who can fearlessly articulate a vision of the common good and develop “put-together” practical proposals for its realization.
What few of the dozen or more hopefuls yet seem to recognize is just how ready for the new vocabulary Americans are. Most indicative is the shift in attitude toward health care, another sign of the Baby Boom Bulge. As the first Boomers cross the threshold of sixty, faced with the present burdens of medical treatment for their parents and the increasingly imminent prospect of the same for themselves, a single-payer system loses its ideological onus and begins to look eminently sensible. The same shift applies to Social Security and pension plans - what people approaching old age want is not options but guarantees, not risky gambles but peace of mind.
Other aspects of the common good are taking on a bright light as well, especially regarding the environment, construed in its widest sense. It is now clear that any attempt to reverse climate change calls for a sweeping national policy, but that is not all; there is also the personal environment. Population growth demands creating livable cities with effective and convenient public transportation and a modernized infrastructure; it also demands preserving and expanding parkland and endangered natural spaces. Proposals for major public works projects no longer seem pariahs but prophetic.
So which of the pack in the presidential race will survive the shakedown? The ones who can articulate, both programmatically and personally, the new vocabulary of the common good. Single-issue candidates like family-values Brownback and anti-immigrant Tancredi are now anachronisms. Image-only candidates like Giuliani, “Mr. 9/11,” will eventually be judged by the sum of their public life, not just one day of it. Hillary says she is “listening,” but we are as sick of listeners as we are of Deciders. Biden, bright but neither articulate nor clean, broke his leg before leaving the gate. Obama has a vision, but is it just a vision of himself? Kucinich has the vision, but the articulation of the self-righteous. McCain and Romney run without a base. Edwards shows some daring, but carries Kerry’s baggage. Al Gore is more tarred by Clinton than Hillary herself. Richardson, with his national and international expertise, could be the dark horse, if he can only stay away from Comedy Central.
Well, it’s your turn. You pick ’em.
Published in the Hermosa Beach, Calif. Easy Reader, February 15, 2007.