January 31, 2008
Long before Iowa, all through that year-long string of Democratic presidential debates, I sat before the TV thinking: "Dream Team." With the exception of Marijuana Mike Gravel and Don-Quixote Dennis Kucinich, any one of those people at the podium would make a superior president. Those were the days of bonhomie, when the candidates both complimented and complemented each other, unified in their goal of undoing the dismal Bush legacy here and abroad and taking the nation in a new and positive direction.
Though I knew that eventually I’d have to vote for one, I really wanted to vote for all. What stood before the voters at those early debates was less a group of contenders than a government, nearly ready-made. Again excepting Gravel and Kucinich (farther to the left but still in the camp), their policy positions were consonant, if not identical. Why go through the nastiness and misdirected cost now embedded in the primary process? Why not forgo those counterproductive campaign-ads and rely solely on the media for exposure? Why not refine the party positions on the issues through dialogue, not contention?
In an orderly and collaborative — that is to say, utopian — political world, this group of exceptionally qualified people would meet to assess their relative strengths, distribute their duties, and come out fighting as a team. The debates and the primaries would not be the pitched battles they are now but something like intra-squad scrimmages to reveal who is best at each position, who will call the plays and who will execute them.
Presuming that either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be the nominee, could the runner-up serve as Vice President, thus combining experience and inspiration? The other former candidates could also bring the particular competencies they have already demonstrated into play as a kind of campaign cabinet: John Edwards, on health-care reform; Joe Biden, on foreign policy; Bill Richardson, on immigration and other aspects of "homeland security"; Christopher Dodd, on education; and barely to mention the host of non-candidates specializing in other critical issues — Al Gore, for example, on energy and environment.
Seldom has a cabinet been formed before a candidate was elected, but the voters long for it. They not only want to evaluate a potential president, they want to see the kind and caliber of people that would be on the team. As we’ve amply seen from the last disastrous seven years, the executive is only as good, or as bad, as the ones that advise him or her and administer the sprawling branches of the federal government. Presidential candidates usually run for office claiming they know everything about everything, but the key to a successful administration is to assemble a core of people who know everything about something. And doing much of it before the election would allow voters to make a more realistic judgment.
Unity and solidarity for the upcoming campaign was an expressed hope of all the candidates, and up until the primaries they maintained an encouraging cordiality, critiquing each other’s positions on the issues without personal rancor.
It couldn’t last. Politicians are essentially adversarial — they have to beat their opponents after all, and they can’t do that by being nice, even towards people they agree with. And once the smell of power is in the air, they’ll do just about anything to get it, even if it means tearing their own party apart.
What this does to primary voters is something of a mystery. Most will say that they hate negative campaigning, and yet repeated surveys show that attack-ads are remarkably effective. But this time around, it may be different. Obama’s unexpectedly wide margin of victory in South Carolina last Saturday may partially be laid to a reaction to the petty smears of the Clintons; voters couldn’t stand it, especially from those they had admired and supported for so long, and especially against the man who from the outset made reconciliation and collaboration the centerpiece of his campaign.
There may be an upside to this downturn, however. Intra-party battles during primary season could be seen as sparring matches, toughening the eventual nominee for the real prize-fight ahead. The press has reported "bitterness" and "hatred" between the Clinton and Obama camps, but we’d like to think this is transitory, caused by the heat of the race, and that after the nomination is decided, all the former candidates with their formidable staffs will unite behind the nominee in a common cause that they already substantially embrace.
Super Tuesday is coming right up, but it may well be that the results will not be conclusive and that the selection process will continue for months, perhaps right up to the Democratic convention. In the short-term quest for long-term power, the dangers of bitterness and hatred increase. We the voters can only hope that the inevitable attacks will be friendly sparring and not friendly fire, and that the Dream Team will not end up as just a dream.