The John Edwards Transformational Issue
by Rob in Vermont, Sun May 13, 2007 at 08:59:15 PM EDT
I'm prompted to write this diary by a post Matt Stoler wrote the other day called "The John Edwards Trust Issue." I was struck by Matt's use of the now-popular term "transformational":
To really buy into the idea that John Edwards can be a transformational candidate, you have to buy into the idea that he himself has transformed. And while he has certainly shown signs of rethinking his approach to politics, and in particular dropping the centrism that once characterized his persona, he's not there.
Matt's post concerns Edwards' views (or possible views) on foreign policy. Matt is very dubious of the foreign policy thinkers who have (or may have had) some influence on Edwards' current thinking, and he constructively suggests some names of thinkers he wishes Edwards would be influenced by. Commenter georgep helpfully fleshed out the actual views of thinkers like Anatol Lieven that Matt would like to see Edwards adopt. This makes it easier to understand what Matt is really arguing: Matt is wary that Edwards' foreign policy philosophy may not be radically different from the traditional view that America is "exceptional" and must act and must be seen as the leader of nations rather than as simply a humble partner in the community of nations.
If I've properly understood Matt's wariness, this leads to a number of questions: Can a president who is influenced by a traditional view of American exceptionalism do more good than ill, or is this president's foreign policy bound to do more ill than good? Is it politically feasible for a presidential candidate not to express a traditional view of America's leadership role in the world? Is the traditional view always and necessarily imperialist?
I think when you're arguing a point of view that bucks tradition, you can sometimes be quick to cast others as hopelessly wedded to the wrongheaded, hidebound orthodoxy. But Lieven is smart enough not to suggest it's impossible to find reasonable points of view, even in the halls of orthodoxy:
[I]n the end, by far the greater part of the Republican and Democratic establishments share the same basic myths of American nationalism concerning the righteousness of American power, the same commitment to U.S. supremacy in the world, and a common adherence to the same set of basic imperial strategies.... [T]he liberal hawks who praise diplomacy in principle also appear to misunderstand its true nature. When they speak of engaging other countries diplomatically, what they usually mean is talking at them more loudly and sweetly, but with the same ends in mind.
But one thing there seems to be no question of in Matt's mind: for someone to be a "transformational candidate," they must divorce themselves of any association with these traditionalist views of America's role. (Matt advises Edwards to "jettison his foreign policy advisors.")
That brings us back to the topic - what qualifies someone to be a "transformational candidate"?
A Brief Digression
I must digress for a moment: It's not hard to see the irony when Matt titles his article "The John Edwards Trust Issue", uses the same breathless tone in his piece, gets some pissy comments, and then later appends an update to his post where he sniffs "this isn't really anything more than a 'here's why Edwards hasn't convinced me yet but he could' blog post" - as if there was no reason in the world for readers to take exception. Well, can we start with the rhetorically overwrought title? Lately I've been really, really snarky about hyperskepticism of Democratic leaders, but seriously: the "trust issue", in one way or another, is a frame our opponents will use against any of our candidates. It's a poor way to frame how we think about our candidates. I have no doubt Matt's post was meant as constructive criticism. But a "Can we really trust So-and-so?" frame will inevitably and needlessly piss off lots of supporters, some of whom will reflexively respond with posts that diss the author. Which is exactly what happened in this case. So that even though the great majority of commenters who took issue with Matt's post were neither impolite nor unsubstantive - Matt got pissy and commented that "this cult thing needs to stop." Does it serve any good purpose to have enthusiastic members of the Democratic base being labelled cultists by a frontpage writer on MyDD? And so the dissing goes both ways. I think there would be much less chance of the dialogue devolving that way if Matt hadn't framed his post as a "trust issue". The post might simply have been framed as "Here's why Edwards shouldn't put stock in M. O'Hanlon's theories and instead should read A. Lieven's writings" - rather than "Can we trust Edwards when we hear that he's reading books by the likes of M. O'Hanlon?"
A Reasonable Definition of "Transformational"
Commenting on Matt's quote above, I noted that Howard Dean had governed as a centrist and many of his supporters in '04 actually found his centrist tendencies quite appealing, and I asked whether this meant Matt would disqualify Dean from being considered a "transformational" candidate.
Pachacutec commented back:
I don't have the link, but Joe Trippi wrote about this here at MyDD. Trippi now works for Edwards, after saying he wanted to work for a "transformational candidate."
Ergo, it's reasonable to conclude that Edwards sees himself and wants to be seen as such a candidate. He has some credentials to make the case with fervor on domestic issues, but does not quite seem to be all the way there on foreign policy. His GWOT refusal at the debate was a very good sign, though.
You will notice that Matt uses his writing to pressure each major candidate to become something closer to a real netroots progressive favorite.
This comment doesn't explain what a "transformational" candidate is, but implies - as does Matt's post - that a transformational candidate must hold some pretty particular domestic and foreign policy views. Both Matt and Pachacutec feel Edwards is not quite "there" yet on foreign policy.
Pachacutec also implies that if you're really interested in this idea of a "transformational candidate," you should look into what Joe Trippi has to say about it.
OK. So here's the MyDD diary Joe Trippi wrote which Pachacutec was referring to. In it, Trippi writes:
The Dean campaign was different not because of ideology or because of opposition to the war -- but because it revolved around its supporters and empowered them. It was the only campaign in a long time that realized that the people were more important than the candidate.
For Trippi, it does not seem to be about specific policies or ideology - but really about a candidate who truly believes in the people. So what makes a "transformational"Democrat any better than a Republican, say Reagan - or independent, say Perot - who really believes in the American people? Trippi elaborates in this comment:
[B]elieving in the people is not the only ingredient but it the essential ingredient.
Reagan believed in Americans as "rugged individuals" each of us capable of fending for ourselves. His transformation of American politics arguably helped create an era of "what's in it for me" politics -- but it would be hard to say he was not a transformational leader.
When Kennedy said "Ask what you can do for your country" -- he was saying Americans can do anything when we are all in this together and do something for the greater good.
I think this is why transformational leadership on the right is so limited.
I think America hungers for the Progressive brand of transformational leadership.
Do Americans look to the future hoping to face the challenges of energy, global warming, terrorism etc as "rugged individuals"? Or are they likely to realize that we are all in this together -- that we face challenges today that can only be met and overcome together -- and hunger for a leader who believes enough in them to challenge the nation to the greater and common good again.
This is where the candidates who say things like the people want someone in the middle to bring people together and solve problems yada yada yada -- are close to getting it but are missing the point completely.
I think this jibes with what ManfromMiddletown wrote in his recent diary, "What is Transformational Change." ManfromMiddletown suggests that a "transformational" leader is one like FDR or Reagan who manages to produce a sea change in the popular view of government.
As progressives, we of course do long for a president, like FDR, who can persuade Americans that we're all in the same boat, that great accomplishments - such as winning World War II - require the collective efforts and sacrifices of the nation as a whole. Working only as individuals, we obviously couldn't have defeated the Nazis. Nor, individually, could we have constructed massive engines for economic growth such as the Interstate Highway system and the Internet - or any of hundreds of other examples of public institutions and infrastructures upon which our society has depended for its prosperity. Whereas Reagan was adept at convincing people to view government as stifling people's individual ability to achieve, FDR was adept at pursuading Americans to view government as the system that helps all of us work together to prosper. (But FDR also made one of the most egregious decisions any president has ever made - interning thousands of innocent citizens; so, looking back, can we really trust him? Sorry, I'm being snarky again.)
Can we agree that the essential role of a "transformational" Democratic leader would be to convince a goodly majority of Americans to believe in a progressive view of government and society? Isn't this view the very foundation of the Democratic Party? Perhaps we don't even need a new word for it. As Edwards has said, we don't need to redefine the Democratic Party, we need to reclaim it. Or as another candidate once said, we need a president who represents the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
An Unreasonable Definition of "Transformational"
Matt and others sometimes seem to imply that a "transformational" Democratic candidate is one whose policies are in perfect harmony with the progressive netroots.
But this blogocentric view of "transformational" clearly can't be right. For starters, the "progressive netroots" isn't some monolithic thing - because progressives themselves are not monolithic in their thinking. An important example would be U.S.-Israel policy. I know folks who are a lot more active in progressive politics and social action than I am, who also are staunchly supportive of Israel. While staunch support of Israel isn't something I'd ever expect to see in a frontpage post on DailyKos, when I recently waded into a DailyKos thread on Jimmy Carter's controversial new book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," I found a wide variety of viewpoints. Progressives are a diverse bunch, even if that diversity isn't always reflected on the front pages of popular blogs.
Matt suggests that if Edwards wants to be a "transformational" candidate, he should "jettison his foreign policy advisors." This seems audacious - I wonder if Matt even knows all the names of , let alone all the policy views of, the advisors that he's decided should be purged. But a commenter in another thread goes a step further:
You should interview John Edwards for MYDD and ask him about your concerns point blank. Ask him who he would appoint as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor.
Since he is counting on support from internet progressives, I think he would have to accept an offer from you for an interview.
Look, I like Matt. I like all the writers at MyDD. But, fergawdsake, I wouldn't want them vetting the people who run the candidate's blog, let alone vetting the people who would serve in the candidate's cabinet!
And I don't want the collective progressive netroots to be doing that, either.
I think a good president actually should be capable of making important decisions pretty much without the netroots' assistance. Because that's, you know, the president's job. I don't want the Democratic president to be the puppet of the progressive blogosphere any more than I'd want a Republican president to the puppet of the conservative blogosphere. (Well, OK, the latter is a much more frightening thought, but my point stands.)
Is John Edwards "Transformational"?
My favorite candidate is John Edwards, and whether or not he wins popularity contests on DailyKos or MyDD, I fully expect that, as a candidate - and if he becomes president - he will make choices I don't always agree with. In fact, I'm sure he will sometimes take positions that I adamantly disagree with.
And yet, while I honestly think all of the leading Democratic candidates have the potential to be great presidents, to my ear John Edwards is most loudly and clearly expressing the fundamental principles which distinguish the party of Franklin Roosevelt from the party of Ronald Reagan.
Most importantly, in my view, he talks about the goal of eradicating poverty in America and focusing intensely on arresting severe poverty worldwide. He talks about specific policies for doing so, and for measuring the progress of these policies.
Now, suppose you're skeptical - maybe even hyperskeptical - so you don't "trust" him. Suppose you think, "He's really a centrist, he's just talking about poverty in order to try to appeal to the left flank of the party."
But here's the thing. When he talks about tackling - indeed, ending - poverty in America, just as when he talks about truly universalizing healthcare coverage - he is putting himself on the spot, politically. If Edwards becomes president, the annual poverty numbers, I will wager, are going to get much more scrutiny. Think about it: What grist for Republicans if Edwards is president and the annual report released by the Census Bureau in the summer of 2010 shows that poverty has risen for the second year in a row! By that very same token, there will be tremendous incentive for Edwards - assuming even the cynical view that he is nothing but a self-interested politician - to work hard to make sure his Republican opponents never get that grist - that is, he will have much incentive to institute policies that actually do reduce poverty.
I believe progressives too would hold his feet to the fire on this issue, to a larger degree than we might a Democratic president who did not make the issue of poverty central to their campaign.
If you want another take on why it's so important for Democrats to speak boldly on traditional Democratic issues like fighting poverty and ensuring health care, consider what historian Rick Perlstein says:
Take something like federal aid to education. That was an idea Democrats had ever since the New Deal. It never succeeded for various political reasons, but they just kept at it and by 1965 Lyndon Johnson finally passed the thing. By that time, everyone knew what the Democrats were about: They were the party that supported federal aid for education. Compare that to when the Clintons proposed their health care plan in the early '90s. He ran and won on the idea that he was going to deliver health care to all Americans, and for various complicated reasons he lost that battle. But instead of saying well, this is what the Democrats are about, we're going to stick to it despite the setback, Hillary Clinton very explicitly said: What I learned was that you have to do things in small steps and incrementally. She specifically backed off the marker that the Democrats laid down, that we are the party defined by our pledge to deliver health care to everyone.
["Marker" is] a gambling term. A marker basically is a commitment to pay. In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit would say, "that guy holds my marker." It's something you can't back out of, on pain of getting your knees broken. The marker that Republicans have is that everyone who runs for office has to sign a pledge--it's enforced by their own knee-breaker, Grover Norquist--that on pain of political death they're not going to raise taxes.
My thesis is that a commitment that doesn't waver adds value by the very fact of the commitment. The evidence is that even though the individual initiatives that make up the conservative project poll quite poorly, they've managed to succeed simply because everyone knows what the Republicans stand for. And the most profound exit poll finding in the last election had nothing to do with moral values, it was all the people who said that they disagreed with the Republicans on individual issues, but they voted for George W. Bush anyway because they knew what he stood for.
So that's why Edwards is my favorite candidate. He speaks boldly on fundamentally Democratic issues like poverty, health care, labor rights, the environment - and I think speaking this way makes it more likely that bold progressive policies will actually see fruition.
Should we call this "transformational"? I think it's right on, whatever you want to call it.