Election 2008: Who I am Supporting in the Democratic Primary
UPDATE: My post is getting cut off after a few sections because it is long, so I've posted a copy at this URL.
[NOTE: This is my personal opinion and does not represent the views of The Left Coaster or any of the other bloggers at TLC.]
When I started writing about Campaign 2008 about 2+ months ago I started with the following assumptions:
1. Any of the current Democratic candidates running for President will be a better President than any of the Republicans running for President
2. I will continue to research the voting records and positions of the top candidates to get a better sense for their ideology, character and commitment to progressive and Democratic values
3. I will support no single candidate in particular because I felt that any of the top candidates who had a chance of winning the nomination would do equally well as President of the United States
However, I discovered some game-changing aspects as I continued my research (consolidated here) that began with a systematic comparison of the voting records and policy positions of Sen. Obama, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards (and sometimes also Sen. Dodd and Sen. Biden) in a series of posts on a variety of public policy issues that are important to corporatist interests, the Bankruptcy Bill, Bush's controversial Judicial and Attroney General nominations, campaign contributions from PACs/"special interests" (here, here and here), Iraq (here, here and here), Iran (here, here and here), the topic of "triangulation", and other issues. In parallel, I also compared the often negative campaign strategies of Sen. Obama in particular (and Sen. Edwards occasionally) against Sen. Clinton to the similar strategies used by Bill Bradley against Al Gore (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8). Based on all of this information, it became clear to me that not only are there some very fundamental differences between the top three candidates in terms of their approach to campaigning, their priorities, their ideology, their experience and their commitment to the Democratic brand, the nature of those differences is sometimes quite different from what it is portrayed to be by the mainstream media. In fact, it has also become clear that influential people in the media who played such a strong role in trying to take down Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and in propping up George Bush [no surprise given the strong conservative dominance in the media] are tacitly or overtly more in favor of one particular Democratic candidate (Sen. Obama) - a candidate who is unfortunately largely unvetted and unprepared for the general election onslaught he is likely to face - and against the other two top candidates (including the one the Republicans likely fear the most - Sen. Clinton). As a result, it has become obvious to me that I have no choice but to reconsider item #3 in my list (above). Hence, I have now decided to explicitly support one of the top three candidates in the Democratic primary - the one I believe is best prepared to both do battle with the Republicans in the general election but also deliver on a strong and solid Democratic agenda and significant positive change starting in 2009.
One of the risks of identifying who I will formally support is that some supporters of the other candidates might use this to repeatedly attack my objectivity, sometimes pretending that their own objectivity is magically superior despite their having thrown their support behind another campaign. As I see it, this is part and parcel of what we call Democracy. At the end of the day, I would like to see us all unite behind the ultimate Democratic nominee, whom I am absolutely committed to supporting. Until then, I will support one of these imperfect candidates over the others, for very good reasons. I would, of course, hope that all of the voluminous research that I published during the 2004 election on the Swift Boat Veterans Against the Truth, Voting Irregularities and Fraud, and Bush's flip-flops, along with the investigative work I published here since then on the conservative tilt of the mainstream media, Iraq's aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa hoax and the Niger forgeries, and the detailed research on the 2008 Democratic candidates (something that few other blogs undertook or published), will be sufficient for most readers to understand that I don't arrive at important decisions and conclusions lightly and that I don't ever intend to lose my objectivity.
What is important to me personally is not just who I am supporting (not that there's anyone who cares what I think), but rather the process and knowledge that enabled me to make this decision (discussed in this post). I am pretty confident that we have a diverse progressive readership at TLC that does not get easily swayed and will take their time to research the candidates and reach their own conclusions based on what is important to them.
WHO I AM SUPPORTING
In deciding whom I should support, I wrote down the top factors that would guide my decision (not necessarily in the order of priority) and my personal assessment of the top candidates on each of these factors. There are of course other important factors, but I kept my list to the following 9 factors which I believe are adequate to provide me the broad base of information I needed to pick the best candidate: Electability, Progressive Voting Record and Campaign Contributions, Ability to Build the Democratic Brand, Ability to Work Well with Independents and Republicans to Bring About Major Positive Changes, Progressive Vision Reflected in Policy Proposals, Policy Expertise and Smartness, Experience and Ability to Govern Effectively and Efficiently, Ability to Deal with the Broken Media Environment and some Special Factors.
Based on the data and discussion below, I believe, without any doubt, that the best Democratic candidate for President is Senator Hillary Clinton. I believe she is clearly the most electable of the three top candidates. She has a progressive voting record that is impressive overall and comparable to that of the other two candidates (despite some notable imperfections in everyone's voting record). Despite the election year rhetoric, her positions and vision on Iraq and Iran are largely similar to those of the other candidates. She understands the importance of building a strong progressive and Democratic brand and is one of few leading Democrats who took an early interest in seeding modern progressive infrastructure. She brings together a combination of partisan fervor and a demonstrated ability to work well with Independents and Republicans. Her record as a Senator from New York - where she continues to enjoy high approval ratings (60% now, including a 33% approval rating from Republicans, despite the unending attacks on her character especially of late) and where she was re-elected with 67% of the vote (capturing the vast majority of districts across the state including Republican districts) - is an illustration of the fact that voters who really get to know her well, tend to like her - in contrast to oft-repeated talkingpoints about her "polarizing" personality. Her progressive policy proposals as a Presidential candidate are generally speaking ambitious and impressive and in some cases better than Sen. Obama's proposals. She is without a doubt the most knowledgeable on public policy - something that is also reflected in her debate performances, stump speeches and Q&As. Of the three candidates, she has also shown the most interest in thinking about how she would translate her progressive vision to political successes in an environment where Republicans in Congress might seek to block progressive legislation. Her rich experience in the Clinton administration - both on domestic (women, children, healthcare, etc.) and foreign policy (especially international diplomacy) issues - combined with the access to the Clinton team that built one of the most effective and efficient Governments in modern American history will be a major plus for the country after 8 years of criminally negligent mismanagement under Bush and Cheney and allow her to hit the ground running as soon as she is inaugurated. The experience of the Clinton years has also made her better than anyone else in understanding how to deal with a broken media environment dominated by conservative voices and false talking points from Republicans. Overall, it is clear she will be a strong leader, who will use her rich experience to drive the kind of positive change we need in America.
Sen. Clinton has been endorsed by great progressive leaders like civil rights pioneer John Lewis, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and influential fighting progressives like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who fought the GOP and the Bush administration tooth and nail, leading to Scooter Libby's conviction), General Wesley Clark (who is a strong force behind the Stop Iran War movement), and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to name a few prominent individuals. She has also been endorsed by several labor unions.
Sen. Clinton is by no means a perfect candidate and her campaign has certainly made some unfortunate mistakes. However, this is true for all of the campaigns. If I were to pick a second choice at this time, it would likely be Sen. Edwards for the reasons described below. Sen. Obama has an impressive progressive voting record, but as I have highlighted below in some detail, he has run a disappointing campaign in multiple respects and there is accumulating evidence that his campaign is dangerously unprepared and unvetted to face the Republican onslaught in the general election. His excessive focus on the politics of compromise and triangulation, his repeated skipping of controversial votes that might reveal his real positions to progressives, his unfortunate, repetitive use of false right-wing talking points to paint progressives or progressive policies in poor light, his false attacks on Sen. Clinton's character, his campaign's mimicry of the fraudulent methods used by the mainstream media to attack Al Gore in order to attack Sen. Clinton, his misleading attacks on Sen. Clinton's campaign contributions, his weakness in policy knowledge and obvious lack of breadth of experience compared to Sen. Clinton are some of the most important reasons why I do not believe he is the best Democratic candidate for President. Sen. Obama has tried to distinguish himself from Sen. Clinton by claiming he had better judgment on Iraq. This is misleading, not just because of the doubts surrounding whether he would have really voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution had he been in the U.S. Senate at the time, but also because his voting record on Iraq in the Senate is virtually identical to Sen. Clinton's voting record. Sen. Obama has tried to create a false impression that Sen. Clinton's vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution is effectively a vote for war against Iran. Not only did he skip the vote on this allegedly earth-changing resolution, it was a nonbinding resolution that does not legally endorse any actions by the President and contains provisions that Sen. Obama has overtly or tacitly supported at other times. Sen. Obama also tried to assert that Sen. Clinton was a liar based on her sensible position on social security. He then attacked her from the right on her sensible healthcare plan. As Prof. Paul Krugman has noted, Sen. Obama is partly on the wrong side of both issues and is damaging the cause of reform with his unfortunate rhetoric and approach. Sen. Obama also took progressives to task for criticizing Democrats who voted to install ultra-conservative Judge John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These are all indications to me that despite his charisma and "non-ideological" approach to politics, Sen. Obama is not the best Democratic candidate for President today, even though he is better than the Republican candidates for President.
No voter should ever vote for any Democrat in any Presidential primary without giving due importance to general election electability. Electability is not the only thing that is important, but it has to be an important factor to ensure a Democratic administration in 2009. Let's keep in mind that the eventual Democratic candidate will not be running against an unpopular George Bush. The Democratic candidate will face a strong Republican challenger for an open seat, a challenger who will likely distance himself from Bush on some key issues and try to paint the Democrats as being no different from Republicans on the important issue of Iraq - especially since none of the top three Democratic candidates are running on getting the troops out of Iraq immediately (even though they will do a vastly better job on Iraq and get the troops out faster than any Republican would).
Technically, it is possible that any of the Democratic candidates running for President could win in the general election. However, the probability of winning is higher for the top three candidates.
Between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards, it is harder to decide on their likelihood of winning. As of this time I strongly believe Sen. Clinton has the edge in electability. Sen. Clinton will have to deal with the often false and highly negative impressions the GOP and the media created of her in the 1990s and will continue to create in the foreseeable future - impressions that some of her opponents are trying to keep alive today with false attacks on her character. In fact, I can't think of any prominent female politician in modern U.S. history who has been subject to the obscene levels of depraved or fraudulent vilification and irrational hatred sometimes bordering on the insane, that she has been subject to (especially from the Right, but also from portions of the Left - as I've shown using just a few examples in the past several weeks). However, she has some key advantages in her arsenal: (a) she is one of those few politicians who is both extremely smart and really knows how to fight, (b) the GOP and the media have trashed her silly for almost 2 decades and dug up just about everything they can about her and she's still standing tall, and (c) in New York state, where voters know her best she has impressively high approval ratings amongst Democrats, Independents and Republicans, further proof that as voters get to see and hear the real Sen. Clinton there is a good chance they will tend to favor her candidacy. It is for these reasons that the GOP fears her the most as a general election opponent.
Sen. Edwards starts off with the advantage that he is viewed more positively in the broader population than Sen. Clinton, but a key disadvantage he will face going into the general election is that he has completely changed his positions on several key issues compared to where he was on those issues during his U.S. Senate career and his 2004 Presidential/Vice-Presidential run. I believe these are changes in the right direction based on facts on the ground that have changed, but this would be a challenge he has to surmount against the GOP machine that skewered Sen. John Kerry in 2004. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that the mainstream media hates him - probably not as much as they dislike Sen. Clinton - but they hate him enough to keep referring to irrevelant haircuts, the size of his home and all kinds of crap that they could generally care less about when it comes to a candidate like Sen. Obama or the Republicans.
Sen. Barack Obama, in my assessment, has the lowest probability of winning amongst the top three candidates primarily because he is dangerously unvetted, has never faced strong Republican opposition, and has a campaign that is already making serious mistakes that will seriously haunt them in the general election if he were to become the Democratic nominee.
2. Voting Record and Campaign Contributions
The Senate voting records of the three top candidates do not show any substantial differences overall, even though there are specific areas where one candidate may be better than the others. Let's break-up this section into four parts:
2-A. Issues Pertaining to Corporatist Interests
When it comes to topics pertaining to corporatist interests, let me summarize what I found from my research, where I showed that the claim that Sen. Clinton is a "Corporate Democrat" is extraordinarily misleading and just plain wrong:
(a) Consistent with my observations (and caveats) in Part 1 of this series, outside of national security and war, Sen. Clinton gets high-to-very-high progressive scores almost across the board. In short, her voting history reflects a very high consistency of voting with a majority of the most progressive Senators in Congress across a multitude of issues - especially those concerning corporate interests. This does not, in any way, mean that she never voted badly - of course she has done so, but on the whole she voted far more in sync with the most progressive members of Congress than otherwise - contrary to the claim that I responded to in Part 2 of this series.
(b) When we look at the overall Progressive Punch score for Sen. Clinton, it is apparent that on the whole, she voted more progressively and more in sync with the most progressive Democrats in the Senate (92%) than did Sen. Obama (90%) and Sen. Dodd (87%). Now, granted there is likely to be some noise in the data - so, let's be somewhat conservative in our assessment and say that she was at least as progressive overall in her voting as Sen. Obama and Sen. Dodd.
(c) Although the Far Right would love to try and make Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Clinton seem like twins separated at birth, Sen. Lieberman's voting record is nothing like Sen. Clinton's in the majority of categories. Sen. Lieberman broke with the most progressive Senators far more frequently than Sen. Clinton did and voted with the GOP far more frequently than Sen. Clinton did. Clearly, we can't look at his voting record and conclude that he has a "solid" progressive record overall. For example, on labor rights he is at 58% to Sen. Clinton's 91% progressive score according to Progressive Punch. On corporate subsidies he is at 67% to Sen. Clinton's 100% progressive score. On war and peace his progressive score is at an abysmal 48% (more than 1 in 2 votes with the GOP and against the most progressive Democrats!) compared to Sen. Clinton's 80% - which in turn is just slightly lower than Sen. Obama's (86%) or Sen. Dodd's (83%) scores on war and peace. Indeed, on human rights and civil liberties, Sen. Clinton has the highest score at 82%, slightly ahead of Sen. Obama (77%) and Sen. Dodd (73%).
The data on Sen. Edwards is more limited, but he also does have a fairly progressive record overall on the above issues. [NOTE: This post compares the candidates on Bankruptcy legislation].
2-B. Judicial and Attorney General Nominations
On the topic of radical judges and Bush's Attorney General nominees, my main findings are that:
The judgement that the Democratic candidates showed on these nominations is also revealing of the depth of their progressive nature and whether they were willing to act consistently to preserve a fair Judiciary and DOJ that are not ideologically shifted to the conservative side. In order to provide additional color to the voting patterns of the Presidential candidates, I compare their voting records to those of Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is generally considered a progressive netroots hero (a person whom I admire) and to those of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who is
notconsidered the opposite of a netroots hero for his serial enabling of the Bush White House's criminality.
The data presented in this post on the worst Judicial and AG nominees of George Bush shows that Sen. Hillary Clinton has an almost spotless and the most progressive voting record with respect to these nominees. Sen. Obama's record is very progressive but the vast majority of the nominees in question came to the Senate floor at a time when Sen. Obama was not yet in the Senate - so it is difficult to assess whether his record would have been as progressive as Senator Clinton's had he voted on all of the same nominees. Sen. Edwards's record is also very good, but he missed some votes. Sen. Biden, Sen. Feingold and Sen. Dodd have decent records overall but are marred by votes for a handful of bad nominees (including, in Sen. Feingold's and Sen. Dodd's case, individuals like Attorney General John Ashcroft and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts). Unsurprisingly, Sen. Lieberman has the worst record overall.
A corollary to these findings is that anyone who continues to criticize Sen. Hillary Clinton as being an unprincipled triangulator or a closet Republican, but simultaneously and uncritically holds up Sen. Russell Feingold as a progressive netroots hero is not representing Sen. Clinton's very progressive record accurately.
2-C. Iraq and Iran
Sen. Obama v. Sen. Clinton
IRAQ: Outside of Sen. Obama's prescient and commendable opposition to the Iraq vote/war in 2002, his voting record on Iraq has been virtually identical to that of Sen. Clinton - indicating that his actions on Iraq have been barely different from Sen. Clinton's. There are also no significant differences between Sen. Obama's vision and Sen. Clinton's vision on how they would deal with Iraq as President - the differences are arguably nuances.
IRAN: On Iran, despite Sen. Obama's criticism of Sen. Clinton's support for the toothless Kyl-Lieberman "Sense of the Senate" resolution, his support for a Bill earlier in 2007 that called for the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, his views on the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and on Iran's support for terrorism inside Iraq, and his views on the options he would consider using to deal with Iran, do not differ in any significant way from the vision of Sen. Clinton.
Hence, Sen. Obama's claim that he is "fundamentally different" from Sen. Clinton hinges almost entirely on the fact that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. There is little "fundamental difference" between them on how they acted in Congress and how they would address Iraq and Iran going forward.
Sen. Edwards v. Sen. Clinton
IRAQ: Sen. Edwards was actually even more hawkish against Iraq in the 2002-2003 timeframe and voted against key progressive amendments that Sen. Clinton supported (a 1-year limit on the authorization, raising taxes to fund the war, a report to examine intelligence manipulation by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war). Outside of that, their voting records on Iraq are largely similar (he missed several votes during his 2004 Presidential campaign). Since then Sen. Edwards has conceded that his support for the Iraq war was wrong and a mistake. For her part, Sen. Clinton expressed regret for "giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused" (on Iraq). Looking ahead, the Iraq policies of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards are very similar and seem to differ mostly in nuance rather than in substance.
IRAN: The Iran policies of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards also seem to differ mostly in nuance rather than in substance. Sen. Edwards has been at least as hawkish against Iran as Sen. Clinton has and has laid out a diplomacy-based approach to engage with Iran, just as Sen. Clinton has. For all intents and purposes, Sen. Edwards mainly differs from Sen. Clinton on the specific designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, but that is also essentially a nuance, especially since he supported the designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism - a designation that is far more broad and serious than the designation of an arm of the Iranian Government (the Revolutionary Guards) as a terrorist entity.
Hence, Sen. Edwards is very close to Sen. Clinton on Iraq and Iran - both on votes and positions - than the current electoral rhetoric might seem to indicate.
There are two key points I want to additionally emphasize:
(a) There is reasonable doubt as to whether Sen. Obama would have voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution if he had been in the U.S. Senate at the time. Everything he has done in the U.S. Senate on Iraq has been almost 100% in lock-step with Sen. Clinton.
(b) The whole attack from Sen. Obama and Sen. Edwards on Sen. Clinton for her support for Kyl-Lieberman is highly misleading or false and there is far less to that vote than meets the eye. Further, Sen. Obama - who was a no-show for a vote that he later declared to be of earth-shaking significance - has taken positions that are largely consistent with the spirit of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment.
2-D. Campaign Contributions
When it comes to the topic of campaign contributions, both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have taken funds from PACs/lobbyists through most of their career, unlike Sen. Edwards, who has not. However:
A.1 The vast majority of contributions to Sen. Clinton's and Sen. Obama's campaigns are from individuals [Table 1.1]. Known PAC (incl. lobbyist) contributions constitute barely ~2% of Sen. Clinton's total receipts and barely ~1% of Sen. Obama's total receipts (Note: I don't have the break-up of the contributions that Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama transferred from "Other" sources). In my book, this difference is pretty minor, especially when I look at this in conjunction with their voting records (discussed below). As I noted in the introduction to this post, Sen. Edwards has negligible contributions from PACs.
A.2 With respect to their PAC contributions, the percentages of PAC contributions that Sen. Clinton received from business interests (55%), labor (23%) and ideological/single-issue groups (21%) are virtually identical to the percentages of PAC contributions that Sen. Obama received from those same interests (55%, 23%, 22%) [Table 1.1].
A.3 A review of the PAC funds that Senator Clinton and Sen. Obama received from each business sector - as a percentage of the total contributions they received from that sector - shows marginal differences between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton in most cases. (The only significant difference is that Sen. Obama received a noticeably higher percentage of PAC funds (to Total funds) from Ideological or Single-Issue Group PACs than Sen. Clinton did) [Table 1.2].
A.4 In terms of quality of disclosure, both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have comparable levels of disclosure on the source of their funds, although Sen. Obama has a slightly higher non-disclosure rate (10.6% to Sen. Clinton's 7.5%) [Table 1.1], that is comparable to Sen. Edwards' non-disclosure rate (10.2%). I would not usually point this out, but I am doing so since Sen. Obama has been critical of Sen. Clinton's alleged non-disclosure on some campaign finance matters.
P.S. As an additional reference, it is worth noting this "Fact Check" post in the Washington Post on Sen. Obama's and Sen. Edwards' claims regarding their "purity" when it comes to PAC/lobbyist money.
In other words, just as Bradley exited the Senate and adopted the "reformer" mantle in the Presidential election by renouncing PAC funds, Sen. Obama did something very similar as he entered the Presidential race after having enjoyed liberal use of PAC funds during his IL State Senate and U.S. Senate campaigns. So, there are two important observations I want to make from all this data.
First, Sen. Clinton has been repeatedly attacked by Sen. Obama for doing something he did routinely for most of his political life and something that he only conveniently "gave up" as he entered the Presidential campaign, to arm himself with the Bradleyesque attack sound-bites that he could use against his opponent. This is one more item in the long list of similarities between his campaign and that of Bill Bradley.
Second, I would urge you to read this entire AP article "Obama's Complex History with Lobbyists" (from which I excerpted a portion above) because it reveals the kind of nuance and complexity in Sen. Obama's career that he and Sen. Edwards have repeatedly denounced when it comes to Sen. Clinton's career. For example, you will notice that Sen. Obama has long had a close working relationship with many lobbyists, has often socialized with them and even worked with them to write legislation. However, he has had a fairly progressive voting record in general and he also helped write some strong ethics reform Bills in Illinois that helped curb corporatist and lobbyist influence in politics, which is highly commendable. This is the nuance you completely lose if you simply respond like unthinking Pavlovian dogs to the braying from some Democratic candidates about how candidates who take money from PACs are always unprincipled sellouts.
Some of you may recall from my post comparing Sen. Obama's and Sen. Clinton's voting history and contributions from PACs, that they both have almost equally progressive voting records. The point I was making - something completely reinforced by the AP article on Sen. Obama - is that it is quite possible for a politician to be close to lobbyists/PACs or take contributions from them and still vote very progressively. Just like Sen. Edwards' history in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Obama's history in the IL State Senate and the U.S. Senate and Sen. Clinton's history in the U.S. Senate all provide multiple pieces of strong evidence for my previous observation that that how you vote is usually a function of your ideology and your character, not how much PAC money you take. Yet, there is deep negativity among some progressives towards Sen. Clinton when it comes to the topic of PACs and "special interests", that is usually absent among the same people who worship those (Sen. Edwards and Sen. Obama) who have often fed and milked this very negativity.
I want to illustrate this dichotomy using another classic example.
Here was the Obama campaign's response to the AP article:
"Throughout his career, Barack Obama has fought to reduce the outsized influence lobbyists wield over the legislative process and to give a voice to underrepresented Americans," spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Keep that in mind as we revisit Sen. Clinton's comment at Yearly Kos that resulted in boos:
Then it was Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s turn: “Well, well, I think it’s a position that John certainly has taken. Well, I have to say that I don’t, I don’t think based on my 35 years in fighting for what I believe in anybody seriously believes I am going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group.”
Of course, Matt - who had a nuanced view on Clinton's Yearly Kos comments in one post - failed to point out something pretty obvious, that I've pointed out before, something that Larry Lessig missed as well:
For example, she is frequently criticized (often misleadingly) for the contributions she has received from the healthcare industry - yet it is rarely pointed out that on the 2003 Medicare Bill (one that was aggressively supported by Big Pharma + HMOs) she voted against both the initial version (which many leading Democrats - incl. Sen. Biden and Sen. Dodd - voted for) and the final version of the Bill and made a lengthy floor statement in the Senate highlighting the major problems with the Bill. If anything, her voting record on issues that corporate interests hold near and dear seems to be fairly progressive and generally comparable to Sen. Obama's, and her ratings from progressive groups and labor interests are usually very good. Perhaps even more importantly, the judgement she has shown in (not) voting for reactionary and radical nominees (esp. judicial nominees) of Bush is pretty impressive and rarely noted given the long-term impact of judicial appointments (and her record on this is arguably better than that of netroots hero Sen. Russell Feingold). So, while it is fair to criticize her for her position on lobbyists, I think to do so without simultaneously giving her credit for her voting record is unfair.
Matt could have easily cited the fact that even though the healthcare industry was a "major financial backer" of Sen. Clinton (for the record, Sen. Clinton's lifetime contributions from healthcare related PACs is ~$266K - a mere drop in the ocean of the total contributions she has received!), she voted against their interests in a very important recent legislation, unlike some other Democrats. Rather, the extra-negative image of her is passed on repeatedly while Sen. Obama continues to be portrayed as Mr. Clean despite lobbyists and PACs having being a "major financial backer" of his.
When it comes to Sen. Edwards, my main findings are the following:
So, how did "populist", "anti-special-interest"-crusader John Edwards vote in Congress after taking a sum total of ZERO dollars from PACs and lobbyists? He voted in favor of a Bankruptcy Bill not once but twice, voted against filibustering the bill and voted against some progressive amendments to the Bill, he supported NAFTA as recently as 2004, he voted in favor of storing nuclear waste at Yucca mountain, he voted in favor of No Child Left Behind, he voted in favor of the Andean trade agreement and easing trade relations with China - not to mention, he voted in favor of the 2002 Iraq war authorization resolution and stood by his vote in 2004, he voted against an attempt to restrict the Iraq war authorization to one year, he voted against creating an independent report on pre-war intelligence manipulation, he voted against an attempt to raise taxes to fund the war, and he voted in favor of labeling Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. You get the picture.
With this "pledge" stunt of his, I unfortunately have to draw the line and point out that some of us still have some brains left and don't intend to email either the "pledge" or our brains to him. Sen. Edwards is running on a platform that says you can only trust people who take no contributions from PACs/lobbyists. As he has shown through his own career in the Senate, this claim can be catastrophically wrong. Who you take money from is a factor, but it is absolutely not the kind of defining factor that Sen. Edwards makes it out to be. What matters most is the character and ideology of the individual - NOT who they take money from. Lawyer-turned-lobbyist Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) has about $100K in PAC receipts, Republican Governor Mike Huckabee has taken barely $20,000 from PACs and Republican Governor Mitt Romney has about $300,000 in PAC funds - and all of them are far to the right of Sen. Hillary Clinton even though they have taken much less PAC money than she has. In other words, Sen. Clinton is very progressive on corporatist matters even when compared to Sen. Edwards and Sen. Obama and you have three top Republican candidates who are far to her right who have taken significantly less contributions from PACs than she has.
3. Ability to Build the Democratic Brand
This is one of most extraordinarily important attributes that I believe a Democratic candidate needs to be measured on - an extremely strong commitment to the Democratic brand and a commitment to communicate and act in ways that will build a positive image of the Democratic party. On this metric, Sen. Obama gets pretty poor grades in my book:
... (b) Sen. Obama has shown a very strong tendency to repeatedly use false right-wing frames to negatively describe the left or Democrats in sweeping fashion on a number of issues. He has also exhibited a significant comfort level with the use of false right-wing frames to discuss policy or criticize other progressives or Democrats, even while he misleadingly criticizes Sen. Clinton for allegedly enabling Bush and the right with her vote on Kyl-Lieberman. Yet, when criticized for his repeated use of false right-wing frames, he has responded by saying that "the notion that somehow because George Bush was trying to drum up fear in order to execute [his] agenda means that Democrats shouldn't talk about it at all I think is a mistake" and also sometimes by launching misleading attacks against his progressive critics. [Taylor Marsh has a post on what she calls "The Progressive Cannibalism of Barack Obama"]
(c) The voting records of both Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton are very similar and much more progressive than Sen. Lieberman's. However, contrary to the false, yet common knee-jerk linkage of Sen. Clinton with Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Obama's rhetorical history has a lot more in common with his mentor Sen. Lieberman, whom he went out of the way to support prior to Ned Lamont's win in the Democratic primary - by giving a speech praising his character, intellect and qualifications, despite the fact that Sen. Lieberman was perhaps the worst triangulator against Democrats/progressives and Bush's #1 enabler on Iraq and national security in the Democratic party at the time. Post-primary, Sen. Obama supported Lamont via a letter to supporters and a donation. In contrast, Sen. Clinton offered what was tepid support for Lieberman before the primary, stating up front that she will support the eventual winner of the primary, and then went out of her way after the primary to meet with Lamont, donate funds, offer to do a fundraiser and offered one of her top campaign strategists (Howard Wolfson) as an advisor to Lamont's campaign.
In way too many of these instances, it is clear that if Sen. Clinton had acted in the same way as Sen. Obama, she would have been trashed relentlessly as a Desperate Calculating TriangulatorTM and torn to shreds by her critics (oh wait...). Sen. Obama, on the other hand, generally continues to enjoy The Progressive SaintTM status. This Clinton Double Standard is as interesting as it is appalling.
As I said in a follow-on post:
- What is fascinating about Sen. Obama is that in his Sister Souljah approach [against the progressive left], he has exploited an environment conducive to Democrats, that was created largely because of the aggressiveness of the progressive left and the progressive blogosphere over the past several years - an aggressiveness especially against the in-the-tank traditional media that he has specifically courted. If the progressive blogs and netroots did not exist and had not been as aggressive as they were in challenging the conventional wisdom spewed by Republicans and their propagandists in the media, it would have been virtually impossible for Sen. Obama to say that he would meet unconditionally with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and so on upon assuming office and think that he has even a 1% chance of winning the general election. In fact, it would have been much more difficult for him (and the other candidates) to veer left on other matters too. As it turns out, the real Sen. Obama is actually to the right of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards in some areas - at least in his rhetoric - and he hopes this will win him points in the media and with Independent/Republican voters and balance his left-leaning rhetoric on the war (which is the most important issue in the minds of many Democrats voting in the primary).
I have seen enough of Sen. Obama's supposed "post-partisan" non-ideology in action to know that, while he will certainly be better than any Republican as President, he is definitely not my #1 choice in the Democratic primary. I have deep concerns about what an Obama administration would be like - one that will likely be interested in compromise as an end in itself, while repeatedly ditching the progressive netroots as he has been inclined to do already (even before winning), when his soaring rhetoric meets the reality of the not-so-soaring ideology of Congress and the Republican Noise Machine. It is probably the expectation of this dynamic, along with Sen. Obama's willingness to repeatedly throw progressives under the bus, that has Obama supporters like Andrew Sullivan - who once infamously tarred swaths of the left in this country as a fifth column - energized and welcoming of his candidacy.
In some respects, Senator Edwards, who is an extremely passionate and inspiring speaker, is the strongest in his commitment to strengthen the Democratic brand. However, he goes too far in criticizing other Democrats using misleading metrics that say little about whether a Democrat is progressive or not and would have the effect of excluding many very progressive Democrats from political office. Sen. Clinton, on the other hand makes it clear that she is a strong Democrat who will fight for Democratic values against Republican attacks but has been known to take some unpopular positions that are different from what the activist base wants to hear. However, she has learnt of late, to work better with the Democratic netroots and she generally does not communicate in a way that portrays Democrats in poor light. For example, she has aggressively fought for a community that has strong disagreements with her (Daily Kos) - by defending, on Fox News no less, the community's right to express it's views. Despite the mountain of often baseless criticism she gets from the Daily Kos community, she was willing to engage the community directly at Yearly Kos. Unlike Sen. Obama she also provided a lot more support to netroots favorite Ned Lamont in CT, against Obama-mentor Joe Lieberman, who became an Independent in late 2006. Additionally, the Clintons fought back against the GOP in the 1990s in a progressive-infrastructure vacuum and progressive-media vacuum and did the best they could under those circumstances. Even though the Democratic party (in Congress) had held power for decades (including some candidates currently running for the Democratic nomination), they had done very little to address this vacuum. Indeed, the Clintons realized the enormous effort required to fill that vacuum and Sen. Clinton has supported the creation of progressive infrastructure in recent years - whether it be think-tanks (like the Center for American Progress, which has been one of the voices calling for withdrawal from Iraq) or media watch sites like Media Matters or other entities.
Here's another aspect which not too many people are aware of. From what I've seen or heard, Sen. Clinton also comes across as particularly passionate on progressive causes and very engaging in smaller settings (anywhere from a handful of people to a few dozens). This is a dynamic that this Washington Post piece recently captured (emphasis mine):
Reporters, meanwhile, were making their way along unmarked back roads, past moose crossings and flocks of geese, to find a home on an isolated cul-de-sac in Goffstown. There, Judy Lanza, a nurse, and her husband, Joe, a retired police officer, hosted Clinton in a small kitchen adorned with pumpkins, apple baskets, a cookie jar and a straw doll affixed to the wall.
For more than an hour, 30 journalists watched from the small, darkened living room as Clinton chatted, awkwardly at first, with the five preselected guests. Her rhetoric against health insurance companies was harsher than might have been expected. They give patients the "runaround," deny care, "slow-walk" the payment of bills, she declared. "This is all part of their business model. This is how they make money. . . . The small-business health-care market is really rigged."
Let me also add another angle to this. Certainly, the voting record of the candidates also helps or hurts the Democratic brand (e.g., Sen. Edwards' and Sen. Clinton's vote on the Iraq war resolution and Sen. Obama's and Sen. Clinton's voting record on Iraq in the pre-2007 phase when not much was done to limit Bush's ability to continue the war likely hurt the brand a bit although not irretrievably given the 2006 elections - but their progressive voting record on many issues has helped). The future policy positions advocated by the candidates on key issues also signifies how they might help in building the brand. On this metric, there is not a lot of difference between the candidates today - although I have some more thoughts on this in a subsequent section.
Taking all of the above information into consideration, I rank Sen. Clinton highest on this measure, followed closely by Sen. Edwards, with Sen. Obama a distant third.
4. Ability to Work Well with Independents and Republicans to Bring About Major Positive Changes
Sen. Edwards' rhetoric can sometimes be very strong and gives the impression that he is more difficult to work with and more difficult to find a compromise with. As I discussed in the previous section, Sen. Obama has made it very obvious he is actively courting Republicans and Independents - so, in his case, I don't see a problem with his working with Independents and Republicans but I see a definite risk that he will compromise too easily and too much. In my assessment, Sen. Clinton is somewhere in between these two. She can be a fierce partisan but she has a successful record in her Senate career of working well with people quite opposed to her ideology. Her approval rating in New York state is currently at 60% even with all the attacks on her by Democrats and Republicans alike in the last few months, and 33% of Republicans still approve of the job she is doing, as do 44% of independents and 78% of Democrats (strong majorities of liberals and moderates approve and she gets majority approval across all major regions on NY state). This is another reflection of the fact that people who get to know her regardless of political orientation, end up respecting her over time, regardless of past perspectives. This report on her re-election in 2006 as Senator has some pertinent observations (emphasis mine):.
Her supporters maintain that her ability to run well anywhere in upstate New York outside the Democratic cities is a tribute to her persistence and conspicuous attention to detail. She arrived in New York for her 2000 campaign with considerable political baggage--seen by many as a highly partisan First Lady and vulnerable to charges of being a carpetbagger and opportunist.
But from the start, she made it her point to woo voters on the most hostile terrain. She launched her candidacy in the summer of 1999 in Pindars Corners in rural upstate New York on the farm of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the state's outgoing Democratic senator. Clinton followed her announcement with a "Listening Tour" through upstate counties. According to Michael Tomasky in his book, Hillary's Turn, she was a sensitive listener: "She arrived at each venue with pen in hand and a notebook on her lap," he wrote. "... She constantly scribbled notes as people spoke."
As the 2000 campaign wore on, she repeatedly appeared across the region, not just in the Democratic cities, but in the more Republican-oriented small towns and villages in between. It was for more than quick stops, as she often spent hours at a time meeting and greeting voters throughout the economically challenged, often ignored upstate region. In 2000, she carved out a beachhead in this large swath of the state; in 2006 she significantly expanded it.
What do her inroads in upstate New York mean for her presidential prospects in 2008? Probably not much in terms of predicting her electability on a national scale. "As upstate New York goes so goes Ohio is sort of a stretch," says Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Poll in Poughkeepsie. "But it does show that she wears well over time," he adds. "And that probably bodes well for her."
Here, for example, is another observation by conservative Cunning Realist from earlier this year:
While traveling during the past week, I visited a longtime friend who recently met Hillary Clinton. The event was private and exclusive -- only a few dozen business leaders attended, along with some spouses. Hillary spoke, took questions, then met with everyone personally.
During the Q & A session, the executives asked her some complex questions about technology, international trade, globalization, etc. My friend said her responses were in-depth and extremely intelligent. He was also impressed by the personal interest she took in everyone during the meet and greet session; she spent a few minutes speaking with each person individually, frequently asking questions that indicated she both listened to and thought about their comments.
According to my friend, a political independent who has never been particularly fond of Hillary, she was a huge hit. He went home ready to vote for her, and he sensed others in the audience felt the same way. His exclamation "She's smart!" might show how low expectations have fallen during the past six years, but it's also a pithy indication that mindless single-issue swagger -- on display during parts of the recent Republican candidate debates, unfortunately -- may be decidedly unfashionable in 2008.
Another important way to gauge how candidates will do well on this metric in a Presidential role is to see how well they have thought through the political challenges of working with the opposition once in the White House, in order to pass Bills that Republicans would likely strongly oppose. Let me use some observations by David Roberts of Gristmill from a recent global climate change forum in Los Angeles to discuss this point (you can view the videos of the candidates speaking and answering questions right here):
Whatever you might think about Hillary Clinton, she has gravitas. I've seen her in person twice now and I've felt the same vibe in the room both times, a sense that a person of historical significance has entered. She seemed somewhat muted Saturday evening, perhaps because she was slightly under the weather (I heard her people had requested tissues). Intentionally or not, her serious demeanor worked -- it played off the activist energy in the crowd and came off as hard-bitten, realistic, even, dare I say, presidential....Clinton was by far the most responsive to specific questions. She argued in some detail for why she is uniquely able to accomplish something on this issue. And when I asked her about the Lieberman-Warner climate bill in the Senate, she didn't say whether she'd vote for it, but she did speak at length about its strengths and weaknesses, and indicate that she's be following Barbara Boxer's lead on it. (Hiding behind Boxer, before a California audience, is quite politically astute.)
My sense during the Q&A is that while Edwards' top-line proposals are immensely appealing -- efficiency, green jobs, fighting poverty, etc. -- he's either unwilling or unable to go much deeper. In response to specific questions, he would always go lateral, covering broad swathes of ground while staying light on specifics. It was as though he were merely accessing parts of his stump speech. I don't know whether he knows this stuff in a deeper-than-surface way; maybe he just stays at the top level because he thinks it works better rhetorically.
[NOTE: Tom Hayden made some observations on Sen. Clinton from this forum as well].
I watched the videos of Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton and I definitely agree with Roberts. Clinton comes across as being extremely well informed and like the person most in command of the facts and policies and the most able to provide detailed responses on how she will bring about the changes she is advocating from a political perspective. This is probably due to her vast experience and pragmatic approach to politics. Edwards on the other hand frames the issues, the broad strokes and his proposals very well - which is an amazing gift that few people have - but does not usually cogently articulate how he will manage to translate his vision into political reality. For example, in the Q&A he asserted that we cannot just assume or accept that we will be unable to get passed what we need to get passed. Sounds great, but it is not particularly convincing to me personally because rhetoric is easy but reality is always more challenging - as he has discovered through his own voting record.