A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

WHOSE CHOICE?

Dahlia Lithwick notes the mendacity of choice language on abortion from anti-choice politicians like McCain and Palin:

In announcing that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant last week, GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin used this puzzling locution: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” Pundits were quick to point out that Bristol’s “decision” must have been at least somewhat constrained by her mom’s position–as articulated in November 2006–that she would oppose an abortion for her daughters, even if they had been raped…So what exactly, one wonders, was young Bristol permitted to decide?

These rhetorical somersaults are, as Lithwick notes, the same ones John McCain employed in talking about a hypothetical Meghan McCain pregnancy eight years ago. There’s no mystery here: Americans like choice more than they like abortion. Republicans know this, so they dress up their hard-line anti-choice positions as though they were just about choosing against abortion, while never conceding that there should be a choice at all (in my college days the student anti-choice group was called Choose Life At Yale; they published an ad comparing voting for John Kerry – who also advocates choosing life but is pro-choice – to voting for Jefferson Davis). And the media too often plays along, as when the New York Times profiled women in an abortion clinic making painful choices that weighed medical, religious, economic, and social factors; the Times held up these women, who were doing exactly what the pro-choice movement defends women’s right to do, as representing a middle ground in the abortion debate.

I’d add that watching Palin’s gymnastics on choice is probably the most interesting part of the 2006 gubernatorial debate re-aired on C-SPAN over the weekend. For someone who wants the government to criminalize a woman’s choices about her future, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is awfully “personal.” She answers the first question on choice – about whether as a public official she would attend a public event to publicly support legislation banning abortion – by saying that she’s pro-life and “I don’t try to hide it and I’m not ashamed of it.” When asked whether a rape victim should be able to choose abortion, she objects that it wouldn’t “be up to me as an individual” whether that woman was forced to carry the fetus for nine months – leaving unsaid that if she had her way, it wouldn’t be up to the woman as an individual either. But Palin makes clear that she’d force the rape victim to carry the fetus by specifying only the life of the mother as acceptable grounds for abortion. Then she answers the follow-up question by saying rape is “a very private matter also, but personally, I would choose life.” The hypocrisy here is glaring: if Sarah Palin indeed wants that woman’s choice to be private, she should oppose government outlawing it. But she doesn’t.

So it should come as no surprise a minute later when she addresses euthanasia with the same rhetorical sleight of hand: “This is a very personal and private and sensitive issue and I do respect others’ opinions on it, but personally I do believe that no, government should not be sanctioning or assisting taking life.”

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

THE GREAT ESCAPE

This Times piece features a silly and all-too common turn of phrase (emphasis mine):

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who joined the Senate in 2005 and thus escaped the Iraq vote that has come to haunt Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry, used the platform of Senate hearings to lacerate the Bush Iraq policy and affirm his own opposition to the war.

Sure, one of the annoying things about being an elected legislator is that along with your deliciously nuanced views on the issues of the day, you need to vote for or against bills you didn’t write yourself to say just what you wanted them to. But is there anyone who knew who Barack Obama was in 2002 who didn’t know his position on invading Iraq?

The man spoke at an anti-war rally and called the proposed invasion “dumb” and an “attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us.” Do Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy really believe that he was hedging on whether or not the bill for the war should pass?

WWGD?

One of the Times’ blogs highlights this post from a member of the FireDogLake crew on the posthumous revelation that Ford had his doubts about the Bush Iraq strategy:

But when a reporter is in possession of information that is vital to the country, that might change whether we go to war or whom we elect for president, and the only reason for withholding the information is to protect the person interviewed from embarrassing his own party — well, there must be some other principle that applies, don’tcha think?

This argument is less than persuasive for a couple reasons. First, barring time travel, nothing said in July 2004 could have stopped Bush from invading Iraq in March 2003. Unless Scarecrow is predicting a future War in Iraq fought for lack of candor from Gerald Ford about this one. Or expecting Gerald Ford’s criticism of the War in Iraq to keep us out of a war with Iran.

Which brings us to the second problem with this argument: Gerald Ford doesn’t sway swing voters. If the man had endorsed John Kerry, that would’ve been big news. Expressing doubts about the Bush plan for Iraq is just what every respectable conservative neither working for George Bush nor running to succeed him nor named Rush Limbaugh was doing two years ago. That includes Paul Bremer.

Henry Kissinger, who many more folks credit or blame with the foreign policy of the 1960s than Gerald Ford, expressed concerns at least as strong about the Iraq invasion, and he did it before the invasion happened. And yet it happened anyway.

Of course the expectation that ex-Presidents should be elder statesmen in a way that doesn’t include weighing in on the performance of current Presidents is silly. And swallowing criticism of your party’s nominee in the months before the election is less than courageous (here’s looking at you, Christie Todd Whitman). And no story you broke four decades ago is an excuse to cozy up to the President for as long as he remains popular. But did George Bush ride to reelection on the imagined confidence of Gerald Ford? Not so much.

RUSS WON’T RUN

Not a shocker, given that the past year and a half has seen the rise of John Edwards as Un-Hillary lightning rod and intensifying inklings of a run by Barack Obama, who like Feingold vocally opposed the war – and worst of all for Feingold’s chances, his second divorce and lack of a third marriage by the midterms (despite the efforts of the erstwhile Committee to Find Russ Feingold a Date).

That said, Feingold’s popularity in the country’s most representative state, which drew him votes from a quarter of Bush voters two years ago and has stayed strong as he talked about running for president and came out for phased withdrawl from Iraq, equal marriage rights, and censuring Bush, should be a lesson for the field of Democratic presidential contenders, and for the primary voters who’ll choose among them. You remember them: the ones who cleverly voted for John Kerry because he was the most electable.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

NEAR-VICTORY HAS A THOUSAND FATHERS

Democrats got the closest thing to a surprise electoral victory we’ve had in a while on Tuesday when Paul Hackett pulled over 48% in the most Republican district in Ohio. Understandably, spin machines on all sides have been in overdrive in the week since to claim vindication in the results. Case in point: Ed Kilgore’s claim that Hackett made it to 48% because the unreconstructed liberals in the “netroots” were willing to face facts, eschew their litmus tests, and let Hackett run with the kind of centrism the DLC has been shopping around the country:

The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a “red” district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett’s campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots.

Reading Kilgore’s take, you’d think Hackett was a regular Zell Miller – or at least a conservative Democrat, emphasis on the conservative, like Ken Salazar. It makes good copy if your organization is devoted to pulling the party away from the left: in a sudden fit of reasonableness, the liberal fringe recognizes reality and gets behind the centrist candidate who can win. Trouble is, Paul Hackett is no Ken Salazar. Don’t take it from me – check out his website. He bucks the party on guns, but otherwise, he’s in or to the left of the mainstream of the House Democrats. Not only is he resolutely opposed to Bush’s social security privatization scheme, he takes the step most Americans support but too many Democrats are afraid to talk about: calling for an increase in the cap on the payroll tax (hear that suggested by the DLC recently? Didn’t think so). He condemns outsourcing, and rather than echoing GOP rhetoric about “big government,” he exposes it for the sham argument that it is. And on perhaps the signal issue of the campaign – the war in Iraq – he stands well to the left not only of the DLC of a significant chunk of the Democratic party in the House. If not for his being a veteran, one would expect the DLC to respond to his rhetoric opposing the decision to go to war with the usual hand-wringing about the party’s flagging credibility on national security.

Of course, if Paul Hackett hadn’t been a veteran, it would have been a very different race. But if all Kilgore means is that liberals conceded to pragmatists by getting behind a veteran, then the obvious question is whhere he got the idea that liberals in their hearts of hearts would rather have men and women in Congress who’ve never served in war. Maybe by reading all those DLC memos about how the Democratic party has no credibility on national security.

Bottom line is, if Paul Hackett had tanked, we’d be hearing from the conservative wing of the party about how his unreconstructed liberalism failed to resonate with mainstream voters. Making Hackett out to be an extreme left-winger would certainly be less of a leap for them than it was to make one out of John Kerry or Al Gore.

Over at The New Republic, Hillary Clinton is winning accolades from Michelle Cottle and Andrew Sullivan for her new rhetoric on abortion last week. Like Clinton herself, they’re each partially right.

Cottle takes on Jim Wallis of Sojourners and others for trying to win the “moral values” debate for Democrats by shifting it onto economic turf. She’s right to argue that responding to the heartfelt opposition of all too many working class Republicans to the Democrats’ stances on abortion and other so-called “social issues” with a sleight-of-hand is both insulting and ineffective. The Democrats do indeed need to win the values debate on the “social turf.” But, contra Cottle, a winning strategy for the Democrats will also depend on broadening the popular conception of moral politics to include the economic exploitation and persistent poverty of millions of Americans. Cottle should know better than to take on face value the idea that so-called “values voters” simply could care less about children without healthcare. She completely overlooks the extent to which, in the absence of a real discussion by Democrats of America’s savage inequalities. Republicans have been able to successfully repackage “social issues” as class grievances against liberal elites and activist judges. It’s not surprising that those who want Democrats to change the topic and trounce the GOP on economic moral issues and those who want them to change the message and trounce the GOP on social moral issues each see the other standing in the way of progress. But a winning strategy will have to do both.

Sullivan, like Cottle, writes with the stated intention of helping Democrats win on abortion. And parts of the approach for which he credits Clinton are indeed good moves. Certainly, Democratic politicians and activists should recognize the difficulty and sadness with which many women approach the choice to have an abortion (Sullivan, like most pundits, drastically exaggerates the extent to which this is not already the case). And absolutely, Democratic politicians and activists should frame access to all forms of contraception in all situations as “the surest way to prevent” abortions (nothing so new here either). As for demonstrating respect for one’s opponents, I don’t think many are arguing that the Democrats should demonstrate intentional disrespect for those who disagree on abortion.

But what those on both sides of this debate want, more than respect, is to win. And while Sullivan insists (in a strange turn of phrase) that “Democrats can still be and almost certainly should be for the right to legal abortion,” readers can be excused for coming away with a mixed message. Sullivan follows a long line of pundits and reporters in conflating changes in discourse on abortion with changes in policy. Seemingly intentional ambiguity radiates from Sullivan’s insistence that

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record: an almost relentless defense of abortion rights – even for third trimester unborn children – with no emphasis on the moral costs to all of us of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

One could read such a graph to mean that Kerry could have won the abortion debate if only he were on record mourning the “moral costs.” But it’s not clear why one would. A more intuitive reading would be: To win over “pro-life” voters, Democrats should cast more “pro-life” votes. Otherwise, how are we to understand Sullivan’s criticism of Kerry for being “almost relentless” in supporting the right to choose. Sullivan isn’t so much offering ideas on how to win the debate over abortion as urging a partial surrender.

More specifically, Sullivan lauds Clinton’s support for abstinence-only education as good politics, despite the preponderance of evidence that diverting dollars from sex ed to abstinence ed will lead to more unprotected sex and therefore more abortions. And Sullivan urges Democrats to back candidates like Bob Casey in Democratic primaries specifically because they oppose the party’s position on abortion rights. He pushes this plan – that Democrats essentially should sell their position by working against candidates who support it – as a corrective to a mythical “fatwa” against such politicians in the Democratic party. Those who believe such a fatwa exists may still be under the mistaken impression that Casey’s father was denied the chance the speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he opposed abortion and not because Casey had announced he would be voting against Bill Clinton. Either that, or they’re willing to suggest with a straight face, as Sullivan does, that for the GOP to have a pro-choice second-in-command at the RNC while the Democratic party has an anti-choice Senate Minority Leader demonstrates that “the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats.”

Finally, Sullivan wants Democrats to tone down the rhetoric about women’s rights and instead frame abortion as killing and abortion rights as a way to avert more gruesome killing. Instead of “reproductive rights,” Sullivan argues, Democrats should talk about a decision through which “one soul is destroyed and another wounded.” But while talking about abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” for the mother may help make the case, arguing that it’s a tragedy for “unborn children” won’t. Either a woman is a constitutionally-protected person with a fetus inside of her, or a fetus is a constitutionally-protected person with a womb attached. If Democrats frame abortion as killing, as Sullivan does, they will only increase support for banning abortion (and for the dissolution of the Democratic party). This too, is not a new idea. Neither is it a good one.

I have to say, the face the Democratic Party showed today deserves much more respect than the one we saw on the same day four years ago. Barbara Boxer deserves the nation’s gratitude for choosing to be a first mover – and the brunt of reactionary criticism – to force a congressional confrontation over a national disgrace. The Democratic leadership, to their credit, chose to frame the challenge as an opportunity to probe a critical crisis of legitimacy in our electoral process rather than distancing themselves from those objecting as fringe radicals. While few were willing to directly question the Bush win, speaker after speaker on the Democratic side shared accounts of suppression and made the case for reform. And in retort, the Republicans had little more to offer than readings of newspaper editorials, whining about whining, stories of dead people voting, and disingenuous praise for John Kerry’s good sportsmanship. As Jesse Jackson argued, no individual’s right to vote will be secure until voting is recognized as an individual right. The Democrats’ report bears troubling witness to just how much work we have to do.