Today, America begins a celebration of democracy. It is to be approached joyously, with optimism and hope, but also in earnestness. The process will last through early November. It will encompass, for all elections do, venality, pettiness, meanness of spirit, artifice, deceit—but these elements are included as clues to an electorate searching for meaning. No election would be credible without them. They help the alert voter discern those who are not fit. And for all of that, it is an essential process. I don’t recall in my lifetime another year in which the start of this process—the caucuses of Iowa—have been met with such anticipation.
America is a nation gone off the tracks. The people feel that keenly. And hence their anticipation of the process of decision. It means beginning anew. And for all the partisanship and divisiveness, ultimately this is a process of mending, of setting things back right.
It is a cliché to express despair about the quality of the candidates in a race. This year there is no reason for such lament. There are many candidates in this crowd who have the undeniable mettle of leadership. I have over the last weeks become a CSPAN junkie. I wanted to avoid the filters, the soundbites, the vacuous chatterboxes of the cable networks and take a close look at these candidates myself. There is plenty to be troubled about, a few reasons to laugh and to cry, but there is also no shortage of vision and hope.
Among the Republicans we see the farcical rhetoric, fearmongering and carefully coded bigotry that mark the party that Karl Rove built and which is now well into the process of imploding as its intellectual and moral bankruptcy is exposed. Until a few weeks ago it appeared to be headed to a three-way slug fest between figures drawn straight from the pages of the novels of Sinclair Lewis. There is the unmistakable image of Elmer Gantry, and then the slick-haired, immaculately tailored huckster-businessman Babbitt who can sell anyone anything and can do more 180 degree somersaults than a Chinese acrobat, and finally the frightening little man in search of a balcony set to show us that what happened in Europe between the wars really can happen here too (straight from the pages of It Can’t Happen Here). But lately the scales seem to be falling from the eyes of Republican voters, who are justifiably disgusted with the leading troika. Instead there are two candidates on the Republican side who are worthy of the race.
John McCain, a man who will likely be seen by future generations as the Daniel Webster of his generation because of his undeniable nobility of spirit and dedication to foundational values. McCain differs from Webster, however, in that he has a résumé of which Webster could only have dreamed and which certainly positions him as the figure of towering stature on the Republican side. McCain reminds us that the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower has not entirely expired, even as the party of Jefferson Davis and Strom Thurmond seems now to have stormed it from within.
And aside from McCain, there is one other figure on the Republican side who makes me want to cheer on the sidelines. He’s a Republican Congressman from Texas named Ron Paul. Now Dr. Paul is a real libertarian—unlike the great number in this country who lay claim to that label, but seem in fact never to have cracked the spine of a book by Hayek or Mises. Moreover years of service in Congress have not robbed him of the vigor of his convictions, nor of the courage to take positions which bring howls of indignation from the Rove Republicans. The greatest threat to the nation now is, I believe, the unchecked growth of the power of the executive and the dangerous erosion of civil liberties. There is only one candidate who convincingly promises to roll back the excesses of the Bush years, and his name is Ron Paul. (Incidentally, while I am a great admirer of Rep. Paul’s, I am not the Scott Horton out there beating the bushes for his campaign—that’s the other guy). One of the real tests of the corruption of the mainstream media today is its treatment of Ron Paul—he is derided as a fringe figure, and Fox has even excluded him from the debates. (I give Paul credit for the most effective and best delivered retort to Fox that I’ve ever seen, by the way. “They are scared of me and don’t want my message to get out, but it will,” Paul told the Boston Globe. “They are propagandists for this war and I challenge them on the notion that they are conservative.”) One of the things to watch tonight is whether Ron Paul will take a top-tier finish in Iowa. If he does, let’s watch Fox News and the rightwing fringe echo chamber choke on that.
Of course, at this point, the real risk for Republicans is being irrelevant. Iowa will be an important test for them. Iowa is historically a Republican state. But the Bush-Rove Republican Party seems to be busily driving Iowa Republicans across the aisle. If Independents in Iowa break for the Democrats overwhelmingly, as the polls now suggest they will, and the Republicans themselves show a lack of enthusiasm for their candidates, that will be a very bad sign for the G.O.P.
The real focus and adrenalin is on the Democratic side. One of my readers out in Iowa has been keeping me up to date on the appearances and functions. She’s an extraordinary person (like all my readers) but perhaps she reflects Iowa pretty well. She comes from a rock-ribbed Republican family, with family members who have held office as Republicans. However, all of her family are disaffected with the Bush team and are paying a lot of attention to the Democratic side this year. Here’s a note she sent me this past weekend:
went to a Hillary Clinton event today… in my hometown, about 6 blocks from my parents’ house… Chelsea was there! Hillary looks and sounds much, much better in person than she does in those 15 second soundbites. Also, Joe Klein from Time was with the press pool, and at least one national NBC reporter.
A big turnout–one of many events for her in the state today. She spoke for over half an hour; she has a very good stump speech. Chelsea didn’t speak, but she stood with her mom on the platform the team had set up for a 360 degree approach to the crowd. Bleachers with supporters and blue curtains, huge US flags. Press roped off in the back… this was at the… Memorial Building, where I and everyone else from my high school had our prom… Secret Service on the roof, dismal winter weather. Much have had almost 300 people there. Yes, imagine–an event for 300 people (great for a sparsely populated rural area). Lots of teachers are supporting her. I think she’s a wonderful senator….
My friend, like several others I spoke with, started out rather cold towards Clinton and troubled about the notion of “dynasty.” But upclose examination of the candidate has turned her around. That would be close to my own perspective. I am inherently skeptical of the idea that someone is fit for leadership because of a recognizable last name; I’d count that a negative, something that undermines democracy. I also find little congenial in the TV Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, Hillary in person is an appealing individual, even spontaneous. Of course, Hillary also has her secret weapon, the former president. I watched his speech at Council Bluffs a few days ago. This man is the most gifted political speaker of his generation. He is also capable of closing a sale. How many people went to that event unsure about Hillary and ended it prepared to vote for her, I wondered. Probably most of the audience. Including some Republicans.
Barack Obama, George Will recently wrote, is the most interesting political figure to have appeared contesting the American presidency since 1980. This assessment is certainly correct. I was wowed by the speech he delivered in Springfield launching his presidential candidacy. It was an inspirational speech, mapping a powerful vision that projects the past–the legacy of Lincoln–seamlessly into the future future. It was compellingly American even as it broke the bounds of the nation’s current narcissistic rut. I am convinced that Obama has “the vision thing” like no presidential candidate in modern times. He has a new sense of what is America—a vision that is panoramic, just as Bush’s vision was shockingly fragmentary. Obama’s actual rhetorical skills still fall a bit short, alas. Still, Obama is clearly the Democrat who can be sold most effectively to Independents and Republicans, and the one who breaks the mold of the old politics. The Republicans are sputtering in their efforts to check the Obama factor, but you can count on Jim Crow and Islamophobia to make an appearance. The crude attempts to besmirch Obama reflect an opposition which has gone barren.
So tonight Americans will gather and perform a strange rite in those 1800 precincts across the snow-driven prairie. That this process starts in America’s heartland, in a state with high levels of literacy and political awareness, and moreover in a state which now figures as the “battleground,” seems somehow very appropriate. It leaves me thinking back to that man from the American plains, from a small town out on the run from Fargo to Minneapolis, a few tiers of counties away from the Iowa line. How keenly he saw the America that was in his day, and the America that was to come. America, Sinclair Lewis said, is “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.” And his message was one that the voters should take to heart. We must not fear self-criticism and fault-finding in this process, we must not accept those who glorify everything which is American, for that may mean a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. It is a time for introspection and for self-criticism. A time to check the voices that populate our political landscape against the nation’s shared values and ideals. Who among them will withstand a test of time and truth? This election is not like the ones that went before it. Americans are not making this judgment solely for themselves. At this point, they hold the proxy of all humankind.