Short Prelude: Last summer and fall, I wrote a couple of HuffPo columns suggesting that if Gore and Hillary weren't willing to team up and run together as the two Democratic titans, then the idea of Barack Now seemed pretty darn good. Some college students on Facebook agreed with me, we had a few phone calls, and well, some pretty interesting stuff developed after that.
For the most part though, I have been watching the race develop from the sidelines. As a former DNC staffer who spent 3 years working to upend the last Bush presidency in 1992, I will freely admit that it's very difficult for me to take sides in a Democratic primary. I much prefer a role where I work quietly behind the scenes to "raise the bar" on what all of the candidates are saying and doing on the issues, and this cycle, I have been trying to play that role around the issue of energy and climate.
But now I think it's time to take a public stand, and lay out what I think it will take to win me over for good -- and maybe win over a few other voters too.
So here goes.
Dear Senator Obama:
I think I speak for a great many political pros -- and regular Joes -- in wondering when we will be seeing your next big, bold, audacious move. We're out here hoping, in droves.
So forgive me in advance for speaking bluntly, Senator, it's a personality trait of mine and not necessarily a good one. But the clock is ticking and sometimes politeness doesn't cut the mustard -- especially in presidential politics.
Yes, it's great that you are winning the money race with record numbers of small donors, but you won't have a truly great campaign until you deliver a message that does more than make the call for hope. In my experience, Americans are desperately seeking to embrace a signature idea that involves them directly in fixing their communities. Voters and non-voters alike want to know more about how they literally can roll up their sleeves and join in a new, Habitat-for-Humanity-style project of national renewal.
You seemed to hint at all that in your Springfield announcement speech, but so far you haven't told us what we can do other than wait for your election or write you a check. We're yearning for more.
Now I get that your campaign team is wisely trying to avoid the mistakes of Democratic campaigns past. No disagreement from me that we need to avoid debates over dry policy plans which fail to engage voters at the deep, emotional, gut level we need to tap.
My gut is that the answer lies in marrying a call to national service around energy efficiency and independence - getting young and old, union worker and apprentice, city and rural, black and brown and white, retrofitting a new America and busy creating the jobs and industries of tomorrow. This is hardly a new idea, but no one yet owns the idea in this campaign. To own it you need to bet big and go all in, Texas hold-em style.
People want the whole enchilada - new federal R&D and clean energy earmarks in every Congressional district, national service to weatherize the 13 million homes that remain eligible for federal assistance (many in inner cities), and I'll even bet Americans would reach into their pockets and buy freedom bonds to invest even more if they knew the jobs created would stay at home.
I don't really care what you call it. Call it Project Hope. A Green New Deal as Tom Friedman does. A green corps to rival FDR's civilian conservation corps in a new century. A new Apollo project. Renew America. Operation Iraqi Freedom. The What-Else-We-Need-To-Do-After-We-Buy-A-Prius-12-Step-Nutri-System. Or honestly...I'll (even) Take Manhattan. As in Project. That's your marketing team's call.
But I won't take no for an answer, because mark my words, your failure to deliver a compelling and big idea will cost you the election.
So what's the hold-up to giving Americans what they've been craving for?
Could it be that the hurdle to moving forward lies in your own campaign's structure? With all due respect, I worry you may be repeating the fatal flaw that the Kerry campaign made in 2004 by creating silo-ed "policy groups" and treating the energy issue as a separate issue rather than as a centerpiece of a smart war on terror and winning economics.
Understand in your gut, as voters already do, that all of these issues are connected.
Otherwise you will be stuck, as you are right now, in wonky debates within your campaign apparatus and in the public sphere over whose CAFÉ standard is better in 2018 or whether an 80% or 90% carbon cut by 2050 is enough, or whether we can afford more federal spending, or if we should subsidize Detroit or any of the dinosaur industries who will never be the leaders until their competitors from the renewable side are given the level playing fields and the markets they need to compete.
Like I said, voters' eyes glaze over when they hear about this stuff.
Voters draw closer when you explain how we can create a new America - with our own hands, from downtown Detroit to the sprawl of Las Vegas.
What will it take to be unassailable to the serious policy crowd and the editorial writers? My recommended benchmark will be specific investment commitments -- basically an Iraq War's worth (say $400-500 billion) -- as well as caps and targets. We can nerd out on the details another time, but this isn't anywhere near the zone of political suicide - in fact, you can let others lead the call for carbon taxes and instead offer up a smart mix of federal investment, tax and subsidy shifts, loan guarantees and capital account budgeting to pay for the program, drive economic growth and satisfy both Bob Rubin budget hawks and Al Gore. Voters meanwhile will love it: they'll hear you say you want to invest billions in our communities and create millions of American jobs. Set and match.
Don't listen to me though. Dial up your old law school classmate Alan Jenkins in New York and see how his idea for "opportunity impact assessments" could free up new public investment for critically needed infrastructure projects, by making sure that we do all the math when it comes to life cycle cost analysis.
Or meet with John O'Donnell and Vinod Khosla of Ausra.com to learn about concentrated solar technology and the emerging economic case for ending coal.
I'd advise you do this all quickly, and support a new surge for change and national service involving Americans of all ages (not just young people!!) -- before Hillary Clinton or anyone else steps into the breach. If she does dust off a green version of national service (in honor of the late, great Eli Segal), and commits to putting enough "putting people first" investment money into the pot, I'll bet a lot more folks will be voting for her, even inspired by her. Maybe even me.
Here's my hope. Elevate this campaign, challenge us, and remind America how audacious we all can be.
Do it and I believe you'll have the wind at your back. And millions more behind you.