The Bar Fight Primary

When Ronald Reagan announced his Presidential run in 1980, he did it in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three Civil Rights workers were killed. He faced Jimmy Carter in the general, a conservative white evangelical who had built up the military budget, deregulated the airlines and was set on more deregulatory moves, and engaged in a program of fiscal austerity in non-military areas. It was in this election though that Reagan pulled working class whites into the Republican camp, and solidified the Southern block so fully he did not have to run as a full-blown Dixiecrat. Reagan, a genial and sunny Californian, could have it both ways because he had proved to the base that he was 'with them'. Opening his campaign on a site that fully repudiated equal rights for blacks, that in a very real sense murdered liberals, was a way of saying to the emergent right-wing Confederate base that 'I am with you, I hate who you hate'. It was a more mature form of Goldwaterite racism and anti-dirty fucking hippy-ness. It was a statement that Reagan would play the role of President, but in a bar fight, in a close vote, where it really mattered, in all those small appointments, his sympathies would instinctively lean towards his base.

They trusted him, and they were rewarded. And the first thing Reagan did as President was to smash the Air Traffic Controllers union, a way of saying that he ran on a hopeful and sunny vision of America, unions not included. In other ways, like with the appointment of insane AG Ed Meese, a guy who brought us folks like Alito and really elevated the Federalist Society, Reagan stood with his base. He was the President of all the people, sure, but his political path was set upon removing liberals from positions of power and putting in place right-wing conservatives to replace them. But this did not just happen. Reagan ran on goring liberals, blacks, union members, and gays. He didn't do so overtly, but he spoke loud and clear if you were listening. And then he governed with this awful mandate that the people had given him.

We need our own anti-Reagan, our own leader to show that the right-wing turn of the last 30 years is over. We need a leader committed to responsible governance, anti-cronyism, social justice, an expansion of the Bill of Rights to include infrastructure changes, and a humble and morally powerful foreign policy. But governing this way is not a matter of expressing the desire for unity and hope to all Americans, but expressing solidarity with the people who will help create such an America. Those people are liberals. We are the ones who want a different America, and who will help build it and push the right out of the way. When the 'Obama is wimp' meme comes down from the establishment, we will be the ones to rebut it, or not. When Clinton puts out an Iraq plan, we are the ones to implement it, or not. When Edwards says that rebuilding New Orleans is a priority, we will run the primary campaigns against those who say otherwise, or not. In other words, governance, fixing the very broken set of instruments of national power, cannot happen along progressives lines unless the candidate in 2008 is willing to challenge entrenched interests and use us to do it.

In 1992, it looked like Clinton was the guy to make this happen. The first Boomer President, it looked, just like it looked with Obama, that he could move us beyond the 1960s era of polarization and implement universal health care. It looked like the Vietnam syndrome was gone, and that reversing Reaganism was not only possible, but probable. Clinton through screwed up royally, putting his faith in technocratic elites and media power rather than organizing tactics and liberals. His health care plan was a case in point, with no organizing or real coalition work behind it. He ran as an economic populist, but he didn't do the necessary organizing work or build the right bridges of trust to effectively govern. It quickly became clear, and should have been clear during the campaign, that this was a great guy, but not someone who would be with you in a political bar fight.

The way to gain my support in 2008 is to show that in a bar fight, your sympathies are with liberals and are set against the bullies that have been running the country for so long. You can run on anything you want, you can talk of unifying the country or any sort of conventional wisdom chatter. You don't have to speak to me directly all the time with everything you say. You can pander on video games or ethanol, or whatever you need. But you have to speak on some critical point, some piece of entrenched power, and promise that you are going to gore that conservative ox.

The key point about the progressive movement that has emerged over the past eight years is that we are a group of people that feel deeply betrayed by our elites. We feel that bullies have run roughshod over our country, and many of us bought your line that compromise with these bullies was the right strategy, until it became clear that you can't do business with these people. In order to unify the country, these bullies need to be pushed out of the way, corrected for, and only then can the healing start. Just as Reagan said he'd unify the country by pushing the liberals out of the way, we need someone who will unify the country by pushing irresponsible right-wing power centers out of the way. They crushed our unions, we need to crush their talk radio, you know, that kind of thinking.

My assumptions here come from a basic love of country. I believe that there are very bad people that have destroyed our capacity to govern, and that we need not just a new President but a new set of leaders willing to neuter these bad people and make real decisions about where we go as a country. Without a real commitment to weaken irresponsible elite actors, 'unity' simply means a replay of Clinton, only without the credit and power that we had in the 1990s, and with a much more advanced case of global climate catastrophe, peak oil, and nuclear terrorism capacity on its way.

What I see in the Hillary crowd is an acceptance of the status quo, a belief that you can 'take Iraq off the table', and a willingness to accept a Democratic party dominated by relatively awful elite interests. Their assumptions are that Bush is a bad President, but that our basic public discourse is fine, that America needs to scrape the barnacles off the hull. Iraq was not executed properly you see, but let's not be too indelicate about it. I see this too with Obama's people, who are by and large the Daschle crew. If you liked Tom Daschle as Senate leader, you'll love Obama as President. He basically accepts the dominance of immoral elites as necessary and good, and as far as I can tell wants to futz around the margins with well-crafted but small scale legislative efforts. It's impossible to know whether his stroke of bravery - being against the war in Iraq - was principle or a savvy attempt to win in a crowded Democratic primary in 2003 where the target was liberal voters. All of this is fine for a mediocre and moderate Senator from Illinois, which is what he's been. But until he proves otherwise, he just is not with us. He doesn't believe that bullies in power are the problem, he thinks that mean words are the problem. Ok, fine, but don't expect me to buy that unifying nonsense as anything more than cult of personality mass media power.

In a bar fight, Obama and Hillary are not on our side in terms of progressive movement building. Some don't think that this is particularly important, that the only thing that matters is having a Democrat speaking to some arbitrary slice of the population that carries some mythical key to victory. I tend to see ideology as a great organizing principle, as a tool of power rather than a burden. And honestly, this debate may not matter because most of the candidates might have already concluded that dirty hippies like me aren't worth listening to or taking seriously.

There are two candidates who can pass the bar fight primary. One of them, Wes Clark, passes the test clearly. He is a genuine liberal, and has fought the right clearly and consistently for the last four years, most recently in Connecticut when he was the only real surrogate against Lieberman. I don't see how Clark can seriously compete, but this willingness to be on our side in a bar fight, recognizing the institutional challenges posed by the right, explains his continuing netroots support. And then there's John Edwards. I think Edwards is split. He's spent much of his time working with unions, on the road, in low-key meetings. Elizabeth Edwards has done outreach to bloggers, so there's at least acknowledgment of the dirty hippy crew. He's announcing in New Orleans, which is dog whistle politics on our issues. He knows he was wrong on the war, and feels our betrayal. Unlike Clark, though, I still haven't seen him stand up for us in a real way. I haven't seen him attack McCain, for instance, or go after the politicians who supported the Bankruptcy Bill. I haven't seen him challenge any right-wing interests in a serious way, and so while I acknowledge he's in the ball park, he's not there yet.

There's a lot of room to play out. There's also a strategic opportunity here to capitalize on the deep hopes of the American people that we can build a better America, and to recognize that these hopes are intertwined with an uneasy foreboding that this better America is being blocked by internal demons. A sustained campaign against cronyism in government, an anti-corporate plank, a fight against talk radio and big media, a crusade against corporate immorality in New Orleans, food supply, activism around investigations - there are many ways to pull liberals on board. All of them demand that the candidate pick one center of right-wing irresponsible power and run against it. You really can unify the country that way.

Clinton was a very smart President who thought that he and his small crew had all the answers. We know now that he (and all of us) misunderstood the nature of the role. It isn't the job of the next President to have all the answers, that's up to the American people. It's up to the next President to show that he's going to clear the way for us to take back our country.

So that's my test for the primary. Who's with us in a bar fight? And if that's not your test, then you need to explain to yourself why you think the right-wing and the media are going to lie down and go to sleep after fifteen years of increasingly malignant civic behavior.