Friday, June 29, 2007

Seeking the Stealth Lefty
His candidacy was sunk before I began this blog, but in the 2004 presidential primary season, my Democrat of choice was Wes Clark. I believed then (and believe now) that Clark was the most accomplished candidate in the race, that he had the combination of experience, temperament and leadership skills to thrive in the job, and that his resume was such that he would be impervious to many of the typical attacks leveled against Democrats--the sort that ultimately helped fell John Kerry. Those four metaphorical stars on Clark's shoulders as a retired general both protected him from liberal attacks... and helped obscure just how much of a big old liberal he was. The campaign website had the most detailed policy proposals on issues important to me--human capital, urban policy, that stuff--of any Dem in the race... and he was solidly progressive down to the last word.

Clark's own significant flaws as a candidate--the inability to speak in soundbites, and even stupider shit like the fact that he didn't blink, pretty much ever--did him in. But the notion of a Stealth Lefty still appeals to me, and I think that's a large part of why I could get behind a Bloomberg presidential candidacy.

In this recent New Republic article, Jonathan Chait--a generally solid pundit--recognizes that Bloomberg is essentially a liberal Democrat in independent's clothing, but fails to see the value in the disguise of both Bloomberg and the Unity '08 effort that eventually could evolve into his campaign organization:

in the age of George W. Bush, the substance of the partisanship scold ideology is no longer, by any reasonable definition, centrist. They are moderate Democrats who don't want to admit it. Unity '08 proposes to address the following issues: "Global terrorism, our national debt, our dependence on foreign oil, the emergence of India and China as strategic competitors and/or allies, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, the corruption of Washington's lobbying system, the education of our young, the health care of all, and the disappearance of the American Dream for so many of our people."

Most Democrats wouldn't disagree with anything on this list. Most Republicans, on the other hand, are happy to raise the national debt in order to cut taxes, either don't believe in global climate change or don't want to do anything serious to stop it, oppose any plan that could provide health care for all Americans, and think the American Dream is thriving. Unity '08 further insists that gun control, abortion, and gay marriage should not "dominate or even crowd our national agenda." Which party has been putting those issues at the center of the agenda? Not the Democrats.

Bloomberg's politics are even further to the left. He's an out-and-out social liberal, banning smoking in public places and going to war against the National Rifle Association. He emphasizes programs to help the poor, has worked closely with unions, and has denounced rising inequality as a threat to democracy. But for Bloomberg and his admirers to admit that their views do have a home in a major party would destroy the basis of their self-image. Thus they must maintain at all costs the pretense of transcending ideology.

Chait's correct that this is dishonest; he's wrong that it's about the "self-image" of Bloomberg, the Unity '08 backers, and the millions of Americans who might rally to the cause.

So what is it about? I would submit that the problem is the recent history of the Democratic Party, its continuing internal balkanization, and its ongoing perception problems.

The atrocious failures of Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Norquist/Dobson Republicanism have helped obscure the negative associations many Americans--including not a few Democrats themselves/ourselves--had, or have, about the party: its fractiousness, the tendency of its leaders to waffle and triangulate, the ongoing sense that the Democrats aren't for things so much as against what the Republicans are for. Not that these perceptions are accurate, but they're real, and I think they persist. It also doesn't help that in three straight close elections, from 2000 to 2004, the Democrats face-planted at the finish line; last year, polls indicated a blowout from the spring onward, and never really shifted. Everybody loves a winner, and the Democrats were the Philadelphia Phillies of American politics.

(My soul died a little writing that last sentence, by the way.)

What Bloomberg would shed by running as an independent isn't the platform; it's the ancillary bullshit. All that baggage. The need to genuflect before interest groups. The guilt by association of sharing a party label with Michael-Dukakis-looking-silly-in-the-tank, Al-Gore-Serial-Exaggerator, Bll-Clinton-getting-blown-by-the-intern, John-Kerry-Flip-Flopper, and the rest. Yes, it's media-inflicted damage, vastly more reptile-brain association than substance, but that doesn't matter. Just as the fact that Republican governance has been demonstrably worse, that these people should be disqualified just for their failure to realize what a fuckup their fratboy-in-chief has been, doesn't matter. The fact is that for many, the Democratic Party label is sufficient grounds not to vote for an individual. (Of course this is also true for the Republicans. Bloomberg is the only one I can remember voting for, and he's no longer one--which isn't a coincidence.)

That Bloomberg is a billionaire, a guy who succeeded in two cutthroat fields and then again running the biggest, baddest city in the land, is his armor against ideological attacks just as Clark's stars and scars might have had had he gotten the nomination in 2004. Not sharing the Democratic label might give that armor an extra inch of thickness. If his Democratic opponent is Hillary Clinton, who (fairly or not) brings a vast amount of personal baggage to the generic-Dem pile, that could look awfully attractive to a wide swath of the electorate.

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