Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Better Question for Hillary (and other candidates)

Everyone, it seems, wants to press Hillary about her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002. She's been asked to call it a mistake. She's been asked to apologize. She refuses. The New York Times reports that "the level of Democratic anger has surprised some of her allies and advisers" -- and presumably Clinton herself.

For some this has turned into a huge issue, but another large group of voters don't get what the fuss is about: 2002 was five years ago. A lot has happened since then. Isn't it more important that she's against the war now? That she has pledged to end it if it is still going when she takes office in 2009?

I've been wondering if the "mistake" question is actually standing in for something else, something we should be asking not just Hillary, but all the Democratic candidates. And I think I know what that question is: Where have you been?

The question needs some unpacking. The Iraq War is only one of a large number of outrageous things our government has done these last six years. Legal residents of the United States no longer have habeas corpus rights. American citizens have been imprisoned for years without charges or trials. We've seen warrantless wiretapping, tearing down the wall between church and state, torture, political appointees censoring government scientists, rendition to countries that inflict even more extreme forms of torture, and the denial that the Guantanamo detainees have any enforceable human rights at all. The list could go on.

In each case, the administration has tried to stampede public opinion into supporting its position. If you disagreed, you were disloyal, un-American. You should be punished. Think: Dixie Chicks. Recall the judgmental microscope Cindy Sheehan has lived under. Listen to the things they're saying about John Murtha now. Even something as simple as the "Peace is Patriotic" bumper sticker on my car caused someone to put an intimidating note under my windshield wiper. You probably have your own story.

A lot of us, in our own little ways, tried to stand up to the stampede. We kept our bumper stickers. We blogged. We wrote letters to the editor. We went to candlelight vigils. Or maybe we just refused to agree when our friends and co-workers said the president was a hero and his opponents were traitors.

It was hard. But the most frustrating, disheartening part of the process was that the high-profile Democrats refused to lead us. Not in 2002 or 2003. In 2004, John Kerry was still trying to have it both ways. The Democrats who did stand up to the stampede were almost all second-stringers, people the general public hadn't heard of before: Russ Feingold, John Murtha. And Al Gore, the lone exception, who became a lot more courageous after he left active politics.

It wasn't until late 2005 that the big-name Democrats finally decided it was safe to come out. Almost against its will, the party ran against the war in 2006. The people led the so-called leaders, and the party won. Now all the Democratic presidential candidates are against the war, though they're still not sure they want to be responsible for ending it. Now they're all talking about civil liberties and human rights and international law. And I'm happy to hear it.

But where have you been?

I'm sorry, that's a rhetorical question, not a real one. I know where you've been. You've been hiding under your desks. We all know where you've been, because we've been dragging you behind us.

So here's the real question, the one I think we should be asking all the candidates, not just Hillary: Can you tell me a true story about your leadership and your courage? Can you tell of a time and an issue where you were out in front of the people? Worrying about something we didn't know enough to worry about? Standing up for something the rest of us still didn't realize needed defending?

I'm thinking of Al Gore and global warming. I'm thinking of Russ Feingold losing the Patriot Act vote 98-1.

Tell me a story like that, a true one, and I'll vote for you.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bill Richardson in Portsmouth

Here's what I learned my first day on the campaign trail: A lot of people want a new president.

They want one badly enough that they'll trade a beautiful Saturday afternoon for the chance to look at a candidate and fantasize about his or her presidency. Even if that presidency is nearly two years away. Even if the whole scenario is a long shot.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico came to River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth Saturday. I got there twenty minutes early and the place was already packed. The thirty chairs were long gone, and I counted about fifty people standing. Eventually there were 90 people standing in places I could see, probably another twenty or thirty in nooks that I couldn't see, and maybe thirty or forty out on the sidewalk waiting for the Governor's car to arrive. So somewhere around 180 people. Subtract, say, twenty to account for staff and media people, and that leaves more than 160 ordinary folks. In a small town. In a small state.

According to the pundits, Bill Richardson isn't even one of the top tier candidates. The media coverage is all for Clinton and Obama and maybe Edwards. Richardson cited a poll that had him at 6%, and that was probably the most favorable one he could find.

People really want a new president.

Campaign schedules invariably run late, and we were packing in tighter all the time, so I had a good opportunity to meet my neighbors. The middle-aged couple behind me had just come from a Clinton rally in Dover, where hundreds more people really want a new president. The wife described her favorable impression: Hillary was so smart, so articulate.

“That'd be different,” I commented, cracking up the husband. (Imagine having a president you'd want to show off to the other countries. It's been so long.)

The wife was also impressed that Clinton hadn't had the questions screened. One questioner said she had admired Hillary for years, but was disappointed that she hadn't apologized for her vote on Iraq. Apparently Clinton gave what has become her standard answer: Knowing what she knows now she'd have voted against the resolution, but based on what she knew then she did the right thing.

The woman behind me seemed to think this was a good answer, but I didn't. “I'm not buying it,” I said. “It was obvious at the time we were being conned. The Senate should have asked some harder questions.”

That got the husband talking; he agreed with me. The conversation fizzled.

The Governor arrived at 12:50, twenty minutes late, and it took him another five minutes to hand-shake his way to the microphone, where Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand introduced him. It was a favorable introduction, but short of a clear endorsement. He went through Richardson's resume, which was more impressive than I had realized. Richardson served in Congress for 15 years. In between Congress and the governorship he was Clinton's Secretary of Energy and ambassador to the United Nations.

That diplomatic background is a key part of Richardson's message, it turns out. Unlike the current president, he believes in diplomacy. He recently negotiated a fragile ceasefire in Darfur and he thinks we could negotiate our troops out of Iraq “this calendar year.” He believes the right framework for negotiation is to establish three sectarian regions bound loosely by a federal government. He believes the various factions would be willing to make some concessions to get foreign troops out of their country, and that he's the man to get those concessions: “I've been there. I've negotiated with Saddam Hussein. I've been at the UN. I've been to the Persian Gulf.”

It was a theme he kept coming back to. “The next president will have to restore America's standing in the world.” He listed the things America is known for today: “Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, eavesdropping on our citizens, torture, saying no the International Criminal Court.” He pledged to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. “We need to find a way to talk to those we don't talk to,” he said, and he got a big round of applause when he promised to “restore America to a foundation of international law.”

Energy independence was a second big theme, echoing the Secretary of Energy part of his resume. It also tied together national security and the “Stop Global Warming” sticker on his lapel. He listed the countries we import oil from – a real rogue's gallery – and wondered what would happen if they tried to use it as leverage against us. “It's a national security issue,” he said. He called New Mexico “the clean energy state,” and promised to lead a “man-on-the-moon effort” to get our dependence on foreign energy down to 10% from it's current level over 60%. “We have the technology. It can be done.”

The “technology” was a variety of stuff: solar, wind, conservation, synthetic fuels, increased efficiency. He didn't promise a silver bullet. And he said, “You're going to have to sacrifice a little bit.”

The first question was about the New Hampshire primary itself and whether Richardson had supported efforts to make it less important. His answer was too complicated and I tuned out. In truth, I find the whole issue embarrassing, because it works against itself: If New Hampshire uses its special status to get concessions from candidates, that's a good argument against us keeping our special status. So shut up about it already and ask the questions the rest of the country wishes it could ask.

The rest of the questioners did that. The second question was about immigration, which ought to be another signature issue for Richardson, given that he is both Hispanic and the governor of a state that borders Mexico. He had a five-point plan:

  • A comprehensive new immigration law. Not just a wall, which was all that Congress passed in the last session. He supports border security and in particular would like to double border patrols, but the wall, he said, is a terrible symbol. He recalled President Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev: “Tear down that wall.”

  • Use diplomacy to get help from Mexico on their side of the border. “They're not doing anything,” he claimed.

  • Punish businesses that employ illegal aliens.

  • Allow more legal immigration.

  • Finally, he acknowledged that we have to do something with the 12 million illegals already here, and that no solution would be popular. He said we need a legalization plan. “If you learn English, pass a background check, pay a fine for being here illegally, pay back taxes, and embrace American values, you can stay.”

His answer to a health care question was impassioned but vague. He believes in national health care as a goal, and had said so in his prepared remarks. It sounds like he wants to chip away at the problem from a variety of directions rather than endorse a single-payer system or some other comprehensive national plan. And so he supports health care programs for children under five and for working adults. He said that he likes the programs proposed by the Republican governors of Massachusetts and California.

But on how to pay for national health care, he didn't even dance: “I don't know.” He says he's working on it, and that he doesn't want to pay for it with a tax. He clearly doesn't want to be tarred with the tax-and-spend label, and also backed away from “class warfare” and “redistribution”.

Richardson summed up with these points:

  • Get out of Iraq.

  • Energy independence.

  • Restore America's standing in the world by signing the Kyoto Treaty and closing the Guantanamo detention facility.

  • National health care.

  • Better schools. (He also talked about this during his prepared remarks, but somehow it doesn't appear in my notes.)

  • And finally, a very vague point about hearing working people complain that they don't have enough time to be with their families and live their lives. This seems to be something he's mulling over, and he didn't present any definite ideas beyond encouraging flextime.

I'm left with the general impression that we could do a lot worse than to have Bill Richardson as our president, and that we are doing a lot worse now. His resume is almost an exact match with the country's major problems. He's smart, and I'm sure Joe Biden will be interested to hear that Hispanic candidates can also be articulate.

I wish I heard more of a big vision out of him. He is more of a technocrat than a visionary. The picture I get from his talk is that our problems could be solved if we just did government better: negotiated better, managed better, used technology better. Given the government we have now, a competent, well-intentioned administration would be a refreshing change. But I find myself wishing for more.

As a national candidate, Richardson is still learning. His humor is still a little off; I found its lameness engaging, but many people won't. He thinks faster than he talks sometimes, and I'm sure that will get him in trouble if he breaks into the top tier of candidates. At one point, for example, he confused two ways to say the same thing and came out with “fight child obesity programs.” Then he realized his mistake and made it again: “I don't mean fight them, I mean reduce them.” He meant expand them.

That sounds trivial, but the Republican media machine will jump on such stuff if they start seeing Richardson as a threat. Kerry's blown punchline was a mistake of that order, and it dominated the news for days last October. Someday Richardson will mean to say “We can't give in to the terrorists” and it will come out “We have to give in to the terrorists.” The video clip will be on YouTube by nightfall and then the fun will begin. In the current media environment conservatives can get away with mistakes like that – Bush has probably made one since I started typing this – but liberals can't. It's just a fact of life.

The exciting thing about a Richardson candidacy is to wonder what it would do in November. With all the attention our black candidate and our female candidate are drawing, our Hispanic candidate is flying totally under the radar. Pundits love to speculate on what the Democrats could do to win a state or two in the South, but the real opportunity is in the West. Gore took New Mexico and Kerry was close in Nevada, Colorado, and even Arizona. If we had a southwestern Hispanic on the ticket – in either slot – things could get very interesting.

So: Hillary and Bill, maybe?

Nah, it's been done.

Doug Muder
17 February 2007

See all my reports on the New Hampshire Primary campaign.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Announcing My 2008 Presidential Campaign

I've been resisting making this announcement because I thought it was too early. But well-wishers have been asking about my intentions, my competitors are starting their campaigns, and I can't be left behind: I will blog the 2008 New Hampshire Primary.

I started this morning. Senator Chris Dodd scheduled an event at a senior center about half a mile from my apartment in Nashua. The wind-chill was below zero and I had to walk in the street because the sidewalks hadn't been shoveled yet, but at least ice crystals were no longer blowing sideways at lethal velocities.

To be honest, Dodd didn't seem like the most exciting way to begin my campaign. I've seen him on TV, but I really don't know anything about him. And he's neither a rock star like Obama nor a major character on The Clintons, America's longest-running and highest-rated political soap opera. But at this point in the last cycle I knew even less about Howard Dean, who I voted for. So you have to listen to everybody.

But not Dodd, not today. He didn't show. The same weather that made me ten minutes late delayed his plane, so he was on to the next stop on his schedule. I could get in the car and chase him to Concord, or skip ahead to his appearance this afternoon at the Red Hook Brewery in Portsmouth (always a good place to wait for a candidate). But, to tell you the truth (honesty being the hallmark of my campaign), I'm just not that into it yet. I'll catch you later, Chris. If you last that long.

Presidentially, I've had my head in the sand for a while now. I could have met Evan Bayh (remember him?) a year and a half ago. Wesley Clark, Joe Biden, and just about everybody else have already been through New Hampshire on the flimsiest of pretexts. I missed them all. I thought about seeing Obama in December when he came around pushing his book, but the fund-raiser he was doing for the NH Democratic Party sold out before I finished dithering. Until November, I was still focused on 2006, when New Hampshire tossed out its entire congressional delegation (both of them) in favor of Democrats. And since then I've been trying to figure out when the constitutional crisis will hit. (If anybody is doing a pool, put me down for August.)

But it's time. Bill Richardson is at my favorite local bookstore in Portsmouth Saturday. Kucinich is here this weekend. Hillary is doing a Democratic Party fund-raiser in March. I don't even know what the Republicans are doing; I haven't gotten on the right email lists yet, so I just read in the papers about where I should have been yesterday.

And I'm sure I'll get into it once I start. The New Hampshire Primary may not be fair to the other 49 states, but it is the coolest event in politics. That's how I started blogging. Here and Iowa are the only places in the whole campaign where ordinary people have a chance to get the candidates off their talking points. As Bush found out in 2000, you can't win here on photo ops and money. You have to come out among the people and talk about what we want to talk about, not what you want to talk about. Hillary is already discovering that; she doesn't want to say whether her vote to authorize the Iraq War was a mistake. But guess what? We'll get an answer to that question, or we'll vote her down. It's that simple.

I suppose my announcement should tell everyone what my campaign is about. First and foremost, I'm looking for a Democrat I can vote for. I intend to cover the Republicans, but more for anthropological purposes than to find a president. I want a Democrat who's excited to be a Democrat, and will tell us why we should be excited too. I want to hear sweeping principles that Democrats can keep running on for decades, not a collection of little programs that pander to 51% of the electorate. In short, I'm looking for another FDR, not another Bill Clinton.

I'm looking for someone who takes a strong position against the war. I think the invasion did a lot more harm than good, and the occupation continues to do more harm than good. Getting our troops home yesterday would not be too soon.

I'm looking for someone who believes in freedom and will roll back the tyrannical excesses of the Bush administration. No secret prisons. No lawless zone in Guantanamo. No torture. No wiretaps without warrants. No signing statements that reserve the right to disregard the law. Restore habeas corpus. Restore every American's right to a fair trial.

Finally, I'm looking for someone who has a vision of the role America can expect to play in the world economy, and of how the government can help individual Americans make their way in that economy. In the decades to come, how are we going to educate our children, find jobs, and get healthcare?

Every campaign announcement ends with a pledge. Here's mine: I pledge to put aside all the preconceptions I have about these candidates and listen to what they're saying. And I pledge to pass it on as directly and simply as I can.

And to have as much fun as possible while I'm doing it.