Wednesday, March 28, 2007

To John and Elizabeth Edwards, With Experience

[originally posted on Daily Kos on Thursday, March 22]

When cancer hits, you tell yourself a lot of things. I know this from experience: My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, and then with a completely independent GIST tumor in 2003. She’s doing fine. She takes Gleevec, one of those targeted miracle drugs, and for Deb it has been more miraculous than for most people. Usually the cancer comes back in two years or so, but she’s at four years and counting.

Which brings me to John and Elizabeth Edwards.

Or maybe not quite yet. My role in the first cancer battle, other than just being the husband and keeping our friends informed, was to do all the background reading. Deb wanted to know what the best thinking was about attitude and visualization, how you should deal with your doctors, and so on. But she couldn’t stand to read the stuff, so I filtered it and told her what I thought she could use. I read a lot of accounts of people with cancer and how they handled it. A few of their insights were useful, but a lot of their stories were just depressing. I never told Deb about those.

One thing I learned was that it takes people a long time to come to grips with the reality of cancer. While Deb was in chemotherapy, a woman who worked for USA Today did a series describing her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her cancer was further advanced than Deb’s, and I wasn’t convinced that Deb was going to make it. The USA Today women listened to her doctors’ plan-of-attack without objection. And then she realized that, as a side-effect, she’d never be able to bear children. That finally made it all real to her. That’s when she had to stop and ask if she really wanted to do this.

Reading USA Today in the waiting room, I thought (because the inside of my head is a very blunt, tactless place): “You idiot. Having children should be the last thing on your mind. You’ll be lucky if you’re not dead in two years.”

She was dead in two years.

Deb lived. Or (if past tense is inappropriate here), she’s still alive. That wasn’t really miraculous; it was more of a lucky throw of the dice. Maybe half or a quarter of the women in comparable situations lived. The second time was closer to the miracle end of the spectrum. The surgeon took something the size of a soccer ball out of her abdomen and didn’t think he got it all. He wasn’t sure what it was or whether it would be treatable at all. Turned out it was; that was the last we’ve seen of it. Four years now.

Now, maybe, it’s time to talk about Elizabeth Edwards. She was diagnosed the first time late in 2004. She got treatment, I’m not sure what kind, and now the cancer is back in a rib. That’s not unusual. When breast cancer spreads, it usually goes one of three places first: liver, lung, or bone. Deb’s mother’s breast cancer spread first to the liver, and then the lung. Edwards’ doctor noted that she has “very small” abnormalities on the lung that are “too small to say what’s going on in there.”

Later on, if it’s not stopped, it goes anywhere it wants. Ken Wilbur’s Grace and Grit tells the story of his wife’s breast cancer. It went to her brain finally, and that’s what killed her.

“We’re incredibly optimistic,” Elizabeth Edwards said today. John said that the doctors described it like diabetes, a condition that you live with but don’t cure. The campaign goes on. Elizabeth insisted it goes on. She’s talking about living “many years.”

Like I said at the beginning, you tell yourself a lot of things. Because we’re all supposed to be hopeful. Optimistic.

Count me as a dissenter against the religion of hope and optimism. What I’ve learned in the past 11 years – 15 if you go back to Deb’s mother’s cancer – is that hope and despair are two sides of the same coin. And you don’t want to flip that coin. You want to keep it in your pocket. Hope and despair both trap you in your head, and (just in case you don’t have a lot of life left), you don’t want to spend it in your head.

I find it amazing that the first sign of recurrence turned up Monday and the Edwards have already decided what to do. Maybe their minds really are that clear. But I’d have a better feeling right now if I knew they’d taken a vacation together for a week before they decided. Deb and I went away for a weekend the first time; it was a good idea.

Back in 1996, we knew what the score was: You get one shot at beating breast cancer. If it comes back, it kills you. Science has learned a lot about cancer in the last 11 years, but I don’t think that has changed. In the last decade I’ve seen a lot of headlines about exciting new treatments, but when you read deep into the articles you always find that people who used to die in 20 months get the treatment and live 24 months. Believe me, if it’s you or somebody you love, those four months are a godsend. But it’s not a revolution. We’re still not winning.

The impression you get from the Edwards press conference is that they’re not going to let this rock their boat. They’re going to keep sailing, and maybe they’ll sail into the White House.

But let me take a wild, unauthorized, irresponsible guess here. The reason the campaign goes on is that the White House is Elizabeth’s dream as much as John’s. And John can wait until 2012 or 2016, but she can’t. If she’s going to see President Edwards, it has to happen this time around.

I understand this thought process. There was a novel I started in 1999. It’s been on hold for several years now because other opportunities came up and crowded it out of my life. But if Deb had a recurrence, I’d be tempted to drop all the other stuff and finish it. Because otherwise she’d never read the ending. I’d always pictured her reading the ending.

So I think I get it. I think John imagines himself being sworn in on some wintery day in 2017, and he imagines himself thinking: “I wish Elizabeth could have seen this.”

But I hope they understand what they’re giving up. In late 96 and early 97 I wasn’t working. We had savings we could live off of. Deb wasn’t good for much that winter and spring. Some days we’d sit on the couch and watch TV. If it was sunny, I might take her for a drive in the mountains. I didn’t hope and I didn’t despair. I just spent time with her. Because I didn’t have anything better to do.

John has a presidential campaign. I know that must seem incredibly important, to him and to Elizabeth both. You couldn’t put out that kind of effort without thinking it was incredibly important.

But is it really? Is it more important than taking a drive in the mountains? More important than sitting on the couch together and watching TV?

John, Elizabeth: Go away for a few days. Think about it.

I’m sure John would be a great president. Maybe he still will be someday. But we’re a big country. We’ll get by.

Just think about it.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Answering Moral Questions: A Primer for Democrats

A top Bush appointee like Peter Pace puts his foot in his mouth, and so naturally it becomes a problem for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Get that? Me neither.

So let's back up and take it step by step. How did Barack and Hillary screw up? What should Democratic candidates do differently in the future?

The Story So Far

First let's get the facts straight. Last Monday, General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was talking on the record to editors and reporters of the Chicago Tribune when he was asked about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards gays and lesbians. He supported the policy by saying that homosexual acts are immoral, and that the military would be condoning immorality if it allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. He compared the rule to the military's policy against soldiers sleeping with each other's wives.

So the press comes to presidential candidates with the question: Do you agree? Are homosexual acts immoral? Republican Sam Brownback has no trouble answering: Yes, they are. John McCain just refused to answer, and for some reason everybody seems to be OK with that. Rudy Giuliani apparently also has no comment. Thank you, Rudy.

Hillary Clinton on Good Morning America says a few of the right things: She's against "don't ask, don't tell" because "We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desperately need, like translation skills." That's a reference to the dismissal of gay Arabic-speaking translators in November, 2002 – just when we needed them.

But when pressed to comment on the "immoral" aspect of it, Clinton punts: "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to decide." Then, after hearing responses from the gay community, she puts out an additional statement: "I should have echoed my colleague Senator John Warner's statement forcefully stating that homosexuality is not immoral because that is what I believe."

So the end result is that she managed to annoy both the gays and the anti-gays. Nice work.

Obama was a little better, but not much. His initial comment was only: "I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That's probably a good tradition to follow." And then he also followed up Thursday with: "I do not agree with General Pace that homosexuality is immoral. Attempts to divide people like this have consumed too much of our politics over the past six years."

The Problem

Whatever their actual phrasing was, both Clinton and Obama got translated as saying: (1) "I don't want to talk about it because I'll piss somebody off"; followed by (2) "Gays are already pissed off at me, so I have to placate them somehow." Both came off looking spineless and calculating.

Even so, liberal critics are wrong to say that the question is simple and Democrats should "just say no" when asked about gay immorality. It isn't a simple question at all, because it comes loaded with all kinds of invisible freight. An ideal liberal answer would: (1) say no; (2) unload the invisible freight; and (3) be short enough that the nuances wouldn't get completely lost in the media coverage.

That's not easy.

As a thought experiment, consider something less controversial than homosexuality: anal sex by a straight married couple. Imagine you're a leading Democratic candidate for president and the press asks you if it's immoral. Your honest belief is no and you certainly don't want to be quoted as saying yes. But you know that if you answer directly, everything else you've said today is out the window. The headline will read: "Smith Endorses Anal Sex". Is that really what you want your message to be today?

So the desire to hesitate and waffle and hope nobody notices is perfectly reasonable. McCain and Giuliani got away with it, and I'll bet they're happy.

But liberals face a headwind: For decades Republicans have been repeating the charge that we have no morality. Every time a liberal dodges a moral question, that criticism gets validated. So liberals need to wade into moral questions. No matter how impossible those questions are, a liberal candidate needs to have a tone and manner that says, "I'm glad you asked that."


Once you start into the minefield, you need to know where the mines are. The first mine has to do with respect. Another decades-old conservative talking point is liberal elitism. Millions and millions of people expect not just that a liberal will disagree with their views, but that a liberal will look down on them for believing what they believe. They are expecting an insult, so they will hear one if you give them any chance.

That's why the very first line of your answer has to have the word respect in it: "I respect General Pace's right to his personal moral beliefs, and I support every American's right to speak freely." If anybody said that, they didn't say it loud enough to get coverage. And conservatives have jumped on that absence as evidence that liberals don't respect a person's right to express conservative beliefs. Paul Chesser wrote in The American Spectator: "Clearly for Pace to speak out 'as an individual' is an abomination in the homosexual Code of Behavior, whatever that is. Their oft-asserted claim to inclusiveness leaves a few colors out of the rainbow spectrum: Bible-literalness and relativism rejection being two of them."

That's the spin: Democrats are condemning General Pace because he expressed Christian beliefs in public. Don't think that won't have traction, even with some liberal Christians who ought to be voting Democratic. Now go back and read Obama's initial statement. He walked right into it. Once you put his statement inside the conservative frame, it sounds like he's saying: "Christians should just shut up."


In your second line you get to throw in the appropriate qualifiers. It won't get on TV, but you might get quoted in the newspapers. And you have to use some form of the word responsible: "But when public officials speak on the record in their official capacity, they have a responsibility not to substitute their personal opinions for public policy." The end of that sentence repeats almost word-for-word the standard conservative line about "activist judges".

Hit the point harder. The liberal view is the responsible one, while conservatives abuse their positions to impose their personal morality on the rest of us. "Military policies need military justifications. Qualified gays and lesbians should not be kept out of our armed forces because General Pace personally disapproves of their lifestyle."

Now get to policy. Don't ground your view in what's best for gay and lesbian individuals; ground it in what's right for America. This is where Hillary's initial point comes in: "Militarily, don't-ask-don't-tell has been a disaster for our country. At a time when we are at war and our military is stretched thin, this policy has turned away thousands of volunteers and resulted in the dismissal of soldiers with valuable skills."

Don't be afraid to wave the bloody shirt. They'd do it to us: "At a time when lives may depend on our ability to quickly and accurately translate intercepted Arabic traffic, don't-ask-don't-tell has led to the dismissal of many Arabic language specialists. We need to ask ourselves which is more important: Stopping terrorist attacks or regulating the private lives of our troops?"


Now you wait for the question: But do you agree with General Pace that homosexual acts are immoral?

We're at the Smith-endorses-anal-sex point. Now the landmine to be avoided is this: The phrase homosexual acts by itself causes many Americans to imagine things that even you would think are immoral. (Picture Ted Haggard cheating on his wife by taking crystal meth with his gay prostitute. Are you OK with that?) If you just say no, they think that you've endorsed whatever disgusting things they're seeing in their heads.

Don't. Your answer needs to communicate not just that you disagree with General Pace, but that your disagreement is founded on a moral view of life. You're not just counting gay and lesbian votes, you're living according to your principles. That reasoning won't convince the Falwells and Dobsons, but they weren't going to vote for you anyway. Swing voters respect a principled politician even if they disagree.

Your principles don't have to be religious, but if you have a religion this is the place to mention it. I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so I'd answer like this: "My Unitarian Universalist religion teaches me that sex is primarily about relationships, not just physical acts. Our second principle commits us to 'justice, equity, and compassion in human relations'. And that's how I judge all relationships: sexual or non-sexual, gay or straight. Are those relationships just? Are they equitable? Are they compassionate? To the extent that they are, I celebrate them. And to the extent that they are not, I condemn them."

Liberals are probably nervous about putting the word condemn into the answer. But it has to be there. Conservatives have successfully projected the anything-goes stereotype onto us. Many people honestly believe that we can't condemn anybody for anything (except when we hypocritically contradict ourselves by condemning Christian people like General Pace for having moral standards). So if the picture in your head is Ted Haggard and crystal meth, I think it's important that you hear a condemnation in my answer. Or at least something stronger than "Whatever, dude." My moral standards may not be the same as yours, but I do have some.

The Take Away Points

So listen up, Democratic candidates: You have to wade into moral questions, even when you'd rather not. You need to look eager to answer them and not uncomfortable in the least.

You start by expressing respect for people whose honest beliefs are different than yours, but then you imply that your opponent's position is irresponsible while yours is responsible. Your opponent is putting his personal views above his responsibility to the country, whereas you are asking what is best for America.

If you are pressed for personal moral views, ground them in principle. Your principles should be clear and direct. The nuances should be in the application of principle to a particular case, not in the statement of the principle itself. Your principles should not be empty, embracing everything and everybody.

And get it right the first time. Nobody is going to be impressed by your "clarifying" statement tomorrow morning.

You in the back – Hillary! Barack! – you got that?

Monday, March 12, 2007

My Dinner With Hillary – and 1000 Other People

All those times when I've sardined myself into a packed bookstore or high school gym to hear a candidate for free, I've wondered: Do you get what you pay for? If I shelled out some bucks and went to one of those high-roller fund-raisers, could I get serious face time with a big-name Democrat like Hillary Clinton?

Here's what I learned Saturday night at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual 100 Club dinner:

  • $100 doesn't make you a high roller.
  • Even the people who spent $500 for the pre-dinner reception looked pretty jammed together.
  • Hillary Clinton gives a good speech.
  • If you have a choice, go to a free rally.

The NHDP Celebrates

The 100 Club dinner, I learned, goes back to 1959 when the headliner was another ambitious senator from a nearby state: John F. Kennedy. And it isn't a campaign rally for the headliner, it's a celebration of the state Democratic Party.

At the moment, the NHDP is a party with a lot to celebrate. This traditionally Republican state started to go blue in 2004, when John Kerry narrowly won our 4 electoral votes and carried a previously unknown gubernatorial candidate in with him: John Lynch. In 2006 (our governors serve 2-year terms), that little ripple became a tidal wave: Lynch was re-elected with an astounding 74% of the vote. Both houses of the legislature flipped to the Democrats for the first time since the Grant administration. Incumbent Republicans were tossed out of both of our congressional seats.

If only we'd had a senate race.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Driving in, we waved and blinked our headlights at maybe 20 anti-war demonstrators. Once inside the Nashua Sheraton, my wife and I had to walk a gauntlet of young Hillary staffers wanting to give us a button or sticker and put us on their mailing list. I'm undecided and I have a policy against wearing buttons just to blend in, so I said no.

My lack of protective coloration attracted a predator: a reporter from Manchester's ultra-conservative Union Leader. He asked what advice I would give Hillary, probably hoping for something juicy and negative. I didn't deliver: "Show courage. Be bold. Talk about big ideas." He poked at that answer to see if he could get me to say that Hillary is too programmed. I didn't, so in the Sunday Union Leader my quote appeared well below the person who said "I think she'd do anything to get elected."

Speaking of blending in, I should have worn a suit. Except for the reporters, the cameramen, and one other guy, I was the only suitless man in sight. This high-roller thing is new to me.

The food was surprisingly decent. We sat at a table with eight people we didn't know and discussed the other candidates we'd seen. One couple, retired academics from NYU, had been impressed by Joe Biden. But they speculated that he was "too smart to make it." They were very nice people and probably had no idea that they were walking stereotypes of liberal elitism. Thank God the Union Leader guy never found them.

Senator Clinton, I noticed with disappointment, did not eat at our table or even in our room. I didn't catch sight of her until we filed into a large area where 800-1000 chairs were set up. During the transition staffers continued to work the crowd, offering Hillary chocolate bars in exchange for your name on a mailing list. (This idea was cuter when Wes Clark's people did it in 2004. Clark bars actually exist and don't have to be fabricated for the campaign. I am resisting turning that into a metaphor.)

The woman behind me was talking about the NHDP fund-raiser Obama did in December. I caught the words "unbelievable speaker" and "charismatic". The (apparently false) rumor was going around that Bill Richardson had pulled out of the race, and I heard someone talk about the money that it takes to run these days. "It's not right," she said.

A Long Series of Warm-Up Acts

Then the program started. It was interesting in an anthropological way, sort of like a high school graduation. The MC was outgoing party chair Kathy Sullivan, so every speaker had to make an obligatory comment about her remarkable term in office. (The heir apparent, Raymond Buckley, was just cleared of a Republican smear concerning child pornography. Manchester police concluded that the charge was "unsubstantiated and unfounded". That's the kind of thing we're up against.) An award was given to the three pro-bono lawyers who pushed a civil suit in regard to the 2002 phone-jamming dirty trick. New Hampshire Republicans paid $135,000 to settle the suit, but for some reason the U.S. attorney dragged his feet about a criminal investigation. Maybe he knows what happens to U.S. attorneys who investigate Republicans.

Then Governor Lynch spoke for fifteen minutes. He has picked up a lot of polish since I first saw him in 2004 at a local Democracy For America meeting in a bookstore that no longer exists. He might be someone to watch in years to come, and is going to turn up on somebody's VP list. He's not charismatic, but if you want to send a message that you're serious about good government and are willing to work with anybody who wants to be reasonable, Lynch is your guy. Or maybe Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

New state Senate President Sylvia Larsen and new state Speaker of the House Terrie Norelli began a theme of women in power. Larsen introduced all the Democratic senators, the majority of whom are female.

They were followed by new federal Congresspeople Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, who split about 15 minutes. Hodes had run for Congress before and figured to give the Republicans a close race, but Shea-Porter was an upset winner in the primary and came from nowhere to unseat Republican Jeb Bradley. I don't think he even realized he was in trouble until it was too late.

The two had contrasting styles but similar messages. Shea-Porter spoke in a relaxed just-us-Democrats manner, while Hodes gave a fiery campaign speech. The subtext of both talks was to have patience with Congress' painfully slow moves to end the war. Shea-Porter had just returned from Iraq, which she described as "an awful, desolate-looking place." Her voice expressed genuine sadness, something you don't hear very often from politicians. She also spoke with pride about the accomplishments of the House Democrats' opening flurry, including a bill to raise the minimum wage and let Medicare negotiate for better drug prices.

Hodes balanced his own opposition to the war with the importance of party unity. "The country needs to see that Democrats are ready to govern." He tossed the crowd the only red meat of the evening by describing the recent hearings on the Walter Reed Hospital and U.S. attorneys scandals: Democrats have "returned oversight and accountability to our government. We are uncovering the rot and mold." And he pledged to "keep shining the light of truth and justice in every dark corner."

Hillary's Speech

And then it was time for Senator Clinton. She talked for about a half hour and split the difference between the Shea-Porter and Hodes styles of rhetoric. The first half of her talk was full of local reminiscence and gossip, dating back to Bill's 1992 campaign. She knew the room was full of the state party establishment rather than undecided voters, and she clearly sent the "I'm one of you" message. A running joke through the evening was the state party's need to find new staffers because the Clinton campaign has hired them all.

Eventually, though, her stump speech began to break through. It's a really good speech. I had heard sound bytes from it before, but it has an internal unity you can't appreciate until you hear the whole thing. The central pledge is to "restore America's basic bargain: Work hard and play by the rules and you'll have the chance to build a better life for yourself and your children. And your government will be on your side."

She then laid out the speech's central image: That the people who do the hard work and make the hard sacrifices in this country are invisible to the Republicans who have been running the government and to their corporate-executive allies. This image, I have to say, is brilliant. It takes all the failures and scandals of the Bush administration and subtly ties them back to an attitude of upper-class obliviousness. If I were another candidate, I would steal it immediately.

The associated litany goes like this: "If you are ..., you are invisible." If you work for the minimum wage. If your job has been outsourced. If you were a 9/11 first responder and are now suffering health problems from it. If you are a wounded soldier returning from combat. If you are a child whose school never received the funding promised by No Child Left Behind. If you're a single mom who needs childcare. If you're a government scientist trying to warn people about global warming. If you're a U.S. attorney trying to enforce the law impartially. If you're one of the 46 million without health insurance. If you're one of the 90,000 Katrina victims still living in temporary housing. If you're one of the 13 million children living in poverty.

You're invisible. The government can't see you.

And the litany concludes with: "Well you're not invisible to us. And when we retake the White House you won't be invisible to the President of the United States."

She talked about how blacks were invisible in American society before the civil rights movement, and quoted Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter."

This introduces a litany listing things that matter. Families matter. Healthcare matters. Working people matter. Our soldiers. Education. Fiscal responsibility. Innovation. America's standing in the world. The war in Iraq. Each thing that matters is followed by a goal or a program or a policy that addresses that thing. The mention of the war, for example, is followed by this sound bite: "President Bush should end this war before he leaves office. But if he doesn't, I will."

That leads to the only claim she makes about herself: "I'm ready."

"I'm ready to run against the Republicans and win. I'm ready to govern and to lead our country into the future."

This, again, is brilliant. To me at that moment she represented her entire gender, standing on the doorstep of power and saying "I'm ready." I don't think I was the only one who heard that.

She closed by addressing the question of whether America is ready -- for a female president. She flashed back to JFK addressing the first 100 Club dinner, facing the question of whether America was ready for a Catholic president. And she concluded "We'll never know unless we try."

Speaking as a writer, whoever wrote the stump speech is a genius. It's structured. It's memorable. You can pull sound bites out of it. And the underlying metaphors should ring true for large portions of the American public. But that just means that her speechwriter should be the next presidential speechwriter. Whether Senator Clinton should be the next president is a separate question.


On Huffington Post this week, Thomas De Zengotita diagnosed Hillary with negative charisma. That's one of a long series of attempts by writers across the political spectrum to associate Senator Clinton with some nebulous, intangible trait that makes people not like her.

Does any of this sound familiar? In 2000 Al Gore had such a trait. In 2004 John Kerry did. By contrast, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both had some equally undefinable likeability. Even after Bush's poll numbers slipped into the 30s, the media kept telling us how much we like him. They're still telling me how much I like Laura, the Stepford First Lady who creeped me out at first sight.

This stuff is all nonsense. Hillary is "unlikeable" because she's the front-running Democrat. If Obama becomes the front-runner, the press will instantly discover something unlikeable about him too. They're already looking: He's too young. He's too black. He's not black enough. His middle name is Hussein. There will be something. Whoever we nominate, there will be some mysterious reason to feel uneasy about voting for him or her.

We've got to stop playing along with this garbage. Liberal Democrats have picked up this Republican talking point about Hillary and used it for their own purposes. Centrist Democrats pick up other Republican talking points about the "extreme left" and use them. This has got to stop.

In particular, we need to reject all these nebulous qualities. Some are just nonsense, and others are screens on which to project unconscious or unadmitted prejudices. On the conservative blogs they're already talking about how Hillary would certainly lose to Giuliani because he "looks presidential" and she doesn't. Maybe because he's a man like all our other presidents? Obama probably won't look presidential either, for some reason you can't possibly define -- unless you can see the difference between black and white.

For what it's worth, I saw no sign of negative charisma when I watched Hillary's speech. Quite the opposite, I found myself trying to make excuses for the legitimate things I don't like about her as a candidate. And in random interactions at campaign events I observe that a lot of middle-aged professional women identify strongly with her. Many of them won't come out and say they're for her, but if you criticize her they look like they've been insulted. I'll bet that translates into a bunch of unexpected suburban votes.

So here's what I suggest: Don't let the media tell you who you like or don't like. And in particular don't cast your vote based on some pundit's unsubstantiated view of who other people like. If some "unlikeable" or "unelectable" candidate speaks to you and for you, trust yourself and vote for that candidate.

Evaluating Senator Clinton

As a candidate, I don't see what's not to like about her. The word that sums her up in my mind is professional. She speaks well, she has poise, she's well informed, and her ideas are always well thought out. There was no question period Saturday, but I've seen her answer questions on TV. She appears to think well on her feet and to banter well with talk show hosts. We've seen with Senator Kerry how the media can manufacture gaffes out of anything, but I think Clinton will make fewer legitimate mistakes than any of our other candidates and will do a good job of getting herself out of whatever situations come up.

As a president, I have many of the same problems with Hillary that I had with Bill. The defeat of the Clinton healthcare program was the end of visionary leadership. In the final six years of his presidency, Bill Clinton specialized in capturing Republican issues: the budget deficit, free trade, welfare reform, putting more cops on the street. He seemed intent on proving that he could be a better moderate Republican than any moderate Republican.

That was great for him personally. He was a popular president in spite of the incredible attacks on him, and he remains popular today. But the party didn't do so well under his leadership. Democrats didn't recover from the 1994 losses until 2006.

The problem, as I see it, is that Bill Clinton didn't leave behind any Clintonism that the party could run on. A Clinton Democrat is opportunistic and pragmatic. You can't predict what a Clinton Democrat will do until the situation actually arises. So Clintonian vision is almost a contradiction in terms. Now after six years of President Bush, who won't let actual events or the American people interfere with the world he sees in his head, that's not all bad. But it's not all good either.

This is the source of Hillary Clinton's Iraq problem. She's for military action that works and against military action that doesn't work. If Iraq were stable today and headed towards a bright democratic future, she'd be taking credit for her role in supporting the invasion. If the CIA came to her as president with a plan to topple the Iranian government, I think her first question would be: "Will it work?" not "Is it right?" She'd react to the plan rather than pursue a vision of America's proper role in the Middle East.

Now, I think that view represents the American people. Hillary appears to shift her positions in response to their popularity, but I think it's more accurate to say that her positions shift with their popularity. The American people are opportunistic and pragmatic, so they'll change their minds at about the same time Hillary does.

As I said about Bill, that's not all bad. But I have a problem with the Clinton level of pragmatism. Pragmatists react to the issues that are already on the agenda, and the American agenda today revolves around Republican issues: Should we invade more countries or not? Should we cut more taxes or not? Where can we cut the entitlement programs to make them more affordable? Which civil liberties should we give up to fight terrorism? Democratic issues like universal health care or open government or a renewal of international institutions are as invisible as the working class people Hillary talks about.

I don't doubt that Hillary Clinton can work through that Republican agenda more competently than the Republicans have. But I'm looking for a president who can change the agenda, one who can redefine liberalism for a new era. It's hard to see Hillary in that role.

So, for now, I'm still looking. If in the end I don't find what I'm looking for, I may come back to Hillary Clinton. She's good. And I won't let the best become the enemy of the good.