Politics ain’t beanbag, they like to say. The last month of the primary has more than proven that old saw. We've even seen Godwin's Law move out of the Internets and into the campaign. We've seen identity politics used in a way the Democratic party should never use it, on both sides of the race. The invective has flown but good between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and while we're seeing a welcome respite in the surrogate poo-flinging since the last debate, the frenzy of Super Tuesday and the fact that this primary is going to extend well beyond it lead me to expect we haven't seen the last of it.
But for what? Here’s one political junkie that could use a break, or at least would like to see a little bit more fighting over substance and a lot less warring among proxies over guaranteed attention-getting flashpoints. Next Saturday, I'll walk into my precinct caucus having to make a decision about which candidate I'm going to stand with. At this point, I might as well go with a coin toss, because there are a few things I want to know about these candidates, and so far I’ve not heard the answers I need.
I don't lay the blame for this entirely at the candidates' feet. They're doing what they know best, what all politicians do--gearing a campaign for the traditional media. They're feeding the beast of predictable and prosaic "reporting" and "analysis" in the "he said, she said" vein. Those giants of mediadom--Tim Russert, Brian Williams, Wolf Blitzer put them in the hot seat and ask them . . . what? The same questions about the same votes about the same people about the same minor policy differences over and over and over again.
But the media can't take all the blame. We've ended up with the two most politically talented candidates, undoubtedly, but they are also the most cautious, most constrained, most politic of the group that began this race all those months ago. That's what usually happens in politics. Most politicians are not too comfortable having their necks stuck out. But, the thing is, this election demands far more than politics as usual. We are in the midst of the worst American administration in history. We're in the middle of the worst foreign policy debacle the nation could imagine. We've seen an unprecedented power grab by the executive that has left the Constitution in tatters. We have a Congress that let it happen. We have crippling debt and a failing economy in the midst of a global economic crisis. The realities of 2008 demand far mare than politics as usual.
While both candidates have a great deal to recommend them--and I say that sincerely, they are both brilliant, talented and committed public servants--they have yet to show this voter that they recognize the breadth, depth, and scope of the challenge one of them will face when sitting down behind that big desk in the Oval Office on January 20, 2009. They are both solid progressives, despite whatever their detractors in the comment threads might say. The last debate showed that they are both Democrats and that they both have a progressive vision. But my question is how far that vision extends.
There are very serious questions this country faces, questions that have been hanging out there for a while. Five long years ago, on March 15, 2003, Howard Dean began a list of those question when he galvanized the Democratic base and ignited a movement with a speech at the California State Democratic Convention. The "What I want to know" speech is the one thing I constantly hear fellow Democrats reference when they tell me about gaining or regaining their passion for politics. Because he was the first person to use a huge public forum to ask the questions that were burning in our minds.
What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President’s unilateral intervention in Iraq?
What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts, which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?
What I want to know is why the Congress is fighting over the Patient’s Bill of Rights? The Patient’s Bill of Rights is a good bill, but not one more person gets health insurance and it’s not 5 cents cheaper.
What I want to know is why the Democrats in Congress aren’t standing up for us, joining every other industrialized country on the face of the Earth in providing health insurance for every man, woman and child in America.
What I want to know is why so many folks in Congress are voting for the President’s Education Bill-- "The No School Board Left Standing Bill"-- the largest unfunded mandate in the history of our educational system!...
I want my country back! We want our country back!
In the five years since Howard Dean stood in front of that electrified crowd and started asking those questions--finally!--so many of us had, we still don’t have answers to most of them. And now we have more questions, we have harder questions. When Howard Dean stood on that stage five years ago we didn't know about Abu Ghraib. We didn't know about warrantless wiretapping. We didn't know about Addington and Yoo and Gonzales conspiring in Dick Cheney's office to make us a country that tortures. Katrina hadn't happened. Dean's list of questions look almost prosaic compared to the questions that face us now, five years later--questions that the next two or three presidents are going to have to grapple with, questions that our traditional media just won’t be asking.
Since they aren't asking, I will. Here are few things that I want to know from you, Senators Clinton and Obama.
What I want to know is that you will renounce the doctrine of preemptive war.
What I want to know is that you will get our troops out of Iraq before the end of your first term in office, without leaving permanent bases.
What I want to know is that you will find bin Laden, that you will take seriously the threat that al Qaeda still poses and that you will know where and how to fight them.
What I want to know is that you will take care of the men and women who gave their all for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you will end the shameful lack of funding, services, and treatment these brave men and women face when they come home, and that you will ensure they get the help that they not only need, but deserve.
What I want to know is that you will unequivocally renounce the use of torture and will agree to abide by the Geneva Conventions and international treaties on the treatment of prisoners of war.
What I want to know is that you will shut Guantanamo and every secret prison down as soon as humanly possible, and that the detainees in them will receive justice.
What I want to know is that you will end the warrantless and illegal surveillance of American citizens by our intelligence agencies.
What I want to know is that you will hold any corporation that aided government in illegally spying on American citizens accountable to the rule of law.
What I want to know is that your cabinet and executive offices will not be stacked with bumbling ideologues and cronies.
What I want to know is that you, your Vice President and every one of your executive officers will be subject to the rule of law, just like everyone else.
What I want to know is that you will respect Congress as a co-equal branch of government.
What I want to know is that you will never attempt to circumvent Congress's laws with signing statement.
What I want to know is that you appoint qualified Supreme Court justices who believe in the rule of law and in the fundamental privacy protections for all Americans under decided law.
What I want to know is that you are going to break the stranglehold of dependence our country has on foreign oil.
What I want to know is that you will make rebuilding New Orleans for all of the people of New Orleans a top domestic priority, and that another debacle like this administration's response to Katrina will never happen on your watch.
What I want to know is that you see and understand just how massively off-track our country has gone, and that you have some idea about how to right it, and the ability to do so.
I want to know that you will be willing to tell the American people what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear.
I want to know that you can be a leader.
I want to know that you will give us our country back.
Seeing the two of you walk on to the debate stage Thursday night was thrilling. You've made history already, and the fact that one of you will very likely go on to lead our nation is a huge symbolic victory for the Democratic party and for the nation, one that I will do everything in my power to see come to pass. But you can't govern on symbolism.
I want to believe in hope, in twelve point plans for an amorphous vision of change. But I need more. Call me demanding. You bet I'm demanding. We all should be. The times and the state of our nation require it.