The race is on!
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Bay Windows
January 25, 2007

RICHARD J. ROSENDALL

The race is on!


The Democrats are better positioned to retake the White House than at any time since 1932, with the Republicans having spent years presiding over a disastrous and destabilizing war, detaining people indefinitely without charges and attacking those who offer them pro bono legal counsel, refusing to talk to foreign regimes that most need to hear from us, putting federal science policy at the service of religious fundamentalists, running up deficits that make the proverbial “tax and spend Democrats” look like tightwads, and scapegoating gay citizens as threats to the nation merely for seeking legal protection for our relationships.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Democrats’ success in the midterm elections as a victory on all of those issues. Frustration with the Iraq war was the main factor, and the government remains closely divided. Though the House Democrats under Speaker Pelosi have passed their “first 100 hours” agenda, from raising the minimum wage to promoting stem cell research to implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations, they face a Senate whose barely-outnumbered Republicans threaten to filibuster even a non-binding resolution opposing escalation in Iraq.

The fight, in short, is still on. The Democrats’ main tool in the 110th Congress is their oversight power. They may not be able to reverse many of President Bush’s policies, but they can shine a light on them and deny him the rubber stamp he received in the previous three Congresses.

This is the context in which the 2008 presidential race will play out. Let’s have a look at the leading Republicans first.

Rudy Giuliani’s liberal positions on gun control, abortion rights, and gay rights make him a long shot for the GOP nomination. On the other side of the fence, those who recall his extensive record as an authoritarian bully during his years as New York mayor would find him scary as a prospective president, notwithstanding his extraordinary and admirable performance on 9/11 and the days that followed.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is mistrusted by many conservatives for pushing campaign finance reform and voting against the Federal Marriage Amendment, but he is anti-abortion and shot commercials supporting an anti-gay ballot initiative in Arizona. His unflinching support for a deeply unpopular war would make him vulnerable as the Republican nominee.

Former Governor Mitt Romney’s shameless flip-flopping from conservative to liberal and back again, exposed largely due to this paper’s reporting on his betrayal of gay voters he once pledged to support, increases the mistrust already felt toward him by conservative evangelicals because of their religious bigotry toward his Mormon faith. But he is a smooth and attractive politician, and his anti-gay victory at the Constitutional Convention (thanks to State Senate President Robert Travaglini) may ingratiate him with some primary voters.

With more moderate Republican voters divided among the other candidates, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KA), as a far-right conservative, might pull an upset if he can overcome his relative obscurity, fundraising disadvantage, and having the dullest personality of the bunch.

On the Democratic side, the fact that none of the leading candidates supports civil marriage equality shows how much educating and organizing lie ahead of us on that score. On the other hand, the fact that the gay-panic strategy began backfiring in 2006 (costing George Allen his Senate seat when he used Virginia’s anti-gay ballot initiative to turn out minority voters who then voted for Democrat Jim Webb) should help the Democrats keep the focus on Republican recklessness and incompetence where it belongs.

I feel a little sorry for John Edwards. Having survived not only the “Breck Girl” mockery in 2004 but playing second fiddle to the infuriatingly vacillating and tone-deaf John Kerry – and having chosen a fairly bold focus on eliminating poverty in his effort for 2008 – the former trial lawyer and one-term U.S. Senator now faces, as leading competitors, the first black man and the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency.

An early sign that Edwards is a force to be reckoned with was his clever characterization of the escalation in Iraq as “the McCain Doctrine,” which moves the focus away from his own prior support for the war while scoring an early hit against a leading Republican candidate. It also puts pressure on Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who has not distanced herself as sharply from her own early support for the war.

Edwards’ aggressive call for Congress to block funds for the war is an example of how much easier it is to campaign when you don’t also have to govern. As senators, Clinton and Barack Obama (D-IL) are faced with supporting or opposing specific legislation, while Edwards is free to say whatever sounds good. This could help him gain ground against his more cautious rivals.

Sen. Obama’s skill at turning issues around to his advantage was superbly demonstrated on World AIDS Day 2006 in Orange County, California, where he and Sen. Brownback visited Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Brownback, speaking first and thinking he had the advantage, turned to Obama and said, “Welcome to my house.” When Obama’s turn came, he said, “There is one thing I’ve got to say, Sam: This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

Yes! At last, Democrats again have a candidate who moves comfortably between the realms of religion and politics.

Anyone who watched Coretta Scott King’s funeral a year ago knows that this is not true of Sen. Clinton, who has trouble speaking inspiringly from a podium. But she conveys gravitas, which is an asset for anyone hoping to succeed the hapless current president. War opponents might prefer total immediate withdrawal, but Sen. Clinton’s more cautious approach as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee positions her better to move policy. She does her homework, and has won the respect of generals. Her White House experience may be a sore subject for people who weren’t going to vote for her anyway, but no one thinks she spent much of her time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue deciding between damask and lace tablecloths for the next state dinner. She wasn’t the President, but she was the closest adviser to one, and she has since been elected and re-elected to the Senate in her own right. She is smart, formidable, battle-tested, and not to be underestimated.

Clinton’s “I’m in” announcement, which flooded the Internet on Saturday morning, played to her strengths by presenting her in a well-lit and relaxed setting instead of at a podium before a crowd, and is a reminder that a far colder and more forbidding Richard Nixon won election in 1968 with the help of media savvy and superior organizing.

Still, Clinton’s stiffness as a public speaker gives an opening to the charismatic Obama, whose rhetorical gifts may exceed those of Clinton’s husband – a man famously at ease in the pulpit. Some will object to the notion that a presidential candidate should be able to deliver a sermon. They perhaps forget that the last two Democrats elected President had evangelical backgrounds.

Many liberals have come to equate religion with the intolerance that has marked its recent dominance of the GOP, but this ignores history. Lincoln’s second inaugural address was essentially a sermon. FDR’s D-Day broadcast in 1944 included a prayer that he composed. The greatest American political speech since the Gettysburg Address, delivered in Lincoln’s symbolic shadow a century after Emancipation, rang with the cadences of a black Baptist preacher.

This is not about using the state to impose a particular religion. It is about reclaiming a field of discourse which, as Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, will be filled by others if we abandon it. To be sure, our invocation of faith needs to be more welcoming and less domineering. As Dr. Warren puts it, religion needs to be about what people are for, not just what they are against.

Just as the anti-war legacy of Vietnam among Democrats has enabled Republicans to portray them as weak on defense, so has liberals’ avoidance of religious phraseology in reaction to exhibitionistic know-nothingism enabled conservatives to portray them as the enemies of “values voters.”

Obama, his mother an anthropologist and his grandmother a confirmed rationalist, did not embrace Christianity until his community organizing for a group of Chicago churches exposed him to the same engaged Christianity that fueled the African American civil rights movement. He writes, “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelations – whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion.”

The practical question is not whether America will be free of religion, but what approach to religion will prevail in our public square. Democrats have an opportunity to seize the high ground on faith, flag and family from a radical right that has done so much damage to all three. They know that to retain and expand their power, they must position themselves in the vital center. It is no accident that their leading anti-war voice in 2006 was Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), who is no leftist. (He is also no friend of LGBT people, which is why I was pleased when Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) trounced him for House Majority Leader.)

Thanks to right-wing overreaching, the 110th Congress began with a powerful symbolic rebuke to the theocratic Christianism that has taken hold of the Republican party. Dennis Prager, a right-wing talk radio host who serves on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, wrote on townhall.com that Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, should not be allowed to take his ceremonial oath of office on his own faith’s holy book, the Qur’an. Other conservatives took up the drumbeat, some making the ludicrous claim that the law requires the Christian Bible to be used. In fact, the standard oath is administered without any holy book at all, and anyone is entitled to make a non-religious affirmation instead of an oath.

Then came the masterstroke. Ellison announced that he planned to take his ceremonial oath using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an, which was retrieved for him by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. With this brilliant bit of political symbolism, it was as if the hand of God Himself, or perhaps I should say Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, had intervened to silence the hypocrites.

Republicans are rightly worried about 2008. Before President Bush’s address to the nation on Jan. 10, conservative John Podhoretz wrote on the National Review group blog, “McCain can do this, and Rudy can do that, and Romney can do the other thing. But if tonight’s speech doesn’t herald the beginning of a serious turnaround in Iraq that is plain to see by spring of next year, the Risen Christ could be the Republican nominee in 2008 and He wouldn’t be able to win against Al Sharpton.” Democrats cannot afford to take that for granted, but it’s an encouraging thought.


Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.