Russell's Blog

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Presidential forums with awkward names

Posted by Russell on November 20, 2007 at 3:31 p.m.
On Saturday, I decided to head to the VA complex next to UCLA to watch the Global Warming & America's Energy Future Presidential Forum. I guess you could include it among the unending barrage of presidential debates we're suffering through. Having caught just enough of the last Democratic debate on CNN to ruin an otherwise enjoyable dinner, I was was pleasantly surprised that this forum turned out to be rather interesting.

The panelists asked sharp questions, but there was no attempt to "get" the candidates. There was a refreshing absence of false dichotomies, litmus tests and provocations. They just asked difficult, technical questions. For example, Edwards said that we ought to essentially ban coal, but that coal miners should not be made to bare brunt of this economic realignment because the problem is not their fault. He was asked the obvious follow-on question : That means compensation. How do we pay for it?

And then something astonishing happened. Edwards answered the question directly, and the panelists let him. He'd already explained that to reduce emissions, we need some kind of carbon tax. It's estimated that such a system would raise about 20-40 billion dollars a year, depending on the details of implementation (which is up to Congress). This block of money would be divided among three goals; remediation of environmental damage, research, and helping people in "dirty" industries get new, better jobs.

The audience was very enthusiastic throughout, but the enthusiasm crested highest on the occasions when the panelists, candidates and moderator insulted CNN, particularly Tim Russert. I guess this reflects the fact that the only thing less popular than Congress is the Media. If Wolf Blitzer had walked onto the stage, he would have been booed out of the hall. Child molesters are more popular than the Media.

The candidates don't have to use FOX or CNN as their forum. There are lots and lots of nonpartisan issue-oriented groups that would happily host debates. The questions will be less stupid, and the format won't be designed to maximize catfighting. Issue-oriented groups will listen to answers longer than 15 seconds without getting bored, assuming the candidates stay more or less on topic.

The biggest surprise, for me anyway, was that I felt a lot more confident about Hillary after hearing her speak without an idiot media stooge nipping at her heels. She made it very clear that she understands the issue of climate change, and that she understands the need for bold action. She has some specific proposals, but they aren't really unique from what Edwards proposes -- not that I fault her for that. It's pretty obvious what needs to be done, so all the serious proposals will tend to look about the same. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because her intelligence has never been in question.

The trouble I have with Hillary is not concern that she would make a good president. I think she would do a pretty good job. At least as good as her husband did, and probably better. She is smart and capable, and her priorities are pretty much right. The problem I have with her is that I think she would make and awful leader for the progressive movement. She represents a view -- "The perfect is the enemy of the good" she said during the forum -- that is immiscible with philosophical leadership. She would be a competent administrator. She would work hard and push for the right things. But I can't see her galvanizing a new progressive coalition. She would leave the Democratic party in the same state her husband left it; hollowed out and fractured.

The electorate is crackling with a punishing voltage of dissatisfaction, and it isn't any mystery what is pissing people off. There are very real, terrible problems facing our country. People have a whole menu of issues to be pissed off about -- climate change, our inept counterterrorism policies, income inequality, health care, a hostile international community, our diseased financial system, the trade imbalance, Iraq, and more. And Washington is doing nothing to fix this stuff. Nothing.

On one terminal, we have three hundred million Americans who like to get shit done, and on the other terminal, we have a few hundred politicians in Washington who aren't doing shit. The system has been charging up for a very, very long time. We need a president who will be a big fat wire between these two terminals. We need a way to pipe our collective dissatisfaction into Washington until its denizens either get to work or vaporize from the political scene. I can't see Hillary doing that. She is a natural insulator; her natural instincts are to mediate and compromise. That's very admirable, and in a different situation would be highly desirable. But if someone doesn't hook the terminals up, eventually the whole thing will short out and we can kiss democracy goodbye.

Maybe I'm wrong about Hillary. A lot of people are enthusiastic about her, and that's a good sign. It would be nice if she stopped undermining the progressive part of the party, and started beating up on the GOP for keeping Washington paralyzed.

Also, I think a lot of people fail to appreciate what a great thing Dennis Kucinich is doing for the party. First of all, he's not undermining the Democratic part by running in a third party, like Nader did. Second, by running boldly to the left of the pack, he is flanking the other candidates, making them harder to attack. It's safer for them to take liberal positions because they will still be moderate on any scale that includes Kucinich. This something that happens frequently in Republican primaries -- there is an unpopular fascist thug, and the other candidates look nice and moderate by defeating him. Not that Kucinich is an exact mirror of that picture. He would probably be a center-right candidate in most functioning democracies. This highlights how important it is for the Democratic party to have people like him.

Now, if we had a few actual Communists in Congress, like most democracies, then moderate liberal politicians would have lots of maneuvering room. The Democrats could hold up practically any serious proposal, and it would look conservative when contrasted with the lunatic position from the Communists. Single-payer healthcare? Look, it's better than Communism, don't you think? You don't want Communism, do you? Great, so vote for our plan.

Anyway, I'm pretty disappointed that Barak Obama didn't come to the event. It was very unfortunate.

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