I will never forget sitting in the first row of the California delegation at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco and watching Gary Hart, a young and vibrant United States Senator from Colorado, challenge Vice President Mondale for the Democratic nomination for president. While the Vice President was a good man with a distinguished record, he was the establishment candidate and represented the status quo.
On the other hand, Senator Hart embodied the excitement of youth as the first baby boomer to seek the presidency. He was one of us and a reformer with a dynamic vision for the future. His candidacy marked the beginning of the baby boomer era in Democratic Party politics.
The peak of my generation’s political power was the ascent of Governor Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992. His campaign was exhilarating, driven by a candidate cool enough to wear stylish sunglasses and play the saxophone on Arsenio Hall. Clinton campaigned without a jacket and with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He seem fearless and overflowed with hope for resolving the policy issues of the day. He articulated a vision and, for the first time, told us that we were part of it. The youthful and reform-minded Clinton led his baby boomer generation in vanquishing the entrenched Washington establishment created by Reagan and Bush, Sr.
When blocked by traditional politics or political machines who wanted to continue the status quo, Clinton filled up arenas with young people, organized thousands and thousands of volunteers, bypassed traditional ways of campaigning and appealed directly to the constituencies of the Democratic Party to create a new coalition to lead into the new millennium. It was an extraordinary time to be in politics.
It sounds almost sounds like Barack Obama or John Edwards today, doesn’t it?
How ironic that, in many ways, Senator Hillary Clinton represents the end of that era. She may just be the baby boomer generation’s last hurrah.
Today, the Clintons run the political machine trying to save the status quo in the Democratic Party. Their fundraising operation is notorious for its ruthlessness and elitism. Their circle of advisors and friends are tough and aggressive with anyone who refuses to pledge allegiance. They are surrounded by money collectors like Terry McAuliffe who shakedown donors with warnings that they will be punished if they give to another candidate. Senator Clinton’s position on the Iraq War is by far the most calculated of any candidate. And on so many other issues, her positions are measured and break no new ground. Each appearance is predictable and perfectly arranged. Whether by necessity or choice, the spontaneity, exuberance and hope we saw in both of the Clintons in 1992 is gone.
In many ways, Senator Barack Obama is today’s Bill Clinton. Like Clinton in 1992, he is packing arenas with young voters, campaigning in shirtsleeves, and calling America to believe in a new generation of politics. His candidacy stands in stark contrast to the safe predictable status quo Clinton campaign. Unlike Senator Clinton, he understood the consequences of invading Iraq and refused to support the war from day one. Like President Clinton in 1992, he is mobilizing thousands of cynical and disenfranchised voters and welcoming them back into the Democratic Party.
Ted Sorenson, President John F. Kennedy’s legendary speechwriter, recently endorsed Obama saying he represents the spirit of President Kennedy’s campaign in 1960.
It must not be easy for President Clinton to see a youthful figure like Senator Obama rise to become the hope and future of the Democratic Party. That is a place he has held for more than 14 years. And that is exactly the Clintons’ problem. He was elected almost 15 years ago and they have become the establishment. The people around them have a vested interest in preserving power and not making change.
Then there is John Edwards – the 2008 issues candidate – who is articulating bold policy positions and giving voice to the powerless. The former Senator recently mailed more than 70,000 DVDs to Iowa voters on universal health care and his pragmatic plan to make it happen. Clearly declaring his opposition to the Iraq War, Edwards’ speech at Riverside Church remains the best political address in the campaign so far.
I think famous progressive Robert Scheer captures the essence of the Edwards campaign. He recently posted on truthdig.com these comments about Edwards after Anne Coulter’s outrageous statement at the CPAC convention:
No wonder Coulter hates him: Edwards is a Democrat who believes in the progressive heritage of his party and is not afraid to tell the world.
“I want to say something about my party,” Edwards said in a speech at UC Berkeley on Sunday. “I’m so tired of incremental, careful caution. Where is our soul?” He was referring to, among other issues, the party’s failure to deal boldly with “the bleeding sore that is Iraq.”
Unlike rival Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he has forthrightly apologized for his Senate vote to authorize the war and called for ending it, starting with “immediately” cutting troop levels by half and then withdrawing all troops within the next 12 to 18 months. In a pointed rebuke to the Democratic leadership of Congress, Edwards states on his website, “We don’t need non-binding resolutions; we need to end this war, and Congress has the power to do it. They should use it now.”
On domestic issues, Edwards has hewed to the progressive line he maintained in the 2004 campaign, warning about the growing income inequality in the “two Americas.” As opposed to the Clintons, who still insist that they solved the poverty problem with Bill’s putting an end to the federal welfare program, Edwards points out correctly, “Every day, 37 million Americans wake in poverty.” Stating that “our response to that reality says everything about the character of America,” Edwards has called for a national program to eliminate poverty instead of leaving the poor to the tender mercy of the states as called for in the Clinton welfare reform.
It is also refreshing for a politician to invoke the image of Jesus, as Edwards did Monday, not as a divisive symbol of intolerance but rather as the inspiration for social justice and peace. “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs,” he said. “I think he would be appalled, actually.”
As he did in the 2004 campaign as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, Edwards has once again made relief for the struggling middle class a signature issue, strongly attacked tax breaks for the rich and the mindless globalization that is widening the class divide. He is equally strong on environmental issues, following 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore’s leadership on global warming, and he has had the courage to bluntly oppose the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” hypocrisy on gays in the military.
“Gay men and women have continually served our country with honor and bravery, and we should honor their commitment and never turn away anyone who is willing to serve their country because of sexual orientation,” he said. These words were of particular resonance, coming on the heels of the announcement by the first U.S. Marine seriously wounded in Iraq that he is gay.
So, there it is. While the Clintons lead the party in a chorus of “The Way We Were,” the charismatic Barack Obama and the substantive John Edwards are giving us a glimpse at the future of the Democratic Party. My baby boomer generation has had our run and the next generation is boldly stepping up to lead and to create a new vision for America.
That is a good thing.