Staying Ahead of the Curve

By James McCarty Yeager

Let us review the most recent occasion an insurgent won the Democratic nomination against bitter and organized establishment opposition. It was 1972 and George McGovern, caretaker of the Kennedy delegates after California in 1968, had been given the party rules committee slot that would have gone to RFK and, failing that, should have gone to Gene McCarthy. In the 1972 primaries McGovern used his knowledge of the rules to defeat the presumptive nominee, Hubert Humphrey, with an outbreak of enthusiasm Humphrey could hardly understand, much less emulate.

But then at the convention he tried to reach out to the establishment wing of the party by nominating a labor hack, Tom Eagleton of Missouri, as his running mate. It was a sickening blow that the old politics delivered straight to the reform breadbasket. It also showed that McGovern did not have the strategic cunning or the tactical brass to dance with who brung him.

Even without his subsequently publicized psychiatric troubles Eagleton would have been a drag on the ticket. (These should also have been handled differently by pushing back against the notion that he was more unfit to be in line for presidential succession than was the pre-disgraced Spiro Agnew.) As it was, the haggling over how and when to dump Eagleton—and replacing him with the ultimate empty suit, Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver—flattened any momentum McGovern had amassed by storming the nomination castle.

Despite its establishment-conciliatory intent, McGovern’s betrayal of his supporters’ independent principles by nominating Eagleton did nothing good. It did not prevent the Dem hierarchy from sitting on its hands and making only an infinitesimal effort to work for the ticket in the fall. Tip O’Neill, then Assistant House Democratic Whip, and Party Chairman and king-hell lobbyist Bob Strauss rode home from the 1972 convention on the same plane. On that journey even before the Shriver debacle, O’Neill frankly conceded in his ghostwritten 1987 autobiography, Man of the House, that he and Strauss had decided they and their friends would make only a lukewarm effort at best on McGovern’s behalf.

You might try making the case that Bill Clinton was kind of an insurgent in 1992, except he did not, as McGovern and Obama did, face an organized and refractory party establishment bent on preventing a progressive majority, which in any case he did not represent prior to his nomination. Jimmy Carter in 1976, who won the nomination on the strength of being the only Democratic candidate who could beat the suppurating segregationist George Wallace, does not even qualify for insurgency under the lenient WJC definition. The strongest recent insurgent was Gary Hart, who tried to save us from the dull and prematurely ancient Walter Mondale in 1984 before self-imploding as the presumptive early favorite for the nominee in 1988—which was as stunning an overthrow as if Hillary Clinton had been caught in lacy, racy hanky-panky last year. Insurgency could not have worked worse than plodding establishmentarianism did in 1984, since Hart would never have had to mention the word “age” when he debated Reagan that fall. Hart also would have energized Dems as Mondale, famously described as having “the soul of a vice president,” could not.

In 2005-7 those party nomination rules which were not directly written by the Hillary Clinton campaign were explicitly approved by it. She had the front-runner momentum of a years’-long lead in raising money, securing endorsements, and emplacing a campaign organization. Taken together, this was supposed to carry her past every opponent so previous in the process that her initial lead and aura of inevitability would secure the nomination of their own weight. It was a blitzkreig strategy that could only work if it swept all before it, as the front-loading of primaries and caucuses was designed to deliver. It had no backup plan nor resources for a long battle of attrition, and the result is as we have seen: having failed to triumph early, she could not prevail late.

Yet, against such a procedurally-stacked deck, for anyone to have toppled the Dem center on behalf of the Dem left, cleanly and non-violently, would have been an historic event even without the racial overtones. The night he won the nomination Barack Obama quoted Lincoln on “the better angels of our nature.” Embodying the notion that America can alter itself to follow those angels, even over race and warfare, this occasion resonates not just with decades of change, but with centuries.

Fairly soon, Obama could properly act on, though he might not announce, a principle of not appointing a single sitting Senator to any position, cabinet or otherwise, that would require him or her to give up a seat in the Senate (e.g. not Joe Biden for secretary of state nor Claire McCaskill for vice president.). Things are going to be tight enough there, what with the disgusting and demented Joe Lieberman remaining unexpelled from the caucus, thus undercutting the 60 votes that will be necessary to install moderate Supreme Court Justices and otherwise avoid filibusters.

We must take no chances of diminishing the Dem Senate population. Dems don’t need to defend two or three special elections in the first year of a new Presidency. Instead, for instance, we need to have a Joint Committee on War Crimes to investigate members of the previous administration who escaped impeachment for lying, spying, torture, the destruction of White House e-mail and using Pentagon money to purchase TV talking heads to push the war, as well as a Joint Committee on Constitutional Restoration to investigate the other BushCo depredations such as “signing statements,” selective prosecution. the political corruption of the Justice Department and the politicization of science throughout the agencies.

Especially Hillary Clinton must remain in the Senate in order to lead the fight for universal single-payer health care and the utter abolition of health insurance as a commercial entity—effectively pushing Obama toward the left on healthcare, where he needs it. She must also trounce Rudy Giuliani’s odiousness, once and for all, in 2012, so that we can watch him swell up and explode with what he will regard as the humiliation of being beaten by a woman.

Certainly the attitude of supercilious entitlement, which HRC manifested in niggling and repeated misstatements about a lead in the popular vote that only existed if you ignored some real votes and counted some unreal ones, must not be allowed to taint the inclusiveness of the Obama campaign. Including her of all people in it, at the last minute and in the second-highest slot, would betray the very principle itself. Moreover, she is no more entitled to the vice presidency than Obama would have been had he lost to her—though she would have been smarter electorally to offer it to him had she won than he would be if he were to offer it to her.

Trying to force herself into office is tacky and demeaning, more trailer-trash than sorority-girl. The single most important VP question is, who is best qualified to lead if the President dies; and nothing HRC did in the campaign advanced her claim to competence in the slightest. Good intentions, perhaps (in some policy areas, not in personal or political discourse); but performance, certainly not. Secondary to that, does HRC on the ticket help BHO get elected? Nowhere. Her negatives outpace his even in states she did better in. Not because of sexism but because she was unable to catch up to, embody and represent the long-standing opposition of the Democratic party’s bedrock voters to the evil and unnecessary war in Iraq, her time has gone.

There will be no decision on the vice presidency until August, and this is as it should be. It is too great a card to be played early, before John McCain has played his. Barely possibly, instead of a prechosen veep, Obama might submit a list to the convention and ask delegates to choose among two or three names (hopefully, again, none of them sitting Senators.) That would be a procedural innovation in keeping with the openness of the Obama aura. In any case none of them should be HRC’s, if only on the most charitable grounds that she has other work that she alone can do.

But even if HRC were the woman we all wanted her to be, and her being on the ticket would actually help, the principle must remain: no sitting Senators appointed to positions leading to special elections. We ought not give any more hostages to fortune than we absolutely must, and every special Senate election would be such a hostage. Progressives are going to need all our political capital and energies in 2009 to repair the thoroughpaced defalcations of the cowboy thugs, peeling the putrid layers of BushCo slime off the institutions of our government.

This effort is going to take every Senate vote and none should be risked, even following a certifiably Dem year and in Dem states. Obama is so far the class of the joint that, frankly, none of them can help him much doing any other job than senator. The fall campaign against McCain is not going to be easy but we already know it will be successful. There cannot be a similar level of confidence in electing so many new Dem Senators from currently Republican seats as to reach a 61-vote majority (Lieberman being really one of theirs.)

As crucial as electing Obama is, neither prospective cabinet members nor veeps are going to help. And the follow-through after the election is even moreso crucial, requiring us to take absolutely no chances with any Senate majority. Let them all do the jobs they were elected for, and let others fill the cabinet and vice presidency. It’s the first, and possibly the last, safe thing Obama ought to do.

James McCarty Yeager, who served as press secretary for Eugene McCarthy’s 1976 independent presidential campaign, lives and works in Washington, D.C.’s Fourth Ward on a peaceful, tree-lined street that seems to be full of retired postal workers.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2008

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