I've been deeply uncomfortable with the Democratic Presidential primary so far, and I think I'm beginning to understand why. I think it has to do not so much with the candidates, but with the way that we discuss ideas as a party and as a movement.
Simon Rosenberg at NDN and the New Politics Institute is a brilliant guy who introduced me into politics, and I'll always be grateful to him for that. He framed a lot of my thinking about the party, and one point he made is that Democrats have traditionally been tremendously uncomfortable with disagreement whereas Republicans have traditionally loved to argue and debate. He was of course right, and you can tell by watching the Republican primary and the Democratic primary.
Here's Sam Brownback challenging Mitt Romney.
Have you seen anything remotely similar to this on the Democratic side? The Obama campaign will send a memo highlighting subtle disagreements with Clinton, and candidates will present different plans. But when push comes to shove, there's just this, I don't know, fear of seeming different. Obama will not even broach a disagreement with Clinton, for some weird reason. John Edwards is putting forward the most ambitious rhetorical campaign, by far. He's attacking the frame of the war on terror, calling it a bumper sticker slogan and genuinely going after the whole intellectual edifice of the right. Clinton and Obama are not doing that, though Obama occasionally makes stabs in that direction.
But why is he so uncomfortable with the fact that he believes different things than Clinton? Here's what I mean, from the South Carolina debate:
Senator Edwards, you made a high-profile apology for your vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution. You have said, quote, "We need a leader who will be open and honest, who will tell the truth when they made a mistake." Was that not a direct shot at your opponent, Senator Clinton?
Former Sen. John Edwards: No, I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote.
Why couldn't he have just said yes? I mean, it is a direct shot at Clinton. It's not an 'attack', but it's a disagreement. And that's FINE. That's democracy. Here's what he could have said.
Yes. Senator Clinton is a good person, but she thinks the vote to authorize the war was correct. I don't. As President, she has said she will keep troops in Iraq. I think that's a bad idea. Senator Clinton and I have different ideas about America's place in the world, and it's good for the party to have this debate.
Watch the Brownback video, where he challenges Romney on a whole range of issues. What's wrong with disagreeing and arguing based on that disagreement? Nothing. And yet, I'm convinced that a fair number of base Democratic voters do not believe that disagreement within the party is ok. Take, for instance, the notion that Democrats need courage. Do you think that Steny Hoyer or Rahm Emanuel are cowards for voting to fund the occupation? Perhaps they are, and perhaps their decision was cravenly political. But what if they genuinely disagree with us on the vote. Maybe they have different ideas about national security and executive authority, ones we don't agree with. Or let's take the notion that the problem with Democrats has something to do with a lack of messaging capacity. We can't say one thing clearly and simply. Maybe that's true. Or maybe Democrats have different ideas about stuff, and it's not actually a messaging problem so much as it is that we disagree.
I'm a partisan Democrat, and will be for the foreseeable future. But I believe in the power of ideas more than the power of political parties, which is why I never hesitate to make criticisms of anyone based on their arguments. It's really quite silly to pretend that we all agree on stuff, and also that it's necessary to all agree on stuff to win elections or wield power. The way you govern is you work through your disagreements by acknowledging them openly and submitting them to scrutiny. That's called pluralism, and it's the basis of the scientific method and political liberalism.
It's ok to disagree. It's ok to run primaries against people based on good faith disagreements. When I talk about Hillary Clinton being principled about her hawkishness, I am not any less inclined to want to see her defeated in a primary. But that's because I don't agree with her ideas, not because she's this or that as a person. It's really remarkable how many supporters of hers read into her ideas their own liberal instincts instead of trusting what she says. And when John Edwards refuses to acknowledge that he disagrees with Hillary Clinton, while obviously dancing in the media with a high profile apology that implies a whole lot of disagreement with a whole lot of people, he's avoiding the argument the party needs to have. Edwards is putting forward real and different ideas about America's place in the world. He disagrees with Clinton and Obama about a bunch of stuff. That's fine. There's no reason to hide it.
Seriously, watch Sam Brownback's video clip. What he does in that Youtube clip suggests a healthy party structure. Republican Presidential candidates are willing to fight with each other to see who comes out on top, to see who's more persuasive. In lower and mid-tiers of the party, the GOP isn't having a debate, just as there is a real debate on the left in some areas of the party (though not really on the Presidential level). But it's instructive to see what a party that's comfortable with disagreement looks like, and to compare that to what we have.