Tuesday, March 4, 2008
The "We" in "Yes We Can"
I just watched speeches by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama following 3 out of 4 primary results (Texas is still too close to call). I admire Hillary Clinton and I’m delighted to have a woman as a serious contender for the White House. She’s poised, smart, and heaven knows she’s a fighter, and I have little doubt that she’d be an effective, if expedient, leader. On policy issues, the difference between HRC and BHO isn’t really all that significant. But I find myself investing in Obama’s campaign with uncharacteristic depth—the kind that manifests itself as a sense of physical illness when he doesn’t win a state, a visceral response heretofore reserved for NBA Playoff disappointments—and I wanted to articulate why I’m supporting him.
Thoughout my voting life, since I was eighteen and able to vote, I have found myself on the political margins. I lean a little too far to the left to have felt entirely comfortable with the Democratic party and some of its compromises (particularly on the death penalty, which is as close as I come to a dealbreaker). For nearly two decades, I’ve voted either Green or Socialist, depending on who was running and how they articulated their positions. [And for those of you who’ll leap to castigate me for Gore 2000, I haven’t exactly been living in battleground states: my vote was a gesture of principle, with little or no impact on the wide margins of victory logged by one party or the other.]
Obama is the first Democratic candidate that has ever made me believe that my vote didn’t have to be a protest vote against an entrenched system. But perhaps more importantly, he’s the first candidate EVER that has made me want to be a better citizen.
In part, yes, it’s his rhetorical prowess. I’m a language girl, and there’s something thrilling about his facility with the rhythms of the word, the downright prosody of his sentences. [And it’s such a relief that he seems to know what words mean, unlike our current imbecile, who a fortnight ago berated the system “that Castro has tried to hoist off as democracy.”]
But the inclusiveness of Obama’s gesture—by which I don’t mean the wide reach of his popularity but rather his insistence that—as he said tonight—“government cannot solve all of our problems, and [Americans] don’t expect it to”.....this to me is a tremendously moving call to action, something I’ve not really heard except secondhand. I think of JFK’s admonition that we should ask not what our country can do for us, etc., etc. This stance puts US in the position of working to improve things, to capitalize on the volunteer spirit that sweeps through America whenever a crisis presents itself but then fades away into renewed capitalist self-absorption. I can get behind that. That vision of politics has trickle-down power: we get involved in our communities, improve the lives of our neighbors, and begin to take advantage of the practical effects of democracy. This, I think, is what Obama means when he invites us to say with him, “Yes, we can.”
And the most astonishing thing, from my perspective, is that my formerly Republican parents will get behind him, too. That may be the most compelling reason of all to support Obama.
I read not too long ago an article by Michael Gerson, the former Bush staffer, who lamented the droopiness of the Republican party. He said that there’s one figure in American politics who would galvanize the right, re-energize the Republican party, and that figure is Hillary Clinton.
I believe that Clinton would be a competent and shrewd leader. And I believe that she’s got fabulous chops. But I also believe that she will push back to the right all those moderates, like my parents, who might be persuaded to vote for Obama. I fear that if she’s the Democratic nominee, we’ll have four more years of division, four more years of every person for him/herself, four more years of me claiming to be Canadian when I travel overseas.
I’m not easily seduced by rhetoric--I've read too much Milton for that--and my political crush on Obama doesn’t arise from my hunch that Aaron Sorkin is secretly writing his speeches. I am, however, deeply moved by the idea that we are, each of us, our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, in real, practical, active ways that demand our engagement and participation and even sacrifice. I’m supporting Barack Obama not only because I admire his policies, his independence, and his willingness to engage in dialogue with his opponents here and abroad, but also because he makes ME want to work to achieve the America I've been envisioning.