Barack Obama has won the race for the Democratic nomination for president against Hillary Clinton on the issues. Sort of.
This is not what the pundits will tell you, who would rather focus upon the most superficial and trivial aspects of the two final candidates’ style, personality, associates, personal history, and campaign organization and strategy, not to mention race and gender.
This is not what many on the left will say either, in recognition of how little differences there were between the two candidates’ stated positions on most policies.
Still, Obama was able to defeat the once-formidable Hillary Clinton because he was perceived to be the better candidate among the increasingly progressive base of the Democratic Party.
Many progressive supporters of Clinton pointed out how many on the left tended to criticize their candidate incessantly for her militaristic and pro-corporate policies while making excuses for similar positions taken by Obama. Obama’s public positions on issues which ran counter to most progressive voters were often rationalized as being necessary in order for him to be elected or as part of the unfortunate reality of corporate power in the American political system, while Clinton’s similar positions were attacked as a reflection of her real agenda.
To the extent that this was true, a major reason that the left may have cut Obama more slack than it did Clinton is that many progressives gave the Clintons just that kind of benefit of the doubt back in 1992. The line at that time was that "Bill Clinton has to say those things in order to get elected, but once in office, his policies will be far more progressive than his campaign rhetoric, which is aimed at winning votes from the center." The reality, however, was that the policies emanating from the Clinton White House over the next eight years were not to the left but actually to the right of positions he touted during the campaign. Though seven and a half years of President George W. Bush makes the Clinton Era look pretty good by comparison, the reality was that the Clintons presided over the most conservative Democratic administration of the twentieth century. As a result, there was an assumption among many party progressives that a second Clinton White House would be more of the same.
Obama, by contrast, has not yet had the opportunity to disappoint. It certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t. In fact, he probably will. Yet it appears that most Democrats in the progressive wing of the party took the attitude that the Clintons had their chance and blew it, so let’s give the nomination to the new guy who worked as a community organizer, who has a more grass roots focus, whose progressive policy positions have been more longstanding and consistent, and who has relied more on small donations and less on corporate contributors.
The most significant reason Clinton lost, however, was Iraq. Obama’s outspoken and principled opposition to the war back in 2002 and his public recognition that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to the United States or any of Iraq’s neighbors contrasted sharply with Clinton’s support for the war and her false and alarmist statements about alleged Iraqi WMDs and links to Al- Qaeda. (See my article Obama vs. Clinton – October 2002.) Indeed, Clinton‘s vote to allow President Bush to invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us went well beyond "bad judgment" and moral culpability for the predictable tragedy that resulted: it was demonstrative of her dismissive attitudes toward international law, the United Nations system, the U.S. Constitution, and common sense. (See my article Why Hillary Clinton’s Iraq Vote Does Matter. )
If Clinton had apologized for her vote or come out against the war earlier, as did former Senator John Edwards, she would have probably won the nomination. She failed to do so, however. And, combined with her hawkish policies in regard to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran, there was little reason to suspect that, as president, she wouldn’t pursue similarly disastrous policies toward other Middle Eastern conflicts. (See my articles Hillary Clinton on International Law and Human Rights and Hillary Clinton on Military Policy.)
It is certainly true that, during his first two years in the U.S. Senate, Obama – like Clinton and virtually every other Senate Democrat – supported unconditional funding for the war, a position that angered his anti- war supporters. Similarly, Obama’s own policy statements in regard to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran – as well as nuclear proliferation, globalization and other foreign policy issues – are, while better than Clinton’s, still quite disappointing for those of us looking for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy. Still, there is little question that Obama defeated Clinton as a result of the power of the anti-war movement and the fact that, unlike 2004, it is no longer possible for a senator to have unapologetically voted to grant President Bush unconditional authority to launch a war of aggression at the time and circumstances of his own choosing and still receive the Democratic nomination for president.
The best hope for a progressive administration under a President Obama, then, may be in the fact that the Illinois senator’s base is so much more progressive than he is. Just as any number of Republican politicians – who personally may not have much affinity with the Christian right’s obsession with abortion and homosexuality – have felt obliged nevertheless to play to their base with policies and appointments which cater to their interests, Obama may feel similarly obliged in regard to the Democratic left. By contrast, Clinton was more the candidate of the party establishment, which gave rise to the assumption that her appointments and policies would have more reflected those interests. Though this distinction was not absolute – there are plenty of establishment figures supporting Obama and plenty of grass roots feminists and other progressives who supported Clinton – there is little question to whom Obama would owe his election.
Perhaps what has been most hopeful about the 2008 Democratic presidential race is the fact that both Obama and Clinton – as well as all the Democratic candidates who had dropped out earlier – took positions on Iraq, global warming, civil liberties, globalization, and other key issues considerably more progressive than did eventual nominee John Kerry or any of the major Democratic contenders in 2004.
It is a reminder that it may be less important whom we elect as the choices we give them. As the adage goes, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco.