An open letter to Progressive America

Dear America,

I’d like to begin with a confession: I didn’t vote in 2000. It’s the only presidential election since I turned 18 that I’ve sat out, and I’m more than embarrassed about it. It remains one of the biggest mistakes of my political life, and that’s saying something. The fact that my participation wouldn’t have made any difference (I lived in Massachusetts at the time) affords no solace, nor should it. I was stupid. I fucked up. Period.

See, I talked myself into some profound silliness. I wasn’t a Gore fan, for all kinds of reasons, and I was going through one of those periods of intense frustration at how the Democrats and Republicans were more alike than they were different (a dynamic that’s even worse now than it was then, by the way). So I convinced myself that there wasn’t any meaningful difference and parked my butt on the bench. I knew Bush was a joke, but I had no idea just how bad he’d turn out to be. I figured he was an inept bumbler who wasn’t really smart enough to get anything done, and four years of the government getting nothing done would hardly be the worst thing the Republic had endured.

From the vantage we enjoy here in 2008 my decision in 2000 seems blindingly, pathologically moronic. From 2000, though, from inside the context of that particular moment, there were ways for an otherwise intelligent guy to rationalize it.

I still don’t believe that Gore would have been a great president by any standard other than “compared to Bush.” But let’s take a hard look at my premise, that it made no difference. True or false? Well, ask yourself if the following things would likely have occurred in a Gore administration.

  • Blatantly falsified data leading to an unjust invasion of Iraq.
  • FISA and telecom immunity.
  • An AG running amok, firing federal attorneys over political differences.
  • Another attorney general who thinks waterboarding isn’t torture.
  • Speaking of waterboarding, would Gore have vetoed a bill outlawing it?
  • Abu Ghraib.
  • No Child Left Untested.
  • The treasonous outing of a CIA operative because her husband criticized the administration.
  • The Patriot Act.
  • Walter Reed.
  • “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”
  • Justice Alito.
  • Chief Justice Roberts.
  • There’s more here, including e-mail gate, memograte, Wolfiegate, No-bid-no-problemgate, Abramoffgate, Iraniburtongate, Homeland Insecurity, Jessica Lynch and Armstrong Williams.
  • And this.
  • About a million more here.

No doubt a Gore administration would have produced some corruption and stupidity, but is there any reason at all to think he could have matched The Dubya Follies? I mean, no president in recent memory has, including Nixon.

I’m ‘fessing up to my grand 2000 mistake now because I’m hoping we can find a way to step back and get a little broader persepctive on our current situation. Step back, take a breath and step away from the brink.

In the last week or two, I have personally seen and heard reports of all manner of self-defeating shortsightedness around the progressive sphere. Editorial boards at each other’s throats. Cynical bullying tactics of the sort that we’ve spent seven years associating with Bushevik thugs. Talented people saying “fuck it” and walking away.

The only thing that probably matches the volume of the screeching on “our side” of the fence is the cackling from the other side. Seriously, has anything made Karl Rove laugh this hard since the swiftboating of John Kerry?

I get that politics is a hardball business. I don’t think anybody in either the Clinton or Obama camps expected a whole lot of rainbows and unicorns and four-part renditions of “Kumbaya” at this point. People have opinions – some of them are even informed ones – and they have every right to voice them. I’ve done so, as have my colleagues here at S&R, and we aren’t likely to stop. I’m not a Hillary fan, and I have plenty of reservations about Barack, too. Neither ranks in my top three Democratic preferences, even. And since I’m by nature something of an outsider, innately suited to the role of outraged opposition no matter who’s in charge, you can probably expect me to continue bitching indefinitely, regardless of how things progress.

But as I look around at how this battle is being waged, in some cases by the candidates and in others by their supporters, I’m disgusted by how thoroughly we’re all failing to get the big picture. If you think your candidate is better than the other one, I applaud you. I think the candidate I’m behind is better than the other one, too. If you think America is going to be a lot worse off if the other guy/gal gets the Democratic nomination, hey, I’m still with you.

But if you think that John “Bush III” McCain represents a brighter future for our nation than the other Dem nominee, I fear you’re buried in counterproductive thinking, as I was in 2000. Clinton and Obama are separated, on policy issues, by a few microns at most. There are differences between them, of course. Obama is more capable of inspiring the exuberance of younger voters, and pro-social youthful passion is something that we can all benefit from. Clinton is probably more tactically gifted, and there’s every reason to think she would be effective at getting her agenda enacted. But when it comes to what they could be expected to pursue policy-wise, there’s just not much to choose from.

What about McCain, though? He voted in favor of waterboarding – after repeatedly calling it torture?! He not only supported the invasion of Iraq, he supports staying there for a thousand more years. He also promises that there will be more wars. He supports repealing Roe v. Wade. He voted no on a $100M initiative to reduce teen pregnancy by education & contraceptives. He’s rated 0% by NARAL, indicating a pro-life voting record. He’s rated 83% by the Christian Coalition, indicating a strongly (euphemism alert) “pro-family” voting record. Then there’s this morsel:

But I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, “Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?”

There’s more – lots more.

Looking at the record, ask yourself a question. Who do you think President McCain will appoint to the Supreme Court? Next, do you honestly believe that the Democratic candidate you’re not supporting would appoint those kinds of people, or do you think that, for all your differences, that candidate would appoint people a bit more in keeping with the sort of respect for our civil liberties that your candidate stands for?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question. So is this: what’s America going to look like after a generation under a Supreme Court where McCain has had the chance to pad the Alito/Roberts/Thomas/Scalia Axis?

All of which goes to explain why I’ve been pretty clear on one thing: I’ll vote for the Democratic nominee in November, period. I might not be happy about who that nominee is, but I won’t spend the next eight years kicking myself over a stupid decision, either.

The question is: are you talking yourself into some silliness like I did eight years ago?

I’m not sure all my fellow progressives are thinking three months ahead, let alone eight years. The increasingly vitriolic primary campaign is bringing out the worst in us, not the best, and it’s leading to the sorts of divisive, scorched-Earth tactics that are bound to benefit nobody but the Republicans. Why is this happening in a population that’s educated, principled and allegedly committed to ridding the nation of the ills of elitist conservatism?

  • Do we think that once “we” win the nomination all those people we insulted, abused and bullied will fall magically in line precisely the way we wouldn’t?
  • Do we believe it’s okay to treat people – most of who agree with us on 99.9% of the issues, by the way – the way we’d treat mortal enemies?
  • Are we so all-or-nothing idealistic that we don’t believe halfway to the goal is better than none of the way?
  • Do we believe that GOP is in such disarray that they won’t be able to exploit the things we’re saying about each other in the general election campaign?
  • Do we really believe that positive governance emerges logically and organically from toxic campaigning?
  • Do we not understand the rarefied place we occupy outside the mainstream of American life, and that people not intimately involved in the process will react badly to internecine throat-slitting?
  • Are we just so bad at basic math that we think we can beat McCain with only half the team on board?

I’m not here to assign blame and make angels out of devils. I’m not going to get into who did what, because this is one of those rare cases where specifics and details take our eyes off the ball. If I log a string of particulars, it allows people to defend their actions (by explaining how the other side did something wrong) and around we go again.

Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and I’m writing you today to ask that everyone cut it out. Now. Today. It’s okay to make your case, but it’s not okay to do so in a way that provides aid and comfort to McCain should you lose. You need to get your priorities straight right this minute. If you support Hillary, then your order of preference needs to look like this:

  1. Hillary
  2. Barack
  3. Somebody else
  4. McCain

If you support Obama, simply flip those top two. And understand that we’re all judging you not by what you say, but by what you do. Professing that you think your Dem opponent is better than McCain is of no value if your actions help the GOP in their efforts to defeat the eventual Democratic nominee.

Let the record show, down the road, that we resolved this very day to act on our best instincts instead of our worst and that we succeeded by matching the negativism of our less enlightened fellow progressives with an explosion of intellect, postivism and goodwill. May we be judged better because we were better.

Then, come November, let’s watch together as McCain and his band of cynical Bushevik holdovers drown in their own bile.

This isn’t hard, people. All we have to do is master ourselves and be, everyday, precisely what we wish the “other” side would be.


Sam Smith


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  • Sam, you said: “Clinton is saying and doing things that may substantially benefit McCain, but at the same time some of the worst behavior exhibited in this campaign so far has come from Obama supporters, who have mobbed those critical of their candidate in an attempt to intimidate them into silence”

    First of all, you’re comparing Candidate Clinton to Obama supporters. Apples and oranges. Obama supporters are not running for president. What has Obama himself said and/or done that would be anywhere near the crap Clinton has pulled and continues to pull during this campaign? Second of all, when you make that kind of charge, you ought to provide links to back it up, even if it is to bolster an irrelevant point. 🙂

  • I agree that the crimes have emanated from different places, and I hoped I made clear that I was painting with a broad brush for a reason. It’s all the minute specificity that makes the ongoing tit-for-tat possible. The innocent know who they are and will hopefully appreciate the tone of the message here.

    Your comment makes an important point, though, and I have removed the part you quote. I think it only clouds the issue. So thanks for pointing it out.

  • Great post, Sam!! Perhaps the Democratic Party will lose this next presidential election because of too many people who feel they must have everything they want or nothing at all. Or worse than nothing at all … another four years (at least) of a Republican President.

    I hope not.

  • Sam, I hear what you’re saying but honestly, I can’t see myself voting for Hillary. The previous article to yours “Having It Both Ways” by Josh Nelson pointed out enough reasons for me not to vote for her. If Obama gets the nod, he’ll get my vote. If he doesn’t, maybe I’ll sit out this one in deference to your dislike of McCain. I wonder if Hillary knows/cares about how her tactics are perceived or if she thinks we’ll forget about it by November.

    Just today I read Howard Wolfson, Hillary’s chief spokesman, said: “We do not believe at this point that Sen. Obama has passed that key commander-in-chief test” that Clinton would require for a running mate. Can they be more insulting?


  • Brandon: That’s all well and good, and I more than agree with you about Hillary’s commander in chief nonsense, which I’ve written about before.

    But this doesn’t address the crucial Supreme Court question. And there’s a good argument to be made that it’s the biggest question there is in November.

  • You missed the big one.

    Would Gore have given the green light for the 9/11 attacks, as Bush and the neocons clearly did?

    I guess we’ll never know. But we know this:

    Gore gave the election to Bush by not contesting the Florida vote theft. In Fahrenheit 9/11, there is a highly emotional scene on the floor of congress with numerous black Congressmen from Florida begging for an investigation into the illegal disinfranchisement of at least tens of thousands of African Americans (the presidency hung by 500 votes).

    Gore sits there smugly ignoring them. Not one Democratic senator is given permission to pursue the case and hold an investigation.

    This was clear. This was deliberate. This was the Democrats giving the election to Bush/Cheney. This could have had a lot to do with the upcoming 9/11 attacks. The reins of power were decided to be given to the Rethugs, as they would capitalize on it to the greatest extent, and the Democraps would maintain their image as the lesser evils.

    Your vote was meaningless. Don’t sweat it.

    70 Disturbing FACTS About 9/11

  • Well, as expected, the I-can’t-have-it-all-therefore-I’ll-be-happy-with-a-Republican-president crowd has weighed in.

    Maybe the Dems deserve to lose. Clearly, the more cohesive team is the opposing team.

  • Bryan Stevens

    Sam –
    Rob directed me to both S&R and the Lullaby Pit some months ago and I’m quite glad that he did. Your message here is extremely important, and should be read by anyone with even a trace of progressive in them. I fear that all of the internal strife might very well overshadow this opportunity for a much needed regime change. Of course, I have my own leanings, but I’d much rather have one of the (incredibly similar) Democratic candidates than another maniacal, foaming-at-the-mouth Republican.

  • The Democrats lose when they don’t stand for much of anything in particular. We left the issues behind months ago in this campaign and now we’re down to which one has the biggest ego to demand it more and their respective cults of personality bickering like Yankee and Redsox fans.

    If we want the Democrats to win in November, and I do, then we have to make them take principled stands. The professionals who run these campaigns know perfectly well what to say to get votes. In 2006 they understood that people wanted out of Iraq and for the Bush administration to be held accountable for their crimes. So that’s what they ran on and they won. If we want our candidates to take principled stands then we have to have the discipline to say we will only vote for you if you adopt the stands that we expect.

    These are no trivial points. The survival of the planet as a thriving entity depends on our ability to break the corporate control of the decision-making process. Both of the Democratic candidates are advocating giving tax-payer money to health insurance companies. And we are kidding ourselves if we think that any President, Republican or Democrat, who relies on the foreign policy establishment in Washington is going to get our troops out of Asia within ten years.

    Our only real weapon is the willingness to with-hold our votes. As an independent/Green/non-Democrat I seem to be hearing alot of, “haven’t you learned your lesson from 2000?” But the question is have the Democrats learned their lesson from 2000? Will they once again refuse to budge an inch from their right of center orthodoxy? Maybe put Joe Lieberman on the ticket again? And have we, the voters learned anything from 2006? The Democrats are crap, crap, crap! They are a lousy, lousy party. We can’t sit back and play, “don’t rock the boat.” We have to go toe to toe with them, not because we want McCain to win. But because we want them to win.

    PS: You Democrats would be insane to go with Hillary Clinton. That is absolutely your surest shot at losing.

  • Bryan: Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you completely, and hope that your way of thinking gets a little traction out there.

    Doug: For what it’s worth, I’m not a Democrat. But note my point in the post – halfway is better than none of the way. When a third alternative emerges that has a chance of succeeding, I’m down with it. Or when one emerges that has no chance at the time, but that might grow into something, I’m down with that. Or if we get to a point where there really IS no difference between the two parties with the only real shot at winning, count me in there, as well.

    But this is 2008 and none of those conditions exist. So idealism takes a back seat to stone cold pragmatism.

  • Our only real weapon is the willingness to with-hold our votes.

    *Snicker* *Snarf*

    Yep. In order to save the village, we must destroy it. In order for a Democrat to get your vote, he/she must alienate the rest of the 10% of the electorate or so who are swing voters who are actually the ones who will decide this election.

    When you’re done spreading fairy dust and making daisy chains, perhaps you’ll consider that you’ll still have to live in the real world come November. Oh, and by the way, this ain’t a parliamentary system we have here. No coalition governments necessary. Whoever gets a simple majority rules the legislature and whoever gets just enough electoral votes gets the entire executive branch for at least four years.

    So, if McCain wins in November, by all means, pat yourself on the back and tell yourself what a great man you are for standing on your principles. A great man. Superman.

  • Oh really? The centrist swing vote decides the election? It looks to me like you needed those Nader voters back in 2000. Which is it?

    The point is Democrats don’t earn the centrist voters either because they don’t stand for anything. They always move to the right because they’re afraid of the Republicans who say mean things about them. Better to pander to the right than do anything for their own base who never hold them accountable.

    And if you guys nominate Hillary, I don’t see how you can blame anyone but yourselves for John McCain.

  • Honestly, I’m ready to stab the next Obot who says, “If Hillary gets the nomination, I’m voting for McCain.”

  • Doug:

    All elections are about putting together voting coalitions. The Democrats needed the Nader voters in 2000 because they didn’t get enough of the swing votes (I didn’t say “centrist” votes. Those are words you put in my mouth). Having said that, most swing voters are centrists. Depending on the point in US history, they may swing a bit left or right of center (wherever that is), but they are centrists, nevertheless.

    Currently, we have polarized voters (for presidential elections … local elections are a different animal). Some will never vote for a Republican. Others will never vote for a Democrat. Many of these voters are large majorities in certain states, which means that swing votes in those states aren’t useful.

    The only place swing votes are useful, these days, is in swing states which could go either way in a presidential election (and these states do not include Mass. and Utah). If, say, 1% of the 10% or so of swing voters in, say, Florida are to the far left, and decide to waste their votes on a far left candidate, letting the far right candidate win the election, then so be it. It’s stupid, but so be it.

    But it would be even more stupid for a left-center candidate to try to appeal to this 1% and turn off the other 9%. The candidate might win with the 9%, but can’t possibly win with just the 1%.

    Man, people are so bad at basic math these days.

  • Amen…and Amen.

  • Nebris,
    Stab Away, although I’m not an “Obot” I will vote for Obama if he gets the nod and for McCain if Billerie does.

    BTW I am a registered republican and hate what my parties so called leadership has done in the last few years but I firmly believe Billerie is a bigger threat to our country than McCain..

  • Rho: With luck it won’t come to this, but in the event Clinton is nominated I hope to be able to convince you to rethink your position. As much as you hate some of the things her husband did while president, I’m going to ask you to look REALLY hard at the Supreme Court question. I don’t believe you can really argue that it outweighs your personal grievances, even though I understand how serious they are.

  • Sam,

    You and I have discussed this before and I will agree as I have before to at least listen to you but I doubt I could stomach voting for her EVER. As far as the supreme court issue goes look at her voting record and tell me you really think she will be that much of an improvement over McCain on who she nominates, I personally don’t see it but am willing to let you try convincing me. Now Obama I believe would be good for the county on a number of issues including who he would likely nominate for the supreme court.

  • Yes, I can honestly say that I think her SC appointments would be SIGNIFICANTLY better than McCain’s. Would they be my ideal candidates, maybe not. But look at McCain’s record. If he’s elected Roe v Wade is gone, period. And as a rule, how judges view that issue correlates with other kinds of individual liberty issues.

    In fact, this seems like as obvious a slam-dunk issue as we’re likely to see. I honestly can’t even see a debate on this particular point.

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