Each of the top three candidates for President on the Democratic side had both their strengths and their weaknesses in my mind. In fact, there was an aspect that I liked in each, but also something that held me back.
John Edwards was the guy who probably was the purest in terms of ideological fit with me. He is the idea man. There was an article the other day that without Edwards, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would have a platform. And while that is in some ways oversimplified, he is in many ways the conscience of the Democratic Party.
But it is a tough sell to convince America, that a rich man can be a populist and a corporate man, as the standard before for anti-corporate America. The entire nation must sympathize with the plight of Elizabeth Edwards but at the end of the day, John Edwards was too much of an enigma running against the inevitable tide of history.
For Barack Obama he is the rising star of the Democratic Party, a party that has had far too few rising stars in the last forty years and far too many empty promises. And yet for me it was not his time. Having served less than a term in the Senate, it was obvious that they could nail his inexperience to him and use it to burn him down. The voice was there but in many ways the substance seemed lacking.
And then there is the Tom Bradley factor. Up by 10 points in the polls in 1982 the night before the election, Tom Bradley narrowly lost the governorship. Why? It seemed that when the people got into the privacy of the polling booth, all they saw was a black man and they could not pull the lever for him.
For Hillary Clinton, she is the inheritor of the Clinton legacy. The only Democrat to win the presidency during my conscious lifetime. I was but three years-old when Jimmy Carter was elected and seven when he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Hillary Clinton was probably the least ideologically in tuned to my world view. She was the fighter for health care for all before it was fashionable, but she also voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
However, one thing that you know with Hillary Clinton is that she will not be swift-boated. Attacks on her will be revisited ten-fold. Look no further than the attack they tried to pin on her with the Pentagon, she had that turned on the Pentagon in less than one news cycle.
So back and forth I went in my mind, Edwards wasn’t going to win, Obama couldn’t win the General Election, and Hillary was too establishment and too conservative.
All of that torment and uncertainty ended the day that Barack Obama won the South Carolina Primary. I listened to his speech and it sent shivers down my spin and energy into my heart.
And what was so unclear became so clear in a heartbeat. The Democrats have lost site of where they need to be and what they need to do to be there. Obama can be eloquent without preaching. He can talk about race without making White America feel guilty. And he can talk about the future with a sense of hope lifting us up where most politicians drag us down.
“Yes, we can” he said over and over again, and I believed him.
“Yes, we can change,” he said and I knew he believed it too.
He spoke about the future, he spoke about healing. Healing the divide between white and black and also white, black and Latino..
“When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can’t join together and work together, I’m reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago. So don’t tell us change can’t happen.
When I hear that we’ll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who is now devoted to educating inner city-children and who went out into the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don’t tell me we can’t change.”
He spoke about the future. Seizing the future. Fighting cynicism and believing in a common purpose.
“Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can.
Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can seize our future. And as we leave this great state with a new wind at our backs and we take this journey across this great country, a country we love, with the message we carry from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire, from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast, the same message we had when we were up and when we were down, that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we will hope.
And where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words — yes, we can.”
Just two weeks ago, I sat at the Varsity Theater and watched the video of Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his speech, “I have a Dream.” The remarkable thing about that speech is that it was an optimistic dream, it was a hopeful dream. He reached across the aisle to white America and implored them to see his dream because it was the American Dream. He did not make White America feel guilty about the racial politics of the day. Instead he spoke of hope and optimism.
In many ways, though their speaking styles vary, I see Barack Obama as the inheritor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy. A new generation of Black leadership in this country that is not encumbered with the memories of Jim Crow because he was not born yet. A generation of Black leadership in this county who have reached beyond the racial divide, who reaches beyond the aisle of partisanship and can bring in new people to join in the voices of this country. He can reach out to White America, segments of which have struggled for decades and have been ignored for years by the Democratic party and the Black leadership.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who organized the impoverished Whites and Blacks, realizing that poor Whites were and would continue to be mobilized against the Black struggle as long as their poverty was ignored. We have lost that legacy and yet in Obama that legacy has been reborn.
At the end of the day though, this is about winning. John McCain is the likely Republican candidate. Against Hillary Clinton, Senator McCain controls the independent middle unencumbered and the only way that Senator Clinton wins is by dragging this race into the mud.
I can live in the mud sometimes, but that is not what this nation needs. This nation needs healing. It needs energy. It needs hope and optimism.
That is the core of the message of Ronald Reagan that so confounded Democrats who could only see his rank hypocrisy and indifference to the struggle of many. President Reagan was able to rhetorically lift up Americans, appeal to their selfish side and make them believe it was Morning in America again.
Barack Obama can reach out for that same sense of hope and optimism and bring Americans to believe that they can make the changes in this society that they so desperately need. He can bring in disaffected Black voters, apathetic young White college students, disenfranchised middle of the road voters and can expand the electorate. A McCain-Obama race would bring out the very best in this country and for once raise the level of political rhetoric.
After eight years of bitter partisan divide with George Bush, after years of bitter partisan divide in Washington, after long years of lies and deception, the nation needs healing and the best person to provide that healing is Barack Obama.
In the span of just over a week, I have gone from the fence to the passion of the newly converted. I can sit and watch Obama speeches all night long and never grow tired of him. I cannot say that about another political figure in this generation.
In the end, when I listen to Obama I really do believe:
“Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can.”
—Doug Paul Davis reporting