THE MORAL INDEPENDENCE OF THE INDEPENDENT MOVEMENT
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, February 4, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: We watched John Edwards on “Meet the Press.” I thought he’s found a voice. There are a variety of things that he could have said and should have said. But, he didn’t. That aside, he has a voice. With respect to the war, he’s saying, ‘OK, I went down the wrong road on the war. I’m not trying to finesse my way out of it. I’m confronting that and accepting that and dealing with that.’ At the opening of the show when Tim Russert said to him ‘Ted Kennedy said that this is the most important vote that he ever cast in his 40 years in public life. Was it?’ ‘Yes,’ says Edwards. ‘Was your vote a mistake?’ ‘Yes.’ He made a lot out of having gone through a process of reflection on that, that he’s come out the other side of, and that he’s being honest with the American people. Tell me your reactions to him.
Newman: Well, the question that Russert didn’t ask was: Why do you believe it’s possible to come back from that level of mistake? And how come that wasn’t asked? Russert’s claiming to ask the hard questions. That’s the obvious hard question. I’d like to hear the answer to that. I don’t know what his answer is to that. The ethical position which appears to underlie Edwards’ stump speech is You should more seriously consider someone who got it all wrong, because they apologized for getting it all wrong, than you should consider someone who got it all right – in the case of Barack Obama.
Salit: And his ethical position relative to Hillary is, I take it, something like I’m ethically superior to her because I got to saying I was wrong faster than she did, or because she hasn’t admitted that.
Newman: What kind of ethical position is that, if he’s speaking to us about his so-called morals? Maybe Americans will be convinced, or maybe Democrats, in particular will be convinced by that. But I think that’s as corrupt a statement as I’ve heard in politics in a long time, to tell you the truth.
Salit: And the corruption is?
Newman: Pick me over Clinton because I said it louder and sooner even though we were both wrong, and over Obama because he wasn’t in the game then, even if he got it right. Maybe that’s populism. But it’s dishonest as hell.
Salit: I had a different take on what was dishonest about it. But, given how he positioned himself, I thought he did a good job on the show.
Newman: Well, wait a minute. He’s talking about how he “honestly thought this” and “honestly thought that.” Now, it turns out that you’re willing to characterize that as where he was positioning himself.
Newman: One can say the same of Bush, one can say the same of Cheney, one can say the same of anyone. If the issue becomes where you’re positioning yourself, then, at a minimum he should have said something like that. He should have said: The politics of the situation, it seems to me, required at that time that I give support to Bush.
Salit: I agree completely. That’s what I thought was dishonest.
Newman: But, he’s trying to portray himself as Mr. Ethics. Maybe you’re right. But maybe I just have a little bit more respect for the American people. I think they’re gonna see through him. And I’m not an anti-Edwards man. But, I think this is a very exposing stump speech. People will see through it.
Salit: He said, on the one hand, ‘I take full responsibility.’ On the other hand, he said, ‘I was misled.’
Newman: Who else would take responsibility? He cast the vote.
Salit: Yes, of course. He said ‘I was misled by the intelligence people and the White House and the former Clinton people and so on and so forth.’ I don’t buy that. If he was “misled,” it was by the Democratic Party professional political consultants who told him and every other Democratic candidate who had a chance of winning the nomination, ‘You cannot vote against this. If you do, you will never be President of the United States.’
Newman: I agree.
Salit: That was the bottom line.
Newman: I agree.
Salit: But, he won’t say that on the show with Russert. He will say ‘My vote was wrong. It was the wrong judgment. I take responsibility for that. I’m not going to defend that. I’m not going to cover that over. That’s what I did.’
Newman: He is covering it over. Now he’s saying it was a wrong judgment. But it really wasn’t a “wrong judgment.” It was a political judgment. It made some degree of sense, given his own framework.
Newman: I don’t know the figures on this, but I would bet that at the time he cast his vote for the war, it was already the case that 40% of the American people were against that war.
Salit: Yes. And 100% of the consultants said ‘You cannot go against the war.’
Salit: And that’s who he listened to. He didn’t listen to his conscience. He didn’t listen to his own reason. He didn’t listen to the people saying the war was going to be a disaster. He didn’t listen to his heart. He listened to the conventional wisdom among the political professionals.
Newman: Then, why not confess to that?
Salit: Well, that’s a good question and I think that’s the question that Russert should have asked him, because Russert obviously knows that that’s the case. Why doesn’t he confess to that? Because, to confess to that is to expose something about the Democratic Party, and Edwards is a Democrat. As much as he’s projecting himself as an American who has values and humility and so forth, he’s a Democrat. To tell that story, I think, exposes how the Democratic Party works, how politics works, and how consistently the party’s base – and the American people – have been betrayed.
Newman: Well, if his framework is that there is a crisis in American politics, why wouldn’t that be near the top of the list?
Salit: It would be if you’re going to run as an independent, or if you’re going to run as a Democrat challenging how the Democratic Party operates. I presume he looked at the Howard Dean experience. Howard Dean ran a campaign against the war and he was the frontrunner in 2003. At the time, Dean was a Democratic Party outsider who said ‘The reason I’m running is to remake the Democratic Party. That’s why I’m running.’ There was none of that in Edwards’ remarks. And I presume that’s because he thinks that if you go there, the Democratic machine wipes you out. You can’t withstand that – no one can. So, he makes that judgment call. Is that dishonest? Yes. Is that a calculation? Yes. Is there a Democrat who’s going to say that? I don’t know. Is Barack Obama going to say that? Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not going to say that, because she’s the institutional candidate.
Newman: I essentially agree with you. Although, I must say, there are relatively contemporary counter examples, who I think, for example, did project the issue of taking on the Democratic Party with significant skill and success. I’m thinking of Bill Clinton.
Salit: True enough.
Newman: So, I’m not completely convinced of your argument.
Newman: Not to mention anything resembling serious ethical criteria. I mean, Edwards might as well have ended up the speech by saying And after all, Russert, you know that we all lie. That would have been more honest than what he actually presented. If he’d said, All these positions that we’re presenting are calculations. When the vote came up on the war, everyone was calculating. Everyone is still calculating. My calculations are better than Hillary’s. And maybe my calculations were worse than Dean’s. Congratulations to Dean. Although he didn’t get the nomination, he got to head the DNC.
Newman: I don’t want to get into an in-depth analysis of your ethical calculations, because your ethics aren’t in question. But I think it’s a very seductive thing, to say exactly what you said, to frame things in terms of “how so and so is positioning.” And I think independents have to prepare ourselves for raising some serious ethical questions for the presidential candidates. I don’t want to say that there aren’t times when we engage in a certain kind of practicality.
Salit: Of course not. We do.
Newman: But, in our biggest campaign, when we were part of the Mike Bloomberg campaign, people would say to us ‘Well, where do you come off supporting Michael Bloomberg. He’s a billionaire. He has a record as a liberal but he didn’t speak out that much, because he wasn’t in politics. Aren’t you just being practical?’ I don’t think it’s the same thing, and I’ll tell you why, and people don’t mention it enough. Bloomberg ran against Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer, two Democrats who were the poster children for phony liberalism. Backing Bloomberg was a visible move in a new and positive direction for the people of New York City.
Salit: It was.
Newman: Freddy Ferrer was offering the same old failed rhetoric. Now, where on that phony scale do you put Edwards? I don’t think he was giving us anything new. I thought he was trying to rationalize the same old stuff. And even more importantly, the issue is not what you’re saying, but whether in doing so, there’s any indication that you’ve moved anywhere.
Salit: That was born out with Bloomberg.
Newman: Yes. But, I don’t see a speck of that in this statement by Edwards. But, you might not agree with that and I’m delighted if you don’t.
Salit: I don’t know how to answer that question at this point, because relative to Bloomberg, one of the things that happened very early on in the process was that Bloomberg reached out to us, to the independents.
Newman: Exactly. That’s not insignificant. He reached out to you personally.
Salit: That’s right. And we then were in a position to play a role in shaping who he became, who he was both as a candidate and then, as mayor.
Newman: And we didn’t agree on everything. We didn’t agree on many things. You could argue that we went more for him than he went for us. But he was reaching out to try to make something new happen.
Newman: That means something to me.
Salit: To me, too. Now, is Edwards going to do that?
Newman: That’s my answer.
Salit: That’s your answer.
Newman: Do you think he will?
Salit: I don’t know. I know what kind of record we had with him in 2004 during the Choosing An Independent President (ChIP) project. He joined our process, filling out the ChIP questionnaire, etc. But overall, he was minimally responsive to independents. And our process showed that independents – while liking some of his rhetoric – didn’t buy that he was a genuine reformer who was serious about taking on the establishment.
Newman: Well, there’s a big difference between 2004 and 2008. And one difference is that we’re being looked at – we’re being carefully examined right now, we independents. Now, at one level, there’s not a whole lot to look at. Although we have big numbers in the polls, and quality networks of leaders and activists, we don’t have big money. So, what do you think they’re looking at when they look at us to make ongoing appraisals of who we are? They’re looking at how we’re relating to the presidential candidates. What we say to them and about them. And we’ve got to be very clear, as to how we play that. You’ve got to play that tough. It’s got to be smart, but it’s got to be tough. If Edwards comes along with a so-called populist message, independents have to make clear that it’s not enough to call yourself a populist, to say you’re “just being honest with the American people” when you’re not. That’s my opinion on these matters. This is true at the national level, at the local level, at every level. The moral independence of the independent voter has to come through in everything we do. That’s what people are looking at. I just strongly believe that you can’t compromise on that, because if we compromise on that, then what the hell are we?
Salit: Thanks, Fred. I deeply appreciate what you’re saying here. To be continued, I’m sure.