During the Election of 2000 I was not politically active. I didn't knock on a single door. The peak of my civic engagement that year consisted of tuning into Politically Incorrect for a couple of evenings with my college roommates. We batted around about whether it was better to vote your conscience (Nader) or vote for the lesser of two evils. In retrospect, I didn't really know much about GW Bush or Al Gore except that Gore invented the internet and Bush was a real dickwad. I'm not even really sure what Nader ran on that year, I just knew that he was somehow "left" of Gore and that was somehow better. It all seemed so insignificant; voting. "It didn't matter," was the reply my friends gave when I asked if they planned on voting that year. I barely even made it to the polls. Going into the booth and punching the little card with the hole punch (for Gore, btw) I already knew that Colorado would be a Bush state. As it turns out I was right, Colorado did indeed go to Bush and that decided the election. Most folks remember all the hoopla about Florida, but there were five other states that were within 5% of going for Gore. I'm just sayin'.
In reality it wasn't the Election that brought my political awakening. It was the ensuing aftermath culminating in the Supreme Court's decision of Gore v Bush that finally broke my illusion that "it didn't matter," because all of a sudden everything wasn't okay. In the week or so that the Supreme Court heard the case that would result in the election's outcome I was absolutely and naïvely certain they would reach the decision that all the votes must be counted in order to declare the state of Florida. It shouldn't have mattered that there were more Republican appointees on the Court, but matter it did! The ramifications for the election are history, but the ramifications for me were that I had finally realized that even in a body where politics were explicitly designed to be left out of the decision-making process that body had failed us. The entire Constitution had failed us! But even in December 2000 no one could have known just how much George W Bush's Presidency would "matter."
Eyes wide, I started to notice how complacent I had been and how complacent most everyone else was. Within the first few moments of the Bush years we were backing out of the Kyoto Agreement and no one seemed able to stop him.
The event that truly made Bush unstoppable was of course September 11th. Both unspeakably tragic and sinisterly opportune for the Bush Administration, the "Crime of the Century," became Bush's green light to do whatever the hell he wanted all in the name of the Orwellian "War on Terror." Through the banner of blind patriotism Bush was able to spend the next seven years shitting all over the Constitution, congress, thousands of American soldiers, millions of Muslims, and Human Rights with nearly absolute impunity. After all, who could question the logic that all is fair in war? Certainly not Congress! They rolled over and passed The Patriot Act, then they gave Bush blank checks to bomb first Afghanistan back into the Stone Age, all the while Bush rode approval ratings in the high 70s. Bush played Congress like a fiddle in 2003 with the Iraq War. I remember the frustration I felt watching the news leading up to the War and how no one questioned anything (WMDs, Bush's logic going after Hussein but not Kim Jong-Il). It was like locked-in syndrome or something.
What did we liberals do!? We banded together behind a man named Howard Dean. He was angry and so were we! He used this funny thing called "online fund-raising," and criticised both the Republicans and the weak-ass Congressional Democrats for the course our country was taking. He wanted to get us out of Iraq. He wanted to give more local control of our public schools while increasing federal funding. He wanted Universal Health Care. He had the most money going into Iowa and a huge ground swell of support. But was he "electable?" Ah, the question of the decade! See the whole idea of democracy is that we can elect anyone that we want to represent us in government. Yet as Iowa's January caucus loomed there was growing concern amongst the Democratic establishment (or was it the punditry?) whether Dean could actually topple Bush. And so in a matter of weeks we liberals blinked. Dean came in third in Iowa and famously screamed about it. But the Dean Scream was only a secondary finishing blow to the mortal wound of "electability," that had scared Iowa caucus-goers into the Kerry camp. We went for the more established, more "centrist," veteran candidate; the safer choice. After all, there was too much at stake to fool around with head-in-the-cloud ideas like Universal Health Care.
And as we began to cower behind Kerry, the Republican noise machine geared up and began to do something that hence-forth will be known as "Swiftboating," also know as "lying". They made a draft-dodging Bush look tougher than a Purple-Hearted Vietnam vet! And what did our electable candidate do about it? Nothing! He tried to stay above the fray and in doing so he let Bush dictate the terms of the debate. All this spawned a real sentiment of apathy amongst people like myself. Sure I'd vote for anyone but Bush, but Kerry really didn't strike me as much to vote for. The resultant Election of 2004 was painfully close but even more painful than 2000 because this time Bush actually won the popular vote! I had donated $20 to the DNC that year. I even drove one apathetic friend with a broken leg to the polls for that one extra vote. But it was not enough. The harsh lesson I learned: you gotta wake up a little earlier in the morning and work a little harder to beat Republicans.
But there were good things that came out of 2004, like the blogosphere and some of the basic online organizing tools that would come to play in 2006 and 2008. I began to pay more attention to the news cycles and the counter narrative playing out on the blogs and it became clear that sometimes CNN got it all wrong. This couldn't have been clearer than in the 2006 Midterms when pretty much everyone but MyDD was predicting that the Republicans would retain control of the Senate. Low and behold it happened due to a strong sentiment that Bush needed to be put in check.
There was also another major factor to the 2006 Midterms, one that broke the spell that Bush and Rove had cast in the aftermath of 9/11. In a few days America witnessed just how inept and irresponsible the Bush Administration really was at its core. No amount of spin could avert the political fallout from Bush's non-response to Hurricane Katrina. "Heckuva job, Brownie," said it all. And if 9/11 made Bush infallible, Katrina undid all the false rhetoric. In the weeks and months after Katrina, Bush's approval rating kept sliding and I began to hope we had all pulled our collective head out of our ass.
But what did the Democrats manage to "keep in check" in 2007 and 2008? Wel,l I will thank them for thwarting Bush's attempt to plunder Social Security for Wall Street. However we will end the decade with troops still in Iraq. One of the most annoying aspects of the 110th Congress was their instance that they had the "power of the purse." While this is absolutely true it is not the reason they should have been able to end the War in Iraq. They are also the branch of government that was entrusted with the ability to declare war and wage peace. Instead it was those sissy purse-pinching Democrats in Congress trying to second guess "The Decider!" What a total perversion of the checks and balances!
So we called it a draw and headed into 2008 knowing that we had the motivation and the macro-factors like an outgoing Republican President our favor. I was determined to make sure the primary process would give us a winner and a fighter! Everyone had their favorites going into the first (Youtube!) debates.
"Electability" was still the issue on peoples minds. Which Democrat was the most "electable?" Well it sure wasn't Kucinich! I mean just because he seemed to represent the most popular view points from troop withdrawal to universal health care to repealing the Patriot Act didn't mean that people actually would vote for him! And then there was Edwards, my personal favorite. But by being on Kerry's 2004 ticket and then his $400 hair cut he was out too. Once people started to get "practical" (aka scared of loosing to the Republicans) it became clear that we had only two choices Hillary or Barack. Why? Maybe it was because for all their pretty words, Barack and Hillary had the most "centrist" agendas. Most of the primary season then turned into an ugly display of hand-wringing. Hillary was too cold and aristocratic and that Barack was well... he was just unspeakably "unelectable." Yet he continued to answer effectively with every negative turn whether it was Rev. Wright, 3am, madrasas, birth certificates, or even arugula.
Amongst the fray of the racism and misogyny going around we Democrats had largely cast the real relevant issues -- like how we'd withdraw from Iraq and just exactly what type of partial health care reform we'd be able to get from either Hillary or Barack -- by the wayside. Barack proved to me and most everyone else to be the most inspiring and eloquent of the two and despite a super noisy Republican media machine he looked like he would be unbeatable. Once I came to that conclusion I went all out. I traveled across state lines to campaign for him. I donated every chance that I could. I called my friends and lots of strangers to get them to vote. I wasn't going to let 2004 happen again. Collectively we liberals really got determined. And when John McCain chose Sarah Palin, Barack kept his cool and eventually between Palin and McCain's gaffes and the collapsing economy and everyone's hard work Barack made history and won! We even had the fabled super-majority!
Now anything was possible! Liberals like myself were anxious to see how we'd easily get that Universal Health Care that Nader and Gore and Kerry and Edwards and Hillary and Obama had talked up. We'd be seeing our brothers and sisters come home from Iraq in no time! Unions would be easy to create with the Employee Free Choice Act already passed under Bush and just the swipe of a pen (oh yeah and passing both chambers of Congress again) away from becoming law. We'd retire all the coal power plants and green the economy with air powered cars!
Well, I thought, through the course of those past nine years leading up to 2009 I would have lost some of that naïvetee, but as I watch stall tactics and clear corruption plague the current health care bill I'm still surprised. And the Barack Obama who spoke so eloquently and honestly of race in our culture in 2008 has been replaced by the Barack Obama who accepts a Nobel Peace Prize after sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and in his acceptance speech has the balls to evoke Martin Luther King and Gandhi. All of a sudden the idealism of the 2008 election has turned into a very bitter sense of pessimism with many liberals bickering over whether its better to support incremental change because it has a chance of passing or whether its better to kill a health care bill fraught with flaws like the language that would prevent a woman from being able to find private insurance that covers abortion. It bears an eerie resemblance to the Nader Gore discussions I had with my roommates ten years ago.
Looking back on this past decade I think it's easy to see just how frustrating a process politics can be. It's also easy to say that we've been duped. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, you know? While I would have to concede that Barack hasn't lived up to the ideal we painted of him I still find a great deal of hope in his election. We formed a movement (for a year and then quickly disbanded) and that movement elected a black man with less than four years of experience in the federal government to be the leader of the free world and we did it despite the best efforts of both established political parties and the media that they spun. So what I take from this decade is that anyone is electable. My hope is that the Barack Obama really did kill what he called the "tit for tat" gotcha politics perfected by Karl Rove. Now the question moving forward is how high do we set our sites. Are we going to settle next time on candidates that talk a good game or candidates that take firm stands about concrete issues of real importance? We can only lose if we allow that to happen.
Come on, Eldrick.