Examining Politics in America on our 231st Birthday
As our nation pauses to celebrate its birthday many things vie for our people's attention. There is the drain of human life and treasure in the ill-begotten, mismanaged war in Iraq; the emotional and divisive debate over reforming immigration; the growing gap between the rich and the poor with the top ten per cent of our population controlling the largest share of our nation's wealth in our history; the growing awareness of our environmental crisis after decades of either denial or game-playing empty gestures; the erosion of privacy with unauthorized wiretaps on American citizens, and the embarrassment to our national character seen in the prison camps at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the secret foreign detention places. People once saw this nation as a shining city on a hill. That has been replaced by resentment at our insensitivity, making us more unpopular than at any previous time in our history.
Our 231st birthday also finds us in a presidential race that will not be decided for sixteen months. Since federal elections serve to define a nation, in today's column I will look briefly at the major candidates to whom our citizens look to address the list of debilitating problems outlined above.
The first thing of note about the Republican candidates is that none of them is seeking President Bush's endorsement. These Republican aspirants know better than anyone else how unpopular this administration is with the American people and how little credibility it has left.
Limiting our discussion to the top candidates according to the latest polls, we begin with the present Republican leader, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. For an urban, liberal candidate to be on top of the polls for this party's nomination is a major surprise. Giuliani is pro-abortion, pro-gay and pro-gun control. He is a Roman Catholic, but not an overtly pious man. He has had three wives and has endured a seamy public airing of his marital problems. He has connections with organized crime, as his recommendation of Bernie Kerik for appointment as President Bush's Director of Homeland Security revealed. Yet he was a good mayor. His competence is recognized even by his enemies. He lowered the city's crime rate significantly. He provided strong leadership in the traumatic times of the 9/11 crisis. He is a powerful orator, possesses a winning smile and charms audiences. If nominated most Democrats believe him to be the GOP's strongest vote-getter and would win over many Democratic voters. He would, however, not appeal to his party's base, making a third party on the right, a real possibility.
Second in the polls is former Senator Fred Thompson from Tennessee, now a star in "Law and Order" on NBC Television. He has some health issues, but is seen as an intelligent, consistent conservative with strength of character. While generally respected, he is not yet known among the voters. The religious right would probably be satisfied with him, but no evidence suggests that he elicits their enthusiasm. His appears rather to be an acceptable alternative to a generally unacceptable Republican field. That is not a strong political position.
Senator John McCain of Arizona is third. One year ago he was the presumptive nominee. Today he is struggling to save his candidacy. A conservative voting record combined with a maverick, independent personality, John McCain has never been a George Bush fan since the two competed for the 2000 nomination. He is, however, the only major political voice supporting Bush in Iraq. That is not a winning ticket. I think this man has been an important senator, taking courageous stands against torture and in favor of campaign finance laws. I have the feeling, however, that both his age and his issues are better suited for a run in 2000 than they are in 2008. My experience teaches me that once a candidate begins to fade in the polls like Senator McCain has in the last year, he never recovers. His candidacy appears to me to be mortally wounded. The money is drying up. An early withdrawal would not be a surprise.
Governor Mitt Romney is fourth in the current polls, which means, given the money he has spent, that he has not yet ignited any surge of support. That surprises me, since this man is a person of unquestioned ability. He rescued the Olympics from financial disaster. He was a highly competent Governor of Massachusetts. He lives by high moral standards. His Mormon religion is frequently mentioned as a detriment in his White House bid, but in no way was it a problem during his years as Massachusetts' governor. His ability to abandon the positions he took on abortion and gay rights when running for Governor of Massachusetts to aid his run for the presidency will be a greater problem. People want to know which Romney is soliciting their votes. Basic inconsistency on emotional issues is normally the pathway to political death.
The final poll-ranked Republican candidate is Newt Gingrich who has not yet announced, but surely he is positioning himself to run. Gingrich, a radical conservative reformer, is probably the brightest Republican in the field. James Dobson has conveyed his blessing to a Gingrich candidacy, but that may not be enough to win him the nomination. He carries lots of baggage from his years as Majority Leader of the House, particularly when in a showdown with President Clinton he twice closed down the Federal Government. His public voice and his private life have also never been in sync. When he enters this race the quality of the debate will rise because Gingrich is a big idea candidate. While he is a deeply unpopular and polarizing figure in Democratic circles that might even help him in a polarized electorate. Don't count him out!
Turning now to the major Democratic candidates and again in order of their poll numbers, I will consider only four. Senator Clinton from New York tops the poll charts with a double digit lead over her closest opponent. She has surprised even her critics with the competent way she has represented New York in the Senate. Her 69 percent reelection to a second term was an incredible vote of confidence. She even carried Republican districts in upstate New York. She has impressed her critics with her strong showing in the debates. Positioning herself as a centrist in the party, she has endured the criticism of the Democratic left. Her health care failure in the first Clinton administration still draws fire, but the fact is that when one places each individual proposal of that health care plan before the public, it receives majority approval. It is only when these proposals are packaged together that people have problems. That probably means that she was right, but too early. The fact that she is a woman cuts both ways with her candidacy, but most of that is not rational and is hard to quantify. Her great contribution thus far is that because of her, America can now visualize a female president. That is a new state of consciousness. If Hillary does not make it to the White House, she will have made it much easier for the next woman to do so. It will not be a long wait.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is the shooting star of this presidential race. Coming out of nowhere with only two years in the Senate, he has already done better than anyone would have predicted a year ago. Articulate, bright and charismatic, one has the sense that Obama is destined to be President, if not in 2008 then soon. I was in the hall in Boston in 2004 when he key-noted the Democratic National Convention. There is no doubt about his ability to rouse a crowd. Positioning himself slightly to the left of Senator Clinton, he will be a tough adversary. He, like Hillary, has raised the consciousness of the nation for he has made people everywhere imagine for the first time that an African American can be President. The candidacies of Shirley Chisholm, Doug Wilder, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did not do that. His future is unlimited. Whether that future begins in 2008 is still much in doubt.
Former Senator and Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards of North Carolina is a deeply appealing candidate. He has a flare for the dramatic. He champions the poor when it is not popular to do so. He launched his campaign in New Orleans, the classic example of this nation's forgotten poor. His political instincts are incredible. His marriage and family life are admirable and the way he and his wife have handled her now incurable, but hopefully controllable, cancer is commendable. Edwards provocatively positions himself as a new Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether he can compete in the battle for campaign money or make what is now essentially a two person Democratic race into a three person race is still in doubt. He deserves to be watched. It is of interest to note that Republican leaders rank him their most formidable opponent with a broad populist appeal that would cut into their Southern religious voters.
The final candidate scoring in the high single digits in the polls is the Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. A bi-lingual leader with a Mexican mother, he is the first legitimate Hispanic candidate for the presidency. This man probably has the best resume and is arguably the most qualified person in this crowded field. He has been a seven term congressman, a cabinet Secretary of Energy, Ambassador to the United Nations and an effective governor of a Western State. In each of these positions he has demonstrated great ability. His foreign policy credentials are outstanding. Foreign leaders trust him. With all this going for him, he should be a major force in the campaign. He is not, however, at least not yet, and probably has a better chance to wind up as a vice presidential candidate than he does to win the prize himself. He needs big breaks in both money and endorsements soon and I do not see them coming.
My hopes are that the current political process will do what a campaign is supposed to do, namely debate the real issues, not spin them, and present the country with a clear sense of how to deal with the future. This nation desperately needs that, since we seem to have no real sense of direction at this moment. July 4th, 2007, thus has much hope attached to it.
John Shelby Spong
Thanks "Uncle Jack" as always for your insightful words and courageous ministry. Our world needs you. Peace.