by Jeremy Young | 11/27/2007 03:19:00 AM
A star-studded group of historians has issued a statement supporting Senator Barack Obama for President. Among the signatories are former AHA Presidents Joyce Appleby and James McPherson, Cliopatria blogger Ralph Luker, and our very own James Livingston. The statement reads, in part:

… it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called "the civic genius of the people."

The group, led by Georgetown’s Michael Kazin (the principal author of the statement) and Ralph Luker (the principal organizer), is recruiting more historians to sign the statement. If you are a professional historian, you can add your name by e-mailing either of them (their contact information is listed at the link above).

Here’s why I won’t be joining them.

My candidate endorsements for the current presidential cycle have been a crazy-quilt of indecision. Including draft candidacies, I have variously supported Brian Schweitzer (for whom I co-founded the first draft campaign of the 2008 season, back in May 2005), Russ Feingold, Barack Obama, Al Gore, John Edwards, and Christopher Dodd. Back in 2004, those of us Howard Dean supporters lampooned blogger Ezra Klein (now a writer at The American Prospect) for shifting his support from Gary Hart to Dean, Wesley Clark, and finally Edwards – but my waffling this cycle has outstripped even Ezra’s.

Beneath my inherent indecision, however, my candidate-switching has been motivated by the distinct feeling that none of the candidates currently in the race truly meet my standards of what a President should be. Obama, in particular, has been a real disappointment. After hearing his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I was prepared to enthusiastically support his candidacy.

But Senator Obama has not campaigned in the bold, pathbreaking manner in which he delivered that speech. On the contrary, the entire record of his campaign is one of equivocation and half-measures. To name just a few examples, Obama has sought to undo decades of successful government secularization by advocating for more overt expressions of faith in the halls of power. He orchestrated a “Sister Souljah” moment with liberal blogs as his foil when he defended from online criticism Democratic senators who supported the Supreme Court conformation of the anti-abortion conservative John Roberts. Despite his initial opposition to the war, he has refused to pledge an end to American military involvement in Iraq or to take the lead in Congress on ending the war. He has campaigned with a homophobic minister, Rev. Donnie McClurkin, and refused to disavow McClurkin even when the man’s views were pointed out to him. He failed to appear in Congress to vote against the confirmation of Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who believes that waterboarding is not a form of torture. His “universal” healthcare program covers fifteen million fewer Americans than does that of former Senator Edwards. He has failed to lay out specific plans to combat poverty, as has Edwards. He ceded leadership to Senator Dodd on the critical issue of the President’s illegal warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. These are not the actions of a President; they are not even the actions of a strong leader.

(As an aside, I categorically reject the notion that I or anyone else should vote based on “a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry” in what is shaping up to be easily the most critical election in a generation. The only way to break with this tradition is to judge Senator Obama not by the color of his skin, to paraphrase Dr. King, but by the content of his character. That a group of distinguished historians would advocate such a consideration, even in passing, is deeply troubling to me.)

Am I too picky for the American political scene, demanding absolute agreement from my candidate? I doubt it – I disagreed with Howard Dean in 2004 on issues from the war to balanced budgets, gun control, and gay marriage, yet I respected him for his principled positions and enthusiastically supported him anyway. What I am unwilling to overlook is a difference of opinion over the fundamental goals of presidential leadership for the coming term.

Such a disagreement exists between my views and those expressed by Obama in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. According to his own words, Obama advocates “a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point.” (p. 42) Or again, he looks longingly back to “a time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.” (p. 25) Or yet again: “I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in.” (p. 39)

Let’s talk about the moment we’re in. Kazin and his colleagues have a good description of part, but only part, of the pitfalls of today’s America:

The gap between the wealthy elite and the working majority grows ever larger, tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and others risk bankruptcy when they get seriously ill, and many public schools do a poor job of educating the next generation. Due to the arrogant, inept foreign policy of the current administration, more people abroad mistrust and fear the United States than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, global warming speeds toward an unprecedented catastrophe.

Ah yes, but it’s worse than that. We have a world filling swiftly with enemies of America who see us as the nation who put black hoods over the heads of innocent Iraqis and tortured them for sport. We have a government that proclaims allegiance to “family values” while poor black children in the inner cities starve to death. Every time we visit an American airport, we have a recorded voice sweetly proclaiming to us Soviet-style that “any inappropriate comments or jokes may result in your arrest.” We have soldiers extended to the breaking point fighting a war we have no strategy to win, while the real terrorists multiply in Afghanistan. We have Republicans like Mark Foley sexually harassing teenage boys, like Duke Cunningham running a pay-for-play ring in the halls of Congress, like Roy Moore defying the Supreme Court to display religious texts in a public building, like Alberto Gonzales ordering U.S. Attorneys to conduct politically-motivated investigations, like President Bush tapping the phone lines of millions of American citizens without a warrant. And in the midst of all this, Obama preaches civility and healing, while George Bush denounces Democrats as soft on terrorism and bad for working Americans. I feel strangely like John Adams at one particular moment in Sherman Edwards’ delightful musical 1776, when it appears unlikely that his fellow Continental Congressmen will agree to support independence from England and King George III. “Fat George has declared us in rebellion!” Adams shouts, gesturing toward Congress in exasperation; “Why in bloody hell can’t they?”

My distinguished colleagues want to “begin the process of healing what ails our society,” to bring back the ephemeral Camelot of the Kennedy years. But their medicine is wrong for today’s ills. We do not need Obama to heal the rift between good and evil, or to bind up the nation’s wounds with the right-wing venom still in her bloodstream. We need a political bloodletting that undoes the last seven years of outrage and injustice and restores our government to the control of people who actually care about America. We need a president who understands that the current crop of Republican leaders are not opponents but enemies, to be rooted out of public life rather than appeased with the cooling balms of bipartisanship and civility. We need not a Warren Harding-style return to normalcy after all this regressive government, but a proactive fire-breather like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, or Howard Dean. We need a president, in short, who sees this historical moment not as a time for healing, but as a time for change and transformation – a warrior rather than a nurse.

Obviously no such candidate has emerged, and it is too late to draft another leader into the race this cycle. There are no easy solutions to this problem. But we as historians should not fall over ourselves to endorse a candidate who has traded the audacity of hope for the mendacity of politics as usual. The American people cry out for change; we do them no favors when we send them a man who offers only empty words.



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Blogger Ralph Brauer on 11/27/2007 10:33 AM:

You are not the only waffler out there. If you watch the polls the entire state of Iowa is waffling, as are many of the national polls.

Personally, my waffling has so far had me not endorsing anyone. Having attended the past umpteen conventions as "undecided" because none of the candidates has proven satisfactory, I still await a candidate who openly proclaims their faith in what the Democratic Party stood for for most of the twentieth century.

This does not entail a blind recitation of old programs and policies, but rather an affirmation of principles and their relevancy to this new millennium.

At least I live in one of the few remaining caucus states that allows for someone to vote "uncommitted."
How do people in non-caucus states express their dissatisfaction?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/27/2007 4:04 PM:

How do people in non-caucus states express their dissatisfaction?

By not giving money to anyone.

By answering "Kucinich" when the pollsters call.

By lobbying for earlier primaries.

By considering third parties.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/27/2007 5:14 PM:

Well, we can disagree about Kucinich -- I think he's a phony who cares about being on stage more than about changing America -- but otherwise, you're right on.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/27/2007 6:25 PM:

I didn't mean -- and therefore didn't say -- support Kucinich. Though he is still closer to my own views than the rest of the pack, his political instincts stink (note his recent comments about possibly inviting Ron Paul to be his VP candidate) and I have grave doubts about his leadership skills.

And I should also add, if we're being literal here, that I do not actually support a huge rush to earlier primaries, but primaries staged in a staggered form with smallest states first and largest states last, over the course of about three months: this gives small states good attention, but the actual final decision will be made late in the process, so it would be a truly national event.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/27/2007 9:14 PM:

I support a national primary, because I find dark-horse candidates undemocratic -- but I also support a constitutional amendment outlawing unequal campaign spending. Let candidates distinguish themselves at debates and on the issues, and leave behind forever this antiquated notion that giving millions of dollars to political candidates is "political speech" or anything other than outright bribery.

As for Kucinich, I agree -- we need someone with Kucinich's policies, Dean's firebrand oratory, and perhaps the leadership skills of a Lyndon Johnson or a JFK.


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/29/2007 7:21 PM:

First, all this left-purity is crap. Your analysis is silly and is the precise reason the Dems keep losing.

Second, elections are about winning, first. Without power, you cannot put in place your policies. So, the Dems need to win. Clearly, of the three possible candidates, Hillary is the worst possible choice on this score. Barack and Edwards much better.

Yes, symbols matter greatly in politics, both in elections and while in opffice as President. This is not all bad. And, the fact that Obama, a multi-racial guy who has lived in one of the world's largest Muslim nation, might be Prez DOES matter. Hello. Our history is our history (I thought you all were historians???!!!). It would be EXTREMELY meaningful for the US to elect a black man, as it would a woman. More significantly, think about what it would communicate to people around the world, who view the US as a racist nation. The symbolic stuff matters! Sure, it ain't everything, but it ain't nothing, like you claim.

As for JFK's "leadership skills," please enlighten us. Talk about undistinguished! Puh-lleeeeeeaaaase.

By the way, so-called progressive, that is a nice authoritarian disclaimer at the top of your comment box!


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/29/2007 8:12 PM:

How many times have the Democrats run my kind of campaign since 1968? Exactly once (1972), and then with a flawed candidate. How many times have they run your kind of campaign? I count nine, of which they have won only three: 1976, with a big assist from the just-disgraced Nixon, and the two 1990's elections, with big assists from the Republican vote-splitter Perot. I submit that your style has been proven relatively ineffective, while mine hasn't been truly tested.

I think your comment about voting for Obama as a "symbol" instead of for his character is frankly offensive. So now John Edwards (whom I don't support either) is disqualified from the Presidency because he had the misfortune to be born a white man? I thought we were trying to promote equality here.

I wouldn't describe JFK as "undistinguished," but I'm no JFK fan -- I simply chose not to argue that point with the "Historians for Obama." To find real Presidential leadership, you have to go back at least as far as FDR, maybe farther.

My disclaimer is so much legalese. Don't you right-wingers believe in law?


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/29/2007 9:38 PM:


Lots of assumptions in your response... WRONG assumptions.

I'm not a right-winger. I'm not a moderate, either. Take it easy and chill it out. I am a colleague...

I never said Edwards is disqualified from anything. He has much to recommend him. In fact, on issues of race and poverty and health care, he is probably the best, policy-wise, of all three of the Dems. There is also something kind of smarmy and disingenuous about Edwards, at times. I do like him as a VP w/ Obama at the top, though. That is a strong ticket.

My point was that symbols do matter. At this moment in time, it would matter for the United States to elect either a woman or a black man. That is not the end all be all, of course. Policies matter. Duh. But who they are WOULD matter. This is in large measure why I won't be supporting Hillary. I like the idea of a first woman president very much; it would matter. But, I am less enthusiastic about Clinton as that first woman... and that is about both her triangulation, her conservative credentials, and the fact that it is not healthy for a "democracy" to have two families in power for essentially 30 years...

I think you undersell Obama on the substance, too, but I won't take that up with you now.

Kucinich talk is just plain silly. I know him personally and well. He is my folks' rep in Cleveland. Great guy. Genuine and true to the progressive cause. Wrong messenger.

And, finally, I find it interesting that it is usually a white dude who says "that is so insulting to Obama to acknowledge his race and say it might matter." No person of color ever says that kind of shit...

Which candidate are you pimpin'?


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/29/2007 9:45 PM:

Well, While I'm at it.

Here is a question for you:

Do you think it matters for Obama in the primary and general elections, that he is black? Do you think race affects his candidacy, and the strategic calulations he and his team make?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/29/2007 10:13 PM:

Anonymous, you did call me "crap," "silly," "authoritarian," and a "so-called progressive," so I think my response was understandable. But I will try to answer your other questions in a more moderated fashion.

I am currently leaning toward boycotting both the primary and general presidential elections (not the local and state races), so I am not "pimpin'" any candidate. If you reread the post, you'll see I've supported no less than six candidates this cycle. Three of them didn't run, the other three I became disillusioned with (and the last one was probably a mistake to support at all). One of these six was Obama. At this point, I've decided enough is enough.

I don't deny, of course, that Obama's race "matters" in the sense that it will affect perceptions of him and even impact his electoral chances (on balance negatively, though it will help him in certain communities). My problem is with the idea that it should matter, as is implied by the "Historians for Obama" when they suggest that we intentionally take "a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry." The point of studying race is, or should be, to seek to eliminate race as a conscious or unconscious motivator by ceasing to view people of other races as "other." The historians' statement accepts the othering of Obama by suggesting that we vote for him because he is black; I reject that notion and choose to evaluate him on his merits.

For the record, Obama could very well turn out to be a fabulous president -- in fact, if I were a betting man, I would guess that he would. But he has given us no indication during this campaign that he is going to, and I think jumping headlong off a cliff to endorse him en masse is a pretty silly thing to do when he has promised the Left nothing.


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/30/2007 9:03 AM:


I share your disappointment, overall. It is a tough country for liberal-progressive-lefties. The system is set up to work against our interests and to support the status quo. Certainly, the "Republican-lite" strategy is a failure and a more bold and proud progressivism is in order...

I am an Obama supporter and have also been disappointed here and there with him, but I continue to see him as the best and most viable of the top three Dems. I also realize that as a black candidate he is in a pretty small political box. I see much of his posturing as tactical and strategic, rather than a full indication of his views/ideology. For instance, many African Americans want him to speak more forcefully about race, like Edwards or Hillary have at times. But, precisely because he is black, the second he articulates a more direct and forceful attack on racial inequality he loses significant white support... and to win in the primary and general election, he needs white votes. So, we get the politics of unity. This is not to let him off the hook, but to acknowledge the very real and very difficult politic that his race creates for him...

Don't go bailing out on the process, man. This election is too importqant. Even a lame Dem, like Hillary, is better than the alternatives.

See Paul Loeb on Hillary and the politics of disappointment:


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/30/2007 4:47 PM:

That's a good article by Loeb -- thanks for that. He captures the dilemma very well. And while I do understand the box Obama's in, that didn't stop strident liberal Jesse Jackson, who won 11 primary states in 1988 and led in national polls deep into the election season.

I won't make the mistake Loeb outlines -- I'll campaign hard for my local and state candidates -- but I refuse to vote for Clinton if she's nominated. She doesn't give a fig for ordinary people or intellectuals, or really anyone but her corporate buddies. I remember how dirty I felt last time when I pulled the lever for John Kerry while really wanting to vote for David Cobb. This time, I will vote my conscience, even if that means not voting for President at all (since I can't even vote Green if they nominate the execrable Cynthia McKinney). That's not giving up on the process, it's acknowledging that there truly is no lesser of two evils at this point as far as I'm concerned. I'll wait another four years and try my luck again.


Anonymous Anonymous on 12/01/2007 9:41 AM:


Jesse was great in the 1980s, but despite his success, he really never had a chance to actually win the nomination let alone the general election. Barack has a real shot at BOTH.

Anyway, again, I hear your complaints and share most of them, BUT I strongly encourage you to not sit it out. That was the philosophy of many in 2000 who went Green, including myself, and look what it got us. And all that Al Gore and George Bush were identical crap was WRONG. Yes, on some significant broad strokes, they were similar, but in the details they weren't. Do you really think we'd be in this predicament, post-9/11, if Gore had gotten the office he won? I'm not saying Gore would have been the ideal Prez, but he wouldn't have been this disastrous!

Vote Edwards, or something, but definitely VOTE.

If you are waiting for purity, you'll be waiting along time...


Anonymous joe on 12/08/2007 6:18 PM:

if every politician had a fixed amount of fundings and there on true merrit who could win. all of these millions and billions of dollars that are poring into ther accounts is unreal. if these individuals had to pay out of there own pockets instead of relying on the fat cats of major corperations and celebrities they would never survive for the favors they are promising for returns. the money they are spending is in no return for the salary that they will recieve back. i think there should never be campaign contributions and let them be on there own. they should be on contract as a common worker should be. if htey do not produce they are out on thier rears. congressmen and senators or any elected official. why should they have all of these paid vacations, ie: 2 weeks off for thanksgiving. it has cost the tax payers billions of dollars for thier fat living. ther is a town in ms. lumberton for the fact where the town council and mayer has voted for thier salary to be one dollar a month just to make thier town to get through a budget crisis. these are true people for people. have you ever seen a true highly poor elected official. i havent not even thad chocran, gene taaylor aor any others. a military man gives up 20 years of his life to protect and serve. what do they get? nothing comapered to what they were told or promised. i gave 22 years of my life to the us. missed out on the first words my children spoke thier first steps, work 24 hours a day with no overtime or special benefits. i was compisated for extra jobs but had to put my life on line for it in special situations ie: hazardous duty pay, combat pay, which is not enough for the extra chances i took. every one needs to make every politician for ther actions. if you vote them in anfd they dont produce they are fired . why should they vote on thier own pay raises. a raise should come with merits. you would not reward your own child or employee for not doing what is asked of them. earn your 20 year retirement for 20years at half pay, and see how you would like it. take all of your billions or maybe measly billions and turn it over to the homeless or hungry individuals that really desreve it. go without for a while and see if you can handle it. i dont think you can. sign a contract to your people and live to it or by it our resign . i cna only hit light parts of what i believe that his country needs but it only start at the top and it can only get better when it reaches the bottom and all of us can reap the benifits.