The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary February 8, 2008

Four Years Later, Dems Have Come a Long Way

Four years ago, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign energized the liberal grassroots and shook up the Democratic politics.  He ran against Washington, against the Republicans and against the Democratic establishment who had facilitated Bush’s war in Iraq. In his own words, he stood for the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” a claim that rang true for Democrats disappointed by the cowardice of the national Party in the face of an obviously corrupt and dangerous Republican administration. His campaign sparked unprecedented activism, and he instantly became a polarizing figure: A hero to the Left and a dangerous radical to the Right.

Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has taken up Howard Dean’s aggressive partisanship in their campaigns for the nomination. Clinton is widely viewed as the candidate of the establishment that Dean railed against, and Obama has substituted Dean’s partisan liberalism for a post-partisan call for national unity. John Edwards’ populist rhetoric this campaign came close, but he never inspired the kind of spontaneous activism that propelled Dean’s campaign.

Given that Democratic primary voters are going to choose between two decidedly cautious candidates, it is amazing to realize just how far the party has come. John Kerry’s proposals for health care coverage and tackling global warming look incredibly weak compared to what is being proposed by both Democratic candidates. John Edwards, who in 2004 was proposing the creation of a national spy agency, spent this campaign challenging the very notion of the “Global War on Terror” that has been the centerpiece of the Bush foreign policy. What seemed impossible after Dean’s crushing defeat is now not just possible, but likely. 42 million uninsured Americans may finally get health insurance, a truly revolutionary energy policy is well within reach, and American foreign policy will most likely look radically different under a Democratic president, not least with an over-due end to the war in Iraq.

No doubt, many factors have contributed to this sea change in American politics. Fears of an economic downturn, endless bad news from Iraq, bold policy proposals taken early in the campaign by John Edwards and a reinvigorated base of liberal activists on the Internet have all contributed to the changing political climate. Whatever the reasons, the effects will be profound. The days of “Republican-lite” candidates are gone, and the Party is finally defining itself not by the bad things we won’t do, but by the good things we will do.

Despite this shift to the left, or maybe because of it, both Clinton and Obama look well positioned to win the presidency in November. Turnout in Democratic primaries has been record-breaking, and the fundraising success of the candidates, especially Barack Obama, has far surpassed any of the Republicans. This year, we won’t have to settle for the more electable candidate, or the more conservative candidate, or the more cautious candidate. This year Democrats will finally have a candidate we can be proud of.


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