Wednesday, April 11, 2007

MoveOn Virtual Town Hall: Iraq

Seven Democratic Presidential hopefuls put out for MoveOn last night, subjecting themselves to questions on Iraq that were projected by webcast to folks in over 1000 house parties all across the country. We heard Edwards, Biden, Kucinich, Richardson, Clinton, Dodd and Obama, in that order. The session is available here.

The organizing of the town hall: The event I attended included 21 people, all white, ages late 20s through 70s, in a San Francisco Mission district flat. People brought great food. Mostly folks didn't talk with each other if they didn't already know each other, even at the intermission. The tidbits I heard suggested that we came with similar political inclinations (very progressive, if not downright left) but widely varied levels of sophistication. Our host projected the screen shots from MoveOn on the wall and had a good sound system, so there were no technical barriers to the feeling of being in a genuine meeting.

Eli Pariser (I guess, missed any introduction) set up the questions that were then played as audio recordings from the MoveOn members who had proposed them. All the candidates were asked "what do you think is the best and fastest way to get the U.S. out of Iraq?" Then each got 2 follow up questions, all different.

During the session, many, perhaps most, attendees took notes. Afterward we mostly just bolted, again with little interaction.

When we checked our emails afterward, we had a communication from MoveOn offering the chance to pick our favorite and say why. The form would not accept my answer -- "No clear cut winner" -- so I didn't get to see later screens. Apparently these offered a chance to contribute to the candidate of our choice; MoveOn probably had to offer that much to get participation.

The substance: There was more content to this exercise than I anticipated, much to my surprise. Most of the candidates did not seem particularly polished in their answers. Some highlights and reactions, none of them probably very significant:
  • Edwards: if I have a leaning in a contest between people none of whom I expect to represent me, it is probably toward Edwards, for his support for low wage workers. I really liked when he said Congress should use the power the purse to "force" Bush to withdraw troops now. If Bush vetoes funding bills with restrictions, he urges Congress to keep sending them up. "It's not about keeping Joe Lieberman happy." That was a nice line.
  • Biden came across as a sensible, articulate, informed and conventional policy wonk. Since very few of his hearers actually know anything about the ins and outs of the Iraq situation, I suspect his responses just flew by. He did seem to think the U.S. was still able to do good and call the shots in Iraq, a false premise as far as I am concerned.
  • Kucinich is a nice man whose stock in trade is that he was right on the war from the get-go. He is not ever going to be President. He has a bill: HR 1234.
  • Richardson was tough about getting out of Iraq fast and leaving "no residual forces." Like Biden, he thinks the U.S. still will be able to influence the outcome when we depart -- these guys apparently can't imagine that might not be true, that we've completely blown the illusion of our omnipotence. He thinks Congress should vote to rescind the war authorization resolution, accept the consequent Constitutional crisis, and thinks Congress would have a 50-50 chance of winning in the Supreme Court. Wow -- that's a gambler's perspective. What if the Supremes decided any limitation on the executive war power was down the drain? He was not so forthright about continued efforts by U.S. oil companies to control Iraqi oil, though he said the right words about the black stuff belonging to the Iraqis. He is campaigning as the qualified candidate with experience. He's got a point there.
  • Clinton got off a good line, saying Pelosi had done right to push diplomacy with Syria. Her stance on withdrawal seemed muddled; didn't hear anything about all U.S. troops ever leaving. She spoke of a "residual force" so I guess she'd like to try to hang on. She was big on blaming the Iraqis for the mess we've made, speaking of "benchmarks" and "pressure." She ducked answering what she'd do if Bush vetoes the supplemental funding with withdrawal timetables now on his desk. Basically, she seemed to be trying to run against Bush, not looking to a time after Bush. And she was definitely running to emphasize her inevitability as the candidate. She was the only one utilizing the old trick of couching her answers in "when I am elected..." Frankly, I was surprised at how very shallowly she has positioned herself. I know I don't trust her, but I expected her to seem more formidable. There doesn't seem to be a there there. I suspect this is not a good year for such a candidate.
  • Dodd was a lot like Biden, except that he introduced "energy independence" which no one else mentioned and some quite good stuff on how the Bushies have trashed whatever moral standing the country ever had in the world. Mentioned his effort to repeal the Military Commissions (torture enabling) bill.
  • Obama surprised me the most of any of them, because the guy seemed to have zero charisma. Isn't that supposed to be his strong suit? He said a lot of right things about getting out of Iraq, but he also bought into a lot of Bushite frames: the danger of Syria and Iran "supporting terrorism," "can't be naïve." In fact, he seemed very busy trying to assure some audience (probably not the MoveOn one) that he is not naïve. He would not commit to what he'd do if Bush vetoes the funding bill with withdrawal timetables. I need to see more of that one before I form an opinion.
Guess I have to give MoveOn credit -- I've certainly never listened to a bunch of candidates this long this early in an election cycle before. It was much more interesting than I expected. There is something about listening in a group, even with little communication between folks, that raises the quality of attention with which we approach the exercise. The atmosphere reminded me of the seriousness people adopt when called to jury duty. I think that is healthy for democracy. Now if we only had more inspiring candidates.... Too much to ask?
One more thought: on Iraq, can any Democrat admit that the U.S. may not get to decide the terms on which it leaves? That seems the right question for the peace movement, as any other frame is imperial fantasy


Jane R said...

Thanks, Jan, this was very helpful. I haven't got time to attend local MoveOn meetings, though I am in the list, and it's really good to have a detailed report from someone whose reporting I trust. I'm going to forward the link to your post to some friends, too. Also I have a student writing a paper on Obama's religiousness and religious rhetoric and he will be interested (he's also a student activist), as will my cousin's kid who just got a job with the Obama campaign.

I'm in NC, so Edwards is in the neighborhood, and I have to say I'm impressed so far, inasmuch as I get impressed at all these days. But like you I am in the "no clear favorite" zone these days and likely to be for a long while more.

Seen the latest issue of Newsweek with the Governator on the cover touting ecological reform?

Civic Center said...

Let me echo jane r. An honest, amusing report that I could trust.

Fr. John said...

Thanks Jan, this is interesting and helpful. I'll follow the link and listen. I'm glad that MoveOn is framing the key question for the election as Iraq, as I imagine Republicans would like to make it about "terrorism."

I share your ambivalence about this lot, but do want to ask: "What is it that makes us distrust Hilary Clinton so?" Has she flip-flopped or been any more evasive than any of the boys (Kucinich aside, he has been very straightforward if unelectable)? Do we have a different (higher) standard for women in office?

I confess I'm no Hilary fan. I shade more towards Edwards and perhaps Obama. Yet when a public figure manages to press our buttons it often reveals as much about us as about him or her.

Anonymous said...

I came upon this blog while looking for the Move On Forum. I wan to thank you and all those who are working for a new way to have life and of giving to the world.
My own time here has been concerned with the movements for human rights and the building of a world of peace and kindness.
Although I am one voice I often hear an echo in the voices of others. Keep talking and working and the world we desire will come into being.