Seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates submitted essays to Andrew Cuomo’s new compilation, “Crossroads: The Future of American Politics,” but the sharpest observation comes not from a politician but from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.
“When you’re running against a true Republican,” he writes, “you’ll never out-Republican him no matter how much you soften your point of view or bring your ideas to the middle.”
The Democrats’ failure to distinguish themselves from President George W. Bush, and their catastrophic losses in the 2002 midterm elections, are the impetus for “Crossroads,” which Cuomo edited. The Jamaica Estates native, fresh off a loss himself in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor, calls the book “an honest debate on the problems and solutions of our time” and the result of “a time of personal and professional reflection.”
The book examines the Democrats’ problems since Bush took office in 2000. Ostensibly “by leading Democrats, Republicans, activists and independent thinkers,” it is Cuomo’s intent to help get the Democrats on track before the New Hampshire primary.
Presidential candidates Carol Moseley-Braun, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and Al Sharpton have contributed essays, as have former President Bill Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., Queens native Russell Simmons and other political activists and leaders.
The most carefully crafted essay in the book is Cuomo’s. He wonders how a nation so evenly divided can have such a conservative agenda, and his conclusion leads to the book’s theme. “America is at a crossroads, and it is time for leaders to lead… This is a potential progressive moment for this nation. The Democratic Party should, once again, lead the way.”
He calls for the “progressive force” which has historically driven the party to return. Carefully sidestepping the dreaded “l” word—liberal—Cuomo writes, “Democrats must not be afraid to be Democrats, to lead with our principles,” such as campaign finance reform, public school reform and protecting the environment, “not (as is our habit) with programs.”
Most of the presidential candidates use broad strokes to outline their platform and how they view the future of the party. Dennis Kucinich is not included, and General Wesley Clark entered the race after publication.
With the exceptions of Dean and Sharpton, the candidates stress party ideals, including the need for sane national security, without reconciling their decisions to vote in favor of the Iraq war, which all of them now strongly oppose. Moseley-Braun is also an exception because her essay focuses on social lessons she learned from the Maori tribe in New Zealand, where she was once the United States ambassador. It is a surprising metaphysical discourse, but not thematically similar to the other works.
Lieberman’s essay is the most straightforward critique of Republicans (other than Sharpton’s), yet comes from one of the most centrist candidates. He clearly supports an extended war on Islamic fundamentalism like the one in Afghanistan.
“The Muslim world from which Al Qaeda emerges is in the midst of a civil war between a moderate majority, which seeks a better life, and a militant minority, which seeks to wage permanent war against all who are different. For Americans to be fully secure, we must support the moderate Muslim majority’s interests and aspirations,” he writes.
Lieberman’s essay-writing skills are unmatched by the other candidates, and he uses a sharp tongue to summarily dismiss Bush’s economic and social policies in under five pages. Unfortunately for the other candidates, that sharp tongue is usually turned on them.
While Lieberman goes to extremes to criticize the ruling party, Edwards does not go far enough to distinguish himself from it. His closing paragraph is ominously centrist: “President Bush recently said that American spirit has never been stronger. I agree with that. But our job will not be done until we say the same thing about the American Dream.”
John Kerry gives more of a road map, and describes in touching detail how his military experience changed his political and life outlook. “Our identity changed,” he writes. “When people looked at us or defined us, we were no longer the kid from South Carolina or South Boston. We were Americans. Together. All of us under the same flag. We learned to measure what’s important through the promises we made to one another.”
Howard Dean chastises Bush for not keeping promises he made to the American people during his campaign. He believes that with the country so evenly divided, Democrats can make overwhelming strides by holding the President accountable for his pledged “compassionate conservative” agenda in 2000. “He will not be able to run the same way for reelection, as he has not governed as promised. Instead, he is now revealed as an unrepentant conservative, subscribing to the dangerously narrow orthodoxy of today’s national Republican leadership,” he wrote.
But Dean is lax on the President compared to Sharpton, who is the only candidate to directly take on Bush with regard to the war—and everything else. “We should oppose unprovoked military action. The Bush war in Iraq was wrong and unnecessary. It is becoming the Vietnam of the twenty-first century,” he wrote.
Simmons adds a Queens connection, and describes his efforts through the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which he founded two years ago. He describes hip-hop as the driving popular culture force of the last two decades and a political force for the future against poverty and civil injustice. “The political setbacks of the past can and will be overcome by the empowerment of millions of new young voters who have an irrespressible passion for peace, freedom and equal justice.”
Washington Post political columnist Richard Cohen adds a local twist when he describes the first Republican he ever met in his Rockaway Peninsula neighborhood. “I was stunned,” he recalls. “In all of Far Rockaway, Queens, I knew no Republicans. They lived ‘out there’ somewhere, beyond Queens, beyond New York City itself, and didn’t drink milk from the container, but from a pitcher, as did Robert Young’s family in Father Knows Best. They were the oddest of people.”
To be fair, Republicans get a chance to respond. Congressman Mike Castle of Delaware describes how his party took control by occupying the middle, and that there is “significant pressure on the Democrats to communicate practical policy alternatives that are not simply based on stirring up fear among different segments of the population.” He believes the left could take control of the party by promoting doomsday scenarios and exploiting them.
Clinton, whose remarks were drawn from a speech, decries the Democrats’ reaction to September 11th, a moment that Cuomo describes as the key failure of the party since the election. “Without a strong position on national security, Democrats won’t be listened to on other issues. We cannot overestimate the psychological impact of September 11th. Pulling together after the attacks, the American people felt a deep need for unity and strength. When people feel uncertain, they would rather have somebody who’s wrong and strong than somebody who is weak and right.”