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What Is Missing Thus Far from Our Democratic Presidential Candidates

leah's picture

campaigning in the factory

Picture of JFK Campaigning in a Factory.

Yes, last night's debate/forum was a huge improvement on previous outings, and Tavis Smiley and the panel of journalists he had gathered put Brian Williams and the rest of the beltway star interlocutors to shame.

And yet, for those of us who, without hesitation, call ourselves liberals, progressives or otherwise acknowledge our left leanings, something has been missing from this too early campaign for who will be the Democratic nominee for President in the 2008 election.

Well, look no further for someone to define what that missing something is. And irony of ironies, you have the Washington Monthly to thank for this, a publication that has sometimes been less than comfortable embracing the liberalism inherited from the 1960s and 70s, not that Charlie Peters, its editor for many years, wasn't a genuine liberal. But if you were reading the magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, you'll know what I mean.

Well, someone at the Washington Monthly had the brilliant idea of asking Theodore Sorenson, John Kennedy's chief speech writer, whom, as the Monthly points out, Kennedy called his "intellectual blood bank," to write an acceptance speech for whomever addresses the Democratic convention next year as its presidential nominee.

Sorenson is now retired. Over the years, every appearance of his, every published word of his, has reminded me of what it was like living in an America where "liberal" wasn't a dirty word. Perhaps that's why Ted Sorenson has been far less visible as a media presence than we had a right to expect, given his historic role with both John and Bobby Kennedy, his intelligence and knowledge of policy, and the power of his writing.

You will see by the speech he has written that Ted Sorenson has been paying attention.

Here's his opening paragraph, how he would like the Democratic nominee to frame the kind of campaign that is worthy of the demands of the time we're living in, and worthy of American voters, and which he or she intends to wage with or without the cooperation of the Republican nominee, whomever that may be.


My fellow Democrats: With high resolve and deep gratitude, I accept your nomination.

It has been a long campaign—too long, too expensive, with too much media attention on matters irrelevant to our nation’s future. I salute each of my worthy opponents for conducting a clean fifty-state campaign focusing on the real issues facing our nation, including health care, the public debt burden, energy independence, and national security, a campaign testing not merely which of us could raise and spend the most money but who among us could best lead our country; a campaign not ignoring controversial issues like taxation, immigration, fuel conservation, and the Middle East, but conducting, in essence, a great debate—because our party, unlike our opposition, believes that a free country is strengthened by debate.

Note that ability to find the larger issue behind a recitation of policy issues, in this case, the problematic nature of our electoral politics, and the media's role in trivializing what should be a national conversation.

And as for taking it to your opponent, not getting in the first punch, instead, getting in the first concrete challenge to the structure of our electoral campaigns, here's Sorenson's second paragraph; remember, this would be approximately two minutes into the speech.

There will be more debates this fall. I hereby notify my Republican opponent that I have purchased ninety minutes of national network television time for each of the six Sunday evenings preceding the presidential election, and here and now invite and challenge him to share that time with me to debate the most serious issues facing the country, under rules to be agreed upon by our respective designees meeting this week with a neutral jointly selected statesman.

Think that might just make a large cross-section of grassroots Americans sit up and take notice? No, even as skillful a rhetorician as Ted Sorenson can't keep the media from doing its worst, and I can imagine the gathered commentators on MSNBC, say, calling the proposal a stunt. But with a commitment this strong, and this unprecedented, I think the great majority of Americans watching at home would be on their feet, applauding. Such a proposal would be seen as a Democratic candidate leading the nation toward a more sane way to conduct our electoral politics, one in which a genuine national conversation will have a chance to emerge.

Note also, how, without having to achieve the currently impossible goal of publicly financed elections, an issue that should surely be on our agenda, Sorenson nonetheless finds a way to undercut one of the worst results of our many failed reforms of campaign finance, that awful last minute splurge of campaign commercials that spew forth talking points, half-truths and outright lies.

I don't intend to quote or analyze the entire speech; my point is to convince you to go and read it in full, and send the link to as many other people as you can think of, and then to think deeply about what Sorenson achieves here, and then to discuss it fully, preferable here at Corrente.

Just in case your not ready to immediately click on the link provided below, herewith a few more enticements:

Let me assure all those who may disagree with my positions that I shall hear and respect their views, not denounce them as unpatriotic as has so often happened in recent years.

In this campaign, I will make no promises I cannot fulfill, pledge no spending we cannot afford, offer no posts to cronies you cannot trust, and propose no foreign commitment we should not keep.

Nor will I shrink from calling myself a liberal, in the same sense that Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, and Harry Truman were liberals—


They are the giants on whose shoulders I now stand, giants who made this a better, fairer, safer, stronger, more united America.

With the help of dedicated Americans from our party, every party, and no party at all, I intend to mount that stairway to preach peace for our nation and world.

Our nation is emerging from eight years of misrule, a dark and difficult period in which our national honor and pride have been bruised and battered. But we are neither beaten nor broken. We are not helpless or afraid; because in this country the people rule, and the people want change.

True, some of us have been sleeping for these eight long years, while our nation’s values have been traduced, our liberties reduced, and our moral authority around the world trampled and shattered by a nightmare of ideological incompetence. But now we are awakening and taking our country back. Now people all across America are starting to believe in America again. We are coming back, back to the heights of greatness, back to America’s proud role as a temple of justice and a champion of peace.

I'd best stop here, although this is one of those pieces of writings if you were yellow penciling the best bits, you would realize, by the end, that you'd underlined every word.

What Sorenson gives us is a coherent narrative of what went wrong in the eight years of the Bush administration, along with a recognition not only of a desire for change, but also of this being a time in a history when we need big ideas. None of our current candidates is providing either.

The speech is here.

Go read. Let us know in comments what is your own analysis of it, what are your favorite parts, or anything about which you have hesitations. I have one such, which I'll talk about if we can get a good thread started here.

Most of all what I want to know from you is how the hell we get Hillary, Barack, John, and all the rest of the Democratic Party to take note of what Ted Sorenson hath wrought.

Imagine if Al Gore had hooked up with Sorenson in 2000, instead of with Bob Shrum.

Hmmm, imagine if Al Gore were to hook up with Ted Sorenson in 2007....

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And we need those football-watching people as much/more than we need to "reach out to evangelicals" and such nonsense. The Evos we're never gonna get until they stop being so afraid (i.e., probably never) but the football viewers are worshippers at another sort of altar with other rituals.

Let's put it this way: Prince Namor loves me, politics and football, and *I* don't go in the TV room when football is in progress. I have no intention of forcing choices of priorities when none is needed. Putting debates of the sort Sorensen proposes on during football time would be another sort of forced choice, and not a wise one.

Monday nights are out for the same reason. And I think it should be cut from 1.5 to 1 hour each because if they're really going to discuss issues of substance that's about as long as *my* attention span can hold out. I found that out when we were timedelayblogging the Sabbath Gasbags. :)

But 1 hour, 6 times, leading up to election day...hell yes. Although I fear Sorensen is having a flashback to some severely edited memories of an earlier day if he thinks that this would cut down in even the tiniest bit on the attack ads, esp. after the latest SCOTUS decision on the matter. The Swiftboaters can always find the money and the media will always take it.

Off to read the actual article now...I just had to get these procedural matters dealt with first. Great catch Leah... ;)

leah's picture
Submitted by leah on

Actually, my claims for the proposal in that second paragraph of Sorenson's speech are my own; he doesn't make any such claims. And yes, Republicans are to dependent on those so-called issue ads and the other paraphernalia of jeer and sneer to give them up, and if the candidate accepted the challenge, he, and we know with Republicans it will be a he, will be debating on our dime - but 2008 is one year where Republican message-making is going to be on the defensive, and even those who will be watching Sunday Night Football will have an opportunity to see the best bits from such a debate because the debate will be news.

It's possible Sorenson didn't know that Monday Night Football has metastasized to Sunday Night.

Let us know what you think of the speech.

MJS's picture
Submitted by MJS on

Monday works for me. I'll check with the folks over at scheduling...


Sorenson's speech is wonderful, tempered, rational--and a tad boring. The American audience has changed since 1960 (being raised on TV has molded some of the laziest thinkers this side of Lazy Thinker, Idaho). I think we need to shake things loose a bit and serve some coffee with the danish--let's have a national dialogue that addresses some of the cancers that are encroaching on our lives. I appreciate his "good news" approach (instead of the name-calling garbage) and yet (I believe) we need to articulate, with a clear and easy to understand voice how the Secret Government of Olly North/Poindexter/Reagan/Rumsfeld/Cheney came back (with a virulence) to try and again smother democracy and exploit war for profits. And why that should unsettle everyone.

I want the candidate to look at the camera and tell us we've been had--again. And unless we learn something from these times we will not keep this bird of freedom alive much longer.

Note: I may be quibbling, but I would change his Red State/Blue State statement to read "so-called Red State/Blue State" so as to give a voter an out. No more "the other" manipulating. Let's patiently explain how people are exploited so that a few may reap biblical profits, but give the exploited a chance to come to reason with a way to remove the proverbial chip from their shoulder.


I just got back from a trip to Portland, Oregon--on the I 5 north of Medford I saw a billboard with images of a man morphing into a monkey with the text "Don't Let Them Make a Monkey Out of You" and then some phone number or address. Someone is spending a lot of money to paint science as sinister. We need a leader who will face that crap (once and for all, damn you!) and expose it for the exploitative agitprop that it is.

JFK brought a certain magic--or charisma or sexiness or what-have-you--to reason: whoever the Democratic candidate is might remember that and demonstrate that clarifying light emanates not because anyone owns it, but because it lives to shine.


Xenophon's picture
Submitted by Xenophon on

I'm running between the grill and the kitchen (obviously the computer), chopping, basting, cleaning, genrally getting ready for the postponed Juneteenth celebration - damn I miss Texas. Damn I miss Molly!

Leah I just wanted to say what a great post.

I was totally pissed off at Obama last night. I was angry at the rest of the field for trying to force feed answers. But, I think there is a window, a hunger, a chance to force a real debate. I think, I hope, I pray that even if our vote is for naught, we can at least force a plank onto the platform. Democracy is a good idea, we should bring it back.