OPINION At a recent Potrero Hill Democratic Club presidential forum, when the representatives of Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama spoke more about how the candidates made them feel than about their positions on the issues, it first struck me as strange. Eventually, though, their approach made sense I realized these people weren't necessarily all that hot about their candidates' actual policies.
In defending their health care programs, for instance, the Clinton and Obama reps tacitly acknowledged that a single-payer plan was superior to their candidates' offerings, while the Edwards spokesperson cautioned the audience against seeking a candidate who believed everything they believed.
Maybe it's the lack of distinct seasons in San Francisco or something, but these people seemed confused about the difference between voting in a primary and in a final election. November is the month when you vote for what you have to vote for; in February you can vote for what you believe in. In November the halfhearted health plan of one of these candidates, which would continue siphoning scarce public funds away from health services and into the coffers of the private health insurance industry, will likely be superior to whatever scheme the Republican nominee offers up. But in the February primary you can actually vote for Dennis Kucinich's single-payer plan.
Logically, we might ask why any of these front-running candidates who won't pledge to have all American troops out of Iraq by the end of their first term should expect much support in San Francisco, arguably the nation's most antiwar city. Why would anyone who opposes this war not back a candidate like Kucinich, who calls for complete troop withdrawal within three months? Or why, for that matter, would voters who support gay marriage not also back Kucinich, a gay-marriage supporter himself?
Well, when I appear as a Kucinich representative at election forums, people answer those questions for me all the time in postmeeting conversations. They and their friends believe in what Kucinich says, they often tell me, but "he can't win," so they'll vote for someone who they think can.
Now let's be honest here and admit that those of us who get worked up about peace and justice issues are prone to complain a lot. We are ever bemoaning the influence of money in politics and the poor job the news media do in covering the real issues. But when we get to the point where a candidate is raising the important issues and we know we agree with him and we still won't vote for him, then the next time we start complaining, it may just be time to look in the mirror.
Casting a vote against the war in Iraq is a lot easier than marching against it or even writing a letter. But if antiwar voters won't vote for antiwar candidates, you have to ask why those candidates should go to the trouble of running and why the big-money candidates should pay any attention to the supposed antiwar vote.
Whatever else happens in this election, one thing is certain: if you don't vote in February for what you believe in, you won't get to vote for it in November. And then there will be no one else to blame. *
Tom Gallagher, a former Massachusetts state representative, is a San Francisco activist.