Agony and Ecstasy in Berkeley

In some ways the Democratic primary in this hyperpolitical city feels like an Introduction to Women and Gender Studies classroom (fittingly enough for a city whose University helped pioneer this field in the 1970s and which continues to have a lively department). Namely, how does one balance/prioritize issues of gender, race and class, especially when these issues compete in a literal sense–embodied by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and while he was in the race, John Edwards?

The problem–and there are, to be sure, worse problems in politics–is that Berkeley is full of people who have passionate lifelong commitments to all three of the social movements represented by the candidates. Though the contest might now be constructed, at the simplest level, as between the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, John Edwards' support of the labor movement resonated deeply in this community. So though on one level, many are ecstatic at the history-making nature of this race–whoever is ultimately the Democratic nominee will be precedent-making, and a tribute to the staying power of the social movements of the 1970s–many are also agonizing over for whom to vote.

Endless discussions, similar to those already reported on RH Reality Check, are held among friends and acquaintances. "She's more experienced and ‘ready' ." "Yes, but he's more electable. He'll bring in the youth vote." "Yeah, but you can't count on the youth vote. She can better take the dirt the Right will throw at whoever is nominated," and so on.

The reality is that there are very slight differences between these candidates on matters of domestic policy. They are very close on most issues Californians hold dear–environmentalism, reproductive rights, support for labor, and education. Perhaps the one non-trivial difference is their respective health care plans (hers calls for a mandate for all who can to purchase coverage, his doesn't).

The main difference of course is their historic position on Iraq. And this seems to be pushing many Berkeleyites to Obama's corner. Obama signs outnumber Clinton signs in all the neighborhoods I've walked in the last week. If Obama indeed carries the city on the basis of foreign policy, it will hardly be surprising. Berkeley is a city noted for the intense involvement of its city government in national and even international issues, periodically voting, for example, against nuclear weapons. Most recently the City Council voted 8-1 to declare Marine recruiters were "unwelcome" in Berkeley (a move some Council members are now rethinking).

In such a thoroughly Democratic environment as Berkeley, and the surrounding Bay Area, one presumes that whoever wins the nomination will ultimately get the support of most voters. But some have concerns that Obama supporters have been more deeply critical of Clinton than vice versa. For example, Robert Scheer, a long time progressive journalist in California, in an article promoting Obama on the basis of his anti-Iraq stance, was devastating on Clinton's record, and finished his article by reluctantly admitting that "Hillary would probably be better than the Republicans." "Probably"?! No difference between her and McCain who wants to stay in Iraq indefinitely? Not to mention their differences on tax cuts and reproductive rights? This statement is frighteningly reminiscent of the Ralph Nader pronouncement that Gore and Bush were essentially the same. One hopes that political purity among some on the Left will not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory again.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact