Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Arianna Huffington's slam on centrism - "Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers" -- proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama's meteoric rise to national prominence -- and his victory in the Democratic primaries -- resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.
Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.
Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America's greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.
All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.
Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.
Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and...
Despite both presumptive nominees’ rhetoric about center-seeking, if moderates do not figure out how to push from the center for centrist leadership, this campaign will degenerate into another divisive slugfest. We are all well aware of the gravitational physics of American politics, how partisans from the left and the right pull their respective candidates to the base, and how difficult it is to resist the lure of going negative, at a certain point in the campaign. The challenge for moderates is to reinforce candidates when they play to the center – and chide them, reporters, bloggers and other players when they play to the extremes.
Consider the current argument about terrorism. In a recent interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News, Barack Obama made it clear how passionately he feels about civil liberties. He argued that just as the original attackers of the World Trade Center from 1993 were brought to justice within the boundaries of the Constitution, so, too, could future terrorists be fought legally but effectively. This comment allowed Republicans to pounce on him for his “September 10” mentality, for treating terrorism as a domestic law enforcement issue, rather than an external military threat.
With everyone playing their roles, with the media and the campaigns treating the campaigns as polar opposites, reverse images of each other, Barack Obama was caricatured as strong on civil liberties, John McCain as tough on terror. Following that polarizing logic, if Obama was pro-Civil Liberties, McCain was caricatured as being “con”; and if McCain was anti-terror, Obama was caricatured as “pro.” Of course, Obama is not in favor of terrorism and McCain has distinguished himself – as a former prisoner of war – by speaking out against torture and for civil liberties. Both candidates have to work hard not to get stereotyped and to limit the battlefield on which they fight.
What if Obama gave a speech about what George W. Bush has done right in the fight against terror. Obama could start with a strong repudiation of Islamism and terrorism, detail the Treasury interdiction efforts that slowed the flow of cash to Al Qaeda, and specify other areas of passionate agreement with Bush and the Republicans. He could then talk about where Bush and the Republicans have fallen short, but with much more credibility as a tough-on-terror Democrat. Similarly, McCain should give a strong address about the importance of civil liberties and Constitutional processes in wartime – then detail where he would limit liberties and for whom, showing where he would deviate from the Administration’s approach and from the Democrats’ views.
Frequently, when we think about centrism we think about triangulating, about compromising core principles to create some kind of neutered policy. Campaigns should be about disagreements, about passionate fights over competing principles and policy prescriptions. But the candidates should be careful to emphasize the core values they and all Americans share in common not just their clashes regarding vision and tactics.
As we transition from the primary campaign to the general election, there is a struggle for the souls of both presumptive nominees. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came to national prominence as centrists. Obama seized the lyrical center – Reagan style with a multicultural twist – thanks to his 2004 Democratic National Convention Speech, and McCain won the Republican nomination because he was the Republican candidate most independent of his party leader, George W. Bush. Nevertheless, partisans from both extremes are insisting that their respective candidates run away from the center. Many liberals, especially in the blogosphere, claim that Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton repudiated Democratic centrism; conservatives keep warning McCain to shore up his base. Amid this struggle, where are the passionate moderates, the people who believe in a principled center, both as the shrewd place to be – and the right place to be?
Unfortunately, the gravitational physics of American politics, especially during election time, tends to polarize. Our culture and our politics reward the loudmouths, the partisans, the controversy-generators, rather than the bridge-builders, the centrists, the peacemakers. And, in fairness, moderates are frequently too reasonable, too passive. It is easy to see the forces pulling the candidates to particular extremes; where are the forces pushing toward the center?
Note, for example, the New York Times coverage regarding John McCain’s reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision regarding the detainees at Guantanamo. When first asked to react, before he had a chance to read the decision, McCain responded carefully saying, “It obviously concerned me.” A blog post on National Review Online, the Times reported, asked in fury: “Concerned? Concerned?” Subsequently, after studying the matter and consulting with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain called the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”
The bloggers’ attack – as well as the Times reportage – reinforced the narrative of John McCain’s strained relations with the Republican base. But shouldn’t we applaud a leader who hesitates before condemning the Supreme Court, who studies an issue before pronouncing on it? Don’t we need people praising McCain for his initial restraint and encouraging such behavior?
Just as partisans monitor candidates for their ideological purity, we need a moderometer to keep track of a candidate’s centrism both substantively and tactically. This barometer assessing the two nominees’ moderation should focus on various statements they make over the next five months, illustrating whether they shift left, right, or center, while also assessing their behavior, the tone they set. This way, centrists can have some push-back, can make their play for the middle. In the case of McCain’s reaction to the Supreme Court decision, the moderometer would stand level – and reward the candidate for his patience and temperance.
By contrast, the moderometer could teeter tracking another controversy from this week. Republicans pounced on Barack Obama’s comments to ABC’s Jake Tapper pointing to the investigation of the first World Trade Center...
In 2007, many toasted the Democrats for having a viable female candidate whose fame made her far more than a gender-based candidate and a viable African-American candidate whose message made him far more than a race-based candidate. Overlooking the ugly identity politics to which Democrats in particular and Americans in general have been addicted, we hoped that the candidates would run on message and their records, not on a sense of group frustration or entitlement – and that the candidates would be judged on their merits not by the color of their skin or the combination of their chromosomes.
It is hard to quantify prejudice when both racism and sexism have been delegitimized. Our favorite tools, surveys, require honesty, while many racists and sexists know to camouflage their ugly feelings. Still, just as John Kennedy played the Catholic card cleverly, and mobilized Republican-leaning Catholics to vote for him and the Democratic Party in 1960, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama benefited from great enthusiasm among women and blacks, respectively. This mass mobilization appears to have delivered far more votes for their respective camps than were lost to prejudice.
But, as the conflict intensified, it was, alas, inevitable, that had Obama lost, some blacks would have yelled racism – just as some women are now attributing Clinton’s loss to sexism. The bills in the indictment are feeble. If the charges are limited to a handful of poorly-chosen phrases journalists and politicians used, in the heat of a campaign wordfest, America is a far more enlightened place than most Democrats acknowledge.
Clearly, the media – if we can speak in these general terms – was rougher on Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama, especially at first. But to attribute the media bias to sexism requires some evidence. Barack Obama benefited from great coverage because he offered reporters a fresh face and a great story. From the start of the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s problems had far more to do with the baggage she carried from the 1990s than the baggage she shares with her sisters in arms.
What really defeated Hillary Clinton was Clintonism. Her arrogant air of presumption, her preference for staffers better known for loyalty than competence, and her and her husband’s aggressive tactics backfired this year. Americans, it seems, are not just fed up with George W. Bush but with politics in general. And the two Clintons represent the polarizing, do-or-die, hyper-partisan, exceedingly personal politics of the baby boomers, both right and left – that both Barack Obama and John McCain repudiate by their respective ages and by the message each generates.
It would be easier to make the charge of sexism stick had Hillary Clinton run the kind of campaign she ran from March to May for the year-and-a-half before that. Instead, we watched an overpaid staff fritter away money, opportunities, and ultimately, a chance at victory. We watched a candidate with obvious talents and passion, fail to deliver a compelling message and try inheriting the White House rather than earning it. We watched the candidate’s husband engage in the sharp-elbow tactics and self-destructive sloppiness for which he was so famous in the 1990s, but which so many seem to have forgotten in the haze of Bush-generated nostalgia for the Clinton era. The changes in the Clinton campaign after March, in personnel, messaging and tactics implicitly acknowledge the failures before March.
Hillary Clinton has always been a fast learner, smart, able to improvise, willing to be self-critical, and effective at recovering. She displayed all those qualities in this campaign – and was rewarded with hundreds of delegates and millions of votes. That she did not start changing soon enough, or recover fast enough to surmount the lead she and her incompetent campaign staff gave Obama, is not due to sexism.
Part of breaking the glass ceiling and competing with everyone else is avoiding the tendency to attribute criticism or setbacks to bias. In fairness, Hillary Clinton has not complained about gender bias. Her disappointed supporters should follow her example, celebrating how far she came, and learning...
Still, as we tally up the thousands of delegates, tens of millions of votes, and hundreds of millions of dollars, most Democrats seek closure. One of the extraordinary, historic, unprecedented moves Hillary Clinton made was that she simply refused to concede defeat. As a result, she not only ended up winning many more big state primaries than Obama did, she also demonstrated the depth of her support. Had she quit in February or early March, she would have been remembered as the Ed Muskie of 2008, an over-confident frontrunner whose aides spent too much time debating who would get which West Wing office but produced as little as Muskie did in his 1972 Democratic presidential primary collapse. Instead, Hillary Clinton proved quite formidable – she and her husband angered many Democrats in this campaign, but she mobilized millions.
Today, after the final state primaries, Hillary Clinton must make a critical decision. Her impressive swing-state victories and her historic vote total have vindicated her decision to hang on for dear life these last few months. Grumbling from John Edwards’ camp that he should not have quit so soon emphasizes one of the probable legacies from Clinton’s never-say-die campaign: in the future it will be harder to get candidates to give up, and thus harder for parties to rally around one winner early in the process. But with Obama on the verge of sewing up enough delegates, with party leaders starting to beg for unity, the time has come to end the campaign.
Ending the campaign when there remains even a slight chance of winning – a knock- out Obama scandal, a sudden shift in super-delegate sentiments – violates Hillary Clinton’s deepest instincts and most enduring political lessons. She frequently has recalled that when she was young, a neighboring girl bullied her, reducing Hillary to tears. Her mother, Dorothy Rodham, banned young Hillary from the house, refusing to give refuge to a coward. Hillary went out, walloped her rival, and earned the respect of the boys – and this girl’s eventual friendship. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s marriage to Bill Clinton has been a decades-long exercise in refusing to quit, no matter how personal the hurt, no matter how public the humiliation. And throughout the 1990s, both Hillary and Bill Clinton distinguished themselves as public figures who frequently beat the odds by hanging on – from eventually winning as the “Comeback Kid” in 1992 to defying widespread calls for his resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then seeing Bill emerge as a presidential rock star in and out of office, while Hillary ended up as a powerful New York Senator and leading presidential candidate.
While there is nothing like winning, there are better and worse ways to lose. If Hillary Clinton concedes gracefully now that the last vote has been cast, and works enthusiastically for an Obama victory, she may restore some of the Clinton sheen that this vicious primary battle tarnished. Talk about the Clintons’ 2012 strategy – sabotage Obama so she has a shot four years later – the absurd claim that by remembering that Bobby Kennedy ran in June she was calling for Obama’s assassination – both reveal how angry Obama Democrats are with the Clintons.
Hillary Clinton must make the right, gracious, conciliatory moves, sooner rather than later. If she does it right, she will position herself as the next-in-line to lead the Democratic party if Obama falls, or continue to be a power-player in Washington during an Obama Administration. There are second acts in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan lost a heartbreaker in the Republican nomination fight in 1976 - but he did okay after that, I think. Moreover, she will help rebuild the Clinton legacy and restore some of the Clinton magic that has dissipated amid the stench of sweat and bile this extraordinary, historic, unprecedented campaign generated.
The fact that we are approaching the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and that his surviving brother Ted Kennedy has been in the news lately, made Clinton’s mention even more reasonable. As she mentioned while backpedaling, she -- along with many other Americans – has certainly had the Kennedy family on her mind lately.
Whether pro-Hillary or not, historians in particular should defend Hillary. Historians frequently refer to previous incidents to explain current behavior. To perceive hidden agendas in such analogizing is unreasonable. True, Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated that June; but he also was running in a race that remained wide open that month too. Senator Clinton was in no way calling for an assassination or warning of one. Simply writing that previous statement emphasizes how absurd the charges are. Analogies by nature are selective. The analogizer has the right to pick or choose within reason, as Senator Clinton did in this case.
The real question, of course, is why people are so quick to pounce on Hillary Clinton’s words and impute such horrific motives to her. The answer points to one of the big surprises of this campaign season: the way the partly anticipated Clinton-fatigue has morphed into Clinton-disgust. Democrats who were the chief enablers of Bill Clinton’s hardball politics in the 1990s now profess surprise at both Clintons’ hardball tactics. The cheers have turned into jeers. Clearly, it is one thing when Democrats play tough with Republicans; that seems to be okay. But seeing the Clintons deploy their characteristic sharp-elbow tactics against a fellow Democrat - -and an idealistic African-American Democrat at that – has led to this Democratic wake-up call, slowed Hillary Clinton’s momentum at critical moments, and badly tarnished Bill Clinton’s legacy.
Still, in a long list of Clinton curveballs, sleights-of-hand, manipulations and lies, Hillary Clinton’s innocent Kennedy comments don’t rank. But, for most candidates, when even harmless comments cause massive headaches, that usually is one more sign that it is time to call it quits. So far, Hillary Clinton has refused to read any of those signs. Whether that obtuseness ultimately leads to victory or to even more backlash remains to be seen, but the smart money remains on the latter.
George W. Bush clearly was being mischievous when, speaking to the Israeli Knesset, he quoted Senator William Borah’s tragically naïve and utterly self-involved exclamation at the start of World War II. Dismissing talk of negotiating with “terrorists and radicals” as a “foolish delusion” we have heard before, Bush said: “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history,” Bush proclaimed.
Obama condemned this “false political attack” and led a chorus of Democrats shocked that a president would politick on foreign soil. All innocence, the White House press secretary Dana Perino denied that the Knesset remark had anything to do with Obama: “I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you. That is not always true. And it is not true in this case,” she said. This was White House speak for the old schoolyard taunt, “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
Presidential pronouncements from Israel about American-Israeli friendship rarely generate headlines. But all of a sudden, whether or not Obama had been accused of appeasement – and was an appeaser – dominated the news. As a result, Obama’s name became more linked than ever with the appeasement charge. This linkage is doubly problematic for Obama. Not only does the controversy broadcast the Republican charge that Obama is too soft, too left, too willing to negotiate away American honor. It also publicizes the broader question: having talked his way from obscurity to the precipice of the presidency so quickly, will the 46-year-old wunderkind be too enamored of his own skills, too swayed by his own silver tongue? By contrast, John McCain, the grizzled war veteran, looks sober, mature, reliable.
In fairness to Obama, he also has to prove that he is not a wimp. Especially after the “swiftboating” of John Kerry, Democrats are anxious for a return to the days of the Clinton counterpunchers – although it seems without a Clinton in charge. One of Bill Clinton’s great triangulating skills was playing off two political personae, as the populist and the progressive, as “Bubba” and the Yalie, or, as was often said “Saturday night Bill” and “Sunday morning Bill.” Obama has a harder task here. Having floated to the top so quickly as the saint of centrism, as a seeker of civility, Obama cannot emphasize the hand-to-hand political combat skills he must have picked up during his apprentice in Chicago politics. At the same time, if Republicans smell weakness, they will pounce.
Fortunately for Obama, McCain is encased in a similar pair of silk handcuffs. McCain also has built his reputation as the Republican rebel, as the party maverick always willing to cross lines, build bridges, promote civility. It is hard to make nice while brandishing a stiletto.
Moreover, while Obama took the White House bait and bristled defensively that he was not an appeaser, the White House trap did not help McCain as much as it could have. One of McCain’s great strengths is appearing to be the Republican most distant from Bush; embraces from an unpopular lameduck president are not what the party maverick needs. And, as in 1992, when another young, relatively unknown Democratic politician defeated an older, more experienced, former war hero, this election does not appear to be about foreign policy thus far – it is, as it was in the election wherein Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton unseated the incumbent President George H.W. Bush, “the economy, stupid.”
It is tragic that race now looms so large. In his magnificent national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama positioned himself to heal America’s great divides, not exacerbate them. Moreover, although Toni Morrison’s labeling Bill Clinton “our first black president” may have been one of the stupidest, and racially stereotypical, comments made during the whole Monica Lewinsky farce, no one can deny the once-strong ties between both Clintons and the African-American community. Throughout 2007, as Obama and Hillary Clinton gathered support, he seemed less like the “black candidate,” she seemed less like the “woman candidate.” Clinton’s problems were that she was “Hillary” and a “Clinton” not that she was a she. Obama’s obstacle was he was too green not too black.
Unfortunately, despite America’s tremendous racial progress, both political parties frequently make racial appeals. The elusive white, male, working class voter, sometimes called Joe Six Pack, sometimes called the Reagan (formerly Roosevelt) Democrat, has been subjected to steady if subtle racially-based appeals. Since Richard Nixon demanded “Law and Order” in 1968, too many Republicans have indulged in subtle racial demagoguery. The failure of the society – and particularly of liberal Democrats – to face the challenge of crime made it easier, but this politics of resentment has not just been a politics of fear. Fights over busing and affirmative action in the 1970s and 1980s exceeded the rational clash of interests, becoming irrational – and pathological. Ronald Reagan was not personally racist – and took great offense when he was accused of bigotry. But he was tone deaf to African-American sensitivities. I have found no evidence that he ever discouraged the Republican Southern white strategy, using crime, busing and affirmative action to gain white votes by stirring white fears.
Jack Kemp, the veteran Republican Congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee, stood out as the rare national Republican who wooed African-Americans. Describing himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative,” Kemp proved it as George H.W. Bush’s Housing Secretary. In visiting inner-cities repeatedly, constantly denouncing South African Apartheid, and recoiling at racist appeals, no matter how subtle, Kemp showed how to be a tax-cutting but not race-baiting conservative.
At the same time, the Democratic commitment to identity politics guaranteed that race and gender would become major factors in 2008, as they have been for decades. So much of Democratic politics is predicated on identity politics, treating individuals as part of their subgroup rather than as independent-minded Americans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have tapped into that consciousness. Obama has used his base in the black community, and the exciting prospects of becoming the first black president, just as Clinton has exploited her shot to become the first woman president.
Moreover, both have had major supporters quick to characterize standard campaign criticism as sexist or racist. The New York Times op-ed page has been particularly complicit here. The Times published a William Julius Wilson op-ed claiming that the Clinton campaign’s ad wondering who should be in charge at 3 A.M. was rife with racist allusions. The Times also published Gloria Steinem’s equally absurd lament that Hillary Clinton’s well-deserved loss in the Iowa caucus proved that Americans were more sexist than racist.
Identity politics demands a one-way street. Blacks can appeal to blacks, and perceive racism, even when it may not exist. Women are praised for reaching out to their sisters, and crying “sexism” if criticized. True, campaigns are about mobilizing key supporters and trying to turn any criticisms back on the accuser. But, as long as blacks, women or members of other groups perceive prejudice in the normal flow of campaigning, identity politics will breed Balkanization not unity.
This campaign has already demonstrated how emphasizing the racial component or gender appeals damages the body politic. American race relations and gender relations remain fragile. But in a polyglot democracy, subgroup appeals are inevitable. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis tapped...
Historians should be careful not to pronounce a contest over till it’s over, so I will not join the pundit pile-on eulogizing Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, the conventional wisdom about this fight’s impact may be wrong. Hillary Clinton’s relentless push for the nomination may have strengthened Barack Obama not weakened him.
The lengthy American presidential campaign does not proceed in straight lines but in waves, with dramatic ups and downs. This is not necessarily a natural phenomenon but usually a media-driven mania. Reporters frequently build up candidates, then knock them down or build them up after knocking them down. Skilled – and lucky – candidates can win by having the inevitable downturns far enough away from Election Day not to hurt. John McCain, for example, benefited from bottoming out last summer and fall, long before Republicans started choosing their nominee. He was able to come on strong in the winter when it counted.
Moreover, Democratic primary voters are prone to buyers’ remorse. The modern politician who has most benefited from this tendency is that old warhorse, Jerry Brown. Brown, the current Attorney General of California and former wunderkind Governor of the same state, enjoyed late surges in two presidential campaigns. Each time, Brown eventually lost but only after giving a relatively inexperienced contender enough of a scare so that the come-from-nowhere Democrat became the eventual winner in the general election campaign. In 1976, Democrats turned to Brown when they started wondering about Jimmy Carter; sixteen years later, Brown’s campaign attracted votes in the spring from Bill Clinton, as he marched toward the nomination.
In fact, thanks to Brown, the rise of Ross Perot, and his own scandal-laden past, Bill Clinton faced a major crisis in the late spring of 1992. His advisers launched the grandiosely named “Manhattan Project,” a secret initiative to analyze Clinton’s weaknesses and figure out the secret ingredients needed to propel him to victory. Given Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996, people tend to forget how unpopular he was, even after he had clinched the nomination.
When his advisers presented him with data detailing how little Americans trusted him, Clinton exploded: “So far as I'm concerned, we're at zero,” the Arkansas governor fumed. “We're a negative. We're off the screen. We don't exist in the national consciousness. We might as well have been like any member of Congress and kissed every ass in the Democratic Party. I don't think you can minimize how horrible I feel, having worked all my life to stand for things, having busted my butt for seven months and the American people don't know crap about it after I poured $10 million worth of information into their heads.”
Ultimately, this crisis helped Clinton and his advisors recast the campaign’s message – and take the White House. Candidates need to be tested. One of the unlucky breaks Hillary Clinton experienced was that she -- and her staffers – floated to re-election during the 2006 New York Senate race. As a result, they entered the 2008 presidential campaign soft, relatively un-tested, and far too self-assured.
Similarly, had Barack Obama seized the nomination after his meteoric rise in February, his campaign would have been an overinflated balloon, soaring high but easily popped. Most notably, given how deep Obama’s ties are to the ministerial hate-monger Jeremiah Wright, it was far better for that embarrassment to be aired this spring than next fall. Obama has had time to figure out how to deal with this and -- after repeated hesitations -- make the necessary break. Timing counts. Just as the Clinton campaign probably could have derailed the entire Obama phenomenama had Hillary’s people done their homework and exposed the wrongheaded Wright in January, if Obama is lucky, by the fall Americans will be more concerned with “the economy, stupid,” than with Obama’s passivity in the face of Wright’ repeated affront to American values.
Hillary Clinton’s tough fight against Barack Obama has toughened Obama. The Democratic primary campaign has focused Obama on the need to hone a message that reaches working class whites. The early exposure to the Wright controversy may have inoculated the public against further outbreaks of this particular affliction. If – and I make no predictions – Barack Obama ends up winning the White House, he just may have to thank Hillary Clinton for her unintended help along the way.
With her substantial Pennsylvania primary victory, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has again proven to be the Timex candidate. Like the occasionally unfashionable but always durable watch, she “takes a licking but keeps on ticking.” As the Democratic nomination standoff starts resembling World War I’s relentless trench warfare, worried Democrats wonder when it will end. Paradoxically, despite running a campaign as anachronistic and as twentieth-century as the Timex slogan, Hillary Clinton is hinging her campaign on a postmodern argument that the stronger candidate may not be the one with the most popular votes – or delegates won.
Hillary Clinton has proved Thomas Edison correct. In politics as in technology perspiration frequently trumps inspiration. No one can deny that she has been impressively indefatigable, unyielding and buoyant. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are indomitable political thoroughbreds. Just as they persisted despite repeated humiliations during Bill’s 1992 campaign, just as both she and her husband soldiered on throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998-1999, Hillary Clinton has come back and won, whenever she needed to, whenever pundits eulogized her.
Barack Obama has successfully flummoxed the Clintons. These once cutting-edge, fresh-faced baby boomers have run a surprisingly flat, frequently outdated campaign, more television-based than internet-savvy, more rooted in yesterday’s techniques and agendas than today’s technologies and trends. In one nostalgia-drenched campaign ad in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton reminisced about playing pinochle. Young voters are as likely to have played pinochle as they are to have pinned their first loves – or, to be more accurate, their first casual hook-ups. Earlier, while Barack Obama’s supporters led by the hip-hop-star will.i.am transformed a lyrical Obama speech into the addictive, infectious music video “Yes We Can,” a Silicon Valley hotshot supporting Hillary Clinton produced a cheesy, kitschy, Disneyfied ditty pronouncing “Hillary for you and me – bring back our de-mo-cra-cy.” Predictably, in Pennsylvania Clinton voters again skewed older and more traditional while Senator Barack Obama’s voters were younger and hipper.
Yet by refusing to quit, Hillary Clinton has made a case that she might be the stronger candidate against John McCain. Just as her husband turned a simple case of obstructing justice to hide adultery into a postmodern, multi-dimensional nationwide morality seminar that depended on what the meaning of the word “is” was, many of Hillary Clinton’s arguments would make my most Derrida-dazzled, postmodern colleagues proud. McCain, like most nominees before him, won the nomination by winning the most votes and thus the most delegates. Today, we find ourselves balancing out Hillary Clinton’s eight big state wins versus Barack Obama’s small state wins, assessing her strength among swing voters versus his deep ties to the base. One Web site, www.realclearpolitics.com offers five different estimates for the popular vote totals, with Obama leading by half a million in the first, to Clinton leading by 122,000 votes, counting Florida and Michigan.
In fairness, this is more than a Clinton con. Just as state electors chosen by popular vote select America’s president, party nominations rely on delegates to the national convention chosen by popular vote – except for the 795 Democratic leaders and officeholders designated as super-delegates. To confuse further, state Democratic parties have generated a thicket of obscure exceptions and rules, the national Democratic Party undemocratically and punitively invalidated the votes of Michigan and Florida for holding primaries too early, and our computer age invites wacky multivariate analysis that look compelling with full-color visual aids.
Democrats are justifiably worried that this continuing battle may threaten their chances of winning the presidency. Then again, the Clintons teach the opposite. Perhaps, whoever can survive this Clinton-Obama knockdown will have precisely what it takes to win in November – then lead America effectively.
During Senator Barack Obama’s bad week last week, when he lost Pennsylvania, Jimmy Carter’s rogue diplomatic mission to the Middle East did not help. I know of no surveys tracking the impact of Carter’s Hamas hug on Obama’s popularity. Still, Democrats who want a muscular, effective American response to Islamism noticed. Having this presidential has-been embracing terrorists haunted Obama, with Carter as the ghost of Christmas past preying on fears that Obama himself will be the ghost of Christmas future, perpetually globetrotting, blinded by moral relativism, imprisoned by lovely rhetoric and high ideals, absolving dictators and terrorists of their anti-American sins and crimes against humanity.
In fact, Obama forcefully condemned Carter’s meeting with the Hamas leadership. Nevertheless, acting more shrewdly than fairly, Senator John McCain pounced. McCain understood that Carter’s trip made the time right to exploit one Hamas leader’s recent pronouncement that “We like Mr. Obama.” McCain responded: “I never expect for the leader of Hamas... to say that he wants me as president of the United States.” The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory reappearance on Monday, praising Carter, denouncing Zionism, further eased McCain’s Obama-Carter-Hamas bankshot.
Had Jimmy Carter succeeded as president, Barack Obama would be emphasizing their parallels. Like Carter in 1976, Obama has rocketed to presidential-level prominence with a simple, compelling message. Like Carter, Obama has little formal foreign policy experience. And like Carter, Obama seems most comfortable with the Democratic Party’s post-Vietnam, anti-war wing.
Unfortunately, Carter’s high ideals often produced great disasters. Although he successfully facilitated the Camp David Accords and Panama Canal return, Jimmy Carter inherited a demoralized nation -- and left it deeply depressed. In abandoning the Shah of Iran, Carter eased the Islamist takeover there, a critical turning point in Islamism’s rise worldwide. When the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary goons kidnapped American diplomats, Carter’s impotence saddled America with the image of a musclebound giant in ways still haunting the country.
Like a substitute teacher losing control, Carter ricocheted between being contemptibly weak, and unduly harsh. Carter’s mix of high ideals and rank amateurism in dealing with the Soviet Union made him take everything too personally, and miss the mark tactically. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan he felt insulted, after all his lovely overtures. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did not win a mandate for conservative revolution but triumphed in an ABC election – voters wanted Anybody But Carter.
As an ex-President, despite his laudable commitment to fighting disease and building houses for the homeless, Carter’s diplomatic efforts are often laughable. Carter has frittered away his credibility by kowtowing to dictators and outlaws, from China to North Korea, from Zimbabwe to Nepal. His perceptions of Israel have been particularly skewed and harsh. His book accusing Israel of the South African crime of Apartheid, was sloppy and intellectually lazy – slapping on an inflammatory title while only perfunctorily discussing the charge in the text.
On this recent Middle East trip, Carter demonstrated his bias and self-delusion. By laying a wreath at Yasir Arafat’s grave, Carrer dishonored the memory of two American diplomats Arafat ordered killed in Khartoum in 1973, George Curtis Moore and Cleo Noel, in addition to thousands of other terrorist victims. After undermining American policy by meeting with Hamas’s leaders, Carter proclaimed that Hamas was clearly committed to a cease fire – until his hosts clarified that their offer was more ambiguous. And in his post-trip New York Times op-ed, Carter again showed that his delusional diplomacy rests on his distorting of history. Carter said “Hamas had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel,” without mentioning the terrorism that prompted the designation. Carter said “Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza,” without mentioning the violence Hamas used against fellow Palestinians to gain that control.
There is nothing wrong with Carter being pro-Palestinian. He errs by failing to use his credibility with Palestinians to wean destructive Palestinian forces like Hamas from their addiction to terrorism. Sanitizing Hamas feeds delusions that enable more violence.
Unfortunately, Carter is a hero to those in the Democratic Party who, doubly traumatized by the Vietnam and Iraq wars, pooh-pooh any threats to America because America does not always handle the threats effectively. Some prominent liberals such as Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that it is particularly absurd for liberals, academics, intellectuals, students, feminists, and gays to ignore the dangers of Islamism.
Now that Senator Barack Obama has denounced his pastor in clear, unequivocal language, he should make two more statements to put this unhappy episode behind him. For starters, Obama should apologize for not breaking with Wright sooner, and for failing to stand up to him over the years, especially after Wright’s hurtful “chickens coming home to roost” remarks after 9/11. In this apology, Obama could acknowledge what so many Americans in this nation of armchair psychologists seem to know already – that Wright served as a father-figure to Obama, who grew up basically fatherless, making a confrontation earlier very difficult. Americans love personal apologies – just ask the former apologist-in-chief Bill Clinton, or the nation’s most unrepentant celebrity, Pete Rose. Moreover, the one false note Obama made in his North Carolina press conference came in claiming that Wright had never been his spiritual mentor.
But the second and more important move Obama must make, is to resurrect the magic from his great national political debut, his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Obama has to explain why he chose to reject Wright’s path. He should acknowledge how tempting it is to succumb to African-American anger or Ivy League cynicism, as so many people he knows have done. What makes Obama exceptional is that he chose a different path – and articulated it so beautifully in 2004. Obama’s Philadelphia speech was more intellectual and more guarded. If Obama lets loose emotionally and rhetorically, soaring past his controversial minister to again conjure up a compelling vision of a united America, we might be able to stop the cries for Obama to right Wright’s wrongs, and return to the heady days, just weeks ago, of “Yes we can.”
Hillary Clinton’s have-her-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to the 1990s plays out on two dimensions. She simultaneously exaggerates her influence within the Clinton administration and the greatness of the Clinton record. But what happens when a Clinton policy which she opposed sours? On Friday April 11, the New York Times ran a front page article about this Clinton conundrum regarding Bill Clinton’s 1996 controversial welfare reform.
Back in ‘96, to shore up his re-election effort, President Clinton signed a bill that fulfilled his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The President had already vetoed welfare legislation the Republican-dominated Congress passed twice. Clinton’s pragmatic political guru Dick Morris insisted he sign this third bill, which forced welfare recipients to work and limited individuals’ benefits. This legislation deeply divided the already fractious Clinton White House. First Lady Hillary Clinton and her liberal allies fought the legislation intensely. Ultimately, Bill Clinton overcame his doubts to avoid giving the Republicans a club they could use to bash him.
During the next, relatively prosperous, ten years, the welfare reform appeared to be one of Bill Clinton’s great successes. Now, the Times reported, with the economy souring, criticism of the legislation is mounting. But what’s a former First Lady to do? If she repudiated her husband’s record by telling the truth about how much she hated the policy she risked reminding everyone about how politically impotent she had been. Instead, Hillary pulled the Clinton twist, claiming she supported the legislation for pragmatic reasons, tried to fix it as a Senator but the evil George W. Bush thwarted her efforts, and, besides, the legislation was pretty darned good anyway. Voters have every right to wonder if the policy was so good why it needed fixing, and how one of Hillary Clinton’s great internal defeats became one of Billary’s shared triumphs.
Voters should be equally vexed with Barack Obama who, in a private fundraiser on April 6, revealed the Ivy League elitism lurking behind his “Yes We Can” populism. Showing an unhealthy ability to alienate the “Reagan Democrats” and swing voters Democrats desperately need to recapture the White House, Obama speculated that rural voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” due to their bitterness over their economic situation. In one pithy comment, Obama insulted gun owners, church-goers, opponents of illegal immigration, and, for good measure, suggested that economic frustrations clouded the little people’s good judgment.
The comment was a pretty apt summary of Thomas Frank’s popular analysis of Republican success, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” In that 2004 book, Frank captured the frustrations of a generation of Democrats who could not understand how so many people could be so stupid as to abandon the noble Democrats for the benighted Republicans. The only possible explanation, Frank suggested, was what Marx would have called “false consciousness,” that millions of voters in the heartland, distracted by the “culture wars” voted against their best economic interests. This analysis resonated among the Democratic activists, and Ivy League thinkers who form the backbone of the Democratic party – and represent Obama’s core constituency.
The problem is that, for some crazy reason, American voters, even the lower class ones, don’t like being told they are stupid. This dismissive approach is particularly problematic coming from a well-educated newcomer promising to heal America’s wounds – and gearing up to face the former war hero John McCain in November.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are no less elitist than Barack Obama, but years in Arkansas taught them to hide it better. Barack Obama is no less inconsistent than Hillary Clinton on welfare reform, but his experience as a community organizer in...
True, campaign reputations are often circular. In the all-or-nothing world of politics, winning campaigns become brilliant; losing campaigns become mismanaged. Sometimes, however, candidates have run great campaigns and lost – such as Ronald Reagan in 1976 against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and Gerald Ford in 1976 against Jimmy Carter for the Presidency. Reagan left Republicans so keyed up, his nomination in 1980 was virtually assured; Ford forded a 30 point gap in the public opinion polls, falling just short of winning.
Win or lose – and the contest is still not over – Hillary Clinton’s campaign will be remembered as a series of miscalculations and missed opportunities. The arrogance of her operation, dismissing Barack Obama’s challenge as insignificant and failing to develop a strategy after Super Tuesday, is inexcusable. The sloppiness of her operation, failing to find the Reverend Jeremiah Wright videotapes in December and January when they could have killed Obama’s campaign, or holding on to failing leaders for far too long is unjustifiable.
In the continuing American psychodrama that is the Clintons’ public life, the contrast between Bill Clinton’s professionalism and Hillary Clinton’s amateurishness is striking. It highlights the fact that Bill Clinton is both a natural and a well-practiced politician, trained in the art of wooing Americans for over thirty years. Despite all her self-puffery as a leader for three decades, Hillary Clinton is a relative newcomer to the art of selling yourself to the American people. She lacks her husband’s natural grace and his years of experience – and it shows.
But watching the debacle unfold, it is hard not to wonder if, once again, we have all been given front row seats to the latest round of the operatic Clinton marriage. Does Bill Clinton’s fall in the campaign from revered ex-president as rock star to overbearing political hack reveal some kind of unconscious death wish he has for her candidacy? Does Hillary Clinton’s inability to manage her people more effectively and her odd choice to resume her identity as Bill’s partner after eight independent years in the Senate spotlight reflect a deep neediness disguised as aggressiveness or loyalty?
Such speculation emerges because the story is so full of pathologies – and of anomalies. Hillary Clinton’s operation should have been as formidable as her husband’s, even if she lacks his experience. Could the first serious woman candidate for the American presidency be undermining herself somehow? Perhaps Clinton fatigue has not only set in among so many Democrats – but among the Clintons as well.
Let’s face it. While the three leading presidential candidates are all talented, they all lack an essential qualification for the presidency – executive experience. Barack Obama may be a silver-tongued orator, but his background as an academic, a community organizer, and a lawyer did not hone much managerial expertise. Hillary Clinton may be a passionate activist, but – despite her famous 3 A.M. commercial -- her background as an academic, a First Lady, and a lawyer did not give her many tough decisions to make, under pressure, with different factions in her office advancing opposing ideas. And Senator John McCain may have spent years in the United States Military, one of the world’s best training grounds for management, but he started as a flyboy and when he returned was at the Naval War College then at the Senate as military liaison. In fact, all three would have to say that their Senate offices were the most complex bureaucracies they even ran – which is not saying much. Clearly, being governor is better training for the presidency which is, after all in the executive branch.
This shared shortcoming is important. As an academic I know what of I speak. Having been minimally managed and having done minimal managing, I am well aware of the skill set I lack. I don’t know about creating a vision for an organization, about seeing how it is implemented in levels below me, about how to reconcile my vision and views with those of others, or with my institution’s organizational culture. I happily avoid all the interpersonal baggage that comes from all these interpersonal dynamics, but I recognize that this is not my realm.
This problem is intensified because the modern presidency has grown too big for one person. In each election, Americans are actually choosing between two opposing teams. In an age of weakened parties, the teams have a Republican or Democratic flavor, but are most affected by the leader at the top. Like a privately held corporation, the modern presidency ostensibly reflects the boss’s desires, but the hundreds of key appointees in the executive branch, managing thousands of government workers, enjoy wide discretion. Franklin D. Roosevelt had less than a hundred White House staffers, only 71 presidential appointees in 1933, and 50 different agencies reporting directly to him; half a century later, Ronald Reagan had over 350 White House staffers, 600 presidential appointees, 1700 employees in the Executive Office of the President, and approximately two million governmental employees overall.
Of course, in this game of presidential campaigning, biography is not destiny. Former senator John F. Kennedy figured out how to lead, and former governor George W. Bush would get a “needs improvement” on his management report card if presidents underwent the same kind of supervisory process many corporate managers endure. Moreover, it is hard for any of the three leading candidates to claim more substantive executive experience than the other. Still, given the complexity of the presidency, the federal bureaucracy, and the challenges America currently faces, the combined managerial inexperience of Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama is unnerving.
As the long, arduous, battle for the Democratic nomination inspires comparisons with the trench warfare of World War I, both candidates are struggling to stay positive and “on message.” Despite his well-received speech on race, Barack Obama is still trying to explain how he could sit through so many vituperative Reverend Wright sermons and apparently never object. (Particularly problematic is the post September 11 sermon. Whether or not Obama was in the pews Sunday September 16, he was already a State Senator from Illinois. Obama should have been outraged that his pastor chose to blame America for being attacked just days after America was attacked). And despite enjoying her opponent’s controversy-filled March, Hillary Clinton is now trying to explain how she could remember a warm, First-Lady-like welcome in Bosnia as a difficult landing under a hail of gunfire.
The controversies must make both candidates pine for the good-old days of early 20th-century campaigning, when candidates went around the country saying the same thing again and again. Crowds did not expect new twists, new content, new explanations – but actually wanted to hear a William Jennings Bryan, a Woodrow Wilson, do his well-practiced thing. As the advent of radio in the 1920s started emphasizing the new, the fresh, the unrehearsed, Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate in 1928, missed what he called those “happier speaking times.” Once upon a time, Hoover sighed, candidates “could repeat the same speech with small variations.... Then paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”
But the candidates are not just stumbling because, as Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed “the millions of words” they are forced to launch into the ether week after week. The two latest controversies strike at the heart of the respective candidate’s identities, zeroing in on particular vulnerabilities. I call this the “O-Ring Factor,” named after the rubber seals whose failures contributed to the first shuttle disaster. As the late scientist Richard Feynman brilliantly demonstrated at the time, the O-Rings failed during the Challenger’s launch only because of the particular combination of the Florida winter frost and the improper seals. In other circumstances, the launch would have been flawless, the O-Rings would have withstood the pressure.
In that spirit, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy is hurting Obama not, as the Senator suggests, because of race, but because Obama is so unknown – and so defined by his words not his actions. Obama’s passivity amid Wright’s invective, and the disconnect between Obama’s words and his preacher’s teachings, emphasize just how little is known about Obama, how he is far more defined by his rhetoric than his record. With Americans trying to figure out just who he is, individuals who have mentored him, leaders who endorse him, take on added significance.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s problem is that she is, perhaps, too well known – or defined. Her unduly heroic description of her Bosnia adventure raises questions about how serious her record was as First Lady. But, even worse, it resurrects all those worries about both Bill Clinton’s and Hillary Clinton’s elusive relationship with the truth. Hillary Clinton’s camp responded that Obama called himself a constitutional law professor when he was merely a lecturer, and took credit for passing legislation that never left committee. But Obama is not the one with the credibility gap, Hillary is. John McCain could stumble on some details during his Middle East trip without appearing to be an ignoramus; he would be much more vulnerable if he slipped up when talking about the economy.
Similarly, the Obama camp’s delight in producing a photograph of Bill Clinton greeting Jeremiah Wright was meaningless. The Clintons are in no way defined by Obama’s pastor – and if the campaign wants Americans to believe that Obama was being reasonable in keeping relations with Wright, trying to make Bill Clinton’s meeting with Wright appear controversial or more meaningful than it was is not helpful to Obama’s case.
All candidates have their strengths and their weaknesses. Inevitably, they will misspeak, controversies will erupt, mistakes, as they like to say, will be made. Ultimately, successful campaigns, in addition to minimizing the errors, will learn to respond quickly, and, with any luck, make sure that the gaffes don’t exacerbate existing problems, that amid the ever-mounting pressure of a campaign, the candidate’s particular O-Rings will hold, at least until the finish.
Senator Barack Obama’s response to his pastor’s anti-Americanism is mealy-mouthed and disingenuous. It is impossible to believe Obama’s claim he was unaware of this dimension of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s preaching. Actually, if handled more shrewdly – and honestly – both the Reverend Wright’s venom and Michelle Obama’s unpatriotic comments could highlight one of Obama’s great gifts to America. Obama has tasted the bitterness of black life, but emerged with a song in his heart, and a deep, constructive patriotism. His initial failures to respond nimbly and honestly to the complaints about his demagogic pastor suggests he may be afflicted with advancing political sclerosis – the paralysis that hits successful candidates, especially insurgents, as they get ever cagier and more cowardly, forgetting the bold message that first fueled their success.
Barack Obama’s reverend – and mentor – Jeremiah Wright is a spell-binder. The video clips of Wright’s preaching capture a demagogue working his audience masterfully. Someone who continually calls America, “the U.S. of KKK-A,” someone who bombastically, but lyrically, repeats that he would not say “God Bless America,” but “God Damn America,” someone who chose the Sunday after 9/11 to condemn American foreign policy, is not a casual America-basher. Clearly, his ministry has played to African-American anger, demonizing whites, and blasting America as an oppressor at home and abroad. Consider his now-infamous Sunday sermon on September 16, 2001, as the fires at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero still smoldered. “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” Wright shouted. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens” – he exclaimed triumphantly, channeling the black radical Malcolm X -- “are coming home to roost.”
Consider Barack Obama's mild reaction to these ugly declarations. Once he needed to distance himself from the pastor who officiated at his wedding and baptized both his children, Obama compared his spiritual leader for nearly two decades to a crotchety old uncle. Obama also tried suggesting that regarding 9/11, Wright was simply being"provocative" - which is not the role of a man of the cloth entering a house of mourning. Most recently, as the appalling video clips spread, Obama released an eight paragraph response on the Huffington Post Blog repudiating Wright's remarks and is preparing a major speech on race today (Tuesday, March 18).
Alas, Obama’s carefully parsed statement was downright Clintonesque. “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments.” Let us take the good Senator at his word, and assume we will not soon be watching videos or still photographs date stamped “9/16/2001” showing Obama sitting in the church, or, even worse, videos of Obama clapping and laughing to one of Wright’s I-hate-America riffs. Still, only denying what occurred as he sat in the pews, lays a thicket of facts that gives the appearance of specificity while issuing a smokescreen of denial. Obama is smart. He knows that fair-minded Americans are wondering why he did not condemn the Reverend’s remarks when first uttered, or ever walk out on one of these harsh sermons – which the Reverend and the church were so proud of, they peddled on videotape. Moreover, did Obama ever argue with his “old uncle” as many of us do with older relatives or preachers who say something offensive? Obama’s lawyerly statement makes one wonder, did anyone mention Wright’s hateful analysis of 9/11 to Barack Obama, at the time an Illinois state senator? Or was this tirade so typical of Wright’s worldview that it did not generate much attention? Either scenario is damning – and suggests Obama failed when he waited until now to denounce these views.
It is easy to see the simplistic equation attack ads will make: Wright’s wrongheaded views plus Michelle Obama’s recent exclamation that for the first time in her life she was proud of her country equal proof that Barack Obama is no patriot, and not presidential material. The truth, however, is more complicated, and disturbing.
The Reverend Wright thrived at Trinity Church not despite these views but partially because of these views. The African-Americans who have flocked to hear Reverend...
After a week of disappointing political pussyfooting, on Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama’s speech analyzing America’s racial issues was masterful. Once again, Illinois’ rookie Senator hit a grand slam with two strikes against him. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, thought-provoking, rich, complex, effective, poetic, and inspiring.
Finally, on Tuesday, Obama did what he needed to do (and in my previous blog posting I said I hoped he would do) – he told the truth. Overlooking his previous Clintonesque denials, he admitted he had heard Reverend Wright make outrageous statements. Obama rejected Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country.” Obama said “white racism” is not “endemic. He warned of the tendency to elevate “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” And Obama refused to blame the Middle East conflict on “stalwart allies like Israel,” instead blaming “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
At the same time, Obama rooted these statements in African-Americans’ historic anguish and affirmed his loyalty to his pastor and his community. By explaining the anger, Obama did what modern politicians rarely do, he acknowledged complexity. By refusing to disown Reverend Wright while disavowing Wright’s ideology, Obama avoided charges that he lacked steadfastness while showing his independence of mind and the courage of his convictions.
Having staunched the bleeding, Obama then offered some healing. He eloquently highlighted his distinctive, patriotic message of self-awareness, self-criticism and reconciliation. Without explaining how he personally transcended this rage, he repudiated it. “That anger is not always productive,” Obama confessed; “indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” Obama boldly mentioned moments of deep racial division like the O.J. Simpson trial, a risky but accurate comparison because it too showed the clashing perceptions and sensibilities of whites and blacks. Moreover, Obama thoughtfully acknowledged white resentment over issues such as busing and affirmative action. Characteristically, he refused to dwell in the land of wrongs and recriminations, offering a clever formulation to push the country toward healing and hope. “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected,” he proclaimed, inviting his fellow Americans to help transcend the divisions and perfect their union.
True, Obama overstepped occasionally. He unfairly compared the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s years of invective with former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s one foolish comment attributing Obama’s success to his race. And true, Obama was far too forgiving of his pastor’s hate-mongering, and his own passivity. But it was hard to resist the speech’s – or the speaker’s – appeal. Americans are looking for redemption, and Barack Obama plays the redeemer brilliantly. If the speech works politically as well as it worked rhetorically and substantively, historians will compare it to John F. Kennedy’s speech in Houston to the Baptist ministers on religious tolerance in America.
Here, then, remains the Obama campaign’s great mystery. Many Americans want to believe, to trust that he is what he purports to be, that his gift for words will translate into a genius for governance. But the questions cropping up are not simply about his inexperience but his inaction. He never confronted Jeremiah Wright. He sat silently by as the United Church of Christ to which he belongs passed a resolution singling out Israel, among all countries for opprobrium and possible divestment. Still, in our media-besotted age, words do matter, presidential rhetoric can shape an era. Americans of all parties and races should be proud that this presidential candidate is willing to tackle difficult topics, build rhetorical bridges, and try healing some of the nation’s deepest wounds.
So far, the most talked about political campaign commercial in 2008 seems to be Hillary Clinton’s 30-second spot that begins with the phone ringing as children are sleeping."It's 3 A.M. and your children are safely asleep," the narrator asks in a too-calm voice, with patriotic music purring in the background. “Who do you want answering the phone?” Six rings later, Hillary Clinton, the supposedly tested, experienced, leader answers the phone. Color streams into the picture, as America sleeps safely and soundly, with the right person in charge.
Putting aside the cynics’ question about why the White House phone would have to ring six times before being answered in a crisis, the ad boosts the Clinton campaign’s main contention that Hillary Clinton is ready to govern from day one. You don’t have to be the former Clinton anti-impeachment flack and now Obama supporter Greg Craig to doubt Hillary’s claim. Craig, however, has written an absolutely devastating memo that goes through each of the foreign policy hot spots where Hillary Clinton claims she helped as First Lady – and shows how marginal a player she actually was. The Clinton camp has responded, and Salon posted both memos.
In this battle, Craig is right. Clinton’s people can make the claim that living in the White House for eight years, being in Washington since 1993, has given Hillary Clinton a front-row seat on the use (and occasional abuse) of power that makes her more experienced than Barack Obama. But she has gone further than that, running a campaign pretending that she was able to be the co-president she hoped she could be, rather than the frequently marginalized and frustrated First Lady she usually was.
However an unreasonable criticism of the ad comes from the Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson in yesterday’s New York Times. Patterson is a thoughtful, thought-provoking scholar whose work on race in America is usually on the mark, and frequently refreshingly out-of-the-box. In this op-ed he deploys his scholarly authority to accuse the Clinton camp of race-baiting unfairly, saying: “I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past.” Patterson then claims that it stirs traditional fears of the black man, meaning Obama, as a threat to white women and children.
This interpretation reads far too much into the advertisement. From the start, the central criticism of Barack Obama’s campaign has not been that he is black, but that he is too green. In an age of terrorism, when it is clear that the “enemy” being spoken about in this fear-mongering ad is from outside not from within, it was downright irresponsible for the New York Times to print Patterson’s complaint. It raises the charge of racism in an inaccurate, demagogic, and unhelpful way.
It is particularly ironic that Patterson’s essay appeared the same day that the Obama camp objected to Geraldine Ferraro’s offensive and foolish remarks. Ferraro suggested that Obama’s rise was due to his race –- raising fears that Gloria Steinem’s feminist foot-in-mouth-disease may be contagious. Offended, Senator Obama responded: “I don’t think that Geraldine Ferraro’s comments have any place in our politics or the Democratic Party. I think they were divisive.”
Obama is correct. But his analysis applies to Professor Patterson’s remarks too.
Clinton knew it was do or die. All the campaign staffers and the media agreed that without a big win Tuesday, the campaign was over. The ultimately winning strategy entailed putting the media and the opposition on the defensive, and tempering this negativity with the right pop-culture flourish.
While the above describes Hillary Clinton’s impressive comeback this past Tuesday, with decisive wins in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, it also describes Bill Clinton’s incredible comeback in 1992. Bill Clinton became the “Comeback Kid” by scoring impressively – not even winning – in the New Hampshire primary after being devastated by Gennifer Flowers’ reports of her lengthy affair with him, and by the scandal surrounding his creative feints to avoid being drafted in 1969. Perhaps the defining moment in Clinton’s turnaround occurred on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” show. Smoldering just enough, he delivered a line a consultant fed him: “All I've been asked about by the press are a woman I didn't sleep with and a draft I didn't dodge.” Later in the spring, when Governor Clinton’s poll numbers sagged yet again, he donned cool sunglasses and whipped out his saxophone to play some tunes on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Once again, his approval ratings soared.
Hillary Clinton became the Comeback Queen this week by making these familiar moves from the Clinton playbook. She jumped on a Saturday Night Live skit accusing the press of coddling Barack Obama, by sarcastically suggesting that reporters should offer her rival a pillow to make him comfy during their debate. She was so pleased with Saturday Night Live’s assistance, she guest-hosted days later. And while pummeling the press for handling Senator Obama with kid gloves, Senator Clinton and her staffers roughed him up over his friendship with a shady Chicago operator, over his NAFTA two-step, wherein one of his advisers supposedly reassured the Canadian embassy not to worry about his anti-Free Trade demagoguery, and over his general inexperience, especially on national security matters.
Exit polls showed that most of the voters who decided in the last two weeks chose Hillary Clinton. In Ohio, exit polls showed that Midwestern voters thought she would make a better Commander in Chief than Barack Obama by 57 percent to 40 percent. Those kinds of numbers suggest that Americans do not have a problem with a woman at the helm and that much of the opposition she has encountered is more aimed at her specifically, than at women in general.
Ironically, while following her husband’s lead, Hillary Clinton shrewdly kept him under wraps. Unlike in South Carolina, where Bill Clinton overestimated how loyal African-Americans would be to him when faced with the first African-American candidate in history with a real shot at the White House, the former President was relatively subdued in Ohio and Texas.
Senator Clinton re-learned what she had realized throughout her senatorial career: that Bill Clinton simply commands too much attention, and undermines her claim to be an independent national leader – even when he is not overplaying his hand. Senator Clinton also re-learned the lessons of 1992 – and much of the White House years – Americans do not want a husband-wife co-presidency. Voters recoiled when the Clintons pitched “two for the price of one” on the campaign trail in 1992. Hillary Clinton saw that her poll ratings sagged when Americans feared she was overstepping, and that her popularity as First Lady increased when she kept to more traditional First Lady-like roles.
John McCain and his fellow Republicans are delighting in their opponents’ predicament. The Democrats now have two strong candidates with legitimate claims to be considered the most viable nominee. And both candidates have masses of supporters who risk being deeply disappointed – and alienated – if their candidate loses. Barack Obama still retains a slight yet possibly insurmountable lead in the number of delegates won in the Democratic parties’ particularly complicated nominating process. But having won New York, California, Texas, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and with a strong lead in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton now can claim that she holds the key to winning the states with the biggest electoral vote totals, and some of the most critical swing states for the November general election.
Once again, the curse of the Clintons worked its black magic – negative campaigning swayed the electorate. Predicting electoral outcomes has proved to be a tricky business this campaign season. But it is a reasonably safe prediction to make that, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s wins and Barack Obama’s losses on Tuesday, both are going to be tempted to keep going negative. Hillary Clinton has already drawn blood, and has no choice but to continue trying to drain excitement and credibility from the Obama phenomenama.
Obama has to figure out how to be...