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.
Just as the 2000 election deadlock between George W. Bush and Al Gore highlighted all the dysfunctional elements in America’s general electoral system, this titanic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is showcasing all the absurdities of the system for nominating presidential candidates. It is not much of a partisan statement to say that the Democrats seem to have an even stupider system than the Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island guarantee that the system is going to get tested in ways it has never been before. As Clinton and Obama get closer and closer to the Democratic National Convention, the strains on the system – and the Democrats’ remarkably un-democratic approach to nominating standard-bearers -- will show more and more.
I have already complained about the outrageous way millions of voters in Florida and Michigan were disenfranchised, merely to satisfy petty dictators from the small, unrepresentative states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Now, the fact that the Democratic Party poohbahs in their wisdom decided that the delegates who were properly selected in the Florida and Michigan primaries should not be counted is going to take on dramatic significance. Hillary Clinton, who was wrong to buy into the Florida and Michigan boycott, is going to argue for the rights of those voters to be heard. Obviously, this has less to do with a newfound appreciation for democracy and more to do with, shock of all shocks, advancing her self-interest.
Similarly, the difficulty explaining the Texas prima-caucus, combining New Hampshire-style beauty contest general voting with Iowa-style caucusing, also demands scrutiny. From poor people who had to leave work early or spend precious resources to get to the voting booth, to overstressed executives who had to carve time out of their overscheduled days, voters are going to wonder why they bothered participating in a charade, if their votes don’t count fully.
Ironically, one of the features many people criticize about the general election may help solve another one of the primary problems. This morning, the Clinton people are feeling frustrated that their big wins in crucial states like Texas, Ohio, New York, California and New Jersey have not had the impact they should. Moreover, Hillary Clinton’s success in these big states – along with Florida and Michigan – make her a surprisingly compelling candidate, despite the awful campaign she has run. A winner-take-all approach in those states would have drastically changed this race – and given Hillary Clinton at this point at better chance at overtaking Obama in Pennsylvania. If most states on Election Day are going to be winner-take-all, and if the Electoral College is going to continue favoring the large states, maybe the nominating systems needs to be aligned with the electoral system by becoming winner-take-all too.
Finally, the fact that this Democratic nomination is going to be decided by the super-delegates is particularly tragic. Thanks largely to Barack Obama, there has been a populist energy and excitement in this race that has not been seen in at least sixteen years – since the previous Clinton first ran (that guy named Bill, currently under wraps as the Hillary Clinton campaign tries to avoid more embarrassment). Both Democrats have to think about how to win without losing the ardent supporters of their primary opponent. A feeling of “we wuz robbed” by the elites and not by the people, will not be conducive to the party healing the aftermath of such a knock-down, drag-out nominating contest will require.
From a perspective of democratic theory, the super-delegates face a fascinating super-conundrum. What should be the basis of their vote – their district’s expressed desire, if they represent a particular locale; their state’s expressed desire; the overall leader in delegates; the overall leader in popular votes – which could be different; the overall leader in states’ won – which could also be different; the candidate to whom they are closest or from whom they have received the most favors in the past; the candidate they think most likely to win in November; or the person they think will make the best president? This is the kind of question that could launch a dozen fascinating dissertations – but should not, in a functioning democracy, have to be posed.
One of the most sacred acts in a democracy is the act of voting for your leader. This popular input should carry over into the nominating process. We need clean, clear, direct, above-board primaries and general elections. It is a source of great sadness to me that I have to write the following words: the United States is failing that fundamental democratic test. Whoever wins in November, let us hope that he – or she – undertakes to fix this Rube Goldberg system for electing the President of the United States of America.
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of 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.
As the Obama Phenomenama grows, many who are not completely starry-eyed fear his foreign policy may be too starry-eyed. The 46-year-old Senator’s foreign policy can best be summarized in two words: “Leave Iraq.” Echoing the 1960s’ get-out-of-Vietnam movement, this approach risks perpetuating the delusions of the Clinton 1990s he usually rejects, ignoring the ugly realities facing post-9/11 America.
As a former community organizer, Obama cares most about domestic issues. His experience overseas is limited – beyond his oft-distorted Indonesian sojourn when young. Like most Ivy League-educated idealistic Americans, he assumes compromises can be found for every foreign conflict, while viewing “evil” as a right-wing Republican construct not a force in today’s world. And considering how high he has soared with his charisma and eloquence, he naturally assumes he can handle any world leader, one on one.
The transcripts of his recent speeches and his Obama ’08 Website indicate he and most Democrats prefer ignoring the world beyond America’s borders. He even turns most references to Iraq into a domestic critique, lamenting that the money wasted could rebuild America. Such neo-isolationism offers cheap populist applause lines not serious policy analysis. George W. Bush’s staggering budget deficits will swallow up any Iraqi war savings.
Even more sobering, Obama most frequently mentions 9/11 by complaining about using it “to scare up votes.” This posture blasts President Bush without engaging the Islamist terrorist challenge. In fact, Obama’s world rarely links the words “Islam” or “Islamist” with terrorism. In his few major foreign policy addresses during 2007 he preferred affirming the 1.3 billion Muslims’ peaceful intentions rather than tackling the challenge the rabid minority of Islamist Jihadists pose. In fairness, Hillary Clinton’s campaign also downplays the terrorist threat as an ideological challenge, mentioning “terrorists” or “extremists” without acknowledging Islam’s centrality in their identities.
By contrast, Senator John McCain emphasizes the fight against what he calls “global terrorism and Islamist extremism.” On his Website, in the section “Election 2008: What’s at Stake?” the first answer warns, in boldface: “America faces a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists.”
McCain has other flaws but he recognizes that terrorism cannot be stopped without confronting its underlying ideology. The distinction shouldn’t need emphasizing but let us be clear – no, most Muslims are not terrorists, but all Jihadist terrorists are Muslims. Ignoring that unhappy fact blinds us to the threat we face. This divide is less about personalities and more about the Republican-Democrat split following Bush’s polarizing approach to fighting terrorism. Rather than building on the national consensus forged in the fires of September 11, Bush allowed the war on terror to become a partisan flashpoint. In fairness, Democrats are also guilty, frequently allowing their hatred of Bush to blind them to the Islamist threat. “The villains are no longer the terrorists,” New York’s Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler claimed at a news conference in 2007. “The villains live in the White House.”
If elected President, Barack Obama will have to govern as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist. He will have to show that behind his fine words and high ideals lies a savvy leader who can fight Islamist terror, Iran’s nuclear-driven genocidal aims, North Korea’s saber-rattling, Venezuela’s anti-Americanism. He will have to repudiate the Clinton administration’s delusional holiday from history. He will have to learn from his hero John Kennedy, a Cold Warrior with no illusions about Soviet aggression. At his best, Kennedy understood how to export American values through programs like the Peace Corps while confronting the Soviets when they snuck missiles into Cuba. President Bush recognizes the seriousness of the Islamist threat. His historic failures to embody, elevate and export American ideals while fighting against these serious existential threats, cannot be repaired with a...
On October 15, 2006, speaking of his female opponent Kerry Healey, Patrick said: “But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, [applause and cheers] that all men are created equal.’ [Sustained applause and cheers.] Just words – just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words! ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words!” Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, Obama said: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words! [Applause.] ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!” In response someone only identified as “an Obama official” said: “They're friends who share similar views and talk and trade good lines all the time.”
Plagiarism is a serious charge, especially to those of us in the academy. But this is a confusing case. On the one hand, as historians familiar with the history of campaigning, we immediately think of Senator Joe Biden, who withdrew from the 1988 campaign in disgrace when the Dukakis campaign circulated a videotape of Biden stealing a biographical riff from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. (It turns out that Biden usually did acknowledge Kinnock but that particular time lapsed – and watched his campaign implode). Like Biden, Obama should be held to a high standard because so much of his political identity rests on his rhetoric. On the other hand, as historians who assess many speeches, we know that great oratory resonates because it builds on our collective memory banks, offering original twists on familiar phrases. Moreover, as lecturers, we know that when we speak spontaneously we cannot be as scrupulous about not echoing others as we are in our writing – and Obama’s riff was spontaneous, it was not written out in his prepared remarks.
On a personal note, I was particularly intrigued by the Obama defense that, in essence, this was part of an implicit collaboration, an ongoing partnership and brainstorming with a friend. Without mentioning names so as to avoid embarrassing the reporter yet again, I was once contacted by a reporter who accused another reporter of plagiarizing my work. The alleged plagiarist mentioned me twice in his article, but then had an unattributed riff that clearly echoed my work. I emailed the accuser, saying, that given the other citations, and the fact that I had been interviewed by the reporter numerous times, and was always mentioned in the ensuing articles, I was not offended, did not consider it plagiarism, and often gave journalists more slack considering their time and space constraints. The accusing reporter then called me up and asked me, “would it be okay if one of your students did not document part of a paper?” Cornered, I admitted that no, it would be “unacceptable” if a student submitted a paper without properly attributing a paragraph that was based so clearly on someone else’s work. With that, the accuser had his “j’accuse.” He ran the story, embarrassed his colleague, and the accused reporter never interviewed me again.
According to Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, Obama dismissed the plagiarism charges. "Well, look, I was on the stump," he said. Speaking of his friend Governor Patrick, Obama said: "He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I'm sure I should have. Didn't this time." All in all, Obama doubted "this is too big of a deal."
In thinking this issue through, I think it is a bigger “deal” than Obama concedes. His campaign – in fact the stolen riff itself – emphasizes just how important his words are to his campaign, and words are to American politics historically. Obama missed an opportunity with his airy dismissal. He could have said, “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” In so doing, he would have distanced himself from both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – two of the leading American politicians least likely to apologize. In one classy moment, Obama could have proven that his rhetoric is real, that he really is the candidate of change. Instead, the usually nimble junior Senator from...
If Hillary Clinton succeeds in winning the Democratic nomination – and it is looking more and more iffy – she and the Democrats will be grateful for the harsh reality check Barack Obama has imposed on her candidacy. Let’s face it. She has been an awful candidate running a terrible campaign. You cannot win the presidency ricocheting from the insecurity reflected in her now famous tears in New Hampshire to the arrogance of Bill Clinton’s racially-polarizing barnstorming in South Carolina. In order for this Ohio-Texas firewall of hers to work, Hillary Clinton has to retool, changing her strategy, revitalizing her campaign, and redefining her message. Otherwise, she will lose. However, if she succeeds in reviving her campaign, she will be grateful that her crisis came during the primaries, making her a more effective candidate for the general election.
All campaigns ebb and flow. John McCain was lucky to bottom-out in the fall, before many voters really paid attention. The entire Clinton franchise benefited from the myth of Bill Clinton as the (self-styled) “Comeback Kid” in 1992, when he did not even win the New Hampshire primary but stayed viable as a candidate after enduring so many scandals.
Hillary Clinton seemed to think that she could float into the presidency, or certainly into the Democratic nomination. In this way, she was not only badly served by the sycophants she loves to surround herself with, but she was deprived of an opportunity to sharpen her skills during her 2006 re-election campaign. Her easy stroll to re-election in New York State made her staffers complacent and muddied her message. Rather than being forced to come up with a compelling new message and creative new strategies in a large, diverse state, she took a stately victory lap – and frittered away tens of millions of dollars along the way.
Now, she has to prove her own abilities to rebound. To do so, she should learn from two politicians she detested, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton should study Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He, too, was disliked by many, with the enmity lingering from White House controversies of the previous decade. To mollify some of his critics, Nixon and his advisers launched the “New Nixon,” a softer, friendlier incarnation, promising to restore harmony to the nation.
Part of the problem Hillary Clinton faces is that Nixon’s strategy implicitly apologized for his previous harsh partisanship. But while her husband is the great bite-your-lower-lip apologizer, she is not. Like another Republican, the current president George W. Bush, she is famously unwilling to apologize, to acknowledge imperfections. To her, apologies are a form of weakness, and she genuinely feels she has nothing that requires making amends.
Americans, however, love stories of redemption – especially in campaign season. During the 1984 campaign, after stumbling in the first debate against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan stopped his slide with one quick quip. By coming back at the President again and again in the first debate, Mondale made Reagan look old and befuddled. Reagan responded in the second debate by quipping: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Surprisingly, that comeback line helped Reagan rebound and win the election.
Hillary Clinton should launch the new Hillary by apologizing to her supporters for running such a terrible campaign. If done right, without acknowledging any previous mistakes, without opening up all the Clinton controversies from the 1990s that linger, a broad enough, sufficiently self-critical apology could acknowledge the widespread doubts about many issues, bury the past, and look toward the future.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton has to show she has internalized the criticism by running a crisper campaign with a more passionate message. Experience – especially given how spotty her record as First Lady really was – is not enough. Americans are yearning for vision, seeking inspiration, craving redemption. Hillary cannot echo Obama as the “change” candidate; he has got that market cornered. But she can pull a classic Clinton move, triangulating between Obama’s optimism and John McCain’s real national security experience. Let the new Hillary be the candidate of true American values at home and abroad, promising to restore a sense of national virtue while maintaining American security and stability.
Rather than running away from Iraq, Hillary Clinton should run toward the complicated diplomatic issues the next American president will face, and the continuing threat of Islamist terror. She represented New York during 9/11, she knows what devastation America’s enemies can bring. She can prey on fears of Obama’s inexperience by tackling the foreign policy issues America faces directly. And if she can figure...
Remember back in 1992 Clinton was the candidate of hope, who happened to be born in a little town called Hope. Coming from nowhere, a relative unknown when he started, he was carrying the torch of a new generation, generating rock-star like crowds with his special kind of charisma and his own distinctive eloquence steeped in optimism. Clinton on the campaign trail had that “It” factor that Obama has. Clinton had millions gushing that he was their John Kennedy, the first candidate in their lifetime who inspired them and empowered them.
Clinton, like Obama, also had sex appeal. I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.
Bill Clinton’s transitions from wunderkind to senior statesman, from man of hope to perpetual adolescent, from party renegade to ultimate insider, have all obscured the jazz and optimism of 1992. President Clinton did not indulge in the same kind of inspirational politics that candidate Clinton or President Kennedy did. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s own artlessness on the campaign trail also accounts for some of the historical haze.
In fact, the contrast between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as campaigners is striking. Obama words are lyrical, his manner is fluid, the speeches rock. Compare him -- even when he lost in New Hampshire -- and Hillary Clinton when she won in New Hampshire. He is as smooth, as she is stiff. His words take off, soaring like colorful balloons that you want to linger over and watch until they have disappeared from view; her clipped tones and predictable words sink like the proverbial lead balloons. It is not surprising that Obama’s words have been set to music – Hillary Clinton should not expect such treatment for her earnest addresses any time soon. This kind of ease cannot be invented or replicated -- you either have it or you don't -- Bill Clinton has it, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush - who had other talents -- didn't. Ronald Reagan had it. Walter Mondale, his opponent in 1984, didn't.
And yet, the fact that so many Americans now skip over Bill Clinton and go straight to John Kennedy when rummaging through the historical attic searching for inspiring characters, offers sobering warnings to Obama and to the American people. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct -- the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership – governing is not the same as politicking. The transition from being an inspirational candidate to a workaday president can be rough. Ronald Reagan was more successful than Bill Clinton at remaining fired up. Bill Clinton’s experience was more typical, as the complexity of governing turned him from the poet of possibility to the king of compromise.
We know Obama knows how to wow a crowd, we don’t know how he would weather the transition from shaper of dreams to maker of policies. Ironically, the somewhat embarrassing comparison between Barack Obama circa 2008 and Bill Clinton circa 1992 reinforces one of Hillary Clinton’s most compelling arguments for her own election. She keeps saying trust the record not the rhetoric. Of course, she and her campaign team would love to find a different analogy to help bolster that argument.
A few election cycles ago, reporters started to notice that voters were becoming way too self-conscious and savvy. When speaking to television reporters, more and more American citizens tended to speak in the kind of fifteen-second sound bites that actually appeared on the news. Moreover, when reporters asked about a particular candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, more and more voters tended to handicap the candidate’s chances, rather than assess the candidates’ governing abilities. All the talk about Rudy Giuliani’s failed Florida firewall and foolishness in skipping Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina reflects this unfortunate modern tendency – caused, of course, by reporters themselves – to so focus on the horserace and forget about the actual purpose of the exercise.
The relevant fact about Giuliani’s stunning fall from popular-front runner in the polls throughout most of 2007 to primary failure in 2008 is this: the more voters got to know Rudy Giuliani the less they liked him. Giuliani’s campaign suffered from exposure not inattention. At the end of the day, the questionable business deals, the Clintonesque sloppiness in family matters, the heavyhanded governing approach, all hurt Giuliani. Voters sensed, correctly, that Giuliani combined the worst traits of America’s two recent presidents. Like President Bush, Mayor Giuliani is a divider not a uniter; and like Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani’s private immorality undermines his appealing, even self-righteous, public persona. In short, in this case, campaigns did exactly what they are supposed to do – allow voters to meet candidates, assess them and reject those who are unsuitable.
In many ways, the greater anomaly that needs to be explained is Giuliani’s sustained popularity in 2007 rather than his 2008 collapse. The short answer – 9/11 -- offers a warning to the Democrats and helps explain John McCain’s surge. Although Joe Biden’s classic line, that all Giuliani needs in a sentence is a noun, a verb, and 9/11, offers a clever counter to America’s current national security obsession, millions of Americans remain very concerned about terrorism. Millions seek a leader who will fight Islamist terrorism vigorously and effectively. Rudy Giuliani was popular because he has strong national security credentials but enough distance from the Bush Administration not to be defined by Bush’s failures to find Osama Bin Laden or stabilize Iraq. John McCain may be the Democrats’ worst nightmare as a candidate because he, too, is strong on defense but weak on loyalty to Bush.
Even though it was Rudy himself and not his strategy that did him in, Giuliani’s need to resort to that strategy reinforces the message that the primary process as currently constituted is ridiculous. The Iowa-New Hampshire monopoly on starting the nominating process should end. Florida’s Democratic delegates should be counted, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should apologize to each and every Florida Democrat for following their national party’s ridiculous rules and refusing to campaign in the nation’s fourth most populated state. Another, less flawed, candidate like Giuliani could also have been compelled to ignore the small, heavily-rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire. During the next president’s first hundred days, he – or she – should strike a commission to fix America’s electoral system. The recommendations should of course cover the voting questions that persist from the 2000 electoral deadlock and still have not been addressed adequately. But the insane hold the little states of Iowa and New Hampshire have on the world’s most powerful country and most important democracy should be lifted, so that better candidates than Rudy Giuliani do not suffer from the caprice of the electoral calendar as many believe he did.
1. provide somebody with means : to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something.
It is hard to tell which moment from the recent South Carolina primary was more dishonest. The conventional wisdom is pointing to Bill Clinton’s dastardly, underhanded, too-clever-by-half, playing of the race card to type Barack Obama as “the black candidate” rather than the surprising and refreshing alternative candidate to his wife’s overhyped, no longer-so-inevitable candidacy. The ultimate expression of Clinton’s calumny came on Saturday when the former President ever-so-innocently, and oh so graciously said: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
Nevertheless, I believe that an even more dishonest moment was the sustained shock, shock, among both the Democratic rank-and-file and the punditocracy that Bill Clinton was involved in such dastardly, underhanded, too-clever-by-half tricks. Let’s face it. The Democratic party enabled – and in fact applauded – these tactics throughout the 1990s, as long as he usually pulled them on Republicans. Anyone who has watched the Clintons in action, and especially Bill Clinton when he is in full throttle, has to recognize the patent: comments that are as brilliant as they are pathological; comments that appear to be gracious and are in fact nasty; comments that simultaneously zero in on an opponent’s weakness and yet offer up a heavy dose of truth, rooted in a cynical but accurate taking of the political temperature.
What is most disturbing about Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson analogy is that it just might be true. As someone who saved his presidency by playing to the American people’s baser instincts, Bill Clinton has an uncanny nose for the American gutter. Just as it was premature for the Obamaniacs to pop the champagne and expect a cakewalk after Iowa, it is premature to expect a waltz to the nomination after South Carolina. It is indeed very possible that despite all the idiocy claiming Bill Clinton was “the first black president,” the demographics of South Carolina, and the identity politics of the Democratic Party were the key factors in Obama’s victory, as hundreds of thousands of African-Americans streamed to the polls inspired by the first serious black contender for a major party nomination.
Exit polls show that Obama won 78 percent of the black vote, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards split 75 percent of the white vote.
I write these words with a heavy heart because I want Obama’s poetry to be true and for Bill Clinton’s reading of the electorate to be wrong. I love the politics of possibility and of non-partisanship that Obama is evoking so effectively as opposed to the politics of cunning and calculation that Clinton is playing. Still it is unfortunate but true that you could argue pretty convincingly that Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by mobilizing the women anxious to see the first woman president, and that Barack Obama won South Carolina by mobilizing the African-Americans anxious to see the first real black president, not some poseur taking a punchline far too seriously. (The origins of this “first black President” line came from a rant of the Nobel-prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison in the October 5, 1998 issue of The New Yorker. I remember thinking it may have been the single dumbest line I read during that festival of idiocy known as the Clinton impeachment; nearly ten years later, we see that the line was dumb and destructive because too many Clintonites took her stereotype-laden riff far too seriously).
Now, of course, the big question for the Clintons is what next? What does Hillary Clinton do in the week-and-a-half remaining that can make her the super-duper winner on Super-Duper Tuesday? For starters, as I argue in a Newsday op-ed this morning, Hillary Clinton has to remember that American voters already rejected the idea of two Clintons for the price of one, back during the 1992 election. She has to go back to doing what she did so effectively during two Senatorial campaigns and in her first term as New York’s Senator. She needs to keep Bill Clinton involved but not overly engaged, so that she can shine in the spotlight, so that she can be the one dominating the room. The 2008 Democratic presidential campaign cannot be a 1990s Clinton nostalgia tour. Hillary Clinton has to win – or lose – this campaign much more on her own than as the wife-of America’s fascinating but flawed ex-President.
So far, it seems that the most popular politician in the 2008 presidential campaign is the late Ronald Reagan, who last ran for office 24 years ago. The Republican candidates invoke “President Reagan” far more frequently and adoringly than they mention the current incumbent, and even the Democratic Senator Barack Obama has gotten into the act. Obama recently elbowed Hillary Clinton by mocking Bill Clinton’s presidential legacy. Showing that he uses the same charming grin and upbeat cadence to deliver good news and hard body blows, the Democrats’ wonder boy observed that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” It seems that conservative Republicans have forgotten how often he frustrated them, and Democrats have forgotten how much they despised him.
In 1989, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan waved goodbye to the American people, few would have predicted this Reagan revival. In truth, Reagan’s poll ratings throughout the 1980s fluctuated far more than even most Americans realized at the time. And by the end of Reagan’s two terms, even though many had great affection for him, many were also fed up with Reagan’s inattention to detail, his squabbling official and real families, and the various disasters on his watch, most notably the Iran-contra scandal, the huge budget deficits, the 1987 stock market crash, and the growing epidemic of materialism and selfishness in America. Similarly, conservatives were torn between worshiping Reagan the man and grumbling about his record which was more moderate than they had hoped, having failed to end the era of big government.
Ronald Reagan’s legacy has been resurrected thanks, mostly, to his three successors: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Initially, George H.W. Bush, earned press and public acclaim by distancing himself from Reagan. Bush appeared as the real Reagan, the guy who actually was a war hero, attended church, and raised a model family, rather than simply talking about it. President Bush emphasized his longer hours and his hands-on management, triggering respectful portraits of him as a functional chief executive. As the new president’s stock climbed, the old president’s lagged.
Eventually, however, President Bush stumbled in areas where President Reagan excelled. As the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics demanded their freedom, Bush behaved cautiously, fearing that if he gloated too much he would trigger a Soviet crackdown. As a result, even though the Communist grip on Eastern Europe loosened under Bush’s watch, President Reagan earned more historical credit, for having launched the process, and shaping it with dramatic moments. Bush could not match Reagan’s June, 1987 call at the Berlin Wall to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” More broadly, Bush’s awkwardness with what he mocked as “the vision thing” made Americans pine for Reagan’s poetry. And when Bush broke his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, he infuriated conservatives and undermined his standing as a man of integrity.
Bill Clinton’s presidency further boosted Reagan’s reputation. With Clinton, a Democrat, becoming the prince of peace and prosperity, finding a “Third Way,” celebrating that the “era of big government is over,” it was harder for Democrats to criticize Reagan for selfishness, materialism, or budget-cutting. Moreover, the Clinton-era boom made the Reagan-era deficits appear insignificant relative to the size of America’s economy, making Reagan’s economic decisions seem visionary. Finally, the contrast between Ronald Reagan’s old-fashioned respect for the White House – reputedly, he never removed his suit jacket when he was in the Oval Office – and Bill Clinton’s anything-goes adolescent behavior, even in the president’s inner sanctum, made Americans nostalgic for Reagan’s presence, and values.
The final step in the Reagan revival has occurred thanks to George W. Bush. Many Democrats despise this President Bush so deeply they often try to prove their enmity is not partisan by claiming they didn’t hate Reagan that intensely. Many forget the constant predictions that Reagan would outlaw abortion, restore racism, stop the feminist revolution, impoverish America, and lead the world into nuclear holocaust. Moreover...
So far, the Democratic contest is feeling very twentieth century and the Republican contest is feeling very nineteenth century. As the Democratic contest becomes a battle of two titans, it is becoming a nationwide fight between two political stars with national constituencies. This was characteristic of some of the great nomination battles of the last half-century, be it Richard Nixon versus Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 or Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart in 1988. But the more wide-open Republican contest evokes comparisons with the fragmented nomination contests of yesteryear – only in those days the constituencies were often state or at best regional and today they are less geographically-based.
While much of the focus recently has been on race and gender in the Hillary versus Obama contest, the simple fact that the two have that iconic, Cher-like, famous-enough-to-be-known-by-one-name status, suggests that we are also talking about the politics of celebrity. Let’s face it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of “experience” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty thin resumes. Obama is famous for being a newcomer. Neither has any real executive experience. Hillary Clinton is pretending that in the 1990s she was the co-president she hoped to be rather than the frustrated first lady that she was.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have resumes more similar to George W. Bush than to his far more experienced father, former Ambassador to China, former CIA director, former Republican National Committee Chairman, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton became senator from a state in which she had never lived, because in the modern world, celebrity is transferable. In 2000, she showed she could apply her considerable name recognition and iconic status from the 1990s and parlay it into a New York Senate seat. Barack Obama had a more conventional march to the U.S. Senate from the State Senate, but without his rock-star-like rocketing to great fame as a result of his 2004 convention speech and his brilliant book marketing, he would be yet another workaday senator, accumulating seniority before making his big presidential play. Of course, the embarrassingly futile, failed candidacies of Senator Joe Biden and Senator Chris Dodd show just how much the modern American voter (and reporter) values Senatorial seniority – along with the resulting experience and wisdom.
So far, the three Republican victors most resemble the various regional warlords who would show up to quadrennial party conventions in the 1800s, hoping either to be the critical kingmaker or, better yet, actually be crowned the party’s temporary king. With Mike Huckabee having won the Iowa caucus, John McCain having won New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney having won Michigan, we are even hearing some analysts speculate that this year’s convention may actually be relevant for the nomination of the party’s standard bearer, rather than simply celebrating a democratic coronation. Each of the three winners represent a different dimension of the legendary, multi-dimensional Reagan coalition that has dominated the GOP – and shaped American politics – for more than a quarter century. Huckabee represents the evangelicals, McCain represents the national security types and possibly the neocons, and Romney represents the business and technocratic types. Or, to think about it in a slightly different way, if the three were auditioning for parts in a play about Ronald Reagan’s famous first-term advising triumvirate, Huckabee would play the true believer, Ed Meese; McCain would play the savvy PR guy Michael Deaver, and Romney would play the emissary to the corporate and Wall Street types, James A. Baker III. Analysts looking at the Republican side are also wondering if this wideopen field will make room for Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as well.
Regardless of how it plays out, it seems clear that the George W. Bush years have strained the Reagan coalition. The challenge for the next nominee is either to revive that broad-based coalition or transform it, finding a new political formula that works. The Democrats have the easier and yet harder time. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mainstream Democrats. Neither nomination would threaten Democratic business as usual. Then again, as...
Not surprisingly, as the Democratic race heats up, it is getting ugly, and silly. Senator Hillary Clinton is on the defensive, accused of disrespecting Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of King’s birthday celebrations, and just before the heavily African-American South Carolina primary. One of Senator Barack Obama’s supporters, the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, with no explanation or accompanying quotation, accused Mrs. Clinton of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Senator John Edwards chimed in too, equally histrionically. No matter who we support, historians should be appalled – and should object strongly – to this distorted and demagogic charge.
On Fox News the other day, Senator Clinton said: “Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done.” Obama’s people pounced, accusing Hillary of discounting King’s centrality to Civil Rights. Obama himself has denied his campaign fed the attacks against what he made sure to call “unfortunate” and “ill-advised” remarks. Edwards also joined the pile-on, telling more than 200 people at a predominantly black Baptist church: ''I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician…. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale.”
Predictably, as her surrogates attack Edwards and Obama for demagoguery, Senator Clinton is back-pedaling furiously. Alas, by the time Clinton finishes her damage control effort, she will probably join Obama and Edwards in distorting the truth.
In fact, Hillary Clinton gave a pithy, accurate summary of an incredibly complicated period of time. She started with Dr. King as the visionary. She acknowledged Dwight Eisenhower's disinterest and John Kennedy’s limited impact in implementing that vision. And she credited Lyndon Johnson with his great skill in translating Civil Rights leaders’ grand aspirations into lasting – and significant – Civil Rights legislation.
Moreover, it was perfectly appropriate for a presidential candidate to draw the lesson “it took a president to get it done.” One of the president’s central tasks, especially when spurred by passionate reformers like King, is to convert the high wattage energy of the moral crusader into a more standard and less combustible current for widespread domestic consumption. Edwards’ assumption that this process puts the dreaded “Washington politician” at the start of the process rather than the end of the process, is a willful distortion. Obama’s claim that this description somehow “diminished King’s role” is an ignorant misrepresentation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the twentieth century’s most influential Americans. Putting his accomplishments in context, suggesting he could not have done it alone, does not diminish him in any way. In fact, by placing him in the proper context, by treating his achievements accurately and proportionately, we give him the respect he – and the millions who fought for justice with him – deserve.
P.S. Whatever high mark she earned with her MLK-LBJ summary, Hillary earns a"C" in history for her remark on Sunday when speaking to black parishioners at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, S.C. She said: “Many of you in this sanctuary were born before African-Americans could vote." Unless she was speaking to the oldest congregation in history, of people born in 1849 or earlier, she needed more subtlety in that formulation. The fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the vote -- although it took the Voting Rights Act (thanks to LBJ again) and the Civil Rights movement (thanks to MLK and others) for this right to be enjoyed fully with minimal harassment.
HNN Hot Topics: Election 2008: Primaries
Of course, rather than apologizing for their inaccurate predictions, reporters reward candidates for exceeding the false journalistic expectations. Thus Senators McCain and Clinton became “comeback” kids on Tuesday, having bounced back from reporters’ premature eulogizing – and pollsters’ seemingly authoritative predicting.
Thanks to the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic race is shaping up as a clash of the titans, led by but still not yet limited to Senators Obama and Clinton. Even though she lost in Iowa, Hillary Clinton remains the beneficiary of one of the greatest modern political machines. Clintonites not only know how to win – they know how to lose, nimbly turning setbacks into opportunities for comebacks. And even though he lost in New Hampshire, Barack Obama remains a dazzling political talent, a silver-tongued, honey-smooth, hope-generating political thoroughbred. Both his Iowa victory speech and his New Hampshire concession were rhetorical gems, while Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory speech had a lumpy, clunky quality that suggests that she has not yet learned from her husband or her chief rival how to sweet-talk the American people.
For all the obvious political talent displayed on the Democratic side, the foreign policy experience of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards is perilously thin. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton went on foreign trips but she rarely made policy. Claiming she has considerable foreign experience is like a bleacher bum presuming he can master center field – watching, even from up close, is not the same thing as playing. Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience – having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – is even less impressive, akin to presuming that just because you love ice cream you know the recipe for making it taste so good.
It is disturbing how irrelevant a healthy recognition of the Islamist threat appears to be for Democrats. John Edwards, for one, went so far as to dismiss the “war on terror” as merely a slogan. Only a few short years ago, that kind of thinking would have been derided as so “September 10,” meaning buried in yesterday’s delusions. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, for all the Republican candidates’ flaws, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have at least pitched their campaigns on national security credentials and concerns.
Inevitably, the next few weeks will bring on even more idle speculation, journalistic oversimplification, and candidate confrontations. But amid all the cheesy spectacle of the American nominating campaign, the people’s input makes the whole carnival profound. Thanks to the ornery, swim-against-the-tide, expectation-defying citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have become very real. With luck, the process will not only be empowering democratically but will result in a quality leader capable of meeting America’s challenges. There are no guarantees, but as Obama has shown, hopes themselves can be not just inspiring, but transforming.
The people have spoken: “Obama and Huckabee Triumph,” the headlines are blaring. Well, to be accurate, a small unrepresentative sample of the people spoke. The Iowa caucus is more like the snap of a starter’s pistol than the roar of a rocket launcher. Nevertheless, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, will enjoy a boost in momentum and fund-raising, especially because reporters choose to magnify minor Iowa victories into major national statements.
Even if they win no other contests, the emergence of Obama and Huckabee shows how wide-open both party fields are. Not since 1920 have Americans experienced a campaign with neither the president nor vice-president running in any way or any time (Harry Truman initially hoped to run in 1952, Dawes was a presidential hopeful in 1928). None of the candidates worked for George W. Bush, further proving the Administration’s unpopularity -- and the difficulty these days of launching a campaign for executive leadership from the executive branch (except the White House). Moreover, before his stirring debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, few Americans had heard of Barack Obama. Even though Mike Huckabee governed Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, he was nationally unknown until months ago, when his wisecracks started attracting attention in the televised candidate forums.
Obama’s rise, even if it proves fleeting, shows America making progress toward burying racism. Americans seem more worried that Obama is too green – inexperienced – than too black. Obama’s emergence is also the story of celebrity politics, especially because the talk show goddess Oprah Winfrey embraced Obama so enthusiastically. Obama wants to represent a national yearning for healing, appealing as a constructive centrist promising to end the Clinton-Bush baby-boom generational squabbling.
Huckabee’s rise is tied to another modern American political story, the rise of the religious right. Huckabee played to Iowa’s evangelicals, calling himself a “proven Christian leader” in some television ads. This crass appeal violated some of the delicate unspoken rules in the admittedly gray area where religion and politics overlap. Huckabee’s implicit, even more disturbing, appeal contrasts him as a true Christian, and thus a true American, with his runner-up in Iowa, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, whose candidacy has stirred some bigoted anti-Mormonism.
On the losing side, Romney and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton may have suffered the biggest blows among the serious contenders. But both hope to rebound in New Hampshire next Tuesday. Both also now have a chance to show how they bounce back from setbacks with grit and grace. Reporters love comeback stories, as much as they love Cinderella stories, and reporters often knock down candidates to set up those comebacks
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others, have gone from relative obscurity to the presidency in a flash. But victory in Iowa does not guarantee the nomination. In 1980 George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the caucuses but still lost the nomination. Iowa triumphs can launch a candidacy to the party nomination but do not guarantee general election victory, as John Kerrey learned in 2004.
So, yes, some of the people have spoken. But there is a lot more jawboning and stumping, speculating and voting, that must occur before the Democrats and Republicans nominate their respective nominees and the American people pick their next leader – 11 months from now in November 2008. All we can predict is more – more speculating, more campaigning, and, thankfully, more voting from other parts of the country.
Party hacks should remember this lesson as they deprive party members in Michigan, Florida and other states of their democratic rights to select the presidential nominees. On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee punished Michigan Democrats for holding their party primaries on January 29 by stripping Michigan of all its 128 delegates and 28 superdelegates. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have imposed similar penalties on Florida for planning a January 14 primary.
These strong-arm, dictatorial tactics are mostly intended to protect the early voting and caucusing prerogatives of New Hampshire and Iowa. For more than two decades, the non-representative voters of these two states have had a disproportional impact on choosing the nominee. It’s become a big business in those states. Their state leaders squeal like pigs at the Iowa fair – and shriek like a rookie skier mistakenly whizzing down a double diamond in New Hampshire’s White Mountains – any time another state hones in on their turf. But the truth is that the voters of major states like Michigan, Florida, and California have long been rendered irrelevant in the nominating process by arbitrary scheduling quirks.
To see just how absurd this whole thing is – the origins of the early Iowa caucus have to do with a broken down mimeograph machine (kids, ask mom and dad – or maybe gramps and gramma what these things are). Back in 1972, when pc neither meant “personal computer” nor “Politically Correct,” a broken-down offset printing press forced Iowa Democrats to hold their precinct caucuses in January. The early date would give them enough time to duplicate and distribute the results during the various rounds of voting the caucus required. This arrangement made their vote the first in the nation.
Four years later, Iowans promoted their early caucuses to candidates and journalists. “I knew each wanted to be where the other was,” the Democratic state chairman, Tom Whitney, would recall, identifying the symbiotic relationship between candidates and the media.
One candidate who took advantage was Jimmy Carter. Carter worked Iowa intensely – and his slate of delegates received more than twice the votes of any other candidate’s. Moreover, Carter did “Better Than Expected.” Even though this procedure was merely the first step of many in choosing 47 of 3,008 delegates for the 1976 Democratic convention, reporters were looking for a winner – and found Jimmy Carter. [For formal sourcing of this story, check out Gil Troy, See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate, revised ed., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 234]
A logical system would push off Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan and the rest of them for a few more months. But if New Hampshire and Iowa have the right to start in January, other, more, larger, and more representative states should be allowed to as well – and citizens in those states should not be penalized for wanting to have some input in this important and complicated choice, especially this year.
When an Iowa voter recently asked him about the intensity of his motivation for running, former Republican Fred Thompson admitted “I’m not particularly interested in running for president.” This statement confirmed the media spin on Thompson as too lazy and too disengaged. But Thompson’s admission may be the sanest statement a candidate has made on the campaign trail in years.
Years ago the venerable Washington Post columnist David Broder coined “Broder’s Law,” suggesting that all those willing to endure the indignities of the campaign thereby revealed they were “too loony to be trusted with the office.” Alas, too many of Broder’s journalistic colleagues take the opposite tack, assuming that running for president like crazy is a minimum requirement for being president. As a result, in the last few presidential cycles, marginal candidates like Ron Paul and Al Sharpton have enjoyed serious media exposure – exploiting reporters’ love of an offbeat story and the absurd party policies giving long-shot candidates equal billing in the joint candidate press conferences frequently mislabeled “debates.”
Perhaps these reporters are suffering from the same sleep-deprivation and fast-food highs they impose on the candidates. It is a funny thing. On one hand, the relentless media exposure and scrutiny do prepare a candidate for life as president. On the other hand, the campaign trail’s 24/7 chaotic, dyspeptic, but intensely democratic Holiday Inn-hop – especially in the demanding, one-on-one states like Iowa and New Hampshire – represents a dramatic contrast to the coddled monarchical splendor of White House life. The modern American president lives in a palatial cocoon cut off from the realities of everyday life. The campaign trail has its own illusory reality – but cushy, it ain’t.
On a deeper level, reporters frequently confuse ambition with ability. A longstanding, deep-burning desire for office should not be a qualification for the presidency. In George Washington’s day, excessive ambition was one of the qualities Americans most feared in a politician. While we need not return to the eighteenth century’s elaborate posturing, a little perspective on life and on politics can go a long way in grounding a leader. This lack of perspective is one of the distinguishing characteristics of both Hillary and Bill Clinton – and feeds many Americans’ deep suspicions of them. In 2000, one source of George W. Bush’s appeal was his relaxed approach to the presidential quest; Al Gore appeared far too keen, far too invested and thus far too desperate. (Of course, observers of the Bush presidency can make the case that a little more zeal and perseverance would make for a more effective administrator).
Fred Thompson needs to fine-tune his message, so that his insouciance does not appear to be lazy, sloppy, or contemptuous. His role model, Ronald Reagan, aptly conveyed that sense to the American people, showing just enough perspective to carve out time for napping, without appearing dismissive of the president’s serious responsibilities. Of course, Reagan’s casual detachment drove reporters to distraction.
Then again, maybe it was jealousy. When Reagan napped, reporters stewed, waiting for a story to file before deadline. When Reagan vacationed, reporters followed, having to hustle twice as hard for a story half as interesting. Thompson’s great offense may be suggesting he will be less worried about feeding the insatiable media maw and more concerned with doing his job while preserving some measures of privacy and sanity.
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of 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.
The murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is an evil act that, on its face, delivers a crushing blow to the forces for democratization and enlightenment in Pakistan – and the world over. Nevertheless, her assassination raises an awful, amoral, terribly unsentimental historical question: do assassinations like this – as shocking and horrific as they are – ever produce unintended positive consequences? This question is not to justify any such crimes. But it is instructive to think about the expected and the unexpected, the predictable and the unpredictable, positive gains that sometimes result from terrible losses.
Assassinations freeze moments – and leaders – in historical time, then frequently place the martyred leader on the national, and even international pantheon of immortals.
Often, naturally, justifiably, we mourn the lost potential, we contemplate all the good the lost leader could have accomplished. We imagine Abraham Lincoln engineering a just post-Civil War Reconstruction that rehabilitated Southerners and welcomed blacks as citizens – in contrast to the hamhanded Andrew Johnson’s failures. We envisage John Kennedy managing the civil rights movement, avoiding the Vietnam War mess, and preventing any serious Sixties youth rebellion, which his successor Lyndon Johnson could not do. And we dream of the kind of warm peace Anwar Sadat would have brought to the Middle East, indulging in the fantasy that he could have moderated other leaders, including the incorrigible Yasir Arafat.
The truth is, as flesh-and-blood politicos become legendary icons they often become more powerful symbols dead than they would have been had they remained alive. John Kennedy was on track to be a rather mediocre president when Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet cut him down. And while Martin Luther King, Jr., had already proved his greatness before being murdered at the tender age of thirty-nine, he died just as the civil rights movement was hitting a particular rocky patch. King’s death in 1968 froze him as the sainted slayer of Southern segregation but insulated him from the ensuing decades’ fights over busing, affirmative action, African-American crime, and how to balance personal prerogative and the need to integrate.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995, made him an enduring icon of Israel’s hopes for peace – and Israel’s peace camp. He is remembered as a warm fuzzy peacemaker, rather than the gruff, Scotch-drinking warrior he was for much of his life. Who knows if he would have been able to stave off the ensuing Palestinian violence. Who knows how his reactions to that violence might have tainted his now pristine image. In fact, in elevating Rabin to a godlike status as Israel’s martyred mediator, Rabin’s murderer unwittingly gave his opponents a powerful spur for more concessions and more conciliation.
Looking at the heartbreaking images beaming out of Pakistan today, this assassination’s negative consequences are clear. Benzair Bhutto’s death all but guarantees more unrest, euphoria among her violent, Islamist opponents, and a blow to Pakistan’s already fragile democracy. Bhutto’s assassination shows how deeply the culture of violence permeates and distorts so many polities in the Islamic world. Who knows? Perhaps this act of violence will be the wake-up call Pakistanis – and Muslims throughout the world - need to demand a reformation of Islam and expel from their midst the Jihadists and that murderous medieval spirit of Jihadism which is proving so dangerous.</div>
RUDY GIULIANI: a big bust of a terror ring the day before every primary, to resurrect the fears of 9/11 (without any real trauma) – and a marital record like Harry Truman’s (who was devotedly married to Bess, his Sunday-School sweetheart for 53 years).
MITT ROMNEY: the right incantation for exorcising Evangelical Protestants’ anti-Mormon bigotry – and John Kennedy’s skill in handling religious prejudice.
MIKE HUCKABEE: the same good luck charm propelling obscure governors into the White House that Bill Clinton found in the Arkansas governor’s mansion – and that Jimmy Carter found in the Georgia governor’s mansion.
JOHN MCCAIN: the mantle of righteous iconoclasm he wore so effectively back in 2000 – and George Washington’s manual for using military service to win the presidency.
FRED THOMPSON: those adoring summertime headlines, before he actually started running – and a political career that truly is like Ronald Reagan’s.
RON PAUL: a year-long celebration of the Boston Tea Party’s anniversary (he used the anniversary to set the record for internet fundraising) – and James Baker (Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff), who helped moderate the image of a man deemed to be an extremist.
HILLARY CLINTON: her husband’s magic potion for bewitching America’s voters – and Richard Nixon’s 1968 strategy for winning despite being so disliked.
JOHN EDWARDS: his wife’s good health. Nothing else really matters.
BARACK OBAMA: Joe Biden’s, Chris Dodd’s, or Bill Richardson’s resume – and a posthumous endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, America’s youngest president ever.
JOE BIDEN, CHRIS DODD, and BILL RICHARDSON: a just world in which decades of governmental experience and real gravitas would make you more than just an asterisk in the presidential popularity polls.
DENNIS KUCINICH: extra-gravity shoes to keep earth-bound (even James Baker couldn't help).
AL GORE: Mike Huckabee's diet secrets and the good ole days when conventions deadlocked and dark horses, favorite sons, and party bosses' choices could emerge as last minute nominees.
Apparently, Hillary Clinton is trying to prove her “likability” to Iowans or as she put it on Tuesday,
“to kind of round out who I am as a person.”
This latest strategic shift in the surprisingly herky-jerky Clinton campaign is further proof of an increasingly jittery “juggernaut” as the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses approach. Moreover, this strategy is doomed to fail. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, Democratic voters will be banking on her electability or governing ability not her likability.
In political terms, in the public sphere, “likability” is not the same as niceness or goodness. My guess is that if we could look into the future, scan the heavens, and get a gander at the situation at the Pearly Gates when both Clintons meet their maker, Hillary Clinton would outscore Bill Clinton as a nicer and better person. Over the decades, Hillary Clinton has cultivated a coterie of devoted friends and aides who testify to her niceness; her lifelong devotion to Methodism and perennial search for the virtuous path testifies to her goodness – or at least her ability to outscore Bill Clinton in this realm.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, like so many successful politicians, is extraordinarily selfish, self-involved, temperamental, ruthless, and amoral. He is not particularly nice or good, but he plays a pleasant person convincingly on TV. Bill, however, unlike his wife, is blessed with a magical charisma that – as Dan Rather might have said in one of his mangled frontier metaphors -- could charm the skin right off of a rattlesnake. Clinton is like another great politician of his era, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was known for his affability but he was remarkably aloof. Even Reagan’s devoted wife Nancy said that emotionally he was like a “brick wall” (although Reagan lacked Clinton’s temper, sloppiness, and self-indulgence).
Hillary Clinton has never been that effective in mass producing charm or feel-good moments. In high school, she was known as “Sister Frigidaire.” At Yale Law School, observers trusted Hillary to have done the homework and be the closer at her moot court trial, while her partner and boyfriend Bill was the schmoozer. She was “tough as nails”; he was “Mr. Softee.” Similarly, in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and in the White House, she impressed people with her IQ, he seduced people with his EQ, his emotional intelligence.
During Hillary Clinton’s first few years on the national stage, she proved particularly inept when it came to practicing the black arts of mass seduction. It was not just that her husband’s extraordinary abilities in this realm dwarfed hers. In 1992 and 1993, Hillary Clinton was frequently brittle, heavy-handed, doing far more to perpetuate the stereotype of the humorless feminist than mimicking her husband, the glad-handing good ole’ boy Southern politician. It is remarkable how intensely so many people hate her – even loyal Democrats, even though so much time has passed. It is possible that no politician has alienated so many so thoroughly since Richard Nixon’s heyday.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton has learned – and matured. Having just turned sixty, she is far more settled, sobered and softer than she was as an edgy, anxious forty-five-year-old. Moreover, fifteen years in the maelstrom of national politics and amid the glare of the celebrity culture have taught her how to project that ease onto the national stage. Her tremendous fame helps, generating excitement and brouhaha befitting royalty wherever she goes. Happy to be running her own political career rather than serving her husband’s, she has been more self-assured, resolved, and charming as New York’s Senator than she ever was as First Lady. She appears less remote, impassive, unnaturally-perfect and ruthless. She laughs more frequently and more freely – but still risks falling into the forced cackle that Jon Stewart has mocked (back when the writers weren’t striking and we could enjoy politics a whole lot more by seeing it through his eyes – and through Stephen Colbert’s).
Still, for all her progress, Hillary is surrounded and upstaged by three particular maestros of mass magnetism. Bill Clinton has proven that even at a funeral for Coretta Scott King, he can play the bubbly Bubba while she remains the forbidding schoolmarm. Her rival Barack Obama is also compulsively cuddly, appearing to be every Democrat’s cute younger brother while she seems to be the stiff older sister. And the ever-sunny John Edwards is the smiley-est, seemingly happiest politician since Jimmy Carter’s ultimately deceptive 1976 smile-fest. (Sad but true: gender issues clearly play a role here in shaping public perceptions of both men and women about both men and women on the public stage).
With Democrats like that around,...
This question gets to a deeper phenomenon, highlighting one of the essential dynamics in a campaign. Theodore White, the great presidential reporter, described campaigns as opportunities for Americans to weigh the past and assess the present in shaping the future. Romantics like to think of campaigns as opportunities for the best man – or woman – to win. But all too frequently, rather than choosing a candidate they like and trust, voters end up settling on who they perceive to be the lesser of two evils.
Similarly, while parties like to think that they are presenting their best and most noble faces to the electorate, frequently campaigns are about containing a party’s least attractive and extreme elements. Since 1972, Democratic candidates, especially the successful nominees, have been running away from the spectre of George McGovern’s losing “acid, amnesty and abortion” campaign. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and even Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry worked hard to distance themselves from the charge that they rejected traditional mainstream American values. At the same time, since 1964, Republican candidates have been haunted by the ghosts of Barry Goldwater’s failing “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” campaign. In other words, to win, Democrats have to prove they are neither libertines nor wimps; Republicans have to prove they are neither totalitarians nor racists.
Two of the most successful modern politicians, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, were particularly attuned to their respective party’s baggage. Bill Clinton’s “values talk” and “Sister Souljah” moment denouncing a Rap singer as a racist, were attempts to prove that he was a New Democrat, rooted in old traditions and strong enough to stand up to the party’s special interest groups – and by analogy America’s enemies. Ronald Reagan’s Goldwaterism with a smile bled the toxins from the conservatives’ image as cranky control freaks. Reagan understood that he needed to reach out to African-Americans and other liberal constituencies that would never support him, not so much to win their votes, as to reassure moderates of his own centrism and reasonableness.
Especially after all the Culture Wars of the last few years, Republicans have to disprove Kevin Phillips’ overheated but best-selling charge that George W. Bush has brought about an “American Theocracy.” As Republicans reach out to the religious right, they need to reassure the less religious – or less militantly religious – center. When Democrats like Obama and Clinton profess their faith, however, few worry that they will create an American Theocracy, but many are reassured that a Democratic victory will not vanquish what’s left of the traditional American consensus. So, yes, Theodore White was partially right. On Election Day, Americans do weigh their hopes and dreams; but they also seek to manage their fears and nightmares, from the left and the right.
The New York Times today reports on a journalistic brouhaha regarding a front-page Washington Post article from November 29, 2007, entitled: “Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” Claiming that the Post piece spread and legitimated the false rumors, the Columbia Journalism Review called the Post article “the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.” But the criticism of the original article strikes me as unreasonable – and the Times article itself shows that the Washington Post article was fair and within acceptable boundaries.
The major objections to the article pivoted on the classic problem that simply refuting rumors perpetuates them, immortalized in the old Borscht Belt routine that “no, your honor, I did not beat my wife.” As I read the article, the meaning of the word “rumors” – placed in the headline and repeated in the text -- makes it clear that this article is about false allegations the campaign is having difficulty shaking. Moreover, Senator Barack Obama’s membership in the “United Church of Christ in Chicago,” is mentioned in the second paragraph, and the reporter then writes (in an unacceptably long sentence, that DID need editing): “Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a"Muslim plant" in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.”
The argument about the article intensified – and attracted the New York Times’ attention – when a 53-year-old Boston University journalism professor, Chris Daly, attacked the Washington Post’s editors for assigning an important “Page 1 presidential campaign piece” to a 27-year-old, Perry Bacon, Jr. The Times article appeared in the business section under the headline: “At Web Site for Journalists, Criticism of a Campaign Article Becomes a Melee.” The bulk of the article focused on the media big wigs who slugged it out over Daly’s personal attack on Bacon’s age.
In other words, the New York Times reported on the fallout of the article, rather than assessing the article itself or the rumors themselves. In fact, while the Times-on-line provided links to pages with the Washington Post Company’s stock information, and Senator Obama’s biographical sketch, it failed to provide links to the original Washington Post article or any of the blog posts criticizing the article. This abundance of irrelevant information gives a modern illusion of interactivity with very little enlightenment resulting.
Presidential campaigns are about controversies, rumors, perceptions. One crucial test of a campaign is its skill in deflecting the inevitable attacks on character that arise. In 1828, Andrew Jackson was convinced that allegations – which had some legitimacy -- that his wife Rachel had married him before divorcing her first husband led to her premature death. Jackson’s supporters countercharged with the false claims that John Quincy Adams pimped for the Czar. More recently, in 1992 Bill Clinton showed great virtuosity in treating fact-based allegations questioning his virtue as merely vicious rumors while George W. Bush spent a lot of time in 2000 artfully dodging questions about whether or not he used drugs before he found God.
I, too, have heard many people darkly whispering about Obama’s quite marginal Muslim past. Having read his autobiography I know that he went to a public school in Indonesia and has been an active member of his Christian church for years. I have corrected the rumor-mongers but have wondered what kind of impact these rumors are having on Obama’s candidacy. The Washington Post piece showed how widespread the phenomenon was, trusting readers to understand the meaning of such basic words as “rumors” and “denials.”
The Washington Post was justified in printing the story. And while the New York Times story was lots of fun to read for its gossip value, as a loyal Times reader who depends on the self-appointed “newspaper of record” to keep me and others informed, I wondered why it took two weeks for me to hear about this controversy, and why the Times has not explored the more serious question about what kind of an impact these false rumors against this good Christian have had. At the same time, I am also waiting for an article explaining why when Democrats profess their Christian faith, they are expressing their freedom of religion, and when Republicans profess their Christian faith, they are...