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.
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 bombing as a model for fighting terror. “Once again we have seen that Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10 mindset,” McCain’s adviser on national security, Randy Scheunemann snapped – shifting the McCain moderometer rightward as Obama’s shifted leftward for treating terror as a law enforcement matter rather than a military and foreign policy challenge. However, Obama’s clever response was well balanced, showing his commitment to fighting terror, as he said: “These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11.”
The call for moderation is not a call for pallid namby-pamby candidates no more different from each other than tweedle dee is from tweedle dum (to recycle a criticism William Allen White used against Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912). Ideally, Barack Obama’s moderometer will dip slightly left, and McCain’s will dip slightly right. But a gradual incline just enough to emphasize differences and articulate them is not a steep angle that further divides the country.
The two moderates should narrow the battlefield – showing where they agree and then slugging it out where they disagree. But it would be a mistake – and represent a lost opportunity – if the rhetoric of the campaign starts setting up the two as polar opposites of each other, reverse images, with one personifying strength and virtue, the other weakness and wrongheadedness. The United States faces serious challenges at home and abroad. Neither candidate is perfect but both are patriots committing to solving those problems. For once, if we push them toward the center, maybe we can have a campaign that fights about substantive differences without character assassination or caricature. Such a campaign will help the winner do what needs to be done – lead from the center, uniting as much of the country as possible in a concerted attempt to solve the serious problems afflicting us today.
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 from her how to learn from mistakes and defeats not simply wallow in them.
CONSOLATION PRIZE: For all those Democrats depressed by Hillary’s loss – and for all those Republicans worried about the – dare we call it – Obamomentum I prescribe a simple Rx: watch Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. It is hard for anyone who loves America, and loves democracy, not to be moved by his centrist, inclusive, nationalist vision. Whether he can implement it, of course, is the big question…
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.