Saturday, January 26, 2008

The problem with the Clintons

Josh Marshall has a stab at analyzing why he, presumably many other folks who like the Clintons, are feeling queasy about the role the Bill is playing in the campaign, which I think speaks to a general uneasiness with the whole idea of a dynastic 'Billary' candidacy in certain ways.

In his analysis, it stems from the fact that Bill is something rare - a former Democratic president who is popular, alive, and married to a leading candidate for the nomination. This puts Josh in a bind, since he, presumably again like many others, has genuine affection for Bill as a prominent member of the party, but feels that Bill is using that goodwill in unfair ways by attempting to play a partisan role in his wife's campaign. At least that is the gist of what I can take away from what Josh has to say, click the link above and judge for yourself.

In stating this as the potential source of his discomfort, Josh dismisses the idea that race-baiting may play any role in his conflicted feelings. While I agree with him that the Obama camp overreacted and that the press has run away with the issue, inflating it to proportions far outsized when compared to the initial statements, I disagree with his analysis dimissing this as a factor. In fact I think it is a major factor, and one that people have had trouble putting their finger on, because discussions or analyses of race make most people uncomfortable unless it is an incident that is just clearly beyond the pale.

I think what has Josh, and others as well, feeling a bit squeemish about the Clintons is the fact that they have very deliberately sought to inject race into the campaign but in such a way that no blame could come back to them. Just take for example the outsized brouhaha about LBJ and MLK.

The obstensible point was to contrast 'deeds' with 'words.' Of course, the comparison was forced and nonsensical on many levels: it was many deeds and not just words that created an environment where policy could move forward before LBJ ever became President. And deeds without words can often be overlooked without words (or TV cameras) to place them in proper context and give them meaning in a larger narrative.

But to focus on these distinctions misses the point: no one ever thought of stating that Hillary is the second coming of LBJ when it comes to legislative acumen. Rather it was a roundabout way to bring up the notions Civil Rights and Uppity Black People, which are still sadly linked in many Americans' subconsciousnesses. The Clintons did not have to beat anyone over the head about it, all they had to do was provoke something that could be interpreted as defensiveness from the Obama camp and let the press do what it does best: keep hitting the 'hot button' - which happened to be race in this case - via repetition, innuendo and reckless speculation in order to gin up false drama and excitement. The Clintons should know this game well, having been stung innumerable times by it when it concerned innuendoes of illicit sex.

Now several underlings in the Clinton campaign have been more heavy handed than Hillary or Bill himself, but when you are a past president with a remarkablely lawyer-like command of the English language (yes, the "depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" comment is apropos here), then even his seemingly off-hand or potentially misinterpreted comments are going to be influential and hence should be viewed in a skeptical light.

Now, as Josh has said, Obama and some of his supporters think he should be above hard-ball politics. I agree, there at times seems to be a degree of willful blindness in thinking that Republicans won't play the race issue like an organ, in all sorts of coded, deceitful and crude ways. But on the other hand, I think the fact that the Clintons have decided to play the race card is at the root of the feeling of unease that many are feeling regarding the Clintons. After all, Bill was supposed the be the first 'Black president,' wasn't he?

I think it is the dawning awareness that is demonstrated by these incidents that, whatever the Clintons may tell themselves, they would do anything, damage their own party and destroy anyone by any means in order to advance their careers that has shaken some people up.

Now politics is not for saints. LBJ helped orchestrate some of the most noble if not the most noble legislation in my lifetime, and he was by all accounts a rascal. But he was also a man of accomplishments. Indeed, I think the irony on the whole issue of 'deeds' is Hillary's resume undercuts her very claims to being an 'agent of change.' One can think of health reform in 1994, but even more recent examples - the vote to declare an arm of the Iranian military a terrorist organization - has shown her to be a habitual follower rather than leader. I'll be the first to agree that the nineties under Bill were the best time we have had in a quarter century. But I am sorry, that is faint praise given what we have had in comparison. We should have higher standard for office than not being total screw up and say what you want, triangulation is not a recipe for social progress.

I think much of the hunger for change that Obama seems best able to fulfill is due in large part to the fact that people realize at a gut level that all the Clintons offer is a well-run version of Republicanism-lite packaged together with with a good dollop of personal hatreds, vendettas, and partisan strife. While I agree with Josh that it is foolish to think such strife will dissipate, I DO think that people are savvy to the fact that unless we want to refight the same endless struggles of the past two decades over again, we need a new way to reach voters who are not sold on the Clintons and in that way capitalize on the strengths of what should be an emerging Democratic majority.

But fighting all the old fights - personal and otherwise - with a leader at the helm who would rather triangulate than articulate is NOT the path to such change. Some might say we should not hold the Clintons' enemies against them, but that misses the point. For far too long have people embraced the Clintons because of their enemies. Bill's popularity rose in reaction to the attacks upon him. I am struck that more do not find it odd that Hillary only seems sympathetic under similar circumstances. It is a sad but historic fact the Bill threw the Democratic Party under the bus in order, as he saw it, to salvage his presidency. I have no doubts that Hillary would do the same, and in fact that is part of the dynamic that we are seeing today - injecting race into the primaries will only help to weaken the Party, regardless of who wins.

And while Obama may not be a perfect candidate (I too find his 'above partisanship' posture off-putting) he is practically the only candidate who holds any promise of forging a new Democratic majority that breaks with the stale 'lets-clean-up-this-GOP-mess' politics of the DLC, the Clinton establishment and, yes, the past. Hillary can't and won't do it. Edwards has had his shot. Obama may be a just another politician like the Clintons (at times that is how they seek to portray him, when not depicting him as an out-of-touch dreamer). But he has not been give the chance to fail. Hillary has.

That is the hope people are voting for when they vote for Obama, the hope for something other than back to the future redux that another Clinton presidency - and the harm it would do to the Democratic Party at large - would likely yield.