Posts Tagged ‘Clinton’

When I talk to friends who are worried about an Obama candidacy and possible administration, I hear the following:

  1. Americans will not elect a black man
  2. Obama is inexperienced and soft
  3. The optimism of Obama and his supporters seems dangerously naive
  4. Obama is simply a politician, like the rest, and no more like to put principle ahead of political expediency

I’ve written enough about (1). So In this post I’ll address (2-4).

Experience and Conformity

I frankly find (2) to be baffling. Perhaps that’s my own elitism and workplace cynicism, but consider the following. I’m sure plenty of your co-workers are experienced, in the sense of having been in the workforce for a long time, and yet either incompetent or competent but highly unsuited to positions involving authority or leadership. These people are notoriously difficult to weed out during the hiring process. The kinds of resumes that appeal to HR people (often not the brightest bulbs) are highly conventional and so inherently risky: it’s just as easy for less attractive candidates to jump through hoops, acquire certifications, and rack up years of “experience” as it is for mis-educated highschool students to ride a conveyor belt from one grade to another.

On the other hand, there are highly competent or even brilliant people who have jumped through the same hoops. Clearly some of these candidates stand out by virtue of their very shiny hoops — Harvard, prestigious firms, the expected career ladder, and so on. But even for these over-achievers there’s a second layer to the problem of evaluating “experience”: even they are not necessarily the most creative, independent minded, or ethical human beings. In fact, that they have gotten where they are is often the result of significant conformity: teacher’s pet, straight A’s, regurgitation of professor’s lecture onto blue book exams, all the right clubs and activities and political alliances, the right career choice, and so on.

In other words, experience often implies conformity.

This conformity has its place, because the teaching of artistic and technical pursuits depends initially on the passivity of their apprentices. Good teachers are authorities, and good students respect this authority. As a consequence of this respect they become vessels for the “knowledge” — today “information” — that their mentors pour into them. In the end, there is a body of knowledge to which the student must conform.

When generalized to the moral and political domains, this model of education fails. In fact, it is dangerous. That’s because these domains — and their study, Philosophy — depend critically on non-conformity rather than conformity; the challenging of received views rather their absorption; and a comfort with the lack of resolution of their primary questions, rather than their artificial dissolution into easy certainties. As a consequence, there is no such thing as “expertise” and “experience” in statesmanship: there are no technical facilities that you can develop to become a great leader. It is not like learning guitar, or becoming an accountant, or even like becoming a writer or artist. More critical are character, passion, independence of mind, and comfort with decision-making involving situations that are so unique as to be without real precedent: in other words, political and moral decisions cannot be learned like times tables, or as algorithms developed either from book-learning or “experience.” Experience is of course important in the broad sense — i.e., any experience that develops character and judgment. Years spent in office, or years spent in Washington, D.C. are not what’s relevant here.

In fact, one ought to be wary of strictly political experience when it comes to looking for a good leader. The more political a profession, the more likely an acolyte’s conformity is a preliminary to corruption or incompetence. Experience in politics means having been around long enough to have achieved enough mutually back-scratching relationships; it means making the winning of elections more important than standing on principle.

That is why Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War is so important to many of us. It was a vote of expedience, conformity par excellence. It is “experience.” You will see a certain amount of this conformity, at least in the public sphere, in any politician, including Obama. But there are clear differences between Clinton’s conformist opportunism and Obama’s independent judgment. And Obama gives one the hope that even where winning depends on toeing the line, he will be much more independent in his use of power when he acquires it.

Experience and Toughness

“Experience” is also meant to be a synonym for “toughness.” Obama is soft, the idea goes, because he hasn’t been tempered in the fires of political backbiting for long enough.

This argument is just a coded command for the conformity discussed above. Obama’s detractors are worried that he isn’t sufficiently cynical enough to keep his political enemies at bay by out-conforming his opponents. Clinton’s gas tax holiday and public beer-swilling are experience and toughness, again par excellence. So are talk of flag pins and the pledge of allegiance and patriotism in general: the point is to create doubts about Obama’s sufficient conformity to a grandiose American self-concept; about how un-reflectively committed he is to the American Tribe; about whether he will let the teeming hordes of The Other — muslims, Hamas, angry black men — storm Castle Americana. Obama is not tough enough, according to this argument, because he is not paranoid enough about the rest of the world; because he might not share the knee-jerk, xenophobic hysteria of his fellow countrymen; because he might hesitate to “obliterate” our enemies — their women and children with them; because he might be other himself — muslim, black christian militant, Kenyan, Indonesian, Hawaiian, elite ….; because as other, he might cast an uncomfortably critical eye on America itself — might be able to admit to himself some of the failings of its foreign policy, for instance.

Here the definition of toughness just is slack-spirited, weak conformity: toughness means sharing the patriotic delusions of your countrymen and rashly and even self-destructively striking out at the first sign of danger. Toughness is the cool, hostile posturing of the adolescent. Of course, we all know what “toughness” covers up in the United States just as much as the adolescent: profound insecurity, profound weakness. Demands for “toughness” and for “experience” are demands for conformity to this weakness: they are not about American national security but about American psychological security. They demand that a certain identity, a certain self-conception, remain unscathed, that a certain public mythology be perpetuated: it is the image of toughness that is to be preserved, even if it means gravely endangering the real United States (as for example, by going to war in Iraq instead of dealing with grave domestic security problems). What is meant to be “tough” is the shell preserving the posturing psychology itself — as transparently insecure, weak, and reactively belligerent as it is.

So insofar experience is meant to convey “toughness,” it really is just another conformist rejection of real strength: independent judgment, diplomacy, self-examination and even self-critique, and a willingness to change, negotiate, compromise. Real strength comes at an incredible psychic cost, which is why most of us don’t often achieve it: it explodes the myth of one’s invulnerability. At the national level, it threatens the idea of the United States as perfect and all-powerful. It threatens our imaginary, psychological security, which demagogues then transubstantiate into national security. Real strength is not in the rigidity of one’s delusions of grandeur, but in the steadfastness of one’s willingness to engage in self-examination — as a means to well-considered decisions.

And as we have seen, that self-examination can be hindered by experience, if experience just means developing one’s uncritical acceptance of the principles of national pride and collective narcissism.

So when you hear of anyone talk about “experience” in a political context, I encourage you to ask yourself whether what they really mean is “conformity.” And when you hear anyone talk about a leader’s “toughness,” I encourage you to think of this as just a way of describing the rigidity of the surface-level shell that hides a gooey center of insecurity.

Naivete and Politicians

Some people I’ve talked to are turned off by the enthusiasm of Obama supporters. “Yes we Can” and “Hope” amounts to naivete on two counts: first there’s Obama’s lack of experience and toughness, second there is the fact that he is not a messiah — not pure, not above political calculation.

I’ve dealt with the first reason for rejecting enthusiasm, and that analysis shows that it is not entirely consistent with the second. On the one hand concerns about experience and toughness are concerns about Obama’s non-conformity; while cynicism about his motives involves a suggestion that he is more conformist than he seems.

I think it’s enough to say here that most of Obama’s supporters do not see someone as a political pure savior. They see him as someone who’s unusually decent and honest for a politician. Any amount of decency and honesty in American public discourse is a reason for enthusiasm. But beyond that, Obama supporters are enthusiastic about the implications of his character for the presidency. We may be mistaken about his character and judgment, but it is still the right criterion. That’s because we’re looking for someone who displays real strength and independent mindedness, an independence is crucial to our national security at a time when the lemmings of conformist, “experienced” belligerence are leading us over a cliff.


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A year ago I wrote a post called The Viability of Obama, in response to to friends who thought that the United States was not ready to elect a black president (and long before Obama was thought of as anything but a foil for Clinton). So yes, I’m here to congratulate myself. In part. For what I thought might form the counter-currents of Clinton’s weaknesses–anger and eliteness–were effectively turned on Obama.

Back then I thought that a) white guilt might balance out racism (although this is not the same as saying, a la Geraldine Ferraro, that Obama is only where he is because he is black); b) Americans were looking for the reassurance of a certain kind of personality — someone calm and sane; c) that Clinton was in a particularly tricky situation with regard to her own demeanor — because as a woman with a tendency towards a robotic public persona, she might seem fake and even unhinged if she tried force a warmer or more passionate identity, and overly harsh and opportunistic if she didn’t. And I thought that because of this dilemma she was in danger of being branded either as the “angry liberal” (a la Dean) or the distant “elite liberal” a la Kerry.

That’s before I knew that Clinton could combine harshness, tin-throated enthusiasm, and opportunism all in one motley package. So in that sense I was wrong: Clinton’s tough-but-occasionally-teary combo, as badly executed as it was and as see-through as I thought it should have been, helped her. While I saw her attacks and pandering as incredibly cynical, others saw this as “toughness” and “experience.” The same goes for what I see as Clinton’s delusional, entitled persistence. While I see this merely as a desperation for power, others give Clinton credit, once again, for “toughness.”

The Meaning of Toughness — Peace or Aggression?

Here, on the other hand, is what I wrote about Obama:

After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is “it’s the sanity, stupid” a possible slogan?). It’s not a high standard: please, just don’t be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It’s part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.

Obama’s weak spot was being cast as an angry black man — my point was that his calm, sincere, and sane personality (remarkably unpolitical in its way) immunized him to this. Of course I didn’t know how hard they’d try. That’s the significance of Wright, Farrakhan, Ayers, and Clinton’s talk of white voters: one goal has been to convince us that Obama really is that angry black man, still a relatively hopeless task except among there base given recent polling data and the results of Indiana. The other goal became part of Clinton’s meta-narrative: convince party leaders that a black man just can’t be elected in the United States, whatever the primary results.

The narrative of “toughness,” on the other hand, runs at cross-currents to these. On the one hand we have the claim that underneath the calm exterior is an angry black man or at least someone who will create that suspicion in white voters. On the other we have the claim that the calm exterior is a sign of weakness of the elite-liberal sort. Hence we have Clinton’s nauseating talk about 3am calls, obliterating Iran, the heat of the kitchen, her love of god and guns, how she never gives up, and so on.

We can note with sadness that there is an element of self-hatred here on the part of Clinton and her supporters — but I think that’s the inevitable result of identity politics. In this case it’s comprised of a gleeful rejection of qualities more usually associated with femininity — grace and compromise, for instance. In the harsher backwaters Obama is frequently referred to as a “pussy.” In other words, some of Clinton’s more enthusiastic supporters hate Obama precisely because of his opportunity to be … the first female president. Which is to say, Obama’s feminine qualities comprise his strength; while Clinton’s faux-masculine-toughness doth protest too much.

As part and parcel of this theme we watched the shift of Clinton and her supporters to the right: of course, this is what “new democrats” are all about. It’s why, for instance, Clinton voted for the Iraq war; and why Bush, despite his weakness, remains unchallenged by the Democratic legislature; and why the party put up Kerry in 2004. The message of toughness really is: be afraid. Be afraid that the Republicans will out-tough you.

With Obama Democrats seem to be near the realization that tough-talk just is weakness: it’s weakness when Bush does it, it’s weakness when Bush acts on it, and it’s especially weakness when Democrats cower before it by appropriating it. Countries are not made safe by preemptive wars (Germany, anyone?). They are not made safe by bluster. (Similarly, campaigns aren’t always won by going for blitzkrieg early wins, pandering, and generally acting like a macho ass).

Countries are made safe (and sometimes campaigns are won) by deliberate, cool decision making in the face of crisis. That means an openness to discussion, an element of selflessness, and the ability to run a household, to mention a few cliches of femininity that I think apply more to Obama than Clinton. But ultimately it’s a matter of the inherent toughness of inner peace — the kind that opponents have uncomprehendingly tried to brand alternately as cerebral and “elite” or a cover for an angry black man.

In a previous post I noted that Obama’s legislative accomplishments, abilities as an organizer, and the strengths of his campaign went hand in hand, and that his opponents ignored this at his peril. I think that organizational ability is closely connected to Obama’s calm. A recent Newsweek article (“Sit Back, Relax, Get Ready to Rumble”) documents this fact superbly:

Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be “no drama,” he told his aides. “I don’t want elbowing or finger-pointing. We’re going to rise or fall together.” Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.

It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles.

The ability to do battle is the kind of thing that’s supposed to make you tough. Apparently not:

Team Obama has been a model of tight, highly efficient organization, certainly in contrast to most presidential campaigns. The few tensions that have emerged have been between those who want to stick to the high ground and those who want to fight a little dirtier. (Such debates could intensify in a hard-hitting general campaign.) The campaign has at times been a little slow to fight back.

But Team Obama has been consistently able to outstrategize the opposition, and it does have a plan for the coming mud war.

This might sound like an anecdotal fairy tale if it weren’t for the way in which Obama, a freshman Senator, has methodically seized power in the Democratic party from its entrenched bosses, including the Clintons:

From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change. It’s actually very similar to Clinton from 1994-2000, where power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. He’s consolidating power within the party.

Read on to be reminded of Obama’s deadly combination of organizational and fund-raising genius with his charisma and iconic power. One might wonder why there isn’t more worry about his power than hand-wringing about his chances in a general election, especially in light of GOP weakness.

Witness the recent spectacle in which Obama was greeted as a rock star on Capitol Hill by his supporters, some Republicans, and … Hillary supporters: “The mob scene around him was Beatles-esque.”

So I rolled out this slogan and I’d like to roll it out again, as a tribute to the power of the pacifist personality: “it’s the sanity, stupid.”

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manyfacesofhil.jpgThe Obama campaign has avoided negativity and gratuitous attacks. That’s a matter of integrity, and it’s nice that someone has finally proved that it works.

On the other hand, it’s time to put Hillary out of her misery. It’s important that these attacks be fair, not be made directly by Obama himself, and that they stem from the nature of her own campaign–i.e., that they point out the implications of her own nastiness.

Some things I’d like to see:

  1. Hang McCain around Clinton’s neck the way Bush will be hung around McCain’s. If she thinks that after her, McCain is the next best commander-in-chief, then she ought to bear the burden of that view. Run ads showing her and McCain together. Point out similarities in their voting records and views–especially on Iraq, Iran, and NAFTA. Call her McCain Light. Show her with Liebermann as well, just for texture.
  2. Because Clinton is a whiny victim, ask voters whether they really want someone with a victim-mentality as commander in chief–someone who is thin-skinned and so brittle that she can’t fight a fair campaign; highlight her instability, her bizarre range of moods–from condescending scold to tearful victim, from bitter complainer to euphoric winner, from pandering flatterer to angry fear-monger, from solemn admonisher to sarcastic fool. All that takes is editing together a few clips in a way that shows her to be the bi-polar (multi-polar!) candidate that she is
  3. If Clinton counts being next to Bill Clinton at 3am when he picks up the phone as commander-in-chief experience, ask voters to compare this absurd notion to a husband having experience in law because he’s around when his lawyer wife picks up phone calls in front of him or discusses his day with him. Ask voters if we want someone who dramatically overestimates her own experience and seems unaware of her own shortcomings. Dissect her “35 years”–again, a series of images and clips are all that’s required. Her she is in law school; as a corporate lawyer; on the board of wal-mart; contrast this to Obama’s career in public service–again, visually.
  4. Clinton as an experienced manager: simply highlight the way she’s run her campaign–the short-sighted strategies that damage the party; the financial mismanagement; the internal discord
  5. Claim that Clinton cares more about herself and her power than about the party [this a very borderline strategy that if it can be done at all would have to be done well–important for Obama not to appear to be complaining or implying that he’s already won and that future primaries aren’t important]
  6. Create an ad that alternates between Clinton’s attacks and her complaints about Obama’s attacks and media coverage. One attack clip, one complaint clip. No voice-over. Just a quick line as summation at the end, something like “whether she’s on the attack or thinks she’s a victim, is Hillary Clinton in touch with reality?” It’s important that these attacks merely highlight all the inconsistencies and contradictions internal to her own logic

Update: (1) is already being rolled out:

“For seven years she aligned herself with Sen. McCain in putting all our eggs in General Musharaf’s basked,” Craig said. “And she aligned herself with Sen. McCain when they both criticized Barack Obama for taking action against al Qaeda leadership, which has taken safe havens in Pakistan. She aligned herself with Sen. McCain in supporting the Kyl-Lieberman resolution”

They need to keep this up in earnest–in public statements and in ads. There needs to be a concerted take-down of her character and emotional stability. My suggestions aren’t very nice, but a knock-out punch is required to keep her from damaging the party and Obama any further.

Update II: Larry David’s hilarious version of (2) here:

How is it that she became the one who’s perceived as more equipped to answer that 3 a.m. call than the unflappable Obama? He, with the ice in his veins, who doesn’t panic when he’s losing or get too giddy when he’s winning, who’s as comfortable in his own skin as she’s uncomfortable in hers. There have been times in this campaign when she seemed so unhinged that I worried she’d actually kill herself if she lost.

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Rescuing Maiden Hillary

This will sound like sour grapes, but here goes.

It’s a measure of the delusion of the press that they treat Clinton’s comeback as a resurgence. That’s largely a function of a taste for drama, no matter what the realities–the desire to tell a story of ups and downs, wins and comebacks. It’s also a function of a post-SNL guilt over Hillary’s “negative” press coverage, despite the fact that that coverage was caused by eleven straight losses and her extremely negative campaign. But worst, it’s a function of of a form of politically correct sexism which demands we treat a campaign that is dead in the water as if it were alive–that we extend our chivalry to a forlorn maiden whose entitlement masquerades as distress. She went through so much. The first dragons were alternately Bill Clinton and the Republican attack machine. Now it’s simply Obama; or, more fundamentally, the brute reality of what it means to lose. Ultimately, we’re being asked to make an exception for Clinton based on her sex, by a press that suddenly became worried that it had been making an exception for Obama based on his race, charisma, high-mindedness, or all three.

The reality is this: barring an assassination, scandal, or the overturning of the popular vote/pledged delegate count by party officials and activists (“super-delegates”) , Clinton cannot win. Her campaign is simply delusional, and can only result in ripping apart the Democratic party before Obama goes on to the general election.

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