Archive for May, 2008

HNN, May 25, 2008

Hillary Clinton’s supposedly controversial invocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination was not only benign, it was precisely the kind of thing historians do all the time. Trying to explain why she did not think it unreasonable to remain in the presidential race, Senator Clinton first noted that her husband’s successful 1992 campaign ran until June. Then, logically, reasonably, she mentioned the most famous June primary in American history, Robert Kennedy’s surprise win in California, which was followed by his assassination.

The fact that we are approaching the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and that his surviving brother Ted Kennedy has been in the news lately, made Clinton’s mention even more reasonable. As she mentioned while backpedaling, she — along with many other Americans – has certainly had the Kennedy family on her mind lately.

Whether pro-Hillary or not, historians in particular should defend Hillary. Historians frequently refer to previous incidents to explain current behavior. To perceive hidden agendas in such analogizing is unreasonable. True, Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated that June; but he also was running in a race that remained wide open that month too. Senator Clinton was in no way calling for an assassination or warning of one. Simply writing that previous statement emphasizes how absurd the charges are. Analogies by nature are selective. The analogizer has the right to pick or choose within reason, as Senator Clinton did in this case.

The real question, of course, is why people are so quick to pounce on Hillary Clinton’s words and impute such horrific motives to her. The answer points to one of the big surprises of this campaign season: the way the partly anticipated Clinton-fatigue has morphed into Clinton-disgust. Democrats who were the chief enablers of Bill Clinton’s hardball politics in the 1990s now profess surprise at both Clintons’ hardball tactics. The cheers have turned into jeers. Clearly, it is one thing when Democrats play tough with Republicans; that seems to be okay. But seeing the Clintons deploy their characteristic sharp-elbow tactics against a fellow Democrat – -and an idealistic African-American Democrat at that – has led to this Democratic wake-up call, slowed Hillary Clinton’s momentum at critical moments, and badly tarnished Bill Clinton’s legacy.

Still, in a long list of Clinton curveballs, sleights-of-hand, manipulations and lies, Hillary Clinton’s innocent Kennedy comments don’t rank. But, for most candidates, when even harmless comments cause massive headaches, that usually is one more sign that it is time to call it quits. So far, Hillary Clinton has refused to read any of those signs. Whether that obtuseness ultimately leads to victory or to even more backlash remains to be seen, but the smart money remains on the latter.


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HNN, May 21, 2008

To counterattack or not to counterattack, is one of the most vexing questions campaigns face. Democrats – with the dramatic exception of Bill Clinton and his War Room – have frequently taken the high road when attacked, and lost. The failures of Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 to respond to Republican assaults seem to justify more aggressive responses. But sometimes, silence is golden. Sometimes counterattacking simply publicizes the initial attack. Looking at last week’s great appeasement brouhaha, Barack Obama overreacted by counterattacking, and may have fallen into a White House trap.

George W. Bush clearly was being mischievous when, speaking to the Israeli Knesset, he quoted Senator William Borah’s tragically naïve and utterly self-involved exclamation at the start of World War II. Dismissing talk of negotiating with “terrorists and radicals” as a “foolish delusion” we have heard before, Bush said: “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history,” Bush proclaimed.

Obama condemned this “false political attack” and led a chorus of Democrats shocked that a president would politick on foreign soil. All innocence, the White House press secretary Dana Perino denied that the Knesset remark had anything to do with Obama: “I understand when you’re running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you. That is not always true. And it is not true in this case,” she said. This was White House speak for the old schoolyard taunt, “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

Presidential pronouncements from Israel about American-Israeli friendship rarely generate headlines. But all of a sudden, whether or not Obama had been accused of appeasement – and was an appeaser – dominated the news. As a result, Obama’s name became more linked than ever with the appeasement charge. This linkage is doubly problematic for Obama. Not only does the controversy broadcast the Republican charge that Obama is too soft, too left, too willing to negotiate away American honor. It also publicizes the broader question: having talked his way from obscurity to the precipice of the presidency so quickly, will the 46-year-old wunderkind be too enamored of his own skills, too swayed by his own silver tongue? By contrast, John McCain, the grizzled war veteran, looks sober, mature, reliable.

In fairness to Obama, he also has to prove that he is not a wimp. Especially after the “swiftboating” of John Kerry, Democrats are anxious for a return to the days of the Clinton counterpunchers – although it seems without a Clinton in charge. One of Bill Clinton’s great triangulating skills was playing off two political personae, as the populist and the progressive, as “Bubba” and the Yalie, or, as was often said “Saturday night Bill” and “Sunday morning Bill.” Obama has a harder task here. Having floated to the top so quickly as the saint of centrism, as a seeker of civility, Obama cannot emphasize the hand-to-hand political combat skills he must have picked up during his apprentice in Chicago politics. At the same time, if Republicans smell weakness, they will pounce.

Fortunately for Obama, McCain is encased in a similar pair of silk handcuffs. McCain also has built his reputation as the Republican rebel, as the party maverick always willing to cross lines, build bridges, promote civility. It is hard to make nice while brandishing a stiletto.

Moreover, while Obama took the White House bait and bristled defensively that he was not an appeaser, the White House trap did not help McCain as much as it could have. One of McCain’s great strengths is appearing to be the Republican most distant from Bush; embraces from an unpopular lameduck president are not what the party maverick needs. And, as in 1992, when another young, relatively unknown Democratic politician defeated an older, more experienced, former war hero, this election does not appear to be about foreign policy thus far – it is, as it was in the election wherein Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton unseated the incumbent President George H.W. Bush, “the economy, stupid.”

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HNN, May 15, 2008

Hillary Clinton’s crass appeal to “hard-working,” white voters, along with her big victories in mostly white states like West Virginia, risk making this race about race. Lower-class white men, once overwhelmingly hostile to Hillary Clinton, have rallied around her. Unfortunately, it took a black man to rehabilitate this most hated woman. Barack Obama’s North Carolina victory last week, based on the large African-American vote, reinforced the impression of growing racial polarization. It is easy to blame America’s tortured racial past for this unfortunate development. But Republicans and Democrats are also guilty of stoking the race issue.

It is tragic that race now looms so large. In his magnificent national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama positioned himself to heal America’s great divides, not exacerbate them. Moreover, although Toni Morrison’s labeling Bill Clinton “our first black president” may have been one of the stupidest, and racially stereotypical, comments made during the whole Monica Lewinsky farce, no one can deny the once-strong ties between both Clintons and the African-American community. Throughout 2007, as Obama and Hillary Clinton gathered support, he seemed less like the “black candidate,” she seemed less like the “woman candidate.” Clinton’s problems were that she was “Hillary” and a “Clinton” not that she was a she. Obama’s obstacle was he was too green not too black.

Unfortunately, despite America’s tremendous racial progress, both political parties frequently make racial appeals. The elusive white, male, working class voter, sometimes called Joe Six Pack, sometimes called the Reagan (formerly Roosevelt) Democrat, has been subjected to steady if subtle racially-based appeals. Since Richard Nixon demanded “Law and Order” in 1968, too many Republicans have indulged in subtle racial demagoguery. The failure of the society – and particularly of liberal Democrats – to face the challenge of crime made it easier, but this politics of resentment has not just been a politics of fear. Fights over busing and affirmative action in the 1970s and 1980s exceeded the rational clash of interests, becoming irrational – and pathological. Ronald Reagan was not personally racist – and took great offense when he was accused of bigotry. But he was tone deaf to African-American sensitivities. I have found no evidence that he ever discouraged the Republican Southern white strategy, using crime, busing and affirmative action to gain white votes by stirring white fears.

Jack Kemp, the veteran Republican Congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee, stood out as the rare national Republican who wooed African-Americans. Describing himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative,” Kemp proved it as George H.W. Bush’s Housing Secretary. In visiting inner-cities repeatedly, constantly denouncing South African Apartheid, and recoiling at racist appeals, no matter how subtle, Kemp showed how to be a tax-cutting but not race-baiting conservative.

At the same time, the Democratic commitment to identity politics guaranteed that race and gender would become major factors in 2008, as they have been for decades. So much of Democratic politics is predicated on identity politics, treating individuals as part of their subgroup rather than as independent-minded Americans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have tapped into that consciousness. Obama has used his base in the black community, and the exciting prospects of becoming the first black president, just as Clinton has exploited her shot to become the first woman president.

Moreover, both have had major supporters quick to characterize standard campaign criticism as sexist or racist. The New York Times op-ed page has been particularly complicit here. The Times published a William Julius Wilson op-ed claiming that the Clinton campaign’s ad wondering who should be in charge at 3 A.M. was rife with racist allusions. The Times also published Gloria Steinem’s equally absurd lament that Hillary Clinton’s well-deserved loss in the Iowa caucus proved that Americans were more sexist than racist.

Identity politics demands a one-way street. Blacks can appeal to blacks, and perceive racism, even when it may not exist. Women are praised for reaching out to their sisters, and crying “sexism” if criticized. True, campaigns are about mobilizing key supporters and trying to turn any criticisms back on the accuser. But, as long as blacks, women or members of other groups perceive prejudice in the normal flow of campaigning, identity politics will breed Balkanization not unity.

This campaign has already demonstrated how emphasizing the racial component or gender appeals damages the body politic. American race relations and gender relations remain fragile. But in a polyglot democracy, subgroup appeals are inevitable. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis tapped Greek-American pride to raise Greek-American money in his bid to become the first Greek-American President. Twelve years later, Senator Joe Lieberman tapped American Jewish pride to raise American Jewish money in his bid to become the first American Jewish Vice President. These actions were less fraught with baggage, because the white ethnic immigrants who were perceived as so foreign when Al Smith ran for President in 1928 are today so much better integrated.

Barack Obama’s campaign testifies to the great racial progress achieved in twenty-first century America. But given some of the poison that has seeped out from the grassroots – or been stirred by his rivals – Obama’s quest for the presidency shows that America still has a long way to go. In fact, Americans no longer are even sure if they desire an America without any subgroup consciousness, which is hard enough to achieve, or the impossible dream of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too society where Americans have strong but only positive subgroup associations with no attending backlash or rival resentments.

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HNN, May 7, 2008


Historians should be careful not to pronounce a contest over till it’s over, so I will not join the pundit pile-on eulogizing Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, the conventional wisdom about this fight’s impact may be wrong. Hillary Clinton’s relentless push for the nomination may have strengthened Barack Obama not weakened him.

The lengthy American presidential campaign does not proceed in straight lines but in waves, with dramatic ups and downs. This is not necessarily a natural phenomenon but usually a media-driven mania. Reporters frequently build up candidates, then knock them down or build them up after knocking them down. Skilled – and lucky – candidates can win by having the inevitable downturns far enough away from Election Day not to hurt. John McCain, for example, benefited from bottoming out last summer and fall, long before Republicans started choosing their nominee. He was able to come on strong in the winter when it counted.

Moreover, Democratic primary voters are prone to buyers’ remorse. The modern politician who has most benefited from this tendency is that old warhorse, Jerry Brown. Brown, the current Attorney General of California and former wunderkind Governor of the same state, enjoyed late surges in two presidential campaigns. Each time, Brown eventually lost but only after giving a relatively inexperienced contender enough of a scare so that the come-from-nowhere Democrat became the eventual winner in the general election campaign. In 1976, Democrats turned to Brown when they started wondering about Jimmy Carter; sixteen years later, Brown’s campaign attracted votes in the spring from Bill Clinton, as he marched toward the nomination.

In fact, thanks to Brown, the rise of Ross Perot, and his own scandal-laden past, Bill Clinton faced a major crisis in the late spring of 1992. His advisers launched the grandiosely named “Manhattan Project,” a secret initiative to analyze Clinton’s weaknesses and figure out the secret ingredients needed to propel him to victory. Given Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996, people tend to forget how unpopular he was, even after he had clinched the nomination.

When his advisers presented him with data detailing how little Americans trusted him, Clinton exploded: “So far as I’m concerned, we’re at zero,” the Arkansas governor fumed. “We’re a negative. We’re off the screen. We don’t exist in the national consciousness. We might as well have been like any member of Congress and kissed every ass in the Democratic Party. I don’t think you can minimize how horrible I feel, having worked all my life to stand for things, having busted my butt for seven months and the American people don’t know crap about it after I poured $10 million worth of information into their heads.”

Ultimately, this crisis helped Clinton and his advisors recast the campaign’s message – and take the White House. Candidates need to be tested. One of the unlucky breaks Hillary Clinton experienced was that she — and her staffers – floated to re-election during the 2006 New York Senate race. As a result, they entered the 2008 presidential campaign soft, relatively un-tested, and far too self-assured.

Similarly, had Barack Obama seized the nomination after his meteoric rise in February, his campaign would have been an overinflated balloon, soaring high but easily popped. Most notably, given how deep Obama’s ties are to the ministerial hate-monger Jeremiah Wright, it was far better for that embarrassment to be aired this spring than next fall. Obama has had time to figure out how to deal with this and — after repeated hesitations — make the necessary break. Timing counts. Just as the Clinton campaign probably could have derailed the entire Obama phenomenama had Hillary’s people done their homework and exposed the wrongheaded Wright in January, if Obama is lucky, by the fall Americans will be more concerned with “the economy, stupid,” than with Obama’s passivity in the face of Wright’ repeated affront to American values.

Hillary Clinton’s tough fight against Barack Obama has toughened Obama. The Democratic primary campaign has focused Obama on the need to hone a message that reaches working class whites. The early exposure to the Wright controversy may have inoculated the public against further outbreaks of this particular affliction. If – and I make no predictions – Barack Obama ends up winning the White House, he just may have to thank Hillary Clinton for her unintended help along the way.

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