Posts Tagged ‘New Hampshire’

HNN, January 9, 2008

Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative Iowa caucuses was that Senator Barack Obama defied all that media speculation about Senator Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability.” Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative New Hampshire primary was that Senator Hillary Clinton disproved all that media speculation about Senator Barack Obama’s momentum. The results for Republicans were similarly surprising, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee supposedly coming from “nowhere” to win in Iowa, and Senator John McCain “coming back” to win after pundits pronounced his candidacy dead. The 350,000 citizens who caucused in Iowa and the half a million or so New Hampshirites who voted in their state’s Democratic and Republican primaries reminded the pundits that even in modern America’s “mediaocracy,” the power remains with the people.

The late historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe the modern media’s bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland distortions of reality. Pseudo-events are moments staged for the cameras and to shape the ensuing coverage, reducing the actual participants to props. The media gabfest about the campaign, which injects idle speculation about who’s hot and who’s not between the candidates and the citizens, is a massive sustained exercise in turning America’s most sacred democratic event into a tawdry pseudo-event.

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.

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HNN, December 21, 2007


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, Hillary better do what she has done throughout her career – wow people with her brains, her work ethic, her skills. Meanwhile, she should hope that if she is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans go more with a Bob Dole or Richard Nixon type than with a Ronald Reagan replacement. In fact, Hillary Clinton has much to learn from Richard Nixon, a politician she and her peers so detested. Nixon understood that, at the end of the day, Americans know it is far more important to respect the president than to like him – or her. Hillary Clinton and her people better hope that this remains true, even amid today’s celebrity-sotted culture.

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