THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY THAT WASN’T

Had the chance while I was back East for Rosh HaShanah to read George Stephanopoulos’ memoir, which I guess is a lot like you’d imagine it to be. Not to give away the ending, but Stephanopoulos closes with the image of Bill Clinton delivering his State of the Union in the thick of impeachment, and his final sentence is:

Wondering what might have been – if only this good president had been a better man.

This perspective on Clinton – that the great potential of his presidency was spoiled by his sex scandal – is pretty popular, but I don’t see a lot to support it. What were the big domestic or foreign policy initiatives that Clinton would have been able to push through in the last two-and-a-half years of his presidency if not for Monica Lewinsky? What’s the political strategy that would have overcome the hostility of Bob Dole’s Senate and Newt Gingrich’s House to get them through?

Sure, the Lewinsky scandal drew a lot of public, media, and congressional attention. But it’s wishful thinking to imagine that otherwise that airtime would have gone to important public policy. Bill Clinton spent much of the time he was being impeached at higher popularity than any of his peers at the same point in office. Like his wife, he did a deft job of parlaying Republican attacks into anti-anti-Clinton feeling. And if not for the impeachment overreach, it seems unlikely that the Democrats would have bucked history in 1998 by taking back House seats.

The story of a progressive savior that could have been if not for his adulterous appetites has a fun Greek tragic flair to it, but there’s not a lot to back it up. And it has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating the idea that a brilliant politician could have triangulated his way to big progressive reforms if only he’d passed up that blue dress.

THE MCCAIN STRATEGY

A couple weeks ago, the Hotline started trumpeting polling showing that 5% more Americans support a surge in Iraq when it’s described as the “McCain strategy” than as the “Bush strategy.” Like most political polls, it shows that people think differently than they think that they think – that is, few people like to think that they would come down differently on otherwise identically described plans based on who they were named after. But as a demonstration of the power of the McCain brand, I’d have to say it’s underwhelming.

John McCain, bearer of the faith of our fathers, guide to a braver life, darling of ostensibly liberal journalists and avowedly partisan Democrats, can only lift the surge from 32% to 37%? Five percent? And that’s only three percent over the support it garners with nobody’s name stamped on it.

Clearly McCain’s plan to defend his hawkish stance on the grounds that Bush failed by being insufficiently hawkish is taking a beating as Bush takes a page from his book. Now McCain is left hoping that voters give him points for the courage of his convictions, that they believe that McCain would have done the surge way better than Bush, or that the surge will have Iraqis belatedly throwing rose petals at the feet of American soldiers. Of those possibilities, none is super promising. The first is maybe the most interesting, because it provides an interesting test case on the question of how voters weigh what your issue positions say about you versus how much they agree with yours.

Paul Waldman makes a strong case that McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance reform shows that, in Mark Schmitt’s words, “It’s not what you say about the issues – it’s what the issues say about you” – that is, that McCain’s advocacy of reform is a winner not because people care about the issue one way or the other but because it casts him as a man of integrity. It’s an important point that many Democrats with a congenital need to split the difference on issues of the day would do well to remember. On the other hand, the difference between campaign finance reform and escalation in Iraq is that most Americans aren’t hell-bent against campaign finance reform – that just don’t care that much about it.

As for what this means about John McCain’s general election chances, I still think he’s a formidable opponent, certainly more so than Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback. But as a raft of polls the past few days have confirmed, he can be beaten. Which is all the more reason for progressives to seek out a candidate who would do a great job governing the country.

(POLITICAL) CHARITY CASE

Much like a lot of people who opine for reasonably-sized audiences, Cass Sunstein deems Barack Obama and John McCain both more admirable than most US Senators. His reason:

Politicians who show respect–Senator McCain is a good example–tend not to attack the competence, the motivations, or the defining commitments of those who disagree with him. Politicians who show charity as well as respect–Senator Obama is a rare example–tend to put opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the defining commitments of all sides.

In other words, McCain shows respect by criticizing just the reasoning and not the character of his opponents; Obama shows the greater virtue of charity by affirming the character of his opponents and stating their arguments in the most generous terms possible.

They do?

Of course, it would be tacky to just scrounge up a single example of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of an opponent. So let’s restrict ourselves to examples of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of the most charitable Senator in America (TM). Maybe this counts:

I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter… I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in political to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble.

As for Obama, he’s certainly outspoken on the virtues of granting those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt. After all, that was the principle behind his criticism of liberal advocacy groups that criticized Pat Leahy:

The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Senator Leahy’s motives were unjustified…the same unyielding, unbending, dogmatic approach to judicial confirmation has in large part been responsible for the kind of poisonous atmosphere that exists in this Chamber…These groups on the right and left should not resort to the sort of broad-brush dogmatic attacks that have hampered the process…

Watch as Barack Obama rises to defend the character of someone he disagrees with and – all the better to strike a blow for political charity – calls out the critics for being so “knee-jerk…unyielding, unbending…broad-brush dogmatic…” In his zeal to defend Pat Leahy’s honor, you’d almost think he was criticizing the character of those he disagrees with about the appropriate way to criticize Pat Leahy – or at least failing to present their argument in “the best possible form.”

What was the argument that drove Barack Obama into a fit of political charity? He’s too much of a gentleman to name names, but he most quoted criticism of Leahy from the left for voting for Roberts came from People for the American Way:

His decision was inexplicable, and deeply disappointing. When John Roberts becomes Chief Justice and votes to erode or overturn longstanding Supreme Court precedents protecting fundamental civil rights, women’s rights, privacy, religious liberty, reproductive rights and environmental safeguards, Senator Leahy’s support for Roberts will make him complicit in those rulings, and in the retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties.”

I suppose it’s unyielding in that PFAW hasn’t changed its position on Pat Leahy voting for John Roberts. Knee-jerk? Well, maybe they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they hadn’t put together those many-hundred-page reports on the guy. The word “complicit” earned condemnation as “vicious” from the Washington Post. But all it means is he shares some measure of responsibility for the actions on the bench of a man he voted to put there.

The more interesting question, perhaps, rather than how well Cass Sunstein’s chosen paragons live up to his chosen virtues of political respect and charity is whether these virtues – however commendable in private life – are really virtuous in public life at all. Should people who dislike social darwinism and dislike laissez-faire conservatism call foul when Barack Obama suggests the former is motivating the latter?

LISTENING TO LAURA (ET AL)

Here are the top three things that have genuinely surprised me listening to Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham, and Dennis Prager on the local right-wing radio station the past month or so:

For an ostensibly uber-populist medium, there’s sure an awful lot of complaining about the ignorance and weak will of the American people. For every denunciation of the elitism of prayer-banning, lesbian-loving, terror-supporting liberal judges (who are just like the Islamo-Nazis in their lack of faith in the people, Laura Ingraham reminds us), there are two or three denunciations of the gullibility of our Bush-betraying, 9/11-forgetting, sacrifice-disrespecting electorate. ABC’s docu-drama, Hugh Hewitt insists, was assailed by the Democrats because it had the potential to remind an ungrateful citizenry of the risk posed by the bad men and the weak men who wouldn’t fight them. Michael Medved is doing his part by quizzing his callers about their ability to match terrorists with the buildings they tried to blow up – and then mocking them for not keeping up with the news. Turns out it’s the conservatives who are the pointy-headed know-it-alls.

More surprising has been the preponderance of product placement. Having trouble sleeping well as your kids return to public schools full of multiculturalism, sodomy, and self-esteem? Laura Ingraham can recommend a really comfortable mattress. Stressed over the preponderance of porn on the net? Michael Medved has just the safe-surf product for you – and it blocks those annoying pop-ups too! Looking to find a nice home safe from hoodlums and single parents? Check out Hugh Hewitt’s real estate agent!

And here some of us thought there were underlying contradictions between social conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism…

But perhaps the biggest surprise of my dalliance with the medium has been the enduring popularity of George W. Bush among some of the supposed leaders of a base that’s supposedly up in arms against the man. Sure, there’s talk of differences with the President, but it’s mostly that: references to having differences with the President in the context of defending him. Part of the explanation here is that Bush is a very conservative president. Call me cynical, but leading conservatives’ increasingly shrill protestations to the contrary are in large part about protecting the conservative brand from an unpopular product. These folks don’t seem to have gotten that memo (neither have the liberals who go on about how Bush isn’t conservative). But I think there’s something more going on here aside from policy.

These radio hosts spend less time defending the conduct of Bush’s war than they do the sincerity of his religious faith – which, they insist, is what maddens the left about him most. George Bush, like Hillary Clinton – who’s done much less for the left than Bush has for the right – has a popularity with a certain base as an icon based not just on what he believes but on what his beliefs and his biography together suggest about the kind of person he is (Paul Waldman would say this is about ethos rather than logos). Just as Clinton has a certain base of support that will stay loyal because she’s a brilliant woman who built a successful career and has withstood years of nasty attack by right-wing radio hosts, no matter what she says about trade of flag-burning, Bush has a certain base that will stay loyal because he’s an ostensibly straight-talking Texan who doesn’t respect the New York Times or the UN, no matter what he says about spending or immigration. Bush and Clinton each have a certain following who will cleave to them in good part because of the vituperation inspired in the other side. I think it’s clear, between Clinton’s loyalists and Bush’s, which group I think is getting taken for more of a ride.

FAIR POINT

Now that I’ve not endorsed a certain kind of endorsement of Lieberman over Lamont, let me criticize the criticism of one of Lieberman’s criticisms of Lamont. The Lieberman camp caused a stir with this flyer distributed at Black churches contending that Lieberman has a much stronger record on race than Lamont. The flyer plays up Lieberman’s support from Bill Clinton and highlights Lieberman’s civil rights activism four decades ago, of which the Senator has every right to be proud. I’d question the invocation of Bill Clinton, who called Sister Souljah a hate-monger and Charles Murray a social scientist, as an authority on the interests of African-Americans. And I’d say the Lamont campaign is right to point out that it’s Lieberman who’s flirted with fraying affirmative action.

But the centerpiece of the flyer – an indictment of Lamont’s membership in an elite country club – strikes me as a fair point (which isn’t to say that it should change anyone’s vote). While it’s irresponsible to paraphrase Lamont’s statement that he didn’t consider the lack of diversity of the club as saying that he “didn’t pay as much attention to race,” and while the details of the club’s membership remain hazy, for Lamont to say that he resigned from the club because he didn’t want it to “become a distraction” in the Senate race is an uninspiring response at best.

Predictably, Lieberman’s campaign has been charged with “race-baiting,” which is a term which somehow tends to get trotted out with far more frequency in American political discourse to refer to accusations of racism towards Blacks than to refer to appeals to it. It would of course be specious to call Lamont a racist based on his membership in an elite club, and Lieberman’s flyer doesn’t do that. It suggests that Lamont is insensitive to race, and to make that argument, it emphasizes an embarrassing episode for him and makes no mention of the choices he’s made that cast him in a far more positive light. So while I don’t agree with the characterization, it’s hard for me to take seriously the claims that the evidence offered should be out of bounds.

I’m all for voting for politicians based more on their vision on the issues and less on their perceived character. But to the extent that people care about character – especially in primaries, where in most cases there are less stark differences than the ones we see in Connecticut – I think there are worse things to take into consideration than the organizations in which candidates claim membership. It’s a far more reasonable criticism than, say, GOP accusations that Ted Strickland and his wife are closeted homosexuals.

Ned Lamont, of course, has still got my vote. And I have no doubt that as an advocate for a more just and sane foreign policy, and for a domestic policy which keeps the provision of public support a public responsibility and the devices of private corporations where they belong, he will do far more to protect and advance civil rights in the US Senate over the next six years than Joe Lieberman will.

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.