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November 19, 2007

Wilentz on Clinton

The historian Sean Wilentz is one of our more able, and more important, political thinkers, and for reasons that aren't exactly clear to me, I rather assumed he'd side with Barack Obama. But Wilentz, in Newsweek, endorsed Hillary Clinton. And his reasoning is fascinating:

So you don't find Obama's meta-arguments against "politics as usual" particularly convincing?
You cannot have a president who doesn't like politics. You will not get anything done. Period. I happen to love American politics. I think American politics is wonderful. I can understand why people don't. But one of the problems in America is that politics has been so soured, people try to be above it all. It's like Adlai Stevenson. In some ways, Barack reminds me of Stevenson.

There's always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one of them. Tsongas was one of them. They're the people who are kind of ambivalent about power. "Should I be in this or not... well, yes, because I'm going to represent something new." It's beautiful loserdom. The fact is, you can't govern without politics. That's what democracy is. Democracy isn't some utopian proposition by which the people suddenly rule. We're too complicated a country for that. We have too many interests here. You need someone who can govern, who can build the coalition and move the country forward.

Wilentz also, I think, overestimates Hillary's political appeal and her accomplishments within the New York electorate. Additionally, he sort of hand waves away the Right's loathing of her, and the possibility that she generates a unique cultural hatred among segments of the population. But his argument as to her pragmatism, her comfort with the politics of politics, seems more accurate by the day.

November 19, 2007 | Permalink


Can you name a single democratic president of the last century that the right hasn't loathed? Carter? CLinton? Wilson?

People like Sean Hannity complain that there aren't democrats like FDR and Truman any more, but at the time, they were demonized with a passion to an even greater extent than the Clintons. McCarthy, supported by the Republican leadership, used to talk about "20 years of treason" by the democrats. There was even semi serious talk among some capitalists and the army about a coup during the Roosevelt administration. I'd say only Kennedy got even semi respect among the right wing of the time.

Posted by: mad6798j | Nov 19, 2007 12:00:42 PM

You cannot have a president who doesn't like politics. You will not get anything done.

Moreover, at some level everyone knows this. So when you have a candidate like Obama who claims to be trying to rise above politics, that candidate registers as either slick or an effete egg-head.

Obama, of course, is not a "Stevenson candidate". He's more slick JFK than effete Stevenson. And that is not a good thing. Fortunately, if Obama does get elected, he seems to have a lot better advisors than JFK's crew (who weren't too much different than the neo-cons in their hubris), so he won't lay the groundwork for a Vietnam-style conflict as JFK's crew did.

BTW -- what does that say about Bush: even JFK managed to navigate through the Cuban Missile crisis (oddly, IIRC, it was Acheson of all people who was the one advising self-destructive levels of hawkishness!) ...


Anyway, that a candidate should not be trying to come off as "I'm above politics" doesn't mean a candidate should let himself/herself be perceived as a political hack. I'm not sure where the balance lies, either in rhetoric (which GWB -- contra his later record as President, which record was easily predictable by those of us who could see through his rhetoric -- actually did quite well, in his own "quaint" way in 2000) or in practice, but candidates must be careful to neither appear too slick (the "I'm above politics" act ends up signaling to the voters that the candidate is, in fact, a political hack) nor too hackish.

I guess the thing, pace Wilentz and my earlier comments, may in fact be to convince the voters you really do find politics distasteful, but to be subtle enough about it that you don't come off as slick: e.g. to send the message of "I don't like politics any more than you do, but you'll be paying me to advance things through the political process, so I'll be more than willing to play the game to look out for your interests".

Unfortunately, Dems. either love the political game too much or they are too busy not wanting to play the game (in part for legitimate ideological reasons: we believe in the efficacy of government, so the political process is not a mere game to us -- that's why all the "horse racing" and "sportsmanship" and other such political framing so benefits the GOP: it re-enforces their underlying ideological framework about the role of governance and politics) that they come off as either slick and dishonest ("oh ... he loves politics just as much as the others, he's just lyin' about it") or as effete eggheads who won't be able to actually accomplish anything.

Posted by: DAS | Nov 19, 2007 12:06:50 PM

Another, related question (that came up when talking with a conservative friend): how do people get their ideas of what liberalism is about and who liberals are?

I reckon that if you asked many people to label whether various points of view are liberal and whether they agree with those points of view, they'd label many liberal points of view as agreable and attribute many points of view and characteristics to liberals that don't really apply to all but a few strawmen. So how do people have these strawmen in their heads? And what can we do to rebrand liberalism so the brand better matches the actuality?

The reason why I point this out here is the issue that people will claim they want X and then when X is presented to the incarnation of X is dismissed as too effete -- just as people may claim they want policies that really are supported in the political sphere by liberals but those same people would never vote for a liberal, as they'd view that liberal as too effete or hippy-dippy.

And the example of the Stevenson candidate is just what I mean. If you ask people, they say that they want that kind of candidate -- that they don't want someone too political but rather someone ambivalent about power. And such candidates always do horribly. People inevitably respond when actually presented with a Stevenson candidate "oh that guy is too technocratic" or "too effete" or "too hippy-dippy", etc.

So which is correct: are people correct when they say they want such a candidate? or, as Wilentz suggests, is the Stevenson candidate really a bad leader as s/he cannot and/or will not actually make the political moves to get things done ... and people not liking the Stevenson candidate in practice really are avoiding what they know subconsciously to be bad even if they'll always say they hate politics and politicos, etc.?

So how do we bridge the gap? How do we bridge the gap between what people say they want and their perception of incarnations of what they say they want being dismissed by those same people as "effete, hippy-dippy" types?

Posted by: DAS | Nov 19, 2007 12:25:58 PM

I'd really like to ask him more about Edwards, who combines a more gritty attitude towards political strategy than Obama with more substantively left-wing positions than Hillary.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 19, 2007 12:36:03 PM

"Additionally, he sort of hand waves away the Right's loathing of her, and the possibility that she generates a unique cultural hatred among segments of the population."

Jimmy Carter: Spineless, terrorist-appeasing, job-destroying son-of-a-bitch.

Bill Clinton: Murderous, corrupt, womanizing, lawbreaking, Republic-demolishing, semen-spewing demon motherfucker.

Al Gore: Smug, self-serving, uptight, Communist-funded, arrogant, exaggerating, pants-on-fire braying mule / asshole.

John Kerry: Flip-flopping, America-hating, terrorist-loving, troop-sodomizing, honor-stealing traitorous hippie sack of shit.

Hillary Clinton:

...honestly, are there people who still haven't figured this out yet? For the love of God, Ezra, please, I beg you, name one Democrat the Republicans will not irrationally loathe and slander until the end of time, like the baboon screeching and clawing at his reflection in the mirror day after day until it keels over of old age.

(And "independent"/"petitioning" Democrats don't count.)

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Nov 19, 2007 1:11:01 PM

What mad and scarshapedstar said.

The argument that Hillary riles up the Right too much accepts that she will cause enough of them to come out to vote against her that it will tip the election to the Republican, but I don't see why we should assume they'll stay home if the Democrats nominate Obama or Edwards. What kind of plan is that? Victory through boredom?

And what about all the Democrats who will be fired up to vote for Hillary or against Giuliani? Progressives may not like her, but lots of other sorts of Democrats are crazy about her.

There's also an assumption that voters will blame Hillary for the Right's loud and angry hatred of her. The precedent is that the opposite happens. Hillary became a viable candidate for President in 1998 when the Right put all its energy into destroying her and her husband.

Plus, the election's not going to be any less nasty if the Democrats don't run the bitch and run the Breck Girl or Hussein instead. (And who thinks that if Obama is the nominee there's not going to be a renewed Republican "Southern strategy"?)

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Nov 19, 2007 1:42:26 PM

I beg you, name one Democrat the Republicans will not irrationally loathe and slander until the end of time - scarshapedstar

You have given Young Ezra an impossible task. And Nu? Of course the GOP will slander candidates this way ... it's called politics ...

The real question is why so many Americans buy into the GOP framing of who the Dems are? Why, when so many Americans list the qualities they like in a President, do they list qualities that perfectly describe Adlai Stevenson, and then, when confronted with someone like Stevenson, do they spout the GOP framing that a Stevenson candidate is bad and/or decide to buy into the GOP description of the Dem. candidate as something rather the opposite of what s/he really is?

Posted by: DAS | Nov 19, 2007 1:49:25 PM

scarshapedstar: You forgot on Kerry -- long-faced, Massachusetts tax & spend French speaker.

There will be no amount of Democratic unity and happiness with any candidate which will in the slightest degree affect the mountain of lying, fraudulent slime with which the GOP will attack the Democratic candidate.

Posted by: El_Cid | Nov 19, 2007 1:50:51 PM

PS. Just for the record. I like all three, and Christopher Dodd, and I'm not making a case against either Edwards or Obama or for Clinton. I just don't think the Right's reaction to any of them is something the Democrats should be taking into consideration.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Nov 19, 2007 1:51:07 PM

"I just don't think the Right's reaction to any of them is something the Democrats should be taking into consideration."

On some level, I don't want to disagree with this statement, but realize I must. The assumption implicit here is that the Right is a monolith. In the media, yes, they are. As voters- not so much. Clinton maybe less palatable to a right of center voter who has been taught to hate her, but another Democrat might not have this history. If your point is, however, about the media- then sure, but if it's about what I just discussed, the voter,t hen you run into problems.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 19, 2007 2:12:14 PM

ps- this isn't to take away from the thesis about brand. it's to add the point that people confuse history with brand- they are related, but pretending that one democrat is the same as another is a blurry of the lines that the Clinton campaign has been arguing throughout the primary. It's a falsehood. One democrats is not t he same as another- even for right leaning voters.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 19, 2007 2:20:28 PM

Wilentz is literally being stupid here. You don't support someone (for President, lower offices can be different) solely because of their log-rolling political skills. Otherwise, you'd be advocating for Lee Atwater or Richard Daley or Lee Kuan Yew. Rather, you support them because they have a proper balance of log-rolling skills prudently employed on behalf of your policy goals.

First, it's absolutely uncertain whether Hillary has even above-average log-rolling skills. She's certainly not even that notable of a Senator. Stacked up against the historic politicos of that chamber, Hillary doesn't look particularly great. Her one major policy proposal (HillaryCare) suffered in particular from a massive lack of log-rolling skills on her part. Second, people are quite naturally concerned about her policy goals (insofar as she can be said to have any coherent ones).

Posted by: burritoboy | Nov 19, 2007 2:48:42 PM

I just don't think the Right's reaction to any of them is something the Democrats should be taking into consideration.

I'm kinda with akaison, for possibly different reasons-- I don't think we should expect to somehow avoid the sliming, but I do think we should weigh the energy spent on defending our candidate against the likely policy and long-term political payoffs. It seems to me that there are two legitimate problems with having to deal with having the forces of evil assembling against another Clinton: one is the coattails issue and the likelihood that we may make fewer gains than we should in state/local/congressional races with her at the head of the party, and the other is that few of us trust her to do right by progressivism in general and the Democratic Party in particular. It was depressing enough to be forced to defend her husband when his policies so often seemed to the right of Nixon's, and now that we should be positioned to actually sell real liberal ideas, we're defaulting to mere managerial competence as our big advantage. Woo-hoo.

Dunno... I'm obviously an enemy of HRC and have been dismissed as everything from an immature left-wing kook to a misogynist (!), but the bottom line is that after twenty-plus years of liberalism, I just can't say that being a Clinton Democrat actually means anything, other than not being a right-wing nutjob.

Posted by: latts | Nov 19, 2007 3:05:05 PM

Clinton maybe less palatable to a right of center voter who has been taught to hate her, but another Democrat might not have this history - akaison

I agree with you in theory ... but what other Democrat? The problem is that (at least from the few right of center voters I know -- see note below the asterisk) they are not only taught to hate HRC, but they also already have decided they can't stand Obama 'cause he's "slick" and that "Edwards is a joke". Meanwhile, Dodd has long been a bete noir for the right, Biden's looking good right now, but if he runs it'll be

see, the Dems. really are hypocrites when they claim to stand for the 'common man' -- what has Biden done to stand up for the common man rather than for the banks which are bleeding y'all dry? ... at least the GOP makes no claim to be on 'your side' when it comes to economics issues ... but we do promise to lower taxes [so you'll think we're promising to lower your taxes] and anyway, we're against allowing icky people to do icky things, so why not vote for the GOP

Even if Richardson runs, they could do a version of this, given Richardson's views on free trade.

The point is no Democrat is immune from the GOP's sliming. The question is, given the predictibility of it all, why haven't the Dems. learned how to respond to it? And the bigger question is how the GOP manages to define liberalism as it does so that many people who would support a liberal agenda somehow come to think that any liberal presented to them is either stupid, effete or evil incarnate?


Of course, the big things for the right of center voters I know are abortion and taxes. What can we do to gain the support of a voter (even one who is otherwise more supportive of the Democratic agenda than that of the GOP) who thinks that enforcing anti-abortion laws (*), which would necessarily involve knowing who's pregnant, etc., so you'd know who has potentially "lost" a fetus, are not horrendous impositions on privacy but that filling out tax returns is a horrendous imposition? OTOH, some right of center voters already are confirmed Dems because we are pro-choice and have become the party of fiscal responsibility and no matter what we do, they will still vote Dem. even if they are self-styled conservatives and we run a complete moon-bat for President.

*and while there is sometimes a point to having laws you don't intend to enforce on the books, if you think abortion is killing of innocent babies, why would you not intend to enforce any abortion ban you support, but if you don't think that (n.b. the converse is not true) abortion is killing of innocent babies, why would you be in favor of banning any sort of abortion?

Posted by: DAS | Nov 19, 2007 3:31:13 PM

"... I don't see why we should assume they'll stay home if the Democrats nominate Obama or Edwards. What kind of plan is that? Victory through boredom?"

Hah. Good one.

Posted by: Kyle | Nov 19, 2007 7:41:32 PM

What's funny is how selective this historical revuew all seems. Stevenson is criticized for acting as if he was above the petty, beltway political feuds of his day. But the man he ran against and got clobbered by twice had a similar schtick, didn't he? Carter didn't save the free world, but he also pulled off the above-the-fray outsider image in '76 when people were tired of years of beltway insularity. And if this thing turns into a Clinton dynasty succeeding the Bush dynasty, it will be very easy for America to become tired of beltway insularity all over again.

So I'm sticking with Obama. And if I finally decide I want someone more politically aggressive, I'll go with Edwards before HRC.

Posted by: sweaty guy | Nov 19, 2007 7:42:26 PM

"... I don't see why we should assume they'll stay home if the Democrats nominate Obama or Edwards. What kind of plan is that? Victory through boredom?"

Thats the lamest argument ever. If you don't think intensity matter, you really don't have anything worthwhile to say about politics.

Posted by: Soullite | Nov 20, 2007 1:40:10 PM

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