Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Cult" of whose personality?

Two times in the last two weeks, the New York Times has warned on its editorial pages that the Democratic and, presumably, independent voters who are deserting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in higher numbers every week to support Barack Obama risk getting pulled into the "cult of personality" that now surrounds the Illinois senator's bid for the White House.

The lead editorial in the February 6th Times concerned itself mostly with the good that will come from a competitive race between Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination. But tucked into the fifth paragraph of the editorial was a comment that the enthusiasm generated by the Obama campaign had it "teetering" on a "cult of personality" operation. Apparently, the Times doesn't believe that a candidate capable of generating excitement and interest in a presidential campaign can possibly have much of a brain to understand the intricacies of tobacco farm supports or America's softwood agreements with Canada or possess the knowledge to thwart a terrorist attack. Only a "serious" candidate like Hillary Clinton, who has "mastered" all there is to know about domestic and foreign policy, is truly equipped to lead the country. So what if she doesn't really inspire people outside her "base" of well-educated white professional women? So what if she is dreadful public speaker? So what if her Machiavellian instincts turn off voters looking for something more? Clinton supporters simply cannot grasp that informed Democrats could find solace in another candidate who is plenty smart and happens to have an engaging personality. Underneath the Clinton campaign's resentment of Obama public persona is more than just a tinge of condescension. By portraying Obama as the equivalent of a charismatic tent revivalist hawking nothing more than castor oil in a bottle to adoring crowds completely unaware that they are being swindled, Hillary is not-so-subtly playing to racial fears among some white voters that Obama is just another black street preacher on the hustle.

Paul Krugman, a regular liberal columnist on the Times Op-Ed page and normally a dead-on critic of the Bush administration's fiscal shenanigans and duplicity, wrote his worst column ever on Monday, accusing the Obama campaign of veering into "Nixonland," a phrase created by former Illinois senator and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to describe the dirty tricks and "venom" associated with the only American president ever forced to resign from office. I guess Krugman saw something soft, understanding and genuinely inclusive about Bill and Hillary's race-based assault on Obama's character, readiness and achievements in the South Carolina primary. Read this:

"I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again."
I thought about this paragraph -- a lot. I really did. For the life of me, I can't understand the relationship of a PR stunt to a presidential campaign that has seen a new, fresh face bring people into politics for the right reason who normally would have sat on the sidelines. Or one that has slowly watched fairly hardened divisions within the Democratic party based on race, income, ethnic origin and religion melt away with each of Obama's primary wins. Or how a concocted piece of political theater on an aircraft carrier is similar to well-thought out speeches by a smart man who has lived a sometimes difficult but always interesting life to which many more Americans can relate than a spoiled, superficial president who has been given everything, including the American presidency, because of his family.

What is bad about that? When Ronald Reagan looked into American homes during the 1980 presidential campaign and asked them point blank if they were better off now than they were four years ago, or questioned a sitting president's capability to defend the United States against the Soviet Union, no one condemned his communication skills as bordering on a "cult of personality." For better or worse -- worse, given Reagan's record -- his approach to politics has subsequently been hailed by liberals and moderates and others outside the Republican party as understanding the need to emphasize strong leadership and vision over the endless series of five-point plans favored by Democrats. Let Reagan lay out the agenda and the vision, and then hire the right people to carry it out. Think about it. Why has this Republican presidential campaign so far been about finding the successor to Ronald Reagan? Why didn't any of the Republican candidates market themselves as "policy-masters" and brag about their academic credentials? Because they know it doesn't matter. The last Republican left standing, John McCain, is the least detail-driven candidate of them all, more so even than Mike Huckabee. Elect me, says McCain, and I'll stand tough against terrorists, let you keep more of your money and make sure the hippies don't take over the public schools. Beyond that, there isn't much.

No single presidential aspirant before Hillary Clinton has run as a first-name candidate. No other candidate has appealed so directly to voters on the basis of a single trait, namely, in this case, gender. No other candidate has attempted to refurbish the memories of American voters, young and old, by asking them to consider the successes of her husband's presidency. No other candidate has attempted to disparage a competitor by linking their success to identity politics, in this case branding Obama as an African-American candidate appealing to racial pride. No other candidate has tried so hard to circle the wagons of the establishment Democrats around what she believes is her rightful claim to the White House. The utter shock of the Clintons after Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy endorsed Obama was palpable, a reaction that screamed, "How dare you desert us, me . . . Hillary."

Last night, Obama blazed through the Potomac primaries, obliterating Clinton in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The early analysis suggests that Obama is closing the gender and class divide that has been the fault line in his and Hillary's core followers. He won among Latinos, families earning less than $50,000 and Catholics, three constituencies that Hillary had held onto rather comfortably before the latest round of weekend primaries and yesterday's results. Obama also held onto African-Americans, Whole Foods Democrats and moderate-to-high income voters who identify themselves as marginally Democratic. This is not a "cult of personality" campaign. This is a campaign that is appealing to voters to look ahead and not behind, and offers genuine inclusiveness instead of a guarantee that one is better equipped than the other to head off the "Republican attack machine."

Sixteen years ago, Governor Bill Clinton ran a presidential campaign against an established president that emphasized his opponent's lack of touch with everyday people, especially on matters relating to health, education and social welfare. He ran as the "Man from Hope" (we found the t-shirt in our attic the other day) who could offer "hope" and "opportunity" to the disenfranchised. Sixteen years later, Hillary Clinton is attempting, unsuccessfully, to beat back a campaign run by a fresh young face by daring to suggest that hope is naive and that Americans should trust her 35 year record of "experience." That record of experience has produced not a single significant accomplishment as a public figure or public official. Baby-sitting might teach you how to change diapers and entertain irascible young children, but it doesn't prepare you how to be a parent. Living in the Governor's Mansion or working near the Oval Office doesn't equip you to become president, Hillary Clinton's insistence not withstanding. Absent a public record of real accomplishment, all you have left is to run a political campaign based on a "cult of personality" rooted in a sense of personal entitlement. And, as we have seen over the last six weeks, that doesn't necessarily work.


Jeremy said...

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody.

Oh really? CNN showed one very intriguing exit poll after the Louisiana primaries. Among Democrats, over 70 percent of Clinton voters said that they would "only be satisfied" if Clinton won. About half of Obama voters said that. The other half said they would be satisfied if either Democrat won.

Chris said...

I must respectfully, but vehemently disagree with your thoughts on this.

The "cult of personality" refers to the fact that Senator Obama's campaign is all about...Senator Obama's campaign. His argument seems to me to be, "Look at all the people I can get into a room and make cry." This is evident in his "WE are the change we seek" rhetoric.

I listen to Obama's speeches, and marvel at his oratory skills. He is the type of public speaker I dream of being someday. But I still don't know where he wants to take us as a country. He has not articulated a governing philosophy. You reference Reagan's "vision and agenda." I hear Obama's vision, but am clueless as to his agenda.

And I have to honestly say that the last sentence of your second paragraph shocked me. The substance vs. style argument is a legitimate one to make, and one that is being made in good faith by Clinton and her campaign. Accusations of racial undertones are not only insulting, but are a backhanded way of silencing legitimate debate by sucking the oxygen out of the room. Will every argument that Clinton makes be countered by accusations of "playing to racial fears?"


Chris Abbott, '05

P.S. - Happy pitchers and catchers week.

Gregg Ivers said...

I won't rehash what I've written because I stand by it. I'll simply add this . . .

The Clintons are no strangers to racial politics. Recall Governor Clinton's decision to face down Jesse Jackson in public over Sister Souljah, a B-grade entertainer. That was a calculated decision to reassure Southern white voters that he wouldn't take orders from Jesse Jackson . . . read "black leaders" deemed illegitimate in the eyes of whites.

Less flattering was Clinton's decision -- again calculated to appeal to Southern whites -- to fly home during his campaign to make sure that mentally retarded death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector's execution would proceed as planned.

And then, of course, was Clinton's support for the 1996 TANF welfare repeal measure, which eliminated the federal welfare benefit for the first time since its enactment in 1935. "Ending welfare as we know it" was a Clinton campaign pledge. Clinton knew that welfare = black in the minds of most Americans, even though more whites than blacks received the benefit.

Since your a sports fan, another way to put it is this: Larry Bird = worth ethic; Magic Johnson = "natural" athleticism. They were both extremely gifted athletes who worked hard. Why are whites tagged differently than blacks in sports? Or in music, where jazz has always taken a backseat to classical music as a "serious" art form?

We are a product of our experience, and my experience growing up in the South when I did has left me with a certain perspective on race and politics. That aside, Hillary's partisans need to be careful about projecting their candidate's "experience." 35 years of switching positions to maintain "political viability" without a significant public accomplishment is not, in the long run, a winning strategy.