Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Numerology and its discontents

After Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination after last week's South Dakota and Montana primaries, mainstream pundits fully expected Hillary Clinton to concede the nomination to her opponent after word quickly leaked that she would give a public address on her campaign's status in Manhattan the following day.

She didn't.

Instead, she engaged in another unapologetic exercise in narcissistic self-love, insisting that she had really "won" the popular vote (which she didn't, unless you count Michigan and Florida, which both campaigns agreed last fall wouldn't count because of their decisions to flout the DNC's primary rules). Mortified that she lost the Democratic nomination to a young, appealing colleague in the Senate, Hillary continued to insist that she was the most qualified candidate in the race and would make the best president. On and on she went, so enamored with herself and awash in another round of self-pity, this time that her loss was due not to her limits as a candidate or anything she had said or done, but because she was a woman, that she used the pronoun "I" 64 times in her speech. The Democratic party's attention -- indeed, the nation's -- should have been on Obama's historic selection as the first American of African heritage to run for the nomination of a major political party and win, almost 45 years after last great stage of the African-American civil rights movement had turned the corner towards the great victories that would begin the long, slow and still-incomplete process of integrating blacks into the American mainstream. That would have required giving credit to where credit was due, and that simply is not Bill or Hillary Clinton's style.

By Saturday, though, she had recovered enough to give the best speech of her campaign -- poignant, graceful and articulate . . . maybe even (gulp) genuine? -- in which she officially conceded the Democratic nomination to Obama. Perhaps this was finally the real Hillary taking center stage -- strong, forceful, empathetic and respectful of her opponent while taking just the right amount of credit for her breakthrough campaign -- and not the manufactured, poorly-advised, inauthentic and tone-deaf candidate who went from Marie Antoinette to Annie Oakley to Erin Brokovich in the last six months on the campaign trail. Bill and Hillary still have much to account for in their choice of campaign tactics -- the stream of "poor-Hillary-if-only-she-weren't-a-girl" political eulogies flowing forth in the mainstream media notwithstanding -- especially the overt racial appeal that she made (and a complicit mainstream media let her get away with by shifting the burden to Obama to defend his "problem" with the "white, working class) to the HillaryBillies who freely admitted to exit pollsters that they were voting for her because she was white. At some point, Hillary should have said, "For those of you voting for me and/or against my opponent because he is African-American, let me be clear: I do not want your vote." That one, small gesture could have done much to repair her standing in the African-American community and among white voters that do not share her appetite for polarizing politics. But that's not where her votes were.

Still, over a week later, there is still a reluctance or perhaps unwillingness of so many mainstream commentators and "political experts" to come to grips with the Clintons' failure, Obama's success and the "anything goes" political landscape that awaits Obama and John McCain. Here are three myths that need a fresh look:

1. The Clinton dynasty is over. This is, for me, the most peculiar of the narratives that the mainstream political-media establishment has promoted over the last six months. Take this sentence from a New York Times piece on Hillary's Saturday concession speech:

"Yet while she emphasized its trailblazing nature as she exited the race, her campaign also represented a back-to-the-future effort to restore the Democratic dynasty of the 1990s that could never quite escape the past."

"Dynasty," like "genius," is one of the most overused words in American politics and culture. Win a couple of sports championships within a five or seven year period and you are, according to the sports media, a dynasty. The Ming reign in China lasted 300 years, a true dynasty. From 1957-1969, the Boston Celtics won 11 championships in 13 years, which, in the world of professional sports, qualifies as a dynasty. In American politics, the Kennedys are the only family that comes close to meeting the definition of a political dynasty, and that assumes that a dynasty is synonymous with the family business. Only one Kennedy has ever been elected president, and no other Kennedy has served in a major leadership position within the Democratic party since 1960. Yes, there are lots of Kennedys in politics, just as there were (the hopeful past tense) lots of Bushes in politics. But they hardly reigned supreme over the direction of American politics, and did little to create a dominate culture alternately feared, admired and respected by the subjects they governed.

Let's refresh our memory a bit. Bill Clinton, in two separate presidential elections, never won a majority of the popular vote, a feat unique among American presidents. In 1992, Clinton won 43% of the popular vote in a three-way race against George Bush and Ross Perot. Third-party candidates had challenged the Democratic and Republican candidates in the post F.D.R. era of American politics before the 1992 election, but no third-party challenger came close to the 19% of the vote that Ross Perot won at Clinton's expense that year. Running on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt won 27% of the popular vote. Before Perot confirmed his candidacy (which he had abandoned once before the summer began) in September, Clinton's claim to the popular vote hovered at just over 50%, while Bush's floundered in the mid-30's. After Perot announced he was re-entering the race, Clinton began to lose votes to Perot, not Bush. So weak was Clinton's support in the states he won that, with the exception of Arkansas, he did not win a majority in a single state he won. Disenchanted Bush voters were looking for an alternative; Clinton, though, was not it. In 1996, Clinton won 49% of the popular vote as an incumbent, a dubious achievement matched by no other successful second-term president in 20th century American politics. Bob Dole won approximately 40% of the popular vote and Ross Perot, running again, won 8%. Over two elections, then, Bill Clinton never received a majority of the popular vote.

In 1994, the Democrats lost control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Every House Republican incumbent seeking re-election won; 34 incumbent Democrats running in the House lost, giving the Republicans a 54 seat swing in a presidential midterm election, a feat nearly without precedent in American political history. Democrats fared just as poorly in the Senate, losing eight seats to give the Republicans a majority of 52-48. Two Democratic senators switched parties, giving the Republicans two more seats before Republican Bob Packwood, a pro-choice moderate from Oregon, resigned after a sexual harassment scandal and was replaced by Democrat Ron Wyden. Republicans also picked up 12 governorships that year. Four years later, Bill Clinton was impeached over allegations that he perjured himself to government lawyers who were investigating whether he lied to them during testimony taken in conjunction with the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones scandals. By the time Clinton left office, Republican majorities were still in place in Congress. In 2000, his vice-president, Al Gore, lost to a relative political novice, George W. Bush. Say what you want about the Supreme Court's role in deciding the outcome of the presidential contest. In truth, Gore, had Bill Clinton's presidency been as "successful" as so many Clinton supporters claimed it was, should have run away with the 2000 race.

After Bill Clinton left the White House, he and Hillary decided to move to New York, where he could run whatever "business" he's been running since leaving the White House and Hillary could have the most visible platform from which to launch her new chosen career as a United States senator. Few other professional political spouses could have pulled that off. She had never run for elective office or held a senior appointed position in government at any level. She had more in common with political celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sonny Bono, who had made their names in show business, than she did with congressional veterans like Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray or Nancy Pelosi. Since her election in 2000, Hillary has failed to distinguish herself as a legislator of distinction. Her efforts are mostly geared towards constituent service and small politics, like legislation to mandate the V-chip and school uniforms. On the biggest vote of her Senate career, Hillary joined with other re-election minded Democrats and Republicans and gave George Bush a blank check to cash on the Iraq war, a vote she has still refused to admit was wrong. And despite ever conceivable advantage in money, power, organization, favorable media and name-recognition, Hillary lost her bid for the Democratic nomination less than six weeks into the primary season. Yes, that's right -- she was out by the beginning of March. Her decision to stay in a race she could not win should not be confused with the epic Atlanta Braves-San Francisco Giants race for the 1993 NL West Division title, which the Braves won on the last day, with the two teams finishing with the best records in major league baseball.

The Clintons did not represent a "dynastic" era in American politics nor within the Democratic party. Democratic voters were waiting for someone other than Hillary Clinton to emerge with the intellectual and leadership qualities that they wanted fifteen years ago from Bill, not Hillary, but never got. Obama was the right person in the right place at the right time.

2. John McCain is a formidable, experienced candidate whose "moderate" posture will tempt independents to vote for him instead of the untested Obama. Oh, lord, when will the blues go away? Can we stop this now?!?! John McCain is not a moderate. John McCain is not a maverick, unless a maverick is defined as a conservative Republican who manages to persuade the establishment Washington media that his conservatism is really moderation cloaked in liberalism cloaked in moderation cloaked in bullshit cloaked in straight-talk cloaked in more bullshit. Until the Republicans begin their inevitable racially-coded campaign against Obama, John McCain will have to compete against a fresh, young and articulate opponent who will run circles around him. McCain's victory in the Republican primaries against perhaps the most undistinguished field to run for a major party nomination in the last 40 years seems to have given him a false sense of self. His decision to challenge Obama to what appears to be a series of weekly debates between now and the fall will backfire on him like an old car up on blocks in a HillaryBilly's front yard.

Contrary to a public perception fueled largely by an adoring establishment news media, John McCain is not George Washington, an immaculate hero summoned from retirement to steady a troubled nation. He is a career politician of little or no distinction in public life. John McCain wants to stay in Iraq from now until eternity. John McCain wants to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. John McCain "welcomed" the endorsement of a preacher who compared Muslims to Nazis and called Catholicism a cult and has a view of women that makes Pat Buchanan look like Dr. Spock. John McCain is indistinguishable from Bill Clinton's 1996 Republican opponent, Bob Dole, another career Republican whose comfort level never extended past Capitol Hill. McCain has only one advantage heading into the general election . . . but it's a big one.

3. Barack Obama's historic achievement means that America has now entered a "post-racial" era. What world are these people living in? Approximately 25% of Democratic primary voters told exit pollsters they would not vote for a black man. And those are just the ones who admitted it. At no point was Hillary Clinton asked to give a speech explaining her (or Bill's) comments on race. Compare the standard held to Obama, who was asked to give a speech clarifying or repudiating just about every off-key comment he or anyone he had ever known had made during the primaries. That won't change during the general election. Unfortunately, America's original sin will float McCain's candidacy when, on the merits, he shouldn't get more than 40-45% of the popular vote or win any more states than Bob Dole did. But we shall see . . .

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