Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hating When I'm Right
When Hillary Clinton entered the presidential race last January, I wrote the following:

[T]he advantages of money and organization are probably largest in the first stretch of the nomination race. With seven or eight candidates in the field, she can win pluralities in the high 20s and low 30s; as the field thins, those dropping out will be under pressure to endorse the likely winner, and eventually it could and probably will come down to Hillary versus Not-HIllary. At that point, a ton of institutional weight falls upon Not-Hillary: stop resisting the inevitable, stop doing the Republicans' oppo work for them, stop squandering resources we'll need for November. Unless she's been bloodied by then, Not-Hillary won't win that duel.

In the last couple months, Sen. Clinton has taken the lead in all the early primary states and increasingly projected the aura of "inevitability" that had been speculated about since she entered the race. Last night's Democratic debate, in Philadelphia, was more interesting than most of them have been, and exposed a number of her weaknesses as a candidate--but almost certainly did nothing to change the basic dynamic of the race. The storyline--and in these things, considering they're always more read about than watched, the storyline is always crucial--was that Sen. Clinton's opponents were approaching now-or-never time to cut into her lead and would come out swinging. They did, and scored some points on her Iran war-enabling, penchant for secrecy, and general proclivity to triangulate. But nothing ultimately happen to make me doubt that she'll be the nominee, or that the general election will proceed as I thought it would nine months ago--as close, and bitterly fought, as it will be free of substance, ultimately doing little either to roll back the damage of the Bush years or to address the major crises we will soon face.

It's too bad, because if everyone who will vote this winter had watched the debate, they would have seen Sen. Clinton revealed as the moderate Republican she essentially is.

  • Has a foreign policy bias in favor of confrontation and war? Check.

  • Ardently courts special interests? Check.

  • Pulls the Thomas Frank Two-Step of rhetorical bait (attacking Bush in every statement) and switch (closely resembling Bush on war, executive power, secrecy and fuzzy answers)? Check.

Barack Obama remarked that the Republican contenders talk about Sen. Clinton because “it’s a fight they’re comfortable with.” While this is accurate, it leaves out two points. One (and Sen. Dodd obliquely got at this) is that the Republicans talk her up because to their primary voters doing so is like waving the red cape before the bull; they hate her, and hate--for her, and for us, and on some abstract level for Muslims/terrorists/foreigners/gays/whatever--is what motivates the modern Right. Two is that not only are the Republicans supremely comfortable running against her, the press is as or more comfortable pushing her forward. This is true both at the newsroom and boardroom level: the first group knows how to cover her, and the second know she won’t screw with them.

I’ve heard it said that Hillary Clinton appeals to the low-information voter. While there’s probably a touch of snobbishness in this sentiment, there’s also definitely more than a little truth. Those who see no need to go beyond the generalities and platitudes she spouts, who find it thrilling to see another Clinton (hard to imagine) or the first woman (a lot easier to picture, though I still have trouble understanding how the wife of a former president becoming president represents a true advance for feminism), are satisfied. Those of us less willing to go on faith and less trusting in the good judgment of people who've made catastrophically bad calls again and again, not so much.

It’s not a coincidence that her spokeszombies intone “strength and experience” in every prepared statement, or that she used the phrase last night, or that she twice gave a canned line about "not balancing Social Security on the backs of the elderly." The Clintonistas think the public only absorbs sound bites and simple arguments. They might well be correct, but this strikes me as a case of pandering to the lowest common denominator and then hoping the rest of us on the left side of the spectrum “fall in line” against the Republican adversary–-rather than trying to raise the level of our national conversation, which strikes me as a key element in leadership.

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