Friday, November 16, 2007

The Tiny Speech of Lady Triangula
It's been pretty clear since the jump that the most interesting, not to mention consequential, rivalry among the Democrats running for president is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I've never made any secret of my preference here; Obama is the candidate I'm most strongly for, while it's extremely unlikely that I could even vote for Clinton. (The scenario in which I'd do so--she's running against Giuliani and it's actually close in New York--probably means that she's be roadkill in the general election anyway.)

Friends and colleagues have argued, somewhat understandably, that the substantive difference between Clinton and Obama is so small that my strong support of one, and even stronger disdain for the other, makes no sense. I don't exclude myself from the millions of Americans who perhaps irrationally and almost surely disproportionately revile Senator Clinton. (Though, unlike most of them, in my case it's not because she's this super-liberal but because she's not nearly liberal enough. John Edwards has done the party a service in pointing out that Clinton is a "corporate Democrat" par excellence; I hope he keeps it up.) But the substance, in terms of policy proposals--which are very slightly better than meaningless as a guide to what these individuals would actually do in office, since legislation originates in Congress and, in Clinton's case, even a shriveled Republican minority would have tremendous political incentive not to let her do anything of significance--misses the point. It's the planted questions, the tight control over media availability, the endless moneygrubbing, and above all the spin and triangulation.

I finally found someone who expressed this the way I'd been trying to put it. After noting at the outset that he's supporting Obama and retains some fondness for Edwards, technology sector icon Lawrence Lessig writes:

The other front running Democrat, however, is not a close call for me. (Saying this is what terrified my newly allcaps friend.) She supported the war, but as my support of Edwards last time round indicates, I can forgive that. The parts I can't get over all relate to the issues around corruption. I signaled as much in my comments about her comments about lobbyists. We see two radically different worlds here. And were she President, I'd bet everything that we'd see radically little change.

But the part that gets me the most about Senator Clinton is the eager embrace of spinelessness. I don't get this in Democrats generally. I never have, but I especially don't get it after two defeats to the likes of George Bush (ok, one defeat, but let's put that aside for the moment). Our party seems constitutionally wedded to the idea that you wage a campaign with tiny speech. Say as little as possible. Be as uncontroversial as you can. Embrace the chameleon as the mascot. Fear only that someone would clearly understand what you believe. (Think of Kerry denying he supported gay marriage -- and recognize that the same sort of people who thought that would win him support are now inside the control room at ClintonHQ).

All politicians of course do this to some degree. And about some issues, I even get it. But what put me over the line with Senator Clinton was the refusal to join the bipartisan call that presidential debates be free. Not because this is a big issue. But because even on this (relatively) small issue, she couldn't muster the strength to do the right thing.

Her failure here was not because her campaign didn't know of the issue. I spoke directly to leading figures (or so they said) in the campaign. The issue was discussed, and a decision was made. And the decision was to say nothing about the issue. You can almost see the kind of tiny speak that was battered around inside HQ. "Calling for free debates might be seen as opposing copyright." "It might weaken our support among IP lawyers and Hollywood." "What would Disney think?" Better to say nothing about the issue. Better to let it simply go away.

We (Democrats) and we (Americans) have had enough of this kind of "leadership." That (plus the Lincoln Bedroom) made it impossible for me, honestly, to support Senator Clinton. No doubt I would prefer her to any Republican (save, of course, the amazing Ron Paul). But I can't support the idea that she represents the ideals of what the Democratic Party must become.

Aside from the Ron Paul love (about whom maybe I'll write another time; I'm glad he's in the race and I think he has one supremely important idea-- that we're on a path to empire abroad which will inevitably, in fact is already, destroying our democracy at home--but I just can't take seriously the fantasyland ideology of Libertarianism), he nails it.

The "tiny speech" line is both the key, and indicative of a fundamental problem. From the candidates I really like (Obama, who wants to move the country past the argument over the 1960s; Dodd, focused on restoring the Constitution after the Bush abuses) to those I'm basically okay with (Edwards, economic justice; Biden, a return to bipartisan foreign policy realism) to the ones I dislike (Romney, better management in government; Thompson, because his hot wife wants to be First Lady) to the one I detest (Giuliani, to speed up the push toward authoritarianism in the name of "fighting terror"), I think I get what the point would be; I think I understand why they're running.

But not for Hillary. Even Bill Clinton started out with a good idea: to reconcile the left and the center. Maybe what happened in his second term just demented them both, because he certainly wasn't doing anything progressive by the end of his administration; what good came out of those years (the tilt toward surpluses, which unfortunately just enabled the disaster who followed him) was the result of divided government. Power became the point in and of itself.

The only thing I remotely see from Senator Clinton is the health care plan--which happens to be a decent plan, far as I can tell. But her political persona gets in the way here: that thing will never pass, because the Republicans would never let her get the victory, succeeding where Truman, LBJ and Bill failed. They might not let any Democrat do it; William Kristol's warning that passing universal health care would "give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party" is as or more true now as it was then. But certainly not the woman who's the embodiment of everything they hate about "the Left"... despite their failure to understand either the woman or the movement.

At best for the Democrats, Hillary will get her 50.00001 percent, take office, and then... nothing will change, and we'll keep drifting toward the edge.

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