Dispatch From the North Country: Of Hamsters New, Hope in Blue, and 'Change' out the Wazoo
Anybody up for some change?
That's the operative word in American politics this week. Of course, change can mean a whole lot of different things. Loose change. Chump change. Change of heart. Quick change artist. Change of underwear.
And, really, it's not at all clear what it means in this context - or more importantly, if it really means anything at all. It's more than a little probable that a whole bunch of grossly over-priced Bob Shrum types looked at what happened in Iowa and arrived at the same brilliant conclusion that any alert eighth-grader could have provided for the price of a skateboard rather than a McLean McMansion. Namely, that the American public is unhappy, and is looking for something different. You don't need a graduate education or a consulting license to figure that one out.
So, "change" it is. By one count, the word was spoken no less than 140 times during the back-to-back debates the elephants and donkeys did in New Hampshire Saturday night. And Dennis Kucinich wasn't even participating! Which, of course, really begs the question of what could possibly be meant by America's new mantra du jour, especially since Kucinich is one of the few candidates really threatening the sclerotic American political system with anything actually approaching real variation from the corporate program. Therefore, of course, he had to be shown to the door by the same people who were talking about 'change' the entire way as they escorted him to the exit, stage left.
No doubt what actually happened is that Hillary had an existential experience in Iowa last week in the form of a little come-to-Jesus dialogue with caucusgoers who definitely didn't get the royal memo over the previous months. Can't you just see her storming across her hotel suite in a fury, shouting about how "Obama can't win! I'm supposed to win!" No suffering soul rotting for millennia in the inner-most circle of hell could have been less happy than Clinton campaign advisers last week, as they scrambled for furniture to hide under while surface-to-air missiles careened about the room. She bared her teeth at one point during the Democratic debate, and you just knew that if this political robot was off her game enough to let that slide on national television then Hurricane Hillary must have been a definite category six behind closed doors, and the scale only goes up to five. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that was surely proved this week as everybody left of the Pentagon and everybody right of the Unitarian Church joined in rejoicing at offing the queen's head, even if it only lasted five days.
So no doubt her brilliant brain-trust told her to dump the whole vote-for-me-I'm-experienced thing (You mean like your 1993 healthcare debacle, Hill? Or your vote on the Iraq war? Is that kind of the experience we can trust?) and don the agent-of-change pantsuit instead. Meanwhile, you could equally imagine the frustration of the Edwards people who've been talking the talk of some serious change for a very long time now, only to be eclipsed by Mr. Platitude, Chuck Berry's very own brown-eyed handsome man, then later a gal who makes the status quo in quicksand look positively dynamic. If Hillary was screaming "I'm supposed to be the winner", you could imagine Edwards ranting in frustration about how he was supposed to ride the change thing to victory.
It's only gonna get worse for Edwards, and probably Obama too. Hillary gave a great speech the other night after winning New Hampshire. Great, that is, if she were Edwards. Like Kerry did to Dean in 2004, the foundering establishment candidate is stealing the working message from the challenger and will ride it - with all the authenticity of a call girl whispering in your ear that she loves you - to the nomination and then, not unlikely, the same fate Kerry brought on himself in the big race. It's gonna be hard enough for Hillary to go up against someone like McCain, but if she tries to pawn herself off as some lefty populist change-agent, forget it. Only the Democratic Party could succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory so effectively in a can't-miss year. The only possible good news in that scenario is that a Republican president would have only two choices over his term in office. One would be to anger 70 percent of the country by governing as a Republican, and the other would be to anger the remaining 30 percent who form his base by not governing as a Republican. Assuming he could avoid impeachment for four years, Americans would be bound to finally learn their lesson by 2012. I'll be long gone for New Zealand or somewhere by then, so I hope someone will write me to tell me all about it.
Speaking of whom, watching all the Democrats trying to look like the future is merely amusing when compared to the visage of a panel full of Republican presidential candidates clamoring to out-change each other with their laughable rhetoric. Hasn't anyone told them that they have had effective - if not official, if not total - control of the government for three decades, and most especially the last one? Haven't they heard of this guy named George Bush who's been sitting in the White House for quite some time now, getting just about everything he wants, whenever he wants it, ranging from wars of choice to the absolute shredding of a certain document about which he once declared "It's just a goddam piece of paper". You know the one in question, but as confirmed originalists, perhaps conservatives are confused about his meaning since, technically, it's parchment, not paper (a more modern implement, and we certainly can't have that). It was remarkable the degree to which they could talk about change without acknowledging the massive elephant in the room (pun intended), nor the four-letter word currently occupying the White House. One need not be a confirmed cynic to appreciate that the GOP candidates' belief that this absurdity worthy of a Dali painting could be a winning strategy for wooing the electorate is a scary comment indeed about the health of American democracy. Even if they're only partly correct (and very right)!
I've just returned from taking two buses ("New" and "Hamster") chock full of students up through the snowy landscapes of New England to observe America's political process up close over the three days preceding the primary. As a politics junkie and a professional observer of human behavior, it was a blast. We had a great time. As a concerned citizen, on the other hand, it was a bag that was a whole lot more mixed.
On the bright side of the ledger is the retail politics for which Iowa and New Hampshire are famous. As the Monkees used to sing, "I'm a Believer" - though with caveats. So, I'm a qualified believer, let's say (not exactly a good hook for a song). These up-close-and-personal processes are decent enough approximations of the kind of accountability that is so desperately needed in American politics that one is tempted to believe that if we only had more of them we could produce a better caliber of government in this country. But then you realize that, despite Iowa and New Hampshire, we still wind up with Clintons and Bushes in the White House. And you realize that a minuscule proportion of an already small population actually came out to decide the fate of the Free World during Iowa's caucus night (though turnout in New Hampshire was encouragingly high - or, more properly, less discouragingly low than normal.)
There are other caveats as well. I have to admit that not a single candidate said or did a single thing that I didn't already expect from them after months and years of imbibing them via the wholesale media. I also have to say that the citizens in New Hampshire let me down a bit by failing to grill the candidates. They expressed concerns, to be sure, and they anxiously listened for responses to their sometimes sophisticated policy questions. But no candidate in any venue I saw ever had to break a sweat.
Part of the problem was undoubtedly timing. If you go to New Hampshire during the three days before the primary, and if you do it in 2008, as opposed to 1968, you're not really in retail-ville anymore. It's not exactly wholesale politics, either, since you are seeing real live people (even the heavily programmed Hillary gave every appearance of actually being one), as opposed to purely television commercials, and you can shake their hands if you choose to, and maybe get your question asked. But by this time the venues are on the order of packed high school gyms, no longer your neighbor's living room. So it's not retail, but it's not exactly wholesale either. I'm not sure where that leaves us. "Resale"? I hope not.
We jammed across southern New Hampshire as fast as we could, trying to pack as many events into three days as possible. That wasn't easy, for a variety of reasons. One was the aforementioned debates (with another GOP one the next night), which was a cheap shot by the candidates, I must say. We had come a long way to see them and then they all congregated at one time in a single room which we were not allowed to enter. Rude. Or maybe they were hiding from us. The other big problem was that every venue was too small and every candidate (with more or less one exception) was running late, and usually very late (we waited two hours beyond the scheduled starting time to see Obama). The combination of these factors means that you have to get there early in order to win the privilege of getting admitted to a room where you then have the additional privilege of sitting and waiting. A one-hour event can therefore wipe-out four hours of your day, not including transit time, if you're not careful.
Still, we got our licks in. Over the course of the long weekend we saw Clinton, Edwards, Gravel, Hunter, Kucinich, McCain, Obama and Richardson, and sundry other characters not necessarily running for president. (At one point I was mistaken for a somewhat lesser known candidate, who goes by the name of Vermin Supreme. That wasn't exactly what I had had in mind for my fifteen minutes of fame in this lifetime, but I guess you take the cards life deals you.) Would we would have seen Mitt Smarmy too, but the smug little jerk had the audacity to actually be on time for his event (just like the punctuality obsessed George W. Bush). Where did he think he was campaigning, anyhow? Germany? By the time we would have gotten there from the previous late event, he was already gone. Serves him right in the end. Maybe if he had been late like he was supposed to have been he would have done better than second place. Oh well. As I told my students, if punctuality is your top criterion for selected a president, now you know your man. Look what it got us the last time.
One (quite remarkable, to my mind) reflection from the weekend concerns the degree to which ten people observing one event can come away with twelve different opinions. It's a little disconcerting to me that anyone could find the Bill Richardson we had both just observed to be a compelling candidate, not least because during the debate he was literally describing what should be America's policy toward the Soviet Union. That little slip of the tongue was acceptable as late as, say, 1995, given force of habit after 45 years of Cold War. But in 2008 (especially after living through presidential idiocy in 2001, 2002...) I'm gonna go ahead and hold out for a bit more mental acuity in the White House if it's okay with the rest of y'all. Some people thought Ol' Bill was the cat's meow, though, while I couldn't figure out what the hell he was doing in the race. Now, of course, he's not. One theory is that he was bucking for the VP slot, but that seems absurd to me after seeing him in action. Until you remember that this is the Democratic Party we're talking about, the same folks who've turned self-destruction into an art form. Anyhow, this sort of thing happened time after time, where we observers came away from the same event with completely different opinions.
Perhaps, in at least some cases, it was because the candidates present a variety of characteristics upon which to glom on to, according to whatever inclination floats your boat. Mike Gravel was the paradigmatic case. There he was courageously speaking truth to power on a variety of issues and challenging people to think revolutionary thoughts like the concept that America is not necessarily a better country than all the others (can you imagine?!). But, he also could come across as way over the top, sometimes doing both simultaneously. Hey Mike, the medium is the message, so you might want to consider turning it down from 11 just a notch, say to 10.8 or so. And I have to admit that even a semi-fan like me is gonna have problems with a statement like this whopper: "And I'll bring peace to the Middle East! Don't ask me for the details, just trust me that I know how to do it!" Um, will that be before, during or after you leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding bullet, dude?
I thought John McCain was the most talented politician of the lot (at least in person - definitely not during the debate), but that is discouraging on too many levels to contemplate. I don't much feel comfortable being wooed by a guy I used to respect before he went down to the crossroads to cut a nasty little deal with the Devil. (Besides which, if he was so smart he could have held out for something really good in exchange for his mortal soul, like maybe being a scorching hot blues guitarist or winning American Idol, instead of being just another Republican president of the USA). The worst part of all is that I realized what makes McCain such a good politician is his ability to lie to you more convincingly than the others. Part of this was form. Who knows, maybe it was even genuine, but in any case his is courteous to a fault with his audience, and he encourages questioners to respond back to his responses to them, in something approaching real dialogue. Part of me admires that as much as I crave more of it for the sake of the nation. But when he drops a whopper like "I've never once in my career brought pork barrel projects home to my state, and my constituents don't seem to mind it", you have to grimace at such clever legerdemain. If you self-define every federal dollar you steer to Arizona as necessary spending rather than waste, well then, guess what? You've never brought pork home. But, of course, one person's crucial (and "jobs creating"!) infrastructure project is another's bridge to nowhere. Yuck. Why do I feel the need for a shower just thinking about this?
The entire Republican field is too horrible to contemplate, really, but we can at least take solace in their unelectability, unless of course they luck into having a Democrat for an opponent. They have a dilemma which is as exquisite as it is deserved. I've been praying that Republicans would be forced to run on the record of a president who on a good day in the last two years gets up around 30 percent job approval, but I never figured they'd be so willing to assist in doing so. If anything, they are flanking Bush to the right, even if they somehow manage to omit his name in all their discussions. Talk about your Scylla and Charybdis, your proverbial rock and a hard place. The GOP candidates have no choice but to turn hard to the east in order to win the nomination of their dispirited party, only to have those positions become profound encumbrances in the general election, especially with independent voters nauseated to the point of fury with the status quo. Of course, the winner of the Republican field will try to tack back toward the center after securing the nomination, but such a move is likely to cost as many votes as are won by it. Could Mitt or Rudy or John really undergo yet another change of political wardrobe without being confused for Stevie Nicks at this point? And wouldn't many conservative voters just stay home if they did?
That, of course, leaves the Democrats to consider. People keep saying how strong a field they've got, but I have begged to differ, and continue to do so. Indeed, another general observation to come out of New Hampshire for me is how little my opinions or perceptions of the candidates changed after seeing them in person. That would certainly seem to argue against the utility of the early contests and their claim to superior retail politics. But most people don't follow politics to the same degree as your standard issue political science professor, so I guess if you bring fewer impressions into the room with you, you're more likely to leave with something new.
Anyhow, none of the frontrunners have much in the way of experience, and none of the experienced folks are frontrunners. In fact, a number of the latter group (Dodd, Biden) are already out after just one contest. Hillary has long been arguing that she is the candidate of experience, only to find that too many change-hungry voters just hear 'status quo' whenever she says 'experience', and 'corporations' when she says 'the people'. Anyhow, the claim was always ludicrous. Even if you are prepared to stretch far enough to count being first lady as real political experience (I'm sure she can read to a room full of kindergartners like nobody's business), what does that leave you? One giant political and policy failure in the form of her healthcare initiative, and one dubious success at holding together a broken marriage? And then there's her one whole term as a US senator, the highlight of which was her vote on the Iraq war and nary a single major legislative accomplishment. (There are good reasons you've never heard of "The Clinton Act" which ended poverty or "Hillary's Law" that saved the environment or reformed government. They don't exist.)
The Iraq vote was the most obscene of all. The truth is that she and Edwards and Kerry and the others cast this ballot of shame - an authorization for a holocaust of death and destruction - because they thought it would advance their presidential ambitions. Of course, Hillary will never admit to that, so she serves up a sickening lie to cover her hideous crime. She says that the president fooled her with distortions and that she wasn't actually voting for war (just the threat of it). To possess her willingness to propagate such lethal lies to a sometimes credulous audience you have to first possess the political arrogance of which only Clintons and Bushes in this world are so amply endowed. The whole world knew what that vote was, and they knew where the Bush administration was furiously heading, and they were almost universally appalled and disgusted. They knew that a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, that had not attacked the United States nor even threatened it, and that did not even control its own economy or two-thirds of its airspace, did not pose any threat to the world's sole superpower. They knew that all the death that subsequently ensued would have been saved by another six weeks or so of weapons inspections (assuming that the Bush administration was even remotely honest in its WMD casus belli, which of course it was not). They knew that if the Soviet Union, with its 25,000 strategic nuclear warheads, never had to be attacked during the Cold War then neither did punky Iraq, and for the exact same reasons: the doctrine of mutually assured destruction prevents any state, let alone massively outgunned ones, from attacking a nuclear power without also committing suicide. The world knew all this, and they knew that the congressional vote, staged right prior to an election in case you somehow missed its real purpose, was nothing short of political cover for the president to launch the war he so badly craved (as if he wouldn't have invaded, anyhow). The world knew this, and so did about half the Democrats in Congress, by the way. Hillary lies when she frames it any other way, and many, many people have died for those lies.
Same with Edwards, and that bothers me. So does Mr. Poverty's 28,200 square foot mansion, and the fact that his campaign strategist from the time of his Senate run ten years ago (I'd mention his name, but I can't bear having the words "Bob Shrum" appear twice in this single article) reports that the guy couldn't possibly have cared less about policy issues back when he was a candidate. I like his rhetoric, and maybe after spending two years saying those things he would actually have to come through with some of them in his administration if he were elected. Then again, Bush didn't. At all. Remember compassionate conservatism? For all these reasons and more, I've been having a hard time trusting that Edwards is for real. Not that it matters much anymore. He's about to become about as popular as a chaperone on a fourth date. Nor do I see him getting another VP nod.
That leaves Obama, who is the man of the hour, or was, whatever I might have to say about him. He's not experienced, though he is right to note that judgement matters a lot more. For that matter, the only reason we particularly care about experience is because it is presumably a component of the good judgement we're seeking. To see what I mean, consider what it would be like if there was a politician who had the most extensive and impressive resume in the world but was certifiably insane. Would any of us vote for him? Well, actually, there is such a creature and its name is Dick Cheney. All six or seven of you out of 300 million Americans who want him to be president, go ahead and vote for him. The rest of us are gonna opt for judgement over experience, if you don't mind.
If Obama is not particularly experienced, surely he's charismatic, right? Well, a whole lot of people think so, that's for sure. Right now, the guy is the political equivalent of Beatlemania, and he hasn't even been on Ed Sullivan. (I do wish he'd grow his hair out a little bit, too, even just another quarter-inch - though there's no need to sing "yeah-yeah-yeah"). He has flashes of that magic, I suppose, but I must admit that I don't really see him as a charismatic speaker. He gave a decent speech that I saw in New Hampshire, as were the other talks I've seen him do on television, but I can't say he wowed me, with the exception of his concession speech Tuesday night. But, regardless, is this what we're looking for, after all? The only thing more toxic to America than the eight years of horrific substance in the Bush administration was the eight years of charismatic nothingness that preceded it in the Clinton administration. (By the way, if you didn't catch Bill's 'fairytale' savaging of Obama the other day be sure to check it out - you'll see pretty quickly what lurks beneath that charisma shtick. Combined with The Cry That Saved New Hampshire, it's clear that Bill and Hill now have the good cop, bad cop thing down.) Anyhow, my first fear about Obama is that there's not much there there.
My second fear is that he will get eaten alive, while he continues to stand on podiums talking about rising above politics. I've seen this movie so many times now I feel like they should dedicate to me my own wing of the theater. There went Dukakis in 1988, thinking that competence and dispassionate post-ideological policy-wonkery would get him into the White House. A few months later his seventeen-point lead in the race had evaporated and George Bush senior had cracked a dumbfounded and silent Mikey over the head with a savage racist campaign, instantly transforming him from one-time would-be president into a part-time adjunct professor of public policy instead. Then Al Gore made the mistake of playing nice with these guys in 2000, only to have an election stolen from him (and us). If all of that wasn't bad enough, another Massachusetts marshmallow stood back waiting for three weeks before responding to the scurrilous swiftboat attacks that took the presidency away from him (and us), as if he had somehow been sleeping through the last four decades and couldn't see the freight train headed his way.
When I look at Barack Obama, I fear we're in for another round of the ubiquitous imploding Democratic nominee trick. I wonder if he has any clue of the shit-storm that the Karl Roves of this world have prepared for him should he win the nomination. I may have to personally strangle the next Democrat who puts on another display of such criminal negligence, taking all of our hopes and aspirations down the toilet with them, because they can't throw a punch against those willing to do nearly anything to win. It would be lovely if we could have a post-ideological America like Obama talks about, but then again, it would have been even lovelier had we been able to talk Adolf Hitler out of world domination. Maybe if we'd only tried harder. Maybe if we'd been nicer. In the end, though, he didn't seem much interested in negotiations, and so it took the world's worst-ever war and the death of 50 million people to vanquish the threat. If Obama thinks that Republicans will hold hands with him and sing campfire songs just because he's out there talking about 'hope' and trying to get past partisan differences, he'll make Dukakis and Kerry look like the Russians at Stalingrad by comparison. These guys will eat him for breakfast and toast his fine memory with goblets full of his own blood. That, of course, is his problem if he wants to be so naive. But if he winds up giving me some monster like Romney or Giuliani for another four years in the White House - like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry gave us twelve years of the horror show called the Bush family - then it becomes my problem too.
I'm no fan of partisanship, either, Barack. I obviously wish nothing for the GOP other than a long and comfortable nap smack on top of the ash-heap of history, but I don't really give a damn about the Democrats either, whose 'control' of Congress and what that's produced this last year is emblematic of their world-class impotence and anemia. Democrats haven't controlled anything effectively - whether it's George Bush's war itch or Bill Clinton's more conventional itch - since 1968, and I'm far from ready to invest the slightest bit of concern in them either. Now, I recognize that everyone needs to take an occasional breather, but I'd say any time-out lasting for one-fifth of the historical life of your country is really stretching things a bit, to the point where using the terms 'Democratic' and 'control' in the same sentence should henceforth perhaps constitute a misdemeanor offense.
Meanwhile, I don't care about partisanship or parties. What matters to me is policies, because they are what matter to people's lives. But here's the thing (and please take good notes on this, Barack): You start putting down markers on this policy and that, and pretty soon you've got yourself an ideology and a partisan association, whether you like it or not. If you want an end to the war, a beginning to national healthcare and a solution to global warming, you're leaning left and the only realistic hope you have to see any of that happen is through the election of Democrats. If you take the opposite position on those issues you're a conservative, and the GOP is your party. The point is that it is not as easy to transcend ideology and partisanship as Obama thinks. And it's especially difficult when the other side doesn't even remotely share your vision of turning political swords into plowshares. A very big question for me is what will Obama do, should he get the nomination, when corporate interests and their GOP flacks, both of whom have everything to lose with any real reform in America, train their 16-inch guns on him?
Maybe he'll surprise me. Maybe he's got some fight in him, but he's smart enough to know better than to let that dog out for a run until the time is appropriate. Maybe people are finally sick enough of conservative and Republican viciousness, divisiveness and dishonesty that all the Democratic nominee has to do this year is stand by and watch the GOP shoot itself in the foot.
Then again, maybe that was John Kerry's strategy, only for him to find himself watching George Bush on television and muttering to himself, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy". (That actually happened, by the way - and well it should have.)
I don't know. What I do know, however, is that any single week in which both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney get stomped (and in his case not just once but twice), is a good week.
I'm up for more of that.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.