October was good to Hillary Clinton. After months of unease — the self-inflicted email troubles didn’t help — her star shined bright in both the first Democratic debate and before a Congressional lions den. She came well prepared for both, something of a trademark attribute. Hillary takes appearances seriously, sometimes at the cost of spontaneity. But thoughtful preparation is exactly what one would hope to see in a president. Rehearsed zingers aside, that is notably MIA on the Republican side. Did she win in Las Vegas? Probably yes, if you view the process as a sports event. I prefer not to. As to that circus parading as serious fact-finding, she more than acquitted herself — the consummate professional in the presence of hostile blustering clowns. Some say she looked presidential; they looked anything but.
What’s interesting in this primary season is how few policy differences there are between competing candidates on either side. Style is another story, especially among Republicans (think Trump and Carson). This partisan “togetherness” is just another reflection of how homogenous the parties have become within, and conversely, how polarized they are set against each other. Republicans have abandoned any pretense of even a small tent by effectively purging or marginalizing any member who does not march lockstep within a narrow conservative-right circle. Moreover, they seem to be going out of their way in alienating Latinos, African Americans, Asians and, of course, women. In contrast, the Democrats actively seek big tent diversity; they still accommodate some right of center office holders. That said, Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley all identify as progressives, probably representative of where their party at large is or is heading. The bottom line: more than in the past, we have a fairly closely defined party of the Moderate Left and a party of the Hard Right. Those positions have solidified during the Obama years but they have been long in coming. The result, as Jonathan Chait put it in a recent New York Magazine post, “…the dominant fact of American politics is that nobody is changing their mind about anything.”
The fluidity that existed within parities in much of the last century — their respective big tents — is gone. I agree with Chait’s analysis. If you share this view, it’s hardly surprising that the “debates”, on both sides exposed almost no substantive policy disagreements among each party’s candidates. Democrats may express nuanced differences, and Bernie may claim to have come to progressive positions earlier, but today they sing from a single hymnal. If for no other reason than the sheer number of contenders, Republicans seem most focused on projecting their differentiated persona. They mouth slogans and pretend they are engaging on policy. Since their ideology is indistinguishable, they spend time seeing how each can outdo the other in singing (or shouting) the same songs. To distract us, they are now engaged in that old favorite, a full throttle attack on the unfair prejudiced “liberal media”, which I assume now includes Fox News. They are not the first politicians to shift blame on journalists when things are not going their way or to avoid hard questions. Nevertheless, listening to their collective gripe, one would think they are an unjustly persecuted and beleaguered minority rather than holders of the majority on the Hill and across many state legislatures and governor’s mansions. It rings as true as claims that Christians are being persecuted in a country with a still predominantly Christian population. We all should be so disadvantaged.
Anyone who regularly reads these posts knows I have been struggling with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, much as I did eight years ago. Dynasty has always been one of my concerns, perhaps too much so. In all fairness since John Quincy Adams ascended to the presidency, and likely before, office holding has been a family business: fathers and sons, husbands and wives (often widows), siblings and cousins. The disaster of George W Bush probably made many of us more sensitive to its downside. Jeb’s candidacy, albeit inept, hasn’t helped. On the other hand, the performance of father/son Governors Brown of California or brothers Senator/Congressman Levin of Michigan speak to the strengths of a family vocation. There are countless examples, most notably the cousins Roosevelt. I shouldn’t hold Bill against Hillary and indeed things went pretty well for us during his tenure.
I was also troubled by Hillary’s hawkishness and remain so. While she regrets her Iraq vote, taking it wasn’t surprising when it came. She was among Obama’s more hawkish advisors while at State. That said, in contrast to the gun happy GOP field — there isn’t a war they wouldn’t have someone else’s kids fight — she is a raging dove.
What Clinton does bring to the table, as she did in ’08, is her gender. It’s what made having to choose between her and potentially the first African American president so painful. It’s a gross understatement to say that we are long overdue in electing a woman to the White House. It’s time to break, not merely to crack, that glass ceiling. She alone — forget smooth talking Carly — is positioned to do so. It isn’t only that she’s a woman, but perhaps the “perfect transitional figure”, as Gail Collins put it in her excellent column about women and the presidency. Of course, being a woman is not enough. Secretary Clinton doesn’t have to rely on her gender to make the case. She has the résumé. As the spot light shines on today’s presidential aspirants none on either side is more capable or more prepared. She has had a central place at the table in facing our national/international opportunities and challenges for more than two decades. She was a senior policy advisor to her husband; perhaps the most influential first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. She was respected across the aisle while serving in the Senate, and a hard working State Secretary. I twice, and happily, voted for her to represent us in New York.
At this moment, Hillary is ahead in most polls, probably decisively. Her lead was solidified by those star performances in Las Vegas and Washington. Latest reports suggest that she sent no classified emails from her private account. Bernie Sanders is out on the stump. Perhaps behind in the polls, he nonetheless is drawing huge enthusiastic crowds including many young people. He is successfully crowd-funding — his contributions are predominantly small. Bernie’s success, contained as it might ultimately be, shines a light on Hillary’s primary weakness. She suffers an enthusiasm gap, even as she gains support and seems headed for the nomination. I was a passionate supporter of Barack Obama. At this point, my support for Hillary Clinton is more muted, all from the head not the heart.
Intellectually, I know that she is more than qualified to be our president. While I will continue to have concerns about her hawkishness, she has clearly moved to the left since last running and I have no reason to doubt that is backed up by conviction, a rethinking of issues and our needs. I for one don’t fault leaders who change their mind; I am actually more comfortable with them. One of our greatest problems today is that so many people in power, including sadly our highest court, have ideologically fixed positions that seem immune to facts, especially contrary facts. I do feel passionately about the prospect of a Ms. President. In that there is absolutely no enthusiasm gap.
It may well be that the head is enough, that it even trumps the heart. As the author and former editor Jeffrey Frank put it so well in a New Yorker post this week, running for office is “dangerously removed from the realities of governing.” That’s true for the candidate and equally true for us, the voters. As I’ve noted before, it’s why so many of those who enthusiastically — heart over head — supported and turned out for Senator Barack Obama were disappointed in President Obama. But however “dangerously removed”, I do think that enthusiasm does count if for no other reason than our being such an irresponsibly lazy electorate. Only 30% of eligible voters turned out in Kentucky last week, likely a prime reason the governor’s mansion changed hands. Democrats can be the laziest most irresponsible voters — good at complaining terrible at delivering the only thing we have in the political process. Think not only last week but also 2014 and most “off year” elections. Check out Republican victories in those years. They vote. We can’t afford to be lazy in fulfilling our obligation of citizenship. Yes, Hillary, we need you to make us more enthusiastic, more passionate, about your candidacy, but most of all we have to get ourselves together. No excuses, it must be done.