24 February 2008

Highly Contested

I suppose that somewhere in the United States there are people who aren’t talking about politics.

I am quite sure I don’t know any of them. If that makes me out of touch, so be it.

Just when it seemed like the Democratic dogfight was getting boring and redundant, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama staged another debate this week that should have recaptured everyone’s attention – and reminded us once again of how intellectually flimsy politicians can be. Senator Clinton’s “best” lines were either totally canned and pre-planned and thus less effective (e.g., “And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox.”), or insightful in an neatly off-putting way.

Much has been made of her “valedictorycomment at the very end of the debate, but moments earlier Clinton said something that should cause even more concern: “And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted.

That statement contains many different layers, but it is worth unpacking two of them: the implication that Clinton believes she has been called by God to run for the presidency, and the acknowledgment that she has taken aspects of her life and success “for granted.” The latter sentiment might have been inadvertent, a kind of grammatical misstatement, but I don’t think so. Rather, I think Clinton does take many elements of her life for granted. The sense of entitlement is partly why her health care initiative failed during her husband’s presidency: she practiced the same kind of secrecy that Dick Cheney did with his energy task force. It is also why she now appears so desperate in the clinch: almost every aspect of her theoretically inevitable candidacy, and November 2008 victory, has vanished. Good riddance!

The former part of Clinton’s sentence – this sense that she “was called by [her] faith” – should trouble us all deeply, but it should trouble the Clinton loyalists the most. After all, the last presidential candidate who believed as firmly in the role of his faith in his political destiny is the incumbent that most of America cannot wait to see leave office: George W. Bush. Senator Clinton is still using (and promoting) her “It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and it’ll take another Clinton to clean up after the second” line, but I do not think America is ready for another divinely inspired president. And anyway, it strikes me as beyond the scope of most gods to take on a mess like ours.

Then there is the “readiness” issue. Any Clinton supporter who still believes that their candidate, called by her faith to serve, meets or exceeds the readiness threshold that Mrs. Clinton herself promotes, should read Frank Rich’s column “The Audacity of Hopelessness” in today’s New York Times. Rich walks us through the Clinton campaign’s failures – from her initial loss in Iowa, to her advisors’ inability to learn from their mistakes, state by state and beyond. He writes “The Clinton camp has been the slacker in this race, more words than action, and its candidate’s message, for all its purported high-mindedness, was and is self-immolating.” If campaigns can set expectations for presidencies, then the execution of Clinton’s is hardly a good omen, whether she has god on her side or not.

Senator Barack Obama is still far from perfect. Although he presented much more policy detail in his remarks on Thursday, there are still moments when that politician’s flimsiness breaks through. On health care, for instance, Obama seems fearful of openly embracing the fact that his plan does not mandate health insurance for all adults. This lack of a mandate is important, because it represents the freedom every citizen should have to make a choice about health insurance for themselves. Likewise, it is hard for Obama to completely break away from the potential Republican death-trap on immigration issues; thus, he failed to reject fully the absurdity of building a complete border fence between the U.S. and Mexico. (Because that solution has worked so well in the Middle East, right?)

Nonetheless, Senator Obama has managed to maintain exactly the quality that Senator Clinton lacks: inspiration. Actually, Obama has gone beyond just being inspiring to “inspiring inspiration.” If that sounds redundant, consider the state of political apathy that existed in this country, the ideological boredom that comes from having an entrenched, black-and-white (or in this case, red vs. blue) view of the world. Any politician who can engage and motivate so many different constituencies – to work on his behalf in community after community, to give dollar after dollar in order to beat the erstwhile establishment candidate’s fundraising machine – can clearly lay claim to understanding something bigger and broader about our nation.

It ain’t over until it’s over. That might be Texas, that might be Ohio, or it might have been Thursday’s debate. With any luck, we will all know shortly.


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