Monday, April 14, 2008

Confessions of a bitter elitist

Elton John was blunt and to the point: If Hillary Clinton loses, the misogyny of the voters will be to blame. He was not the first to make the case. After all, Robin Morgan’s email—to name one—was a legal brief of the wrongs that have been done to women. Her only failing was in not making the connection as to why that compelled the reader to redress the past by pulling the lever for her woman.

Gloria Steinem took the argument a step further, making the startling suggestion that the reason to vote for Hillary is that Black men have had the vote for a half-century longer than women. Again, both the credulity of the argument and the political conclusion seemed questionable—or as one friend suggested, “And therefore what, exactly?”

I can find many reasons to support Hillary Clinton for president. She is very smart. She knows the issues—domestic and international—inside and out. She is determined. And she will fight to the death for what matters to her. And I have great respect for anyone who has embraced her for her strengths, forgiven her weaknesses and will go to the mat for her. No problem.

But there are many reasons that one might quarrel with the argument that Hillary is most qualified to be the standard bearer for the Democratic Party, and they are valid and compelling arguments for declining to support Hillary’s candidacy now.

Failed Leadership in the Past. Hillary’s record of executive leadership is thin, but the single instance when she was handed the mantle was with health care reform under her husband’s administration. While it is rarely discussed—which is particularly surprising given that her experience with healthcare is central to candidacy—that episode was a debacle. The secrecy and arrogance of her approach led directly to its failure, to the Gingrich Revolution and to her husbands embrace of the Republican welfare reform bill, in order to reestablish is own credibility in Washington.

Ability to Learn From Mistakes. One of the hallmarks of executive leadership is the ability to learn and adapt from mistakes. Indeed, some would argue that failure is as important one’s growth as a chief executive as success. Hillary’s current approach to healthcare—suggesting once again that her plan and her ability alone can deliver results—evidences little learning from her past performance.

The Urge to Power Overwhelms the Urge to Change. It has become a staple of late night comedy that Hillary is finding her voice. At age 60, most politicians know who they are [Mitt Romney is not 60 yet, give him time]. The long time complaint of Republicans against Bill Clinton was that he had no core principles beyond the will to power, and that he would throw anyone under the bus who got in his way. Hillary was always viewed on the left as the principled voice of the Clintons, but that stance ended with her embrace of welfare reform and alienation of Peter and Marion Wright Edelman.

By the end of the Clinton administration, Hillary had embraced welfare reform and the deregulation of the financial system [see Sub-Prime Crisis at Wikipedia] as well as free trade and other initiatives that enabled the Clintons’ to triangulate between the left and the right. This week, Hillary is a churchgoing, gun-toting, working class gal. Just imagine what tomorrow might bring.

If you ask yourself one simple question, it illustrates the quandary with Hillary: What type of Commander in Chief would she be? Would she emulate Maggie Thatcher to prove herself to the military and to the male establishment or would she bring a fundamentally different perspective and set of values to the job? What would trump, her core beliefs or some kind of triangulation algorithm? How does Hillary measure her own success? The differences among the candidates in this regard is significant. One can easily imagine John McCain or Barack Obama losing this race and moving on with their lives. Hillary, and Bill, evince a need to win that is deep and urgent .

Issue of Corruption. Hillary has had a virtual pass on the most troubling issue in the Clinton use of power. The fundraising scandals with Johnny Chung and Norman Hsu have only been the most traditional areas where money was raised and laundered, and favors were granted. The pardons were far more egregious, and none more egregious than the pardon given to Marc Rich. While many would argue that this is old news, it is not. The pardons came on the last day of the Clinton presidency, and most voters likely never gave any of it a second thought. It is, after all, politics.

But the case of fugitive financier Marc Rich was not just politics, but has all the appearances of old-time corruption. The Justice Department was adamant that Rich not be pardoned. Bill Clinton said he was just following the process. When Congress investigated, the participants took the Fifth Amendment. But in the wake of the pardon the Clintons received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the library and the foundation.

Before descending farther into the rhetoric of a right-wing nut, it is important to note that the contributions to the foundation and the library remain sealed at the Clintons’ request. The Colombia trade agreement issue that was just in the center of the news is important not because of who does or does not believe in free trade at the Clinton’s kitchen table. Rather, it is the important issue of how a husband and wife address issues of policy and corruption. Which brings up the final issue.

Mixing Business with Business. Bill Clinton received $800,000 for speeches in support of the Colombia free trade agreement. He then contributed the funds to Hillary’s campaign. He received a $30 million contribution to his foundation—with $100 million yet to come—for helping a Canadian win a uranium contract in Kazakhstan. The use of a tax-exempt foundation to garner benefits from public action —and therefore as a tool of public corruption—first found fertile soil in Philadelphia. The question that has barely been raised in the media is what the rules are for a husband-wife presidency, and how Bill’s activities will be monitored and constrained. He has already said that contributors to both the library and the foundation will be made public after she is in the White House—but only contributors going forward. He has said that he owes a promise of confidentiality to the contributors—a debt that apparently is greater than he owes the voting public.

Manipulation in Pursuit of Power. OK. This one is unfair. After all, campaigns are all about manipulating the public in pursuit of power. But the premise of Microtrends, Mark Penn’s book and central to his political outlook, is that success is achieved by targeting myriad archetypal groups and selling each what they want to hear. And so as the time is winding down on the campaign, Hillary is morphing to each audience. In Scranton, she is the church-going, gun-shooting child of rural America. In Pittsburgh she is the protectionist old-time union activist. In Erie, she is the working class girl who worked the night shift. The problem of with the microtrends strategy is that people have a history—which in Hillary’s case is of being a Hollywood-loving, anti-gun, free-trader, from a middle class family, albeit with enough caveats along the way to give her cover. Microtrends is a demographic theory, and one with great salience for Proctor & Gamble and Saatchi & Saatchi. But for a politician still seeking her voice, it reeks of exigency and a lack of core principles or purpose.

But with her back against the wall, Elton John delivered the message that has become the bludgeon used against Obama supporters: Hillary is only losing because of misogyny among the electorate. This is not delivered as a social critique—a claim that in the privacy of the voting booth people’s prejudices emerge—rather it is an attack on the individuals working for or supporting Obama. This is the ultimate extension of the politics of political correctness: If you don’t vote for her—not a woman, but this woman—it is an indictment of your character.

So we have come full circle. The essence of the political race is no longer about the character of the candidate. It is now about the character of the electorate. If Hillary loses, it will be because of misogyny and unfairness. Forget issues of her own past conduct or performance, forget the manipulations of a campaign of inevitability, forget issues of corruption and conflicts of interest. If she wins Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem and others who are standing at the barricades with their fists thrust in the air shouting No Passaran should not be surprised if after they have invested their hopes and dreams, Hill and Bill do not turn on them as they have on others whenever it suits their purposes.

The other day, Hillary suggested that only she could end the war in Iraq. On the face of it, it was a preposterous statement. What if she gets hit by a bus? Will the war go on forever? For 100 years? I think not. The world will survive if she is not the next president. And a judgment of whether to support her candidacy can be made fairly and honestly, based on the history that she—and her husband—have made.

If Hillary loses, she and Bill should fully embrace that they were the lead actors in her demise. The media gave her all the advantages of incumbency as they embraced the narrative of inevitability for more than a year—until losing Iowa undermined the premise. It was no Establishment White Man that was her undoing, but a judgment that it is time to turn the page and look forward to a future of new personalities and new possibilities.

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