Friday, September 21, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Who Can Win?

(Part two of a series. Part One, the introduction, can be found here.)

Who can win?

Frankly, this is not the issue that I want to focus on. There are lots of reasons for this. First, I am not a political scientist, nor a pollster, nor pundit, and thus don't trust my analyses of this issue particularly. (Not that I, nor anyone else, ought to particularly trust theirs either.) I have ideas about it, but I have less trust in those ideas than I do my ideas about the actual politics of the country, who's likely to do well at governing.

But, second -- and far more important -- I actually think it's a mistake for Democrats to focus too much on this. I think it's a mistake both tactically and strategically; and I think that it's a mistake both in general and in the context of the 2008 election specifically.

It's a mistake tactically because not only I, not only political scientists and pollsters and pundits, but because Democratic voters in general, are very, very bad at predicting who can win. Remember how the reason everyone supported John Kerry was that he was electable? Look where that got us. The truth is, we aren't good at judging this, for pretty much any value of "we". This is partly true because we focus on the wrong things, and partly because this whole 'who-can-win' business is inherently dependent on factors that don't become clear and events that don't happen until long after the candidate is chosen. So if we can't tell who's most likely to win, we might as well pick the person who we'd most like to win.

But it's a strategic mistake, too, because one of the central knocks against Democrats has been their perceived willingness to pander rather than stand up for their beliefs (think of the knocks against Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry); and one of the central handicaps against liberalism over the past few decades has been an excessive pragmatism, a tendency to preemptively compromise and to make small arguments rather than arguing for large visions of how society should work that arise from core beliefs. This latter point is, essentially, conceding that the former point, while far from wholly true and (to the degree it is true) far from as damning as it is made out to be*), has a partial truth to it.

In short, I think that we're bad at picking candidates pragmatically; I think that the perception that the left side of the spectrum picks candidates pragmatically reinforces the stereotype that we have no core principles, won't stand up for our values, etc, which in turn becomes a genuine handicap in electoral contests; and I think that in fact we ought to spend more energy making the basic case for our governing philosophy than trying to eek out narrow wins in an essentially hostile rhetorical environment.

Finally, however much of a mistake I think it is in general to pick an "electable" candidate, I think it is a particular mistake in this election to do so. Due to their having had undivided control of the government for six years (and all-but- unimpeded control since January, due to the spinelessness of the Democrats), the Republicans have trashed their own brand (so to speak) through the simple expedient of governing as they wish to govern. People like conservative rhetoric, but they tend to hate conservative governance since conservative governance, in a word, sucks.

Thus, despite all the Democrats have been able to do to spoil this opportunity -- cave in to Bush at every turn, fail to do one damn thing to stop a hated war, etc -- they nevertheless still have a very rare chance -- a once-in-a-generation chance, perhaps -- to make a big change in the politics of this country: both practically (winning the Presidency and a lot of congressional seats, as well as other races, etc.) but also structurally and philosophically. We have a chance, now, to re-orient American politics -- in its underlying assumptions and beliefs and rhetoric, as well as in its practical politics -- the way that the conservative movement reoriented politics in 1980 and 1994 (successive waves of a single re-orientation, I'd argue).

Let's not blow it by picking a middling candidate who we happen to think -- perhaps erroneously -- is "electable".

For that matter, given that the Democrats, atypically, have the edge (thanks to Republican mis-governance, not to anything good they've done), let's actually pick a good candidate and not simply a passable one.

Now, I'm trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach to this. I'm not saying that the issue of electability is irrelevant. I'm not arguing for Kucinich nor (FSM forefend) Nader. William F. Buckley's argument -- from the other side, naturally -- that there's "no sense running the Mona Lisa in a beauty contest" strikes me as basically good advice. But I think a middle-of-the-road approach is the one to take here: pick the best of the major candidates, rather than simply the most seeming-electable of the candidates (on the one hand, or the best tout court, on the other).


But when I spoke to both of my pro-Clinton friends (as discussed in the introduction to this series), the fact that Hilary could win loomed large in their thinking. It was, I believe, one of the two or three central reasons that they were supporting her. So I don't think I can skip it.

So, very briefly, here's why I think that Clinton, far from being more likely to win, is less so.

Clinton is seen as the most liberal candidate. This is wrong -- indeed, oddly wrong, since she is in fact the least liberal of the major candidates. But she isn't seen that way, which makes her more

Clinton will inspire the right-wing base as no one else will. Lord knows why, but they really, really hate her. In a year where they are -- for good reason! -- dispirited and hopeless, given the demonstrated disaster of their governing policy and the pathetic inadequacy of their candidates, Clinton is one thing that could really fire them up.

Clinton is already seen negatively by many people. This is separate from the item above because here I'm referring to swing voters, not the base: Clinton already has -- fairly or unfairly -- high negatives, which the other candidates don't. She'll have fewer people who she might win over from among the great middle, those who don't pay much attention to the details of politics

Clinton fails to articulate a liberal philosophy. I'll have more to say about this when I reach a later installment in this series. But I think that Clinton's triangulating, centrist roots in fact harm her candidacy rather than help it. (Yeah, Bill Clinton won that way -- but it was a different country then.)

Now, when I spoke to my friend, one of the things she spoke about most was desire. Paraphrasing, she said: Clinton really wants it. She'll sell her child to win. We can't have any more candidates who don't really want it.

Frankly, I find the idea that the problem with Gore, Kerry, etc, or for that matter Edwards and Obama, was/is that they don't want it to be a bit bizarre. No one puts themselves through the sheer torture of running for president who doesn't really want it; and anyway, all four of those men strike me as terrifyingly ambitious (just as all the Republicans are, and Clinton too: you sort of have to be to run for president.)

But let's accept for the sake of argument the idea that Clinton has more sheer will than other candidates, past or present, and see where that gets us.

I would argue that it doesn't get us very far.

In fact, I think it's an application of what Matt Yglesias calls the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics to domestic politics. The GLTG is the idea that what matters in global politics -- especially warfare -- is will. Thus, if America can simply keep it's will unified and strong, then anything it wants to happen -- the maintenance of South Vietnamese independence, the arising of a Jeffersonian Democracy in Iraq, etc -- will happen. That we are inevitably defeated, not by arms or tactics or what have you, but by our own lack of will.

See Yglesias on why this is silly in foreign affairs. But I think it's equally silly in domestic politics. Kerry didn't loose because he didn't want to win; he won because the Republicans out-campaigned him, painting him as a liberal panderer, and portraying him as so scary that even Bush (who a lot of right-leaning people were already beginning to dislike) was preferable.

In broader terms, I don't think that will has a lot to do with why candidates win. I think they win based on strategy, on their inherent talent as campaigners, unforeseeable circumstances, etc.

Now, in my friend's defense, in addition to will she also said she thought that Clinton would run a more disciplined, better campaign. And she may think that Clinton is a better campaigner -- she didn't say. And these issues strike me as much more up for grabs. I think that Obama and Edwards are better natural politicians; but Clinton is clearly campaigning very well. She has a staff that I find suspiciously traditional, filled with the sort of people who lost for us in 2004 and before... but, again, she's clearly running a tight ship. So on this aspect I'm agnostic. I'll simply say, again, that I think we have a very good shot next year, and we might as well put up the best candidate rather than the most electable one.

Okay. Enough on who can win. As I said at the beginning of this section, I'm not as interested in who can win. I'm interested in who we should want to win. So beginning in the next section I'm going to talk about that.

This series, past and projected:
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against unchecked executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Pandering is thought to be bad because it shows lack of principle; but of course "pandering" is another word for "doing what the majority of the people want". Now I agree that there are issues where the majority is wrong (appeals to base bigotry often gain majority support, but aren't any better for that), but often doing what the majority wants in a democracy is a good thing. At the very least it should be evaluated on the merits, rather than on some ridiculous notion of "authenticity". (But, in our country, it won't be.)

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