There's been some talk lately, growing in insistence, about why Barack Obama's campaign can't seem to take off in the way many of us -- myself included -- expected. I was very excited about Obama, and very eager to see what he would do, and now that he's been in for a while, I have to say my major feeling is: "Meh."
In this regard, I feel the exact opposite of Andrew Sullivan (no real shock there). Sullivan's line on Obama is typically credulous and overly impassioned; to him, Obama represents the one true hope of stepping outside of interest group-driven partisan politics and building a politics of unity. Now, I have more Sullivan hate to bring later, but for the moment it's worth pointing out that what's aggravating about Sullivan on Obama is not that he's wrong; I think he's got Obama's message pretty well pegged, and I think he accurately represents Obama's appeal. The idea here isn't standard bipartisanship; it's a kind of going-around-partisanship, coalition-building, not-trying-to-be-too-radical-to-begin-with, not-super-wonky, kinda bipartisan politics. And, as I say, Sullivan's describing it accurately, if a bit too hagiographically. It's just that I don't want a candidate looking for us all to try to get along, thanks.
I know one is not supposed to say such things. Today at the Plank, this question of Obama's failure to gain traction is being batted around as an issue of Democratic revenge. Essentially, the logic goes, the base doesn't want to make nice -- doesn't want to talk hope and unity -- because they (we, I) want to knock some heads together first, and want to send in a big partisan enforcer to make sure the last 8 years get their due political redress. The question, in light of that, would be not only whether this is an accurate representation of the base's Obama reservation, but also whether such a vengeful politics is going to work to the left's advantage, given that it just perpetuates the partisan slugfest.
For my part, I have no particular liking for the slugfest in its own right, but the damn thing is self-determining; it is aimed at getting one party or the other to blink, and stop the fighting. And sure that sounds good -- except that, of course, the side that blinks has to make all the sacrifices, and even then it never actually does end the fighting. At which point the effort to build unity politics in the face of a raging partisan opposition starts to have real-world consequences, in the form of sacrificing policy.
That to me is the whole point. I don't care for partisanship as an outcome of politics, but I do care for policy as an outcome of politics. This is my only real concern, and in a certain sense, all of Obama's rhetoric makes me wonder what kinds of policy sacrifices he would make in the interest of bringing a new tone to Washington. Because frankly, I don't give a fuck about the tone, as long as I get my health insurance.
And that brings us to Hillary Clinton. My complaint about Clinton, which is unchanged over the last year, is that she just isn't liberal enough for me. That said, I'm actually beginning to think we'd be more likely to get liberal outcomes from her presidency than Obama's, not because she's actually more liberal, but because she's more political. Of course, the major line on her, according to Sullivan (and everyone else), is that Hillary will not only perpetuate partisan politics, she'll revivify a currently inchoate Republican base. By this logic, the right wing base, otherwise apathetic this cycle, will turn out in droves on election day, and raise endless piles of money, all to defeat her; and if they don't manage to defeat her, they will turn her entire term in office into an endless loop of the impeachment crisis. Now, I bought this myself for a while, and I'm still concerned about it; and, of course, her negative perception numbers are higher than the other candidates', and it is absolutely the case that a repeat of the uglier bits of the Clinton years sounds exhausting.
But, look. Let's not kid ourselves here, thinking that with a different candidate it would be another way. Hillary's negatives are higher because the right wing spent the last 15 years working her over. It's no accident. By election day they'll have worked over in the same way whoever the hell we might nominate instead. At that point, where will that guy's negatives be? To get an idea, ask Gore or Kerry. Especially Kerry, who was chosen particularly for his electability. Obama looks untarnished right now because he's, well, untarnished -- that is, his future tarnishing awaits him, just on the far side of the primaries. The audacity of hope is the audacity to hope that your candidate will get left alone; that some kind of extra-establishment movement politics could keep your candidate looking like a unity builder even after a hard dose of right wing smearing -- he can just float above it all.
Obama's candidacy relies on your believing this dream -- the dream of the unsmearable candidate, who gets to actually talk about reality rather than spending all of his time wiping the mudstains off his pants. To buy this, you have to not only think that it's possible to silence the smear machine. To buy this, you also have to be prepared to concede that the party should start from a position of not nominating certain candidates because the right wing have decided that they extra-especially dislike them. And you have to be blissfully amnesiac about the fact that Bill Clinton started out -- before Gennifer Flowers, and Whitewater, and Monica Lewinsky, and the witch-hunt that led to the lies that led to the smears that led to the negative numbers and riling of the Republican base -- representing a revitalized Democratic party, ready to move forward in, what was that? Unity. Everybody starts out as the unity candidate -- before the smear machine makes them into either partisans or pussies. As Snoop Dogg so wisely says, "Six million ways to die. Choose one."
There are more registered Democrats than Republicans; the Republicans dug us into a fraudulent war that we started losing well before they officially declared we'd won it; the economy is slamming on the brakes, meaning that the Dow, Bush's only remaining friend, is rapidly turning on him; 1 in 6 Americans is un- or under-insured for health care; and on and on. And yet I don't hear the right flinging aside their less electable candidates (which would be all of them except, possibly, Romney -- assuming Rudy is planning on continuing to do crazy shit and talk even crazier shit). Underneath all the flailing and flip-flopping, they seem to be in a struggle to figure out which of their core issues they actually care about, and which they are ready to sacrifice. That that soul-searching so far is amounting to a victory of greed over bigotry (by a short nose) should not obscure the fact that it's not all centering on the electability question. In an odd way, I envy them that (the latter part, not the short nose part).
I'm not saying I'm endorsing Hillary (though I have a lot more to say about her); but I am saying that I'm not such a sucker that I'm ready to buy the idea that there's any way around the right wing smear machine other than straight ahead through it.
That said, what would really fuck up either Hillary or Obama's game would be if the Republicans nominated Huckabee. You can't beat up on him, Hillary style; and he's not polarizing enough to make Obama look special. Of course, Republicans won't nominate him because he raised taxes a couple of times, so never mind.