Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday

It’s Super Tuesday; if you can vote, I encourage you to do so.

If you’re voting in the Democratic primary, I’d also like to encourage you to vote for Barack Obama, but before I get into exactly why I think he deserves your vote, I’d like to say a word or two about the remarkably ineffective way supporters of Obama and Clinton alike have been going about persuading people to vote for their candidate.

I start with this piece, which I came to on Matt Yglesias’ blog at the Atlantic. He says it “does a great job … of highlighting both the arguments and the underlying dynamics in play.” I disagree; I think it does a great job of highlighting bad arguments for just about anything. In the piece, Son tries to convince Mother to vote for Obama because, essentially, she’s only voting for Clinton because she’s a middle-aged white woman who identifies with Clinton. Mother responds that Son is only voting for Obama because of illogical and emotionally grounded assumptions about Clinton (and, in the end, Mother). The piece does touch on some of the experience-related issues that the campaigns have been using to distinguish themselves from each other, but the main argument consists of Mother and Son telling the other that he or she is behaving irrationally.

This is something that, if you’re reading this now, you’ve probably seen a lot of over the past month or so. It’s not just on the Web, either; it shows up in op-ed pieces in prestigious papers and on the talking-head shows on the teevee. It’s not effective; the only people persuaded by the argument that supporting Kang is logical and supporting Kodos is irrational already support Kang. The people who support Kodos are only confirmed in their belief that supporting Kang is totally ridiculous. Kang supporters “just don’t get it” and can be dismissed as dumb or irrational partisans.

This mirrors the debate style used to deepen the conservative/liberal divide in the country, a phenomenon that’s been aided and abetted by Karl Rove-style politics over the last seven years. You can see, I hope, how counterproductive it really is. Telling someone that their opinion is dumb or irrational and if they really knew what they were doing they’d do things your way is most likely to get them to tell you to go piss up a rope. And that’s true even if it’s true that the Other Dude is actually being totally irrational and/or stupid by voting for Kodos. He’s got to figure that out himself. He’s not going to engage in a thorough self-examination about his real motives and his real interests because someone tells him he’s an idiot.

He might, though, be persuaded by someone making a convincing, reasonable case for the candidate that doesn’t insult people who take the opposite view. That’s obviously more difficult and time-consuming than coming up with clever putdowns, which is probably a lot of the reason why you don’t see it done much in comments on blogs. It’s much more effective at making a case for the candidate, though.

In this case, the candidate I’d like to make a case for is Barack Obama. This year’s Democratic contenders do not have extreme policy differences, for the most part. Their policy goals are similar or identical in most respects. Where they do have differences – whether a universal health care plan should include a mandate, whether it’s a Good Idea to talk with the leaders of countries we’ve shunned over the past seven years, whether we should issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, whether we should set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq – it’s very hard to say who has the better argument, and they are really questions of means, not ends.

That doesn’t mean the discussions about those issues aren’t worth having, just that there aren’t clear-cut policy differences from which it’s possible to make a call for Obama or Clinton. If you disagree – if you think that a mandate for insurance coverage is absolutely essential, for example – then probably you’ve already made your choice. Even if you think that Clinton’s position on these issues is better, though, I think it’s worth wondering whether she’ll be able to deliver on those policy promises. I think the decision about which candidate to vote for in this year’s Democratic primaries comes down to questions about which candidate is most likely to be elected, and which one, if elected, could deliver on the issues that Democratic voters care about. The answer to those questions is, in my opinion, clearly Obama.

Clinton’s strongest arguments for her candidacy come down to experience. She means a couple of different things by that, and it’s worthwhile unpacking her argument a bit.

First, she says she’ll be “ready on Day One” because she was First Lady when Bill Clinton was President and therefore she understands both how to run the government and how to deal with the kinds of issues that a President has to address more or less daily. To the extent that this is true, it’s definitely a point in her favor. Bill Clinton’s first year as President was rocky, in part precisely because he had to learn on the job, and it would be good to avoid that kind of thing in 2009.

The questions, though, are how much of that experience Hillary Clinton actually has, and whether anything really prepares you to be President. She has not been forthcoming about what her role was in her husband’s Administration. She took charge of the attempt to provide universal health care in 1993 and 1994, and it was a spectacular fiasco. Maybe she learned from that. We don’t really know, because for the remainder of her husband’s term she largely kept out of the spotlight. Did she have some input in policy decisions? Almost certainly. But what was that influence? How did it affect what Bill Clinton accomplished in office? We don’t really know, and they’ve been reluctant to tell us. So while it’s probably true that she understands the problems a President faces better than any of the other candidates, we don’t know how significant that understanding is.

It’s an open question, for me at least, whether any experience is relevant to being President. Either candidate would be surrounded by people with years of experience in government, so it’s unclear exactly how much the new President’s personal experience matters on a day-to-day basis. As a matter of big-picture policy background, the Democratic primary featured several candidates with far more experience in government than either Obama or Clinton, and none of them attracted significant support. In 2000, Al Gore had eight years of Vice-Presidential experience under his belt, and lost a tight race to a man whose only experience in government was as Governor of Texas – a state whose Governor is not unduly burdened with duties and whose legislature only meets every other year. Nonetheless, George W. Bush’s first nine months in office went by fairly smoothly. It’s worth noting, too, that the architects of many of W.’s least successful policies – Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz – all had decades of experience in government – including, in some cases, having argued convincingly against precisely the policies they later advocated. Experience is something, sure, but it’s awfully hard to say exactly what it is, or how much weight it should be given.

Clinton’s experience also includes eight years in the Senate. That’s something, too, arguably more important than her eight years as the wife of the President. Obama has four years in the Senate, though; is an extra four years in the Senate a significant edge? I’m not convinced. Clinton, after all, voted as a Senator in favor of giving Bush the authority to go to war, and she’s never said that vote was a mistake. She’s apparently done a good job for the people of New York, and it’s true that she’s been able to work with Republican Senators to get legislation passed. Obama has also been an effective legislator, working well on specific issues with Republican colleagues. It’s not clear that Clinton’s legislative experience gives her an edge over Obama, either as a demonstration of effective leadership or of good judgment.

Of course, the other thing Clinton means by her experience is that of being the target of 16 years of conservative vitriol. “I’m still here,” she says, and it’s true. She is. What she doesn’t say, perhaps because it’s obvious, is that so are they. She alludes frequently to her experience fighting conservative smears and claims that that experience makes her better able to fight for Democratic policies as President. She also claims that, although Obama hasn’t yet had the same level of venom directed at him, if elected, he will. The inference is that either candidate will have to deal with the same kind of attacks, and that she’s uniquely qualified to respond to them.

This may be true, but I think it’s fair to wonder about how effective she’s really been at responding to the attacks. After 16 years, conservatives still loathe her. She hasn’t defanged their attacks so much as endured them. It speaks well of her that she’s had the courage to continue her political career under what I think we can all concede have been pretty much relentless attacks. But the fact remains that even if we grant her unique experience dealing with Republican attacks, she also attracts them. She unifies conservatives in a way no other figure – not even her husband – is able to do. The attacks she endures aren’t simply because she’s a prominent Democrat (there are plenty of others, none of whom have inspired conservative anger on the same scale) or that she’s a liberal (which, depending on the issue, she’s not at all). It’s personal.

That means that, although Obama will surely have a tough road ahead of him as the nominee, it almost by definition cannot be as bad as what she has gone through and will go through as the nominee. He's got 16 years of catching up to do on that score. It’s certainly possible that dirt could be dug up against Obama, but so far the worst we know about is a somewhat shady deal to buy part of a vacant lot and Obama’s own admission that as a younger man he did some blow. It’s small potatoes compared to the Whitewater investigation that sprawled across both of Bill Clinton’s terms in office, or McCain’s involvement in the late-80s savings-and-loan scandals.

There is another side to Clinton’s experience that she doesn’t bring up, and of which she may be unaware. Judging by her own comments and her husband’s, they have survived increasingly vicious, hostile political environments. Those circumstances forced them to become defensive, suspicious, and secretive. The recent New Yorker profile of Hillary suggested that she has not simply shrugged off the years of political warfare that she was exposed to in Arkansas and Washington. She’s been changed by them. Probably that was inevitable, and unfortunate. I do think it’s reasonable to wonder whether we want or need another President after the current one whose political instincts are toward secrecy and paranoia. It’s true that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean people aren’t really out to get you; while the “vast right-wing conspiracy” may not have been as vast as the Clintons think, it was and is real enough. I just don’t know that we’re best served by a President whose political instincts have been shaped by fighting it.

Nonetheless, even if Clinton isn’t the obviously better candidate on policy grounds, and doesn’t have a clear edge in experience, and has some unfortunate if understandable political habits, she might still be the better candidate on electability grounds. If Clinton was able to unite the Democratic party behind her agenda and attract widespread support, she would be the more convincing candidate, particularly if she could help get more Democratic Congressmen and Senators elected. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Partly as a result of her long exposure to the nation, there are relatively few people who don’t already like and admire her to whom she can appeal. Republicans, particularly conservatives, despise her. There will be very few “Clinton Republicans” if she is the nominee, and she does not significantly expand the reach of the party. At best, I think an election with Hillary as the candidate will have record turnout for both parties, but I don’t think such an election will attract many new or undecided voters. She might pull out a win – the last two Presidential elections have been very, very close and McCain is a flawed candidate himself. I don’t think she’s likely to increase the Democratic majority in Congress by much, and if elected I think she’ll have a hard time persuading Republicans to get her agenda passed.

In contrast, consider Obama. His policy positions are very close to hers. He can’t claim to have spend eight years living with the President, it’s true, but his legislative accomplishments, both in Illinois and in Washington, demonstrate that he can be effective in getting legislation passed with votes from Republicans. Many Democrats I know feel queasy about “bipartisanship” – particularly with the example the Congress has set over the past year. If I thought Obama’s rhetoric about inclusion and working with Republicans meant that kind of “bipartisanship” – that is, passing the Republican agenda with the briefest resistance – I would share those doubts. What his record demonstrates is an ability to find common ground with particular Republicans on specific issues, and that’s a skill any Democratic President will need to get any legislation passed. Because of the reaction she inspires in the conservative base of the Republican party, I think it’s doubtful that Hillary Clinton will be able to do that.

Obama has demonstrated in every state in which he’s campaigned so far an unusual (as far as I know, unprecedented) ability to get younger voters and independents to the polls. He expands the pool of votes available to the Democrats if he’s the nominee. That’s nice for him, but it will probably be even better for other Democrats on the ticket with him. In close races for open seats – of which there are an unusual number this year – the extra votes could determine whether the seat goes to a Democrat or a Republican. Even a few extra seats in the House or the Senate would make it much easier for President Obama to get his agenda passed. Since the two candidates are largely in accord on their policies, I think Obama is more likely to get Clinton’s agenda passed than Clinton is.

I don’t think Obama will be able to transcend partisan politics the way some of his more enthusiastic admirers do, and I’m not convinced that, if elected, he will be transformative in the way FDR and Reagan were. I just think he presents the best possible chance for the nation to have a better, more effective government with a sober foreign policy. If you’re voting in the Democratic primaries today, I hope you’ll give him your vote.


Sator Arepo said...

Nice piece. I agree with almost all of your points, and your argument for Obama. He seems very...electable. That sounds like faint praise, but it's really, really important.


Aaron said...

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld (who really missed his calling as an aphorist) you go into an election with the candidates you have, not the candidates you wish you had.

Among this group, I think he's got the best chance to do what I'd like to see done.

Murderface said...

Yeah. I could easily be a single-issue voter on universal health care, but A: I don't think that any of the candidates can deliver that, and B: As public health policy arguments teach us, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

I think Obama's health care plan is achievable and positive. I think Clinton's plan, while it calls itself mandated universal coverage, is really just granting the insurance companies a huge direct subsidy, and will take more health care dollars away from the poor, without improving coverage.

Anyway, single-issue voting is not so great, actually.

That said, the International Land Mine Treaty is another single issue that I could induce me to be a binary voter. I think Obama might sign and adhere to that one.

If Bill's record is anything to go by, Clinton Redux would pass up multiple opportunities to do so.