Democrats Diminishing Horizon

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

We had a chance, we really did. But the prospect that Democrats will finally "get it" is fading fast. Two examples to illustrate this point:

1. The rise and fall of Samantha Power:

Power was sharply criticized for saying that Sen. Hillary Clinton was a monster, and defined Clinton's "monstrosity" as "stooping to anything." However, there is almost unanimous thinking that Clinton is in fact "stooping to anything" to win.

To be fair, let's look at how the Clinton camp has defined its moves: The Clinton team said we're "throwing the kitchen sink" at Obama. So what is the distance between throwing the kitchen sink and stooping to anything? I'd reason throwing the kitchen sink is more violent than stooping to anything. A kid in a school yard stoops to anything to beat a bully -- she might throw sand in his eyes or kick him in the balls. But an opponent who throws the kitchen sink, shows a lack of discrimination, violence and even deception.

Seen in this light, Power's characterization of Clinton as a "monster" is not so terribly maladroit. In a poetic sense, Power was onto something, especially if a monster is indiscriminate, angry and deceives his victims.

Why? Because number one, there's a lack of measure in throwing the kitchen sink at someone (which is commonly defined as "the final item imaginable on any extensive list of usually disparate items"). This tactic has a kind of overkill to it: you're throwing everything you can think of in, everything goes. You're not really sorting out what's good, what's bad, what over-the-line. You do not discriminate between items, you throw it all. Does Godzilla-the-monster, for example, pick up the red car or the blue car to throw into the harbor? It doesn't matter to him.

Second, there's violence in this action. Imagine throwing the kitchen sink at someone in a literal sense. A sink is heavy, usually metal, throwing it at someone's soft flesh will hurt. To say that you will throw heavy metal at someone signifies a kind of violence of action. You might do that if you were angry, maybe murderous in a crime-of-passion kind of way. Or, like an angry lover, you throw his things out the window. Essentially throwing the kitchen sink at someone is characterized by irrational, irritated, angry, even passionate action. Think of the attitude behind "Meet me in Ohio!" that phrase Clinton threw at Obama the weekend before the Ohio debates.

Thirdly, the verb throwing used in this idiomatic way has a degree of misjudgment, maybe even deception, as in: Don't throw the baby out with bathwater (misjudgment) or, you threw me for a loop (to confuse, mislead, surprise). And there's an interesting idea here -- the idea of deception. The Clinton camp has been criticized for integrating race into its campaign messaging. Take Bill Clinton's fairy tale remark: "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," he said referring to Obama's statements on the Iraq war. Bill Clinton, as he stumped for his wife Hillary, was referring to Obama's stance on the war. However, the subtext of his statement was that a black man running for president was a fairy tale. So even if that's not what he said -- the sum effect was that he was leading the unconscious mind of the public to this place. How do we know that this was the subtext? Just think of all the folks who thought that a black man running for president is a fairy tale was what Bill Clinton was saying. They were deceived, and Bill Clinton's idea was allowed to unconsciously register in their minds. This is the deception.

The deceptions continue. It seems the Clinton team views highlighting Obama's race as a key to wedging into the fears whites have of blacks and thus gaining votes. And they've gained traction in large part by keeping Obama busy deflecting their attacks. This, however, is a tool of deception: from Hillary's conflations of MLK and LBJ (and the irony of her making these arguments in opposition to a black candidate was not lost on many) to Geraldine Ferraro's weird remarks (which I will not reprint here). The Clinton team is also looking to exploit fears blacks have for themselves. The persistent call for Obama to settle for VP fits this category. Black people (myself included) often have a hard time seeing ourselves as winners. This is a deception because it veils the truth -- that blacks are just as capable and worthy as anyone else.

Monsters ultimately awaken latent and unknown horrors. Like in those zombie movies, we strain watching the hero evading the beast, until just the right time when it can be defeated. We don't cheer her to coax it awake. If she did that, we'd think she were one of them -- oh no! she got bit in the last attack -- she's one of them too! -- she's a zombie too -- or, at least dead meat. So what do we make of that "3am" ad? The Clinton commercial is a revealing choice in this realm of monsters. Three am, in Christian mythology, is the devil's hour. In "the Christian mind," three am opposes three pm, dayside, the holy hour when Jesus was crucified and died. On a symbolic level, Clinton has raised the specter of "the monster" herself. She creates the "3am" ad, and in doing so, she raises the psychic image of devil. As if to say, "Devil time! Whatcha gonna to do?!" Some were upset that Clinton created the ad showing peaceful children asleep at night, the image lending itself to some kind of home-invasion scenario, as if to say who would you rather have, me or that black man, protecting these babies? This, did not bother me as much as the notion that Clinton chose to appeal to our fear -- however irrational -- as a tool to gain our support. It establishes a precedent of leading people with lies, of mis-leading. And if you suspect that people are both good and bad and have to be cajoled sometimes to move towards the good -- then her effort to appeal to fear -- shows that she is okay with moving us to the bad, to our negative sides, to the worst parts of ourselves. How is this not unlike a little devil, telling you to go one way, when you know better? But this way is easier... it says.

It is problematic that the pressure fell on Powers to resign -- not only from within the Obama campaign (be positive!) and from the Clinton campaign (predictable), but Powers herself called her comments "stupid". There is a misstep here. I don't expect much from mainstream media, but the progressive press seemed unable to pick-up on these fine lines, to see through the b.s. And just as important, why are we not asking ourselves why we turn on one another so easily? The next person who speaks out -- what kind of support can she expect from her fellow progressives? Will we try to understand - or make a sport of conversation, misunderstanding and judgment? I suspect the flap over Rev. Wright, Obama's old pastor, falls into this area as well. The press and Clinton have chosen to highlight the most irritating of Wright's statements at the pulpit. And Obama is forced to explain the obvious: that we are not all bad, nor all good. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has made a similar argument about John Hagee, a radical pastor who's endorsed him: "in no way did I intend for his endorsement to suggest that I in turn agree with all of Pastor Hagee's views, which I obviously do not," McCain said in the statement."

I wrote Power that I thought she was right. I said sometimes we say things with our hearts instead of taking the time to make the intellectual argument. But that doesn't mean that your heart was wrong in the first place. I wrote an article in January softly implying that Clinton was monster,[5] so maybe I'm just trying to justify my own argument. I'll accept that. Nonetheless, it took a lot of courage to say what she did. And I am thankful for it.

2. The rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer:

I gather when a governor breaks the law he cannot stay in office and bottom line, what Spitzer did was illegal. And yet there does seem to be a grey area here. Is there not some kind of gradation for his offense versus say, those of our other elected officials? For all his wrongs, we have no proof that Spitzer murdered anyone. We don't believe yet that he's stolen anyone's pension. He's started no wars. He's raped no children. He's sent no one unjustly to war. He's not sanctioned the torture of innocents. He's simply liked an inappropriate fuck and most probably used some sketchy means to pay for it.

Since frequenting prostitutes often goes un-prosecuted, I can't help but wonder why things went down as they did. It seems Spitzer was most guilty of the kind of pride that breeds enemies and loses friends, as Chris Suellentrop of The New York Times (quoting Byron York of the National Review) writes:

Spitzer's "biggest problem, at least from a political perspective," York writes, is this: "He doesn't appear to have any friends."

Spitzer might make it if some prominent allies were willing to throw their bodies in front of a train for him. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

While there was acknowledgement of Spitzer's potential to shake-up Albany for the better, as he had Wall Street, the outrage from Dems shows a certain naiveté about how real people work and behave. For example, Spitzer probably had these trysts throughout his career, did that prevent him from doing good in office? Does the good outweigh the bad? Or the bad outweigh the good? Do we want to throw the baby out with bathwater in every case?

I should add here that some will say I'm missing the point. A close family member wrote me:

in my mind, your view on Spitzer is off the mark. More specifically, Spitzer was more than a flawed man who had an 'inappropriate fuck,' he was a blatant hypocrite who prosecuted prostitution rings. Spitzer would have (and probably did) prosecuted the average 'flawed' man who went to a prostitute while he was the Attorney General. He would have shown no mercy. He was supposed to clean up NY, yet he was polluting it himself. This, his blatant hypocrisy, is the reason for his downfall - not his inappropriate liaison with a whore. If he had not been so anti-crime, if he had not been the AG who prosecuted prostitution rings, I doubt that he would have had to resign.

I think this is so interesting. What if it is exactly our inability to see that the hypocrite can do good, that stands in our way? Even hypocrites can do good. As Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post:

Spitzer's probes of Merrill Lynch and other brokerages revealed that analysts were lying about stocks to win investment banking business, an effort that Time said was 'fundamentally reshaping America's markets.'

Could it be that our inability to acknowledge just how complex people are, blinds us in an important way? We are naïve, as a party, if we expect total propriety among powerful men and women, who like us, are flawed. It's almost as if the puritanical pinwheel were flipped and the liberals are actually the ones who do not forgive, who rush to judge, who cry for offenders to be excoriated. The Republicans have understood this and that is why when they have their own ethical, sexual flare-ups, they do what is expected: the offender is contrite, he repents. And as a party, they generally stand by their man.

It remains to be seen what David Peterson's tenure will bring. But clearly Spitzer's gone and with him all the works voters had elected him to do in Albany. This situation undermines the argument Dems would like to make, namely that they understand how things work, that they are good problem solvers, and that they get "the big picture". The big picture -

We've come up short, haven't we? So where does that leave us? A case where an academic said what she thought was the truth and cuts herself out of the picture and a governor with a character flaw slices himself out of the picture. Both Power and Spitzer were seen as "bright stars" amongst Dems. Is this what we do when our stars fall? Do we all "cut and run?"

Maybe another change-maker can resolve this thing going on in the party. As The Economist claims this month:

The great challenge for the Democratic Party in November will be to put this coalition back together. But the bitter fight in the months to come will widen the already gaping divide. John McCain could not be better positioned to pick up the pieces.

Although, I suspect, it may be winner takes all. The other side will have to be converted or shamed into irrelevancy. Or, maybe the unusual and atypical Obama can shake us out of it and defang our angry, little monsters.