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Obama v. Clinton: Hope and Anti-Hope


For someone interested in the material effects of discourse -- for example, the kind of things that George Lakoff and others call "framing" -- the current political season is almost as interesting as it is frustrating and depressing.

I'm talking, of course, about the Democrats, the Republicans apparently having passed, beyond depressing to play among themselves a hermetically sealed game in which various formulaic assertions of lunacy and meanness are dramatically thrown down, like the dragon and ogre cards in the sort of fantasy games grungy adolescents used to (perhaps still do) play in "goth shops" in the odd corners of excruciatingly ugly suburban strip malls: "Aha" says the Giuliani, "my 9-11 swamp mangler captures the 12,000,000 illegal aliens in your Chamber of Deportation and drops them on the Islamofascist Bog Monster," only to have his gales of maniacal laughter interrupted by The Holy Huckabee: "Not so fast, Homophile of Urban Evil, I play a wrath of Jesus and the Red Heifer of Jerusalem to trap your Swamp Mangler and turn it against Romney of the Golden Plates and his Mist of the Border Sealant."

Like the Republicans, the "viable" Democratic candidates seem -- at least in public -- to agree in a general way about some issues: the Iraq war should be concluded sooner rather than later; the tax system should be tweaked to allow the extremely well-off to pay modestly toward relieving the burden of every one else; lunatics should not be appointed to the federal courts.

Let me quickly distinguish this generalized front-runner discourse from what we are to regard as "the loser's discourse." Dennis Kucinich articulates substantive programs to achieve ends that are arguably connected to cogent diagnoses of the problems they seek to address: for example, while the front running candidates advance variously complex plans seeking to enlist the insurance industry in expanding access to health care, Kucinich understands that the insurance companies are what is wrong with the health care system. Since they contribute nothing to the actual delivery of health care, while extracting their profit from the resources devoted to it, he reasons that replacing them with a single-payer health care program ought to allow those profits to be recovered and used to actually deliver medical services. Kucinich adds to this theoretical case empirical evidence that single-payer health care systems work every where else in the developed world. I think of this "loser's discourse" as "making sense."

When we direct attention, to the so-called "viable" candidates, attempts at making sense -- in the way I of Kucinich -- is pretty much the province of John Edwards. His two Americas discourse identifies extreme concentration of wealth, leading to a monopoly of political power and effective disenfranchisement of wage earning people not only as the underlying cause of our inability to address our problems both foreign and domestic, but also as fundamentally wrong. Although he has put out some fairly detailed and sensible programs to deal with the ill effects of the two America's economy, he has not, to my knowledge, voiced the logical conclusion of his populist rhetoric, which would be to redistribute wealth. He's good at pointing out the connection between the redistribution of wealth from 'us' to 'them' that has been the logical consequence of the tax 'reforms' of Reagan and Bush, but less forthright about the sort of tax structure and legislative reforms that would be necessary to reverse the flow back from "them" to "us." There are also a credibility problem "I like what Edwards says, but I'm not convinced he would or could act on it effectively. In any case and for whatever reasons, Edwards' populist discourse has thus far failed to draw enough adherents to move him into serious contention. When it comes to capturing the public imagination, talking sense, but not too much sense, seems to occupy a middle ground between "the loser's discourse" and front running.

This leaves Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama offers a calculatedly vague promise of optimism and change: a getting past the present without necessarily knowing in advance what sort of material adjustments will get us from the bad-and-rapidly-getting-worse-here to the bright-and-better-future. There is not much to be for or against in such a message, though one can justly worry about its implicit faith in character and attitude over analysis and institutional reform. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, continues to speak a language we have had a lot of experience with, the language of the Democratic Leadership Committee, of triangulation and protracted engagement. The programs she outlines seem to be crafted to be as progressive as she and her advisors believe they can be given how things are. So, here we are at a doleful moment. For eight years the Bush administration has sown discord in its own house, and whoever walks into the oval office on January 21, 2009 is surely going to inherit the whirlwind. In this discourse, viability is the ultimate test. Who has the best shot at being good enough to get us through the coming storm?

Over the last few weeks I've been bemusedly tracking my emotional reactions to the vicissitudes of the Barack and Hillary in Iowa and New Hampshire. I feel these reactions moving me toward a definite answer that has everything to do with the shape of discourse, yet little to do with frame of "Experience vs. Hope" within which campaigns have been staged. The Clinton campaign's recent cautions against false hope, its insistence on finding the desirable within the possible, have clarified a somewhat different frame: that of hope and anti-hope. Now that Hillary Clinton and her surrogates (especially the former president) have made explicit the dangers of hope, I find myself wanting oddly to make a case for Obama without Obama. That is, I'm sorry to say, a case against Clinton. Obama seems like a nice guy to me. He seems smart too. I wish he would say something substantive about what he expects to do as president, but I don't care as much as perhaps I should. Here's why:

Experience vs. the Untested: The most successful president -- since the self-destructing LBJ -- came to office with precisely the experience of -- Mike Huckabee. He had managed Arkansas (and, not incidentally, after losing an election and sitting out a term, he had come to accept that to run Arkansas one had to attend to the interests of Tyson Chicken, which, of course, was not the same as the interests of the people Tyson's employs). There was (is) much about Bill Clinton that was (is) substantively not good (eg: NAFTA). What made him successful in is that he is astonishingly smart. It may be that Hillary Clinton is as smart or smarter. She certainly seems smart enough to be president. I imagine (and it really is an imagining, because she isn't telling much) that she will be as good a President as Bill was, and slightly more progressive and effective if she can keep him from finding ways to entangle her in stupid self-indulgent and self-destructive escapades. His lack of discipline enabled the Republicans to waste a lot of our time, and as first gent he'll have more time to go off and make an ass of himself, which Hillary will have to deal with. Maybe she'll make him special envoy to some country where both men and women wear bhurkas. Let's say, being more disciplined, she does a bit better than Bill did. That is incredibly better than Bush, but is it good enough? I think not. Why? Because while Obama--as witnessed by the short-lived wave of enthusiasm that followed his victory in ought-to-be-entirely-trivial Iowa Caucuses--may offer little more than the feel-good candidacy, Clinton insists on running the feel-bad campaign--a Campaign against hope.

As far as experience goes, I think the Clinton-Obama contest is a wash. He has been a community organizer (good); she has been a corporate lawyer (not so good). She has been a senator since 2000; he has been a senator since 2004. Neither of them has governed anything. Senator Clinton, however, has had 35 years experience in politics (as opposed to governance) and the nature of that experience troubles me much more than it reassures me.

The Clintons (by which I mean, Bill, Hillary, Carville, Begala, Shrum, and the Democratic Leadership Council) succeeded politically by co-opting the right of center discourse that was successfully established by the Reaganauts. Their signal success was balancing the budget, which not only took the issue of fiscal responsibility away from the Republicans, but stuck them with a balanced budget -- something so inimical to their interests that Bush made getting rid of it his first priority when he took office. The price the Clintons pay for power was to endorse and reinforce the right wing discourse. Their justification is that by doing so they can hold office and be a whole lot better than the republicans (which they certainly are). They also bring along the Tyson Chicken lesson they learned in Arkansas: a conviction that you can govern reasonably well in collusion with the corporate interests and not at all against them. This assumption lies at the heart of Senator Clinton's recent statements about the danger of idealism and the need to know what can actually be done. It accounts for the unappetizing choices she put before us. Did she vote to authorize invading Iraq to deprive the right of an issue (in which case she acted cynically to enable a blood bath) or is she telling the truth when she says that she thought Bush wouldn't invade (in which case she is too naive too be president). Whatever her motives, for me, her support of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, among other travesties was a last straw. I'll vote for her if she's the Democratic nominee, but I won't forgive her. Her refusal to back Governor Spitzer's ill-fated attempt to talk sense about drivers' licenses for undocumented aliens was less bloody, but very troubling; and her reaction to the health care debacle of 1992-3 has exactly paralleled Bill Clinton's accommodation with Tyson in Arkansas. She is never going to talk sense about single-payer health care because she truly (perhaps correctly) believes that the only way to legislate an improved health care system is to convince the insurance companies that they will be "taken care of'' in any proposed legislation.

I am dubious about feeling good about Senator Obama, but I understand why I feel bad about Hillary Clinton. It's because I think 'talking sense' has advantages beyond getting things done and talking nonsense has deleterious effects not yet sufficiently assessed. Senator Clinton (or was it Bill?) has recently pointed out that, although Martin Luther King was a great talker, it took Lyndon Johnson's legislative finesse to enact the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; so that's where I'll start my brief history of American political discourse. Once upon a time, LBJ was a moderate to conservative Democrat, a highly competent and energetic, well-intentioned representative of the New Deal. He pushed through Congress the most far-reaching social agenda of any President in my lifetime (that is, since Truman), and by the standards of today's discourse, he was a mad leftist. He was driven from office not by Republicans to his right, but by an inflamed electorate and the left-wing of his own party. A far-reaching achievement of the Republicans between 1968 and 2008 has been a massive rightward shift in the prevailing discourse of the U.S. Unfortunately, although he was a remarkably good (competent, not necessarily moral) president, LBJ was not good enough for the moment of his presidency, which was killed in Vietnam. The good enough standard is much more demanding now. I despair of there being anyone good enough to be the next President; the Bush administration will hand over nothing but scorched earth.

The Clinton doctrine of discursive co-option is wrongly invoked in the Clinton's references to LBJ's effectiveness. Anyone listening to the tapes of LBJs phone conversations will hear a man fully aware that alienating the "solid south" by passing the voting right act is likely to hand the government over to a Republican 'southern strategy' for twenty-years or more. Johnson knew what Nixon would do and what the cost would be. Had he applied the Clinton doctrine, he might well have pursued something much more like the Kennedy approach to civil rights: foot-dragging, small adjustments, and pleas for patience. Looking back at what Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes did to the world, I'd have to say that Johnson might have had a point had he decided to protect the center-left coalition at all costs. But I cannot bring myself to wish he had, nor do I think the Clinton's would be invoking him as a model if he had.

In fact, I say Johnson "might have" rather than "would have" refused to accept the political consequences of the civil rights acts in part because King, and Malcom X, Core, the SCLC and SNCC were not going to be patient and LBJ had to contend with an American street that was determined to influence its government. Among the deleterious effects of the current discourse, we might count the besetting stupor that has pretty much handed the street to fundamentalist Christians and hysterical homophobes. When one takes into account the discursive as well as the legislative costs of allowing the politically possible to trump the demands of equity and good sense, the bill looks a lot bigger. Conversely the cost of telling the truth or making sense looks lower. Perhaps if LBJ displayed the courage and insight on Vietnam that he had on civil rights, the dolorous consequences of breaking the hegemony of the Dixicrats would have been overcome by a general increase in the sensibility of our national discourse. Who knows?

So, these are the concerns that restrain my enthusiasm for Senator Clinton. I wish I had a substantive case to make for Senator Obama, but I don't. He seems decent (his wife's word about him) and very smart, which would be a refreshing change for the White House. Given the present state of things, which cannot be held together, let alone repaired, by patches and opportunistic repairs, I find that I am enthusiastic about enthusiasm, feeling good about the feel-good candidate. A role of the dice strikes me as, if not just what we need, the best shot we have. I can't say I understand the appeal of Senator Obama's oratory, but he does seem to light a lot of people up, and he's the only candidate I don't have a long list of objections to, except for the Sainted Kucinich, who, alas, makes too much sense to be elected. I'd like to see Senator Obama pushed left by the enthusiasts he enlivens, and I'd like to see some substantive policy proposals issue from him. If may get us past race-baiting; that's a big plus in itself. I wish he were a woman too, but what can he do, he's not built that way?