Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Letter to my brother in Georgia--Hillary's burden


As you know, I see the press coverage of the Washington Post through very jaundiced eyes. The Post has been opposed to Bill Clinton from day one—he’s not one of the cool kids and the cool kids can never get over that this redneck hick is class president. I’m sure that no Georgetown cocktail party these opinionators attend ever happens without the ritual of passing on the latest nasty Bill Clinton gossip, accompanied by rolling eyes and much tut-tutting about how stupid people are to fall for this guy.

Eugene Robinson’s Washington Post op ed is standard issue Villager attack. It pretends to be even handed by throwing in caveats about “of course, this is unfair” and then returns to repeating the unfair attacks. It is counterfactual. The impeachment was NOT a debacle for Bill Clinton. His approval ratings rose continuously during the mess and the Democrats made gains in the midterm elections. It was a debacle for the Republicans, costing Newt Gingrich his speakership and then Bob Livingston his. I can’t say what a Bob Livingston-led House would have looked like, but it sure wouldn’t have been that nakedly partisan, openly greedy, enthusiastically stupid House that Tom Delay and his puppet Denny Hastert built. It might very well still be in power.

Finally, note that Robinson doesn’t deal with a single issue of substance. He parades a bunch of trumped up controversies (why won’t they release papers..who are Bill’s contributors, etc.) that are probably very important on the Georgetown cocktail party gossip circuit, but have very little bearing on how Hillary Clinton will actually run the country.

You can compare this with the Cynthia Tucker Atlanta Journal editorial you e-mailed me a few days earlier, in which Tucker compared Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq to Clinton’s vote for authorizing force against Iraq. It raises an issue of substance. If Clinton loses the nomination, then this will probably be the deciding issue among Democratic party voters.

Tucker sees the clear advantage to Obama, but I’ve been considering what it really says about HRC. It seems to be agreed everywhere, and I will take it as a truth, that HRC is a deeply politically calculating person, weighing the short term and long term pros and cons of every decision she takes and how she will present them. What could have been the calculations behind her vote? 1) She may be telling the truth when she says that she didn’t think the President would take the country to war on such flimsy evidence. Even before the war the Army Chief of Staff went to Capitol Hill and testified that it would take “several hundred thousand” troops to secure the country. The President’s own budget director said it would cost $100-200 billion dollars (and he got sacked for saying it). I think that from HRC’s perspective of having been in the White House, she anticipated that GWB would be getting some hard headed, realistic assessments behind the scenes, and that much of his war bluster was Karl Rove-inspired fear mongering designed for 2002 political gain (which it achieved) that would not be backed up by the actual use of force once the Republicans had destroyed the Max Clelands of the Democratic party. It took a lot of people a long time to realize the extent to which the Bush administration was not reality based and how effectively it shut out information it didn’t want to know. 2) She may also have been making a medium term calculation: give the guy enough rope to hang himself. The Clinton administration did not invade Iraq, even though they may very well have had some of the same fears that the Bush administration had. Their foreign policy was very belligerent; Sect. of State Madeline Albright complained that the Army didn’t want to use its forces. They must surely have been given some insight into the difficulties that would arise from any use of troops in Iraq and the Middle East. She would have known that invasion might result in a president mired down in a deeply unpopular war. In other words, she might have been thinking ahead to 2004 or 2006 or 2008. 3) I think the answer she gave on CNN in the California debate on her vote against the Levin amendment is telling: she thought it would inappropriately tie the hands of the chief executive. Of course she wouldn’t be making a big deal of this in 2002, when George Bush was becoming an object of deep hatred among the core of the Democratic Party, and when she was denying she had any ambitions beyond the Senate, but she may very well be telling the truth: she was thinking ahead to 2009, when she would be the chief executive. She’d seen how a Watergate era reaction to Richard Nixon, the special prosecutor legislation, had run amok and been used to harass her husband’s administration. Don’t give your opponents ammunition. (This is the same argument, by the way, that Hillary friendly folks like Paul Krugman are making against Obama’s reprise of the Harry and Louise attack ads against HRC’s health care plans. Don’t give the enemies of universal health care ammunition: you’re going to have to pay for health care if you get elected.)

All of this is to say what everybody knows: this is a battle between someone who does their homework and hedges their bets against someone who is inspirational (but may be gambling). It doesn’t to my mind get HRC off the hook: the Iraq policy was disastrous and anyone with sense knew it would be disastrous in 2002. There was very little push back and leadership from the Democratic party (look at how John Kerry had to waffle about his votes) and it looked at the time as if Rove/Bush were going to sweep all before them. A lot of backbone from someone with a lot of stature might have allowed a bigger pushback then and in 2004. But I can’t say it was a miscalculation on HRC’s part to step aside and let opposition to the war be between Bush and the American people and not between Bush and HRC and the liberal democrats. Even if she acted wisely in context, this is not to say that Obama was not acting wisely when he spoke out from the beginning. He was not a member of the US Senate, he probably had no thoughts of how, say, his opposition to the war would affect his relationship to the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he became president: in short, they both may have acted wisely (and he acted well) given the context both of them were in. He could afford idealism.

You don’t have to be pro-Hillary to be very disturbed by the character of the Washington Post’s editorial page. They’ve enlisted former GWB officials to praise Obama and attack Hillary and Bill Clinton as “mendacious and ruthless” (as if the GWB administration hadn’t set the bar for being mendacious and ruthless). I went page back though about a month worth of Post editorials/op eds before I started writing this note, and it was amazing how overwhelmingly relentless and negative their attack on HRC has been, and from almost all quarters, including even E.J. Dionne who can usually be counted on for some degree of sanity.

I’ve ridiculed these folks as superficial high schoolers and I don’t for a minute not think that they are deeply superficial – the culture of journalistic nihilism that pervades the Post editorial pages was revealingly displayed in the late, to my mind, too-much lamented longtime Editorial page editor Meg Greenfield’s last novel, Washington published posthumously in 2001. (I love this blurb: “For more than three decades as a columnist and editor, writes Katharine Graham in a loving foreword, "she helped create the institutional voice of the Washington Post." These people really have no self awareness. They believe the whole world shares their high self-regard.) But while I think the Post editorial worldview is shallow and pettily-personal, it also in some respects accurately represents Washington, which is after all a company town. The vast majority of its citizens inhabit one of the many inter-locking bureaucracies. Bureaucracies value order, hierarchy, showing up at the office at 9 and leaving at 5, where the CEO only talks to the senior vice presidents for personnel and finance and management and so on down the line and everything can be reduced to a 25 slide power point presentation. This is what the Bush people are very, very good at and that is why they have gotten essentially a free ride from The Washington Post. (There was a good example in today’s Editorial page, which took the Bush budget to task. Not really because they disagreed with ideas or priorities, but because the whole thing is simply an unruly mess with all sorts of details swept under the carpet. One got the sense that if the Bush administration would go ahead and say, we take $750 billion out of the Social Security trust fund to cover the deficit to do all we want to do, they’d go right along. They don’t object to the priorities, they just want the accounting to be clean.) From this mind-set, people like Bill Clinton are the enemy. They don’t accept the status quo. If the 30 minute meeting hasn’t given them a good sense of the issues involved, they make folks stick around for another 30 minutes to get it right, even though that cuts into lunch hour and quitting time. They think they can get good ideas from people who aren’t the Vice President for thinking up good ideas. And they don’t think that sucking up to the Washington insiders is the path to knowledge or even power. So it makes sense that within the hometown view of the Post, Bill Clinton should be the object of such hatred and loathing. The irony is that Mitt Romney is right—John McCain is the Washington insider; the Clintons are deeply disliked by many pillars of the Democratic (such as the Kennedy wing of the party) and Washington establishments.

What they don’t realize is that the world doesn’t look the same to those outside their little bubble. Because they hate Bill Clinton, they want him “under control”. I’m of the opposite view: I don’t want him “under control.” I want him thinking outside the box and raising uncomfortable questions and pushing to look at things from a different angle. Similarly I want Hillary Clinton to be ruthless. I want whoever she appoints to be Attorney General to go through the Department of Justice and find all those home-schooled mouth-breathing Christianist lawyers and roust them out of the government and send them off with so many well documented black marks on their record that even Liberty University will be ashamed to hire them. It is no comfort to me to think that Obama will be too nice to root out these folks who want to create a Christian nation and who think torture and spying are compatible with our history and principles. I want real change, not a different preacher in the White House.

Seriously, if you don’t think that Robinson op-ed isn’t standard issue Washington Post group think, ask yourself, could George Will have written it? (yes) Charles Krauthammer? (yes, although he would have thrown in an entirely fictional description of a red faced screaming Bill Clinton to enliven his diatribe.) How about former GW Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson? (yes, although he would have had to have an obligatory paragraph on the great compassion of GWB signing a piece of AIDS legislation and how moral intending he was in invading Iraq even if it didn’t, well, work out so well—“it is possible to be wrong without being wicked” said preacher Gerson in self-absolution on the Diane Rehm show a week ago.) How about Richard Cohen (oh, but then he is so out of touch with reality that he wrote a piece today in which he explained how we really have a constitutional monarchy where the real responsibility of governing belongs to, get this, the unelected chief of staff. As the church lady would say, how convenient.)

I’m not opposed to Obama, but he’s not a savior and people who vote for him thinking that somehow the political system will be transcended will be bitterly disappointed.

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