1968 Redux?

November 4, 2007

1968 Redux?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, November 4, 2007 after watching “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: The roundtable on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” discussed the Democratic debate last week. It was pointed out that the debate showed “the core of Hillary’s vulnerability.” They’re referring to the so-called flip flop, the lack of clarity, the “double speak,” to use John Edwards’ term, when she was asked about the proposal to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses in New York. Both Edwards and Barack Obama tried to exploit this in the debate to show this is the Clintonian way. As George Will said ‘What Clintonian rhetoric means is being slippery and trying to play more than one side of an issue.’ Let me start by asking you a basic question here. Do you think that is the core of Hillary’s political vulnerability?

Newman: No.

Salit: I’m not surprised to hear you say that. And why not?

Newman: You could make the same charge against all of the candidates. And it’s not even clear what’s wrong with having more than one view of an issue. Given the rate at which things are moving and changing, if you don’t change and evolve your positions, you’d become rusted very quickly, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. These are fast changing times. No, I don’t think that’s her vulnerability. I think her vulnerability lies in the fact – and Edwards is trying to pick up on this, although I don’t think he’s doing it forcefully enough – that she is a part of the Establishment. Her vulnerability is that Bill Clinton was president and spent eight years compromising Democratic Party values, no less American values. Those compromises produced George Bush. She wants to chalk all that up as her “experience,” with the hope that it’s a benefit to her. I don’t know that it is. Someone is going to have to go after that more directly. But that’s hard to do in the Democratic primary.

Salit: And that’s hard to do in the Democratic primary because?

Newman: Because Bill Clinton was a Democrat. The Clinton campaign is trying to use his stature and popularity as a former president, but her opponents could make him a minus rather than a plus. The Clintons and Clintonism are part of a broader picture which has brought America to where it is today. And Hillary’s a big part of that. But that’s a hard thing to communicate because it means casting doubts on the Democratic Party as a whole. The most authentic thing I saw in the whole discussion today was a clip of Edwards having a conversation with some voters and he said – not angrily, but emphatically – ‘Washington is corrupt. The system is corrupt.’ It’s important that he’s saying that, but you have to say what that means, including speaking to how it became corrupt. How did that happen? That’s what people want to know about corruption. If you tell the honest story of how it became corrupt, there are many different factors to discuss, but certainly it’s not just the Bush administration. It didn’t just turn corrupt with the Bush administration.

Salit: It’s been a bi-partisan project for a long time. But Edwards did go so far as to say that ‘Hillary defends a system that doesn’t work. The system is beyond broken, it’s corrupt.’ He’s tried to associate her with that system, yes?

Newman: No. He’s hedging on that question. He’s saying she defends a system which is corrupt. The difference between defending a system which is corrupt and the actual history of what the Clintons have done, of the moves that they made which were not even expressive of Democratic Party core values, is enormous. Now, she would say, Bill created a great economy. And, in some ways, maybe he did. Clintonism did so by pandering to corporate America, by the kinds of policy decisions it made on welfare, on the unions, on trade, on the black community.

Salit: And, meanwhile, at the grassroots level, as Karl Rove was more than capable of seeing – and cultivating – there was a growing conservative movement. And though the Democrats believed (or talked themselves into believing) that the Clinton win in 1992 was a major victory, a new opening for the conservatives was created.

Newman: Yes. Even though Bush didn’t sail home to victory. He actually lost the popular vote. But nonetheless, Al Gore, the former vice president, gets beaten. It’s kind of astounding, much in the same way it’s astounding for a Democrat to lose the mayoralty in New York City. How does that happen without the stage being set? Well, the stage was set. A lot of the vote for Bush was based on the sentiment: Well, Clinton and those folks took us to the center and even a little bit center-right. So why not go for the real thing? The country’s becoming more and more pro-corporate, why not go for Bush/Cheney?

Salit: That’s a part of the story of how the country became corrupt.

Newman: So, ultimately, Clinton’s greatest vulnerability is her being a Clinton. That’s what she’s using to win the election. That’s a correct strategy for her. But to make her lose the election, someone has to step up and say: You know the problem, Hillary, is not that you’re slippery or inauthentic. You’re as authentic as the rest of us. It’s the corruption. And you’re a deep-rooted part of that corruption. Let me tell you what I mean by that. And this is not a personal attack. When Stephanopoulos said, ‘Are you saying that Hillary is corrupt?’ Edwards should have said: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying we’re all corrupt. I’m just saying that Hillary played a different role in creating that corruption. Clintonism played the most serious role on the Democratic Party side .

Salit: Edwards realized that he has to cover that base when he said: ‘Look, I turned my head more times than I should have. But we’re now talking about the direction that the country needs to go in from here.’

Newman: He didn’t turn his head. He fed at the trough.

Salit: That would be a better way of putting it.

Newman: That’s her vulnerability. And I assure you that Rudy Giuliani won’t be afraid of saying that.

Salit: Stephanopoulos reviewed some new polls. One poll that he was interested in – I thought it was an interesting poll, too – shows 75% of the country prefers a new direction for the post-Bush era. This number is at least 20 points higher than public sentiment was at other change elections, at the end of the Clinton tenure, and at the end of the Reagan tenure. 20 points higher, at least.

Newman: That’s spelled “I-R-A-Q.”

Salit: Yes. But the Democratic Party is putting itself forward as the new direction on Iraq. They’re trying to be the spokesperson for that 75% that wants that new direction. And they’ve, by and large, cornered the market on that.

Newman: But the American people are also saying ‘Been there, done that.’ That’s what got the Democrats elected to Congress two years ago. What’s happened off of that? What’s changed?

Salit: Okay. That’s the thing that Edwards is on to, or responding to.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: He’s saying (a) It’s about Iraq and (b) It’s actually about more than Iraq.

Newman: Yes, and I think he’s being helped by changing his focus. I don’t know whether the polls are reflecting that, but I think he’s being helped by it. I think he’s gotten more out of the attacks on Hillary than Obama did.

Salit: George Will likened the top three Democratic candidates to the line up in 1968, another important change election.

Newman: Hillary comes out being Hubert Humphrey.

Salit: Yes. Obama is Eugene McCarthy and Edwards is Bobby Kennedy. And Humphrey was, of course, the winner.

Newman: Of the primary.

Salit: Yes, of the primary. But he lost the general election to Richard Nixon. And Kennedy was tragically assassinated. Is that an interesting historical analogy for you? Does that add anything to the picture?

Newman: I think Will’s real message here is that the Republicans are going to win despite all this brouhaha. And he might be right.

Salit: Yes, he might be right. Arguing against that position was EJ Dionne. He says: ‘The conservatives are roughly in the same position that the liberals were in the 1970s, which is that the liberals had run out of answers then and the conservatives were able to gain political power off of that. But now the roles are reversed. The conservatives have run out of ideas…’

Newman: I don’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s a question of running out of ideas. I think the liberals were edging further to the right. The positions they were putting out were so compromised that people said ‘Hey, if we’re going to go this route…’

Salit: So, it’s not that the liberals ran out of ideas. It’s that liberal and conservative ideas were becoming increasingly similar.

Newman: I think so. You always have to engage the relationships that make up the political totality. Liberalism’s compromises of its own ideas opens the door to the American people saying Well, if we’re going to have Big Business government, why not have Big Business people do it? Why have these people who are Johnny-come-lately’s to the whole thing, why keep them in charge? I think Bush succeeds Clinton not only literally but, in some sense, conceptually.

Salit: Back to the poll where 75% of the country wants the president to go in a different direction than Bush. After Clinton, those desiring a change of direction were only 50% of the country. And that was roughly the result of the 2000 election, too. The whole thrust of compassionate conservatism, which was the Bush theme in 2000, was to express a continuity with Clintonism. Now, the conservatives are on the ropes. George Will said ‘Maybe the strategy for the conservative movement for 2008 is to run a conservative candidate knowing you’re going to lose the election.’ It’s the Goldwater strategy, 44 years later. You go down in flames in terms of the results of this election, but you use it to establish a new core, a new base of conservatism.

Newman: Goldwater didn’t go down in flames. He went up in flames. It was the beginning of a big rise, the early stages of the Reagan Revolution. Since then, the conservatives have been running the whole show. It’s an entirely different situation. Who wants to go up in flames after you’ve been in charge of the whole show for eight years?

Salit: That’s the Giuliani appeal. He turns to the social conservatives and says, I’m the guy who can keep you in power. Thanks, Fred.