Back to the Future.

June 3, 2007

Back to the Future.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, June 3, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: Michael Murphy, a Republican strategist on the “Meet the Press” panel gave his capsule summary of the presidential election: “If you win the future, you win the election.” His point is if you win the contest to establish yourself as the candidate who gives expression to a vision for the future of the country, you win. Would you agree with Murphy’s broad characterization?

Newman: It seems to me that it’s kind of a tautology.

Salit: A tautology because?

Newman: Winning the future is winning the election because the election is in the future.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: So, there’s no distinction between those two. I don’t know what it is that he’s referencing when he talks about “winning the future” other than winning the presidency.

Salit: Here’s some of the other language that’s used in this same vein: this is a ‘change election,’ this is a ‘turn the page’ election. Now, maybe you’d say both of those are tautologies too. Since George Bush is term limited out, it goes without saying that this will be a change election. That said, one interpretation of Murphy’s description is that given the public dissatisfaction, the ‘wrong track sentiment’ reported by the pollsters, Americans are looking for a leader who can articulate where the country needs to go which is a break with the past. The pundits contend that some elections are like this, where the country is looking for the statement of a new vision from the candidates.

Newman: The country is always looking for a statement of a new vision in a presidential election. That’s what a national election is. Are there some years where the same person is running or the obvious heir to some person is running and it’s less that way? Yes. But even in those cases, in a nuanced way, it’s a new vision people are looking for because they want to know where the country is going as opposed to where we’ve come from. Maybe this framing is useful to some people. I don’t question that. But I don’t find it terribly useful.

Salit: Is it more useful, in your view, to look at some of the particular things that are happening; for example, that the country has turned so deeply against the war?

Newman: I think that’s useful.

Salit: And what about the idea that Americans are dissatisfied with the insularity of Beltway politics, with the partisanship of both major parties? Is that an important part of the process?

Newman: Yes. Although the reality is, for all the dissatisfaction with what’s going on inside the Beltway and the dissatisfaction with the two dominant parties, that’s still who they’re going to vote for. That’s at least equally important.

Salit: I did a conference call with a group of reporters in New Hampshire before the debates last week. I talked to them about independent voters, how the numbers are growing, and the activity of independents around the country to give that movement greater coherence, greater influence and political leverage in the presidential process. I talked about the things that are important to independents, which include their opposition to the war and their opposition to partisanship. One of the reporters said to me: ‘Well, what happens if one presidential candidate in the debates comes out strongly against the war, but doesn’t make any kind of statement recognizing the independents and then another candidate who’s strongly pro-war makes a statement about democracy issues and the rise of the independent voter? How do independents weigh that? Does that become a choice they have to make?’ How would you answer that?

Newman: I’m only one independent out of a large mass of people, 40% of the American electorate. How would I answer it? I’d say: What your question reveals is that we don’t have enough choices. In fact, there are so few choices that independents have to be, in general, crammed into a very limited choice situation. I’d say that we have to increase the number of choices. That’s a very nuanced and complex process – and a very difficult one – because the major parties so dominate that they become the vessels into which you have to channel all public opinion, all attitudes, all desires for change. And that distorts and misshapes those opinions and desires.

Salit: Hillary Clinton is the subject of two new books.

Newman: Neither of which I’ve read.

Salit: Neither have I. There was a discussion on “The Chris Matthews Show” about Hillary and her baggage, her upside, her downside. Joe Klein says: ‘The issue isn’t the books, it isn’t the rehashing of the baggage, it isn’t any of that. The issue is that Hillary has a great résumé, but a résumé isn’t a theme. She doesn’t yet have a narrative that’s her story.’ Again, this goes “back to the future,” meaning that she doesn’t have a narrative that tells the story of where the country is at and who she is and why electing her as president is the thing to do to move the country forward. I don’t quite agree that she doesn’t have a narrative. I think there is a narrative out there around her. She’s a woman. She’s an experienced political woman. She has liberal views on issues, particularly domestic issues, social issues, health care, education, and so forth. She’s had moderate views on foreign policy. She’s now against the war, even if she voted for it. She’s been in a lifelong partnership with a very, very popular political figure who also happens to be a former president who brings a lot of his own experience and acumen to the table. Her narrative is continuity with the Democratic Party architecture that Bill created in the ’90s, enhanced by her being a woman and that’s turning the page because there’s never been a woman president. I think that’s her narrative.

Newman: Yes, I agree. I think that’s basically sound. But the mistake, in my opinion, is to try to understand any of these things in terms of individuals and their narratives because it’s not an individual situation. It’s a relational situation. There are people running against each other. When you look at the relationality of the situation, what Hillary is saying, roughly speaking, in my opinion is: There are two ways of running America and over the past decades, we’ve seen both of them manifest. It’s called the Bush Way or the Clinton Way. Which would you prefer? Those are your only two choices. That’s what she’s saying. That’s her bottom line methodological statement. Obama and others are trying to say: It’s possible for us to have a third way, or a fourth way, or a fifth way. Some people are saying there’s a tenth way, like Dennis Kucinich. The independents are saying: We’d like another way. But can you have another way, given the structural dominance of the two party system? That’s Obama’s ultimate weakness, because he seems to be unable to articulate another way. So, Hillary is on safe, solid ground, in this respect. She’s accurate in what she’s saying. There’s been two expressions of a direction for the country. There’s been Clintonism. There’s been Bushism. And she’s betting on people saying: Well, if my choice is between Bush and Clinton, I’m going to choose Clinton, at this point in time. But there are really only two choices. And she is saying: Can I give you a more updated version? Can I produce universal health care now, as opposed to when I tried it last time? Probably, I can. Can I tell you that the Democratic Party is now the anti-war party? Yes, I can. How did I vote? That doesn’t make a difference. In some ways, you’re voting more on Clintonism than you are on Hillary Clinton. And you’re voting against Bushism. Meanwhile, the elder Bush and the husband Clinton are out playing golf together. I think what Klein is asking for is her having an independent narrative. She has none. She’s not an independent. She’s a systems person through and through. I’m not saying that as a criticism, although I don’t like it and I think it’s profoundly limiting. Maybe Mike Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel will run and we’ll have a third option.

Salit: John McLaughlin certainly seemed to think so!

Newman: Yes. And if Talk/Talk readers want the best insight into Bloomberg, they should read your memo, The Bloomberg Story.

Salit: Thanks for the plug, Fred.

Newman: Here’s something I like about the campaign so far. I like the large number of candidates that are running. I think it’s a good thing. I think it makes a difference. I like it that New York has three candidates in the race – or two and a half really, because Bloomberg hasn’t committed. I like it for the country. I think it’s a step forward. Still, Hillary can’t step out of that framework. And she might win within that framework because the election will be carried out within that framework. In fact, if she were nominated and if the election were held tomorrow, I think she’d win. Because I think the Democratic Party is going to win, within limits. They can’t win with just anybody. But with Hillary, if the voters went to the polls tomorrow, Hillary would win.

Salit: I think what you were saying about the relationality point is interesting. Look at Obama. On the one hand, Obama runs with a vision statement, he’s pulled huge crowds, he raises millions of dollars, he puts himself in a top tier competitive position off of presenting that vision. But the experts say, at a certain point, he’s going to have to get down to the issues. At a certain point, he’s going to have to say to the teachers’ union: Here’s my plan for the teachers. Here’s how I’m going to relate to organized labor. This is what I think should happen with ethanol, etc. Now, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It’s true, that is how the process works. But, in some ways, it leaves out the gestalt, if you will – maybe that’s too mystical a word to use here…

Newman: It’s German, in any event.

Salit: Yes. Well, maybe a better term is the totality that gets created in the course of the campaign in which a candidate does more than simply connect with particular constituencies, but connects with the deeper concerns of the country. Take Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, which was tragically cut short by his assassination. He was drawing huge crowds and by the time of the California primary, he was the frontrunner for the nomination of the Democratic Party. He was not talking about the teachers’ union or the ethanol issue or anything like that. He was talking about a vision for the country. He was talking about America having come to a crossroads where it had to choose what kind of country we wanted to be. And yes, there was a huge social movement which had produced his campaign and which was fueled by his campaign.

Newman: That was true in some ways for Howard Dean four years ago. Until the Iowa caucus and then he was completely gone.

Salit: Yes, he was destroyed.

Newman: I think Fred Thompson who is about to announce in the Republican primary said a very smart thing the other day. When asked what he’s going to do if elected president, he said ‘I’m going to do a lot of things. And I’m going to do them my way. And if you like my way, vote for me. And if enough of you do, I’ll be the President of the United States.’ So, all these position papers, all these appeals to different constituencies are something you have to do if you’re running for the presidency. But, do they have anything to do with how people vote? That’s not so clear. They probably have little or nothing to do with it. The choice has more to do with whether you want this person to do it his or her way. Well, your record and your style and your manner and your perfume and your toothbrush. That’s your way.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, Hillary is ultimately saying: You know who I am. You know where I’ve been. Do you want to do it my way? And people will say “Yes” or they’ll say “Yes” to somebody else. And that’s what an election comes down to. They’re all popularity contests, in that sense.

Salit: So who’s the most popular?

Newman: It’s a tough call this year. I think if we had an election with all of them on the ballot and each had an equal amount of money and media time, it would probably be divided eight or nine or ten ways.

Salit: That’s very interesting to think about. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to decide who’s president, under the current structure.

Newman: That’s unfortunate because the narrowing of the field and the Electoral College and all that hurts the developmental capacity of the country. It impinges on the growth of the country now more than ever.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.