Bill Clinton Off the Leash.

January 13, 2008

Bill Clinton Off the Leash.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

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, January 20, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: It’s close.

Newman: It’s close. It’s undecided.

Salit: On “Meet the Press” today Peggy Noonan says: ‘It’s close and it’s undecided, but there is an important difference between the process that’s going on in the Republican Party and the process that’s going on in the Democratic Party.’ She says the Republican Party is trying to find its soul and the Democratic Party…

Newman: …is making plain it never had one.

Salit: Well, she didn’t exactly put it that way.

Newman No, I did.

Salit: Of course. But perhaps related to your point, she said that ‘The Democratic Party is trying to find its winning candidate,’ or as she said, ‘It’s trying to find its success.’

Newman: Which is the same thing as not having a soul.

Salit: Trying to find the path to its success?

Newman: The path to its regaining the White House.

Salit: Yes, to regaining the White House.

Newman: You can see the soul-lessness of the Democratic Party. Forget the Republican Party. I don’t regard myself as having any expertise on the Republican Party, except that they believe in the soul. But if you take a look at what’s going on in the Democratic primary, it seems to me to be utterly fascinating. Here’s the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, the “first black President” so called, who’s track record of accomplishment for black people when he was in office many people feel is highly questionable. Nonetheless, he has a great reputation among African Americans. But the first time someone comes along who threatens to stop a political victory for a Clinton, and suddenly he’s Mr. Snide and Nasty – towards the first viable black presidential candidate in the history of the United States. That’s a little revealing.

Salit: And what does it reveal, do you think?

Newman: It reveals that he is into winning, period. It undercuts the idea that he is a deep believer in civil rights and economic rights for black America.

Salit: He calls in to Rev. Sharpton’s show and says ‘I respect Barack Obama. I respect the African American community’s enthusiasm for him…’

Newman: Rev. Sharpton’s show is not the main stage.

Salit: Right. My point is that Clinton is shrewd enough to play one way to a black audience…

Newman: But what he says on Rev. Sharpton’s show doesn’t end up being discussed on the national talk shows.

Salit: No, it doesn’t. What you saw on the talk shows is Bill Clinton speaking to largely white audiences making irritable remarks about fairy tales.

Newman: So, the Democrats’ soul-lessness is finally exposed. The Republicans have a conception of a soul, at least the evangelical wing of it does. That permeates the whole party, even among non-evangelicals. But I don’t know which is better. You can argue that it’s better for a party not to have a soul. After all, having a soul could fail the test of separation of church and state. So, constitutionally speaking, you might want it soulless. But this is exposing of deeper, quasi-religious or religious or metaphysical beliefs on the part of both of these parties. And that’s good. I think it’s good to have that exposed for the American people.

Salit: Okay. So, Bill Clinton is out on the stump.

Newman: He’s off his leash.

Salit: Off his leash. He’s taking big aim at Barack Obama.

Newman: Right.

Salit: And through a combination of innuendo and personal anger, he’s trying to undermine Obama’s credibility. Meanwhile Hillary is trying to put forth her competency, her managerial capacity. In Nevada, the candidates were asked a question about their weaknesses. Obama says, ‘My weakness is that I’m not a great administrator. My desk is messy. I don’t manage my papers. But I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about creating a vision to help the country move forward. That’s why I’m running for president and that’s what I think the country most needs.’ And Hillary says, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no! You’ve got to be a competent manager. You’ve got to have accountability. You’ve got to be able to run your operation and if you can’t do that, you’re not fit to be president.’

Newman: Well, if someone was being honest, I would think someone would respond by saying that there’s only one Clinton who’s been in office with the chance to manage. It’s not Hillary, it’s Bill.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And, he managed things so well that he got himself impeached. Is that what you call good management? Or is that his vision? It’s bad management of an extraordinary magnitude.

Salit: Back to your point about soul-lessness. Do you think that Obama’s message is “We have to find our soul” as a party? He doesn’t really talk “party talk” very much, to his credit. I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s popular with independents.

Newman: I don’t think Obama’s saying we have to find our soul.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: For that, I give him credit. I think what he’s saying, as an alternative to that, is We have to find our vision. We, the American people, have to find our vision. For example, are we to be the policemen of the world? It’s a vision question. Not a soul question.

Salit: So, the Democratic primary moves next to South Carolina.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: This is the first state where a significant part of the electorate is African American, where the Clinton vs. Obama contest and some of these issues that you’re talking about will get addressed by the voters. NPR’s Michele Norris, who was on the “Meet the Press” roundtable, was just down in South Carolina. She says ‘I went down to South Carolina with the expectation that I was going to see a generational divide between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters. But that’s actually not what I saw.’ What she says is ‘I saw a divide between the establishment and the grassroots,’ in other words, that the Clinton forces had lined up the establishment players in politics and in the church and Obama has support from the insurgents.

Newman: That’s happening in every state where primaries have taken place.

Salit: Right. So Michele says what you’re looking at here is a revolt against the establishment.

Newman: That’s what Obama’s campaign is about.

Salit: Yes. And she tells this story about an elderly gentleman who got up in church, he was in his early 90s, who made a very passionate statement in support of Obama. He told the congregation, ‘Let’s not be afraid to go forward. Let’s get rid of our fear.’ What’s the fear, do you think?

Newman: Some people are afraid because they know how the Democratic Party works. The establishment can be exceedingly punishing, and now it’s being seriously challenged. So, it’s not just “Don’t be afraid of the Republicans.” The old guard – the Clintons – are losing their dominance of a dominant party. And some people who want to back Obama, reasonably enough, are saying ‘I am afraid if the Clinton people win, they’re going to punish me severely.’ That’s what it is on the ground. That’s the reality of it. The Clintons are more disciplinarian than any other “Tammany Hall” kind of group in the national party. I think local leaders are afraid because they might have been supporting the Clintons for a long time, the Clintons are their heros, but they also know who the Clintons are and how vindictive they can be. We know, as independents, how punishing they’ve been to us. But frankly, Democrats probably know that even better than we do. That’s why they’re afraid. If Bill Clinton were playing a positive role as an ex-president and as an honest broker in the Democratic Party, he would say Of course, I would like my wife to win, but I will assure everybody that I’m going to stand up strongly with and for any Democratic Party candidate. If he were a statesman, he’d be making those kinds of speeches.

Salit: Given how hostile his public speeches are, I can only imagine how hostile the private speeches are.

Newman: It’s those private arm-twisting speeches that helped Hillary win in New Hampshire and Nevada.

Salit: Chris Matthews, who I’m a fan of, introduced Hardball the other night with a quasi-apology statement to the Clintons. I guess he was enormously pressured to make it, because I’ve never seen him do anything like this. He apologized for some remarks he had made about Hillary’s career having been based on her victimhood. Meanwhile, Matthews pointed out the skill that the Clintons have in – to use his words – manipulating the expectations that surround any event that they’re competing in. He talked about how in the weeks leading up to the Nevada caucus, the Clintons focused heavily on the way the rules were set up, and how they favored Obama, such that if Obama won, they would be able to say, Well, the rules favored Obama.

Newman: I’m the last one to deny the skill of the Clintons and the Clinton people. I think they’re very skillful. On the other hand, if you strip away the decorations, I think they have the skills of bullies. That’s who they are. Are they skillful bullies? Yes. But I don’t think you can focus on their “skills” without pointing that out.

Salit: I appreciate that. I think that’s important. I liked Peggy Noonan’s remarks about Hillary, when she said, Hillary’s running as a woman, right? She’s putting herself forward as “wanting to be president, able to be president on Day One, commander-in-chief” and all this stuff, but she still has to send her husband out to yell at the neighbors to defend her. That was a great image.

Newman: Bill is better at the dirty work than she is.

Salit: Jon Meacham of “Newsweek” pointed out that the fracturing within the Republican Party, the fact that all the candidates have alienated a significant element of the Reagan coalition, doesn’t mean that the Republicans can’t unify. Because, he says, there is one thing in the picture that can unify the Republicans. It’s Hillary Clinton.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: The argument is that the Republicans know how to run against Hillary. She’s a known quantity. They know how to be competitive with her and they think they can beat her. They’re more worried about Obama. They’re worried about Obama because he’s less of a known quantity, because he’s black and because there’s certain constraints that would be operative on them because of that. And, also because Obama’s already demonstrated crossover capacity to independent voters.

Newman: We’re nowhere near the matchup with the Republicans just yet, so it’s a little premature. That’s one side of the coin, when you’re thinking about long-term strategy. The other side of the coin is that the Clintons, and Hillary – whether you want to call her a queen or a pawn – play as dirty as the Republicans. So, the Republicans are also frightened of Hillary.

Salit: So, what should Obama do?

Newman: Obama should make a very strong and serious public bid for the independents.

Salit: He can’t afford the luxury, even in the primary season, of giving independents away to John McCain or to anybody else.

Newman: He’s got a natural relationship to the independents. But, he’s got to push that all the way. And I think there’s some indication that he’s trying to do that. But, he’s got to do that and he’s got to do it fast.

Salit: Shifting gears to the economy, there seems to be across the board consensus at the highest levels of government that there needs to be some kind of stimulus or intervention. The political question that gets raised by this is, as the economy becomes more of an issue, how does that impact on the presidential race?

Newman: Mort Zuckerman said on “The McLaughlin Group,” and I agree with his view, that the American economy is operating on a less than firm foundation right now. The credit crunch, the subprime mortgage crisis, the debt situation, the weakness of the dollar, are all key factors. If that translates into, whatever word you use to call it, mini-recession, major recession, something very bad…

Salit: …Yes…

Newman: …the Democrats are the ones who gain. It doesn’t make a difference which candidate becomes the nominee. It’s a party game and the Republicans lose. I agree that the trillion dollars being spent in Iraq is, economically speaking, a relative drop in the bucket. The problem is not only that, and it is an oversimplification to say that it is. It’s that, in conjunction with 20 other factors. Actually, though I don’t think it impacts that much in the primaries, which are more like beauty contests. In the general election, it’s a whole different story. If this plays out the way it looks right now, the Democrats are going to be able to make the case that the Republicans destroyed the American economy. They were so pro-big business, they gave so much away that they destroyed the economy not just for themselves, but for everybody. Who can deliver that message better? I don’t know. Any one of the top three Democratic candidates can run with that, if this is what unfolds. To some extent, the failure of the economy is more recognizable than the failure of the war. You can tell the economy is failing without watching the 6 o’clock news.

Salit: Yes. Thanks, Fred.