Getting Past the Pros.

August 5, 2007

Getting Past the Pros.

Sunday, August 5, 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, August 5, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Let’s start with Barack Obama.

Newman: Okay.

Salit: There were three views offered on the remarks he made about Pakistan in a speech he gave at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in D.C. this week. He said that if we had actionable intelligence about terrorist camps and the Musharraf government wouldn’t act, that we would go in. Reactions were varied: this is Obama presenting himself as someone and something new, bringing a new angle on foreign policy. The Clintonesque view is that all of his statements taken together show that he’s really not presidential material and can’t handle the foreign policy side of the equation. And some liberal types critiqued it, saying that it was “hawkish” or “muddled” and they were disturbed to see him articulating such a militaristic approach. ‘Whatever happened to Obama the anti-war candidate?’ they said. Tell me your thoughts about the whole package: Obama’s remarks and the range of responses to him.

Newman: To me – and this is probably my own insistence on my way of looking at things, but I don’t know any other way of looking at things but my own – I have argued since 9/11 that a big confusion has been whether the attack on the World Trade Center was an act of war or a heinous crime. I think Obama’s position comes closer to relating to it as a crime. What he’s saying is that if there’s been a serious crime against humanity and against the people of the United States, committed by bin Laden and his networks, then we find a way to go in and get them. The issue is not Musharraf. Musharraf would have to decide what to do if we took action. But, we would be aggressive in pursuing these deadly criminals. If you look at it that way, it seems to me a perfectly sensible position. If you’re fighting against terrorism, I don’t see how you could take any other position. The distortion of the war against terrorism is turning it into a war at all, instead of a crime, and then going out and looking for nation states to attack because it’s a war and that’s who you have to attack, if you’re in a war. I don’t find Obama’s statement problematic. You have to be willing to go wherever you have to go to capture a major criminal. I look at it in that light. And, in that light, I find it somewhat refreshing, frankly.

As far as the spin is concerned, it’s all political. But, I’ve been saying for some time now that Obama had to make a move on Hillary Clinton. And he has. Now we’ll see how well he pulls it off. Is it going to be a successful move or is he going to hurt himself? I don’t know. There are dangers to making a move. But he couldn’t stay conservative around Clinton forever. I think he’s in a good position to say: You call me naïve? Well, the naiveté was your forgetting to read the report on what was going on in Iraq before you voted on it. The naiveté is your saying that you thought Bush was really just asking permission to go to the UN. That’s naiveté. What I’m saying is not naiveté. It represents – if I were writing the script – it’s what you have to do if you’re going after a murderer and a pack of criminals who have done great harm and killed a lot of people in a lot of places, including the United States of America . If I were writing his script, that’s what I’d write. I don’t know how close he’ll come to saying that.

Salit: Well, he’s ahead in the new polls in Iowa. And Hillary’s in third.

Newman: They don’t like Hillary in Iowa. That’s pure gut intuition on my part, but I think she’s not an Iowa type. Obama is not exactly Mr. Cornhusker. But he’s more appealing to Iowa-style liberalism than Hillary is. I think Hillary comes across to the Iowans as something of an elitist. I think Obama comes across as very, very bright – and African American – which brings him down to earth.

Salit: That’s interesting. This connects to one of the themes that came out in the “Meet the Press” discussion. Here’s one snapshot: Voters were asked in an NBC poll to rate the presidential candidates relative to certain qualities. One of the qualities was experience. Another quality was honesty. In the “experience” rating Hillary scored the highest. Obama and Edwards were roughly even, probably 15 points behind her. But, on the “honesty” question, Obama scored the highest with Hillary the lowest by a significant margin. Carl Bernstein looked at these numbers – he was one of the panelists on “Meet the Press” – and he says this is a very interesting part of the story. He says that, in his view, while all the focus is on the “issues,” on health care, on the war, on terrorism and jobs, etc., the deeper issue of the 2008 election is the issue of honesty and candor and the personal qualities of the candidate. How do you react to that disparity?

Newman: Once again I’ll answer in the form of what I would advise Obama to do. I think he should take on the “inexperience” question directly. He could gain much credibility for himself. He does have this big advantage in the “truth-telling” area, so I think he could pull this off. He could come before the American people, in some appropriate context, and say: Let’s put this issue to rest. I’m not experienced at being the president of the United States. So far as I’m concerned, no one other than a second-termer ever has been. But the notion that the First Lady is experienced because she was married to the president of the United States is inauthentic. The American people shouldn’t be fooled by that. I don’t want to raise old and hurtful issues – I don’t want to be hurtful. But in terms of some of the important things that affected Mrs. Clinton, she didn’t have the foggiest idea of what was going on in the White House. No, I’m not experienced. I’m someone who is coming up with developmental, transformational ideas and those ideas often come from the “inexperienced.” But, at the risk of sounding unduly conceited, I’ve been to a lot of places where I’ve been inexperienced, and I dealt very effectively with that. I was inexperienced at being at Harvard. I was inexperienced at being a black man in the highest echelons of the legal and intellectual elite. And I have grown and learned how to do new things while serving in these various kinds of positions. I can handle those kinds of situations. I assure you that my record is good on that. And so, I’m a good bet.

I think if he took that on directly and said something like that, he would soar in the polls. And now would be a good time to do it because there’s the particular gap that you’re mentioning which is important. He’s the honest one. But she’s the so-called experienced one. Take that experience thing on directly. Say: You’re right, Hillary, I’m inexperienced. It doesn’t follow from my being inexperienced that you’re experienced. You’re not. You’re a bright lady, but you’re not experienced. Try to take the experience issue out of the campaign.

Salit: Let me spin off to a side issue here. Maybe it was Carl Bernstein who said that a defining feature of Hillary as a public figure is that she’s the most famous woman in the world, but people’s view of her has been shaped either by her enemies or by her acolytes and that people don’t have a sense of who she is as a person. But doesn’t that go for public figures in general? Particularly political figures?

Newman: The scrutinization of public figures goes with the territory. Mahatma Gandhi had serious critics.

Salit: He surely did.

Newman: One of them killed him.

Salit: So, when Bernstein says that Mrs. Clinton’s image has been shaped by acolytes and enemies, your point is that who else would shape it?

Newman: Not so unusual. She hasn’t had a cup of coffee with everybody in the world.

Salit: But is his suggestion that people don’t have a sense of who she is “as a person” an interesting point?

Newman: I think part of that is that her whole life, her whole personality, has been shaped by her ambitions to be a player in the political process. She carpetbags into New York State. And she can pull that off because she’s got a big machine, she’s got a lot of money, she’s got a famous husband. But that’s not the best way of people getting to know you. She’s not oriented towards people getting to know her. In fact, I think that’s what’s clearly at the core of her being related to as “cool,” and I don’t mean that in an entirely positive sense.

Salit: I agree with that. I’m not a fan of hers politically, but I have to say I have sometimes been in the mood to be compassionate towards her, for one reason or another. And I think that it must be hard for her to be doing what she’s doing right now, which is to present herself “as a person” to the American people. She’s a policy person, she’s a bright person, but she’s not comfortable letting people get close to her.

Newman: But that’s not how she’s trying to present herself. She’s not trying to present herself as a warm visionary. She’s trying to say: I’m a woman, but I’m very, very bright. I’ve been around. I know the ropes.

Salit: I’m tough.

Newman: I’m tough. And that’s who I am. Her campaign is based on that. That’s to the credit of her campaign people. I think that if they tried to present her as this warm figure, it would be a terrible campaign.

Salit: Bernstein commented that one of the dynamics in this election – and this connects to the question of whether 2008 is an automatic win for the Democrats – is that the voters are trying to “get past the pros.”

Newman: I don’t know if he means “pros” or “prose.”

Salit: Well, he did write a very long book about Hillary! The voters are trying to get past the political pros to make their own judgment about who the candidates are and where they want the country to go.

Newman: I agree with him.

Salit: Could you say more about that?

Newman: It has to do with the changes in journalism and communications, the blogs, the Internet and all that. Young people are more educated, more sophisticated, less interested in simply following party doctrines. That’s the phenomenon that he’s pointing to. Does it mean that they’ll do the right thing? No. It just means that they’ll be able to take more direct credit for the mistake or the success of 2008. It’s a more educated American public, politically so.

Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” had a discussion about the Minneapolis bridge collapse. It was kind of the worst of McLaughlin, turning a sad story into the Next Big Thing.

Newman: The notion of this collapse of a bridge across the Mississippi River being emblematic of an overall downfall of the American infrastructure is really stretching it. It was kind of insensitive and gruesome. It’s a bridge that fell apart and people were hurt and killed. Is there a concern that the American infrastructure is not in the best shape that it could be? Yes, of course. It should simply be better taken care of.

Salit: That conversation became, in effect, the prelude to a discussion about globalization and the American economy, a topic frequently discussed on “The McLaughlin Group.” We heard the Wall Street, global capital view from Maria Bartiromo and the America First, protectionist, anti-globalist view from Pat Buchanan.

Newman: Pat simply can’t tolerate the idea of a world without the West. These things are changing dramatically and Pat wants the U.S. to be at the center of everything. The U.S. economy has weaknesses, but it’s not doing badly. It’s just not doing as well relative to some other countries which, according to Pat’s narrow, provincial point of view, it’s supposed to be doing better than. But it’s not. And that’s what the future looks like. What can you say?

Salit: He hates the idea that China is growing so rapidly. Probably because it means that China got the better of the Nixon Goes to China trip he put together.

Newman: China is growing at an extraordinary economic rate. Does that mean it’s good? Does that mean it’s pro-worker? No. It just means that it’s an economic boom town.

Salit: China has a lot of features that are highly desirable today. And the Chinese are figuring out how to play that to grow the economy and they seem to be doing a fairly good job.

On another topic, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on “Meet the Press.” Obviously, they signed an agreement for a 15 minute segment. Russert was unhappy about it, but accepted it nonetheless. Gates presented a somewhat modulated picture.

Newman: I think it was a little more revealing than perhaps you’re suggesting. At least as I heard it, he was making a statement that there will be changes coming out of the Bush administration in Iraq.

Salit: Oh, yes. I agree with that.

Newman: They won’t be as extreme as this one or that one, as some Democrats are calling for. But there will be changes.

Salit: You’ll start to see a drawdown of American troops by the end of the year.

Newman: In fact, I think what they’re doing with the September visit by General Petraeus…

Salit: …and Ambassador Crocker…

Newman: …is a “lowering of expectations” policy. I think they’re saying: Don’t get your hopes up about any major change, because we’re going to give you a minor change, and that’s going to be it. The American people will accept that. That’s how I read it.

Salit: That’s the story.

Newman: I don’t know whether the American people will accept it, but that’s what they’re trying to pull off. But I thought he was saying that there will almost certainly be some kinds of changes.

Salit: Agreed. Thanks, Fred.

Newman: You’re quite welcome.