“It’s Not About Me.”

November 18, 2007

“It’s Not About Me.”

Sunday, November 18, 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 18, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: I’m going to start by asking you some questions about Hillary Clinton. “The Chris Matthews Show” had a discussion about the demonization of Hillary. Here’s what Chris Matthews said: ‘Hillary has been successful as a victim,’ meaning she’s made her “victimhood” – with respect to her husband and with respect to being publicly vilified by the right – a positive. Give me your political and psychological read on this. Do you think she projects herself as a victim? And, do you think she’s perceived as a victim?

Newman: Since we’re into the era of Yes and No answers, my answer would be No.

Salit: No. She’s not projecting herself as a victim and she’s not perceived as a victim?

Newman: Right.

Salit: I agree. And there’s a related issue being spun, too. The story is that the country is looking for a uniter. And the question about Hillary is whether she can unite the country, given how polarizing she is. Do you buy the premise of that question, namely that the country is looking for a uniter?

Newman: The framework in which I look at this is that we know a little something – even though we’re just political small fry – we know something about demonization and the psychology of demonization. The thing about demonization is that it has little or nothing to do with whether anybody believes it.

Salit: Whether anyone believes what?

Newman: The demonization.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: That’s not the issue. The issue is how people respond to the fact of demonization. And more and more people, I think, say: I don’t know who’s right or who’s wrong. It seems impossible to decide. But, I just don’t want to have anything to do with that process. I don’t have to defend it. I don’t have to reject it. I don’t want to get involved in it . So, I don’t know whether that dynamic does Hillary any good. Furthermore, it’s not so much that America is looking for a uniter. We’re looking for something to happen in Washington which can impact on bread and butter issues. If Hillary gets nominated the focus is going to be on Hillary and not on the American people. The focus is on Is Clinton a this, is Clinton a that? That’s the concern of the media. I don’t think the American people are looking for unification, so much as a new direction which impacts positively, in some way or another, on their lives.

So, while Hillary has some vulnerability on this terrain, she also has some opportunities. If she says: The Republicans will talk about nothing but me. Now the Democrats are talking about nothing but me. But the issue is not me. The issue is the American people. If she can make that stick, she wins the argument. But can she pull that off when a lot of other people are persisting in saying ‘The issue is Hillary, the issue is Hillary?’ I don’t know. That’s the opening for her. But, it’s also a trap for her if she doesn’t succeed in going through that opening.

Salit: And how does Obama handle this?

Newman: He could say: The issue isn’t Hillary Clinton. The issue is the failure of Washington to impact positively on the people of America. Now, that’s a little hard for him to say since he’s participating in the process of making Hillary Clinton the issue.

Salit: I was struck by Gwen Ifill on the “Meet the Press” panel when she summarized the Democratic race as being about “what do you think about Hillary?” When she first said that, I thought ‘What happened to the issues?’ But then I realized it was a fairly accurate description. I’m not looking to create an evenly balanced template here, but to what extent do you think that’s operative for Rudy Giuliani?

Newman: Giuliani’s whole modality is that he’s this tough guy who’s saying ‘I don’t care what people say about me.’ Which Clinton can’t exactly do since she doesn’t want to overdo the tough guy – or gal – image. But, Giuliani is in love with it. He says: I’m a tough guy. I saved New York, from crime, from 9/11. I don’t care what people think about me. I win elections despite the fact that I’m not the popular candidate. I beat the Democrats in New York City. When people finally come around to their senses they’ll say, ‘We don’t need a popular guy. We need a tough guy.’ So, it’s a very different situation for Giuliani.

Salit: I see your point. But what he’s selling is himself. He’s saying to the American people it’s really not about the issues. I have positions, sure, but it’s really about me and my posture and the kinds of things I can handle.

Newman: But it is about issues, because his personal projection translates into a position on national security. Those are the Republican issues. In fact, the Democrats, as some commentators now say, don’t even talk about these issues very much anymore. Today’s Daily News featured an Op Ed arguing that the Democrats have stopped talking about security and about terrorism. Meanwhile, Giuliani can only talk about that. He doesn’t talk about any other issues. He says: I stop crime. I react to terrorism. That’s my record. That’s what I do. Those are the issues that Americans really care about. Now, that’s a pretty big gamble because it’s not at all clear that those are the issues that a majority of Americans care most about. The huge drop in Bush’s popularity would seem to suggest otherwise.

Salit: Then, what’s driving the race on the Democratic side? On “Meet the Press” E.J. Dionne talked about the trade issue. Russert played a clip of the exchange between himself and Hillary on the NAFTA question and his effort to get her to admit that NAFTA was a mistake.

Newman: Wait a second. They don’t talk about the trade issue. What you’re reporting on is the talk about who was right on NAFTA and who was wrong on NAFTA. That has nothing to do with the trade issue. The trade issue is a totally separate matter. The issue that they’re discussing was who was right and who was wrong. That’s the general format for all the discussion. This one was right. They flip-flopped. It’s flip-flopism. But, why should the American people care about flip-flopism? They’re being told that they should care, but they don’t seem to care about that. They care about whether you can lead in the right direction. If you flip or flop to a position which benefits the American people, no one cares where you were. They don’t care how you got there. The care that you got there.

Salit: I see what you’re saying. But, putting the campaigns aside for the moment, Dionne gave a fairly detailed description of the split within the Democratic Party on the trade question, the split between the old liberal union-based coalition which is anti-NAFTA and anti-free trade and the more middle class, white collar, Information Age base which is pro-free trade.

Newman: Yes, and trade, in all of its complications, is the subject matter for all kinds of books, some esoteric, some not so esoteric. It moves along on its own momentum. There’s a disconnect between the issue and the campaigns.

Salit: Okay. Here’s another framing. A panelist on “Meet the Press” says: ‘The issue in this election is change. You see that in Bush’s low popularity rating. He’s got the support of only 30% of the country. That means that 70% of the country wants some kind of change. So the issue for the candidates is: How are they articulating what change means?’ The argument continues: ‘What the voters are looking for is a certainty of purpose, a certainty of approach on the part of the candidates. This is the change that I’m going to give you.’ This is the Giuliani narrative: ‘I changed the situation in New York. Now I can bring that capacity, which is a national security orientation, to the country. That’s who I am. That’s what you’re looking for.’ The Democrats say a change will come on health care, on protecting social security, and in repairing our international relationships. The American people want change. The candidates are offering their version of change.

Newman: Strangely enough, I don’t think the candidates are terribly relevant here. I think this is fundamentally a major party/major party election. After all, when the analysts say the people want change, I don’t know what that means. We are going to get change. Bush is gone. What’s the Republicans’ big thing? What’s the Democrats’ big thing? If you take a look at that, I think it’s essentially war vs. peace. That’s what the election’s going to come down to. And it’s going to be based on party, not on candidates. War vs. peace. As I see it, that’s what the vote’s going to look like a year from now on Election Day. It’s going to be war vs. peace. The Republican is going to be the war candidate. The Democrat is going to be the peace candidate. And people will vote party, in my opinion. I don’t think that’s because that’s what the people want. But that’s really all that’s there at this point.

Salit: I hear Chris Matthews saying something similar to what you’re saying, while he cites polls showing a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by a significant margin. But then, he adds, you still have to put a name on the ballot when people go to vote. They’re not just voting Democratic Party or Republican Party. They’re going to vote for a candidate who is the emblem of that party.

Newman: I don’t know if I agree with that formulation.

Salit: His point is that if Hillary Clinton is the standard bearer, does that diminish, in any way, the popularity of the generic Democrat?

Newman: Okay. But, if Giuliani is the Republican candidate, is he diminished by his liberal record on social issues? Yes, there will be some nuance to the decision-making. But, I think it’s party vs. party, more so than ever in this election. If you compare Congress’ lack of popularity with the president’s lack of popularity, well, they’re both exceedingly unpopular. But I think that the Republicans are more unpopular right now. If they hold onto that margin in the general election, it could be a landslide for the Democrats.

Salit: Yes, and remarkably enough, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats care about being unpopular. They only care about whether that unpopularity translates into losing an election.

Newman: Exactly. They don’t care if everyone’s unpopular. The Democrats’ position is, at least as I understand it, as long as the Republicans remain more unpopular than we are, then we’re in good shape.

Salit: And does that square with the idea that America is looking for a uniter?

Newman: That’s why I reject that formulation. I don’t think that’s the case.

Salit: They talk about it as if the way you unite the country is, essentially, a person gets elected to the White House who magically unites everyone.

Newman: Well, it seems a certitude that they’ll elect a person.

Salit: Yes. Good point.

Newman: No kangaroos are running this year.

Salit: True enough, Fred. Thanks.