Only a Symbol? Rolling the Dice?
Exactly what is the vital question during these Presidential primaries?
December 15, 2007
Last night, Charlie Rose spent his full hour interviewing Bill Clinton, ostensibly about Clinton's new book, but mostly of course about this interminable, mind-numbing Presidential race.
Clinton framed the Democratic primary race like a champion college debater. His approach deserves some analysis. Like a debater, or any public figure properly prepped for an extensive interview, Clinton had a few points to make, and he masterfully returned to them again and again, no matter the context created by Rose's questions. Bill repeatedly stated variations on two ideas: that Barack Obama is only a symbol, and that choosing him as the Democratic Presidential candidate is "rolling the dice."
He also said several times that the Democrat's candidate decision depends on what the voters think is the major question facing them. The question Clinton offered as the preferable one is something like, "Who has the most experience actually helping people?" His answer, of course, is Hillary Clinton. Well, we didn't expect Bill to be neutral, did we?
And he used another great tactic. He praised everyone, iterating, "I like all these guys." I'm working from memory here, but my recollection is that he talked about Richardson's years of service and Edwards work on poverty issues. He had flattery for everyone from Kucinich to Obama. And his praise of Obama? The same praise Bill is always given: he's a skilled politician.
So let's look more deeply into President Bill's masterful maneuvering.
First the praise. He praised all the candidates for their accomplishments, except Obama whom he recognized only for political skills. The unstated answer, then, to Bill's question about who has helped people is that all the candidates have—except Obama. How generous of Bill. Of course, he can be generous with all the others, because none of them has a significant chance of winning the nomination. So Bill sounds all warm and fuzzy, with love and charity for all, but still takes a brutal shot at the only candidate who is a real challenge to Hillary at this point.
Now let's talk about that framing question. Are we really faced with a choice between a raft of candidates who have helped people, and one who is only a skilled politician? Of course not. And is the question of who has helped people even a major question? Not in this writer's view.
I've got a different question: Which of these candidates has the intent, vision and leadership to effect fundamental change in our process of governance?
For clarity, let me state a couple of variations on my question: Who will have the will and courage to face down big business and narrow interests in the halls of government? Who will be able to confront political demagoguery and enlist the power of the people to defeat it? Who has the creativity to develop or rediscover Presidential strategies for passing essential legislation. Who can clearly define the critical issues that face our nation and the world, so we can find viable solutions?
Of course, I can't expect Bill to use my framing question, because Hillary wouldn't look so good in its light. Did she face down the insurance and health industries to solve the health care crisis? Mmmm, not so much. Did she confront the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld demagoguery in the run-up to war? Nah. Have we heard her exercising great creativity or helping us define our challenges in meaningful ways? I must have missed that?
And when I take my question to the other candidates? Whew! Takes my breath away like a punch in the solar plexus. I don't see any of them, in either party, demonstrating that he can effect fundamental change. In that mammoth roster of the who's who in American politics, I don't see a clear leader. I can identify a list, including Hillary, who probably can't or won't do it. And the others? Well, it does seem a little like rolling the dice.
Which leaves us with one more of Bill's debate points that I haven't addressed. Do we need more than a symbol? Of course we do! The question is a red herring. But a brief discussion of it might be useful. Clinton didn't really say what he thinks Obama symbolizes. So I'm asking: what does each of the candidates, Republican and Democrat, symbolize? I'll leave the answers to you. I don't have them yet.
My point here is not a defense of Barack Obama, and it's not really an attack on Hillary Clinton. Neither is it a criticism of Bill Clinton's skilled politicking. It is a reminder to me, and a challenge to you that we all must carefully analyze what we see in the media, discard the hyperbole, and find answers to the questions we believe are fundamental. You may not agree with my framing question any more than I agree with Bill's. Doesn't matter. Your own framing question will work just as well, whatever it is.
Which candidate gives you the best answer?