US Diary: Hillary vs. Barack - expect blood on the floor
Hope Vs. Experience – by David Corn /TomPaine.com
I was at a lovely Washington dinner, sitting across from an FOH—friend of Hillary. “Barack’s fine,” she said. “Smart, capable, has the right positions. But this current gang in the White House has made such a mess of things that we’re going to need someone who’s ready to hit the ground running, someone who knows how the government works, who won’t need to get up to speed, who can right away start to do what needs doing, who won’t be learning on the job. And she and Bill will be ready.”
A few days later, I was talking to another person who is close to the junior senator from New York. “I’ve helped Barack,” this Clinton pal said. “Raised money for him, would do so again, think the world of him, agree with him on all the positions. He was even right about the war. But we have to have someone who on that first day in office can turn things around—someone who understands how to do things in Washington. And no one knows that better than Hillary and Bill.”
See the pattern? (Usually columnists need three anecdotes to declare a trend; I’m saving time.) Both of these Hillary fans are intelligent, independent-minded and politically savvy players in the capital. They don’t need to read from a script. But I suspect there is a script, formal or informal, that the Clinton crew is using in the influentials primary—the battle for the hearts (or at least the minds) of opinion-makers, political operatives and, of course, funders. It’s an obvious spiel: Senator Obama is a tad bit green. Who knows how he’ll perform should he reach 1600 Pennsylvania? And he’s no Bill Clinton.
It’s hard to say how such a pitch is playing inside the Beltway or among the Democratic elite elsewhere. More important, it’s tough to figure how it will resonate with Democratic primary voters—if publicly voiced by Senator Clinton or her partisans. Will her presidential campaign reprise the two-for-the-price-of-one theme the Bill Clinton campaign deployed in 1992? That could be dangerous. Pushing this notion could raise questions about who would really wear the pants in a Clinton II presidency and prompt further concerns about dynastic politics. Do Americans want to be governed by one of two families for 24 straight years (and possibly 28)? Hillary Clinton already has to contend with the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton issue. Playing up the with-Hill-you-get-Bill angle would bring more attention to the matter.
But put aside Bill for the moment. There will be plenty of time to chew on that. The core of the Clinton attack on Obama will be the natural one: experience. In conventional terms, the guy is a newbie. His tenure in Washington is shorter than the duration of the Iraq war. He has character, depth, authenticity and smarts to spare. And as a recent Washington Post profile noted , he was a skilled legislator and politician as an Illinois state senator, forging and enacting progressive measures dealing with significant hot-button topics: health-care reform, the death penalty, campaign finance reform and racial profiling. But running the federal government? In the post-9/11 era? And steering the entire globe in a better direction? Washington ain’t Springfield (though one rather successful president did get his start in the Illinois state capital).
The Hillary Clinton crowd will find multiple ways to raise the experience question in the coming year. But there’s a countervailing argument that Barack-backers will hurl: What did Hillary Clinton (and her husband) accomplish as they developed all that experience?
There is the standard pro-Clinton era litany: booming economy, no war. But the Clinton years were not always an easy time for Democrats. President Clinton did balance the budget partly by raising taxes for the well-to-do, while expanding the low-income tax credit. He defended abortion rights and championed the assault weapons ban. But he also vexed his Democratic base on key fronts—proudly engaging in a strategy of triangulation designed to distance himself from congressional Democrats. He enacted a welfare reform plan that progressive policy experts (including some who had danced at the Clintons’ wedding) hated. He bailed on his campaign promise to invest greatly in social capital and the infrastructure. Though he paid close attention to the troubles in Bosnia and Kosovo—even going to war over them—he turned his back on the genocide in Rwanda (and then claimed he had been unaware of the full horror). His administration supported an expansion of the federal death penalty. He mounted questionable bombing raids in Iraq and the Sudan. He backed the don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy for gays in the military. He pushed NAFTA. He did not do enough regarding global warming or jihadist terrorism. His team practically outdid the Republicans in money-grubbing campaign fundraising.
And then there was health care. Hillary Clinton botched that assignment. Though she told progressive health care advocates at the time that she believed a single-payer form of national health insurance was probably the best idea, she cooked up a complicated scheme that was nearly impossible to explain and damn easy to attack. Remember Republican legislators holding up a wiring diagram of Hillarycare? It looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. How could Harry and Louise understand it, let alone support it?
So all that experience comes with plenty of baggage. And I mean policy baggage—not the more personal baggage related to you-know-what. And did this experience lead to wisdom? As far as most Democratic primary voters probably see it, Hillary Clinton’s most important action as senator was voting to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq when he deemed best. She has assumed responsibility for that vote without acknowledging she erred and without apologizing for it. The problem, she says, was that Bush abused the authority—not that legislators too readily handed it to him.
Thus, Democratic voters confront a dilemma. Between the two leading presidential contenders, one does have much more experience in the ways of Washington. But on the two issues of deepest concern to Democrats—the Iraq war and health care—this experienced player was wrong, and the greenhorn has a better record. Obama, who did not become a U.S. senator until 2005, opposed the war in Iraq when he was a state senator, and he successfully sponsored legislation in Illinois to study how a universal health care system could be implemented in that state. (The Clintonistas’ sensitivity to the war issue was on display Monday night when Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, appeared at an event at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. He was asked if his boss, given her vote on the Iraq war measure, might one day lead the nation into “another quagmire.” In responding, he claimed that Obama’s Iraq policy has been bedeviled by inconsistencies.)
If current polling is to be believed, Democrats at this point are backing experience, with Clinton maintaining between a five-point and 17-point edge over Obama. But it’s early. Each campaign is going to have to target the vulnerability of the other. Neither will be able to resist the laws of politics—that is, they will attack. (No doubt, former Senator John Edwards and the other Democratic candidates are looking forward to a nasty battle between the two Bigfoots in the race.) Obama cannot count on hope alone: He will have to make the case that he’s been better than her on the issues dearest to Democrats. And Clinton will have to raise questions about his abilities. Though the Clinton-versus-Obama chitchat in Democratic circles (as far as I am privy to it) is now polite, this is merely the opening act to what may be a bitter and fierce face-off that will force Democrats—even at lovely Washington cocktail parties—to take sides.
(David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author, along with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War.)
2. Obama the 'Magic Negro'
The Illinois senator lends himself to white America's idealized, less-than-real black man.
By David Ehrenstein/LA Times
AS EVERY CARBON-BASED life form on this planet surely knows, Barack Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, is running for president. Since making his announcement, there has been no end of commentary about him in all quarters — musing over his charisma and the prospect he offers of being the first African American to be elected to the White House.
But it's clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the "Magic Negro."
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia http://en.-wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro .
He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that's not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is "Magic."
Poitier really poured on the "magic" in "Lilies of the Field" (for which he won a best actor Oscar) and "To Sir, With Love" (which, along with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," made him a No. 1 box-office attraction). In these films, Poitier triumphs through yeoman service to his white benefactors. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is particularly striking in this regard, as it posits miscegenation without evoking sex. (Talk about magic!)
The same can't quite be said of Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy," "Seven" and the seemingly endless series of films in which he plays ersatz paterfamilias to a white woman bedeviled by a serial killer. But at least he survives, unlike Crothers in "The Shining," in which psychic premonitions inspire him to rescue a white family he barely knows and get killed for his trouble. This heart-tug trope is parodied in Gus Van Sant's "Elephant." The film's sole black student at a Columbine-like high school arrives in the midst of a slaughter, helps a girl escape and is immediately gunned down. See what helping the white man gets you?
And what does the white man get out of the bargain? That's a question asked by John Guare in "Six Degrees of Separation," his brilliant retelling of the true saga of David Hampton — a young, personable gay con man who in the 1980s passed himself off as the son of none other than the real Sidney Poitier. Though he started small, using the ruse to get into Studio 54, Hampton discovered that countless gullible, well-heeled New Yorkers, vulnerable to the Magic Negro myth, were only too eager to believe in his baroque fantasy. (One of the few who wasn't fooled was Andy Warhol, who was astonished his underlings believed Hampton's whoppers. Clearly Warhol had no need for the accouterment of interracial "goodwill.")
But the same can't be said of most white Americans, whose desire for a noble, healing Negro hasn't faded. That's where Obama comes in: as Poitier's "real" fake son.
The senator's famously stem-winding stump speeches have been drawing huge crowds to hear him talk of uniting rather than dividing. A praiseworthy goal. Consequently, even the mild criticisms thrown his way have been waved away, "magically." He used to smoke, but now he doesn't; he racked up a bunch of delinquent parking tickets, but he paid them all back with an apology. And hey, is looking good in a bathing suit a bad thing?
The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama's alleged "inauthenticty," as compared to such sterling examples of "genuine" blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. Speaking as an African American whose last name has led to his racial "credentials" being challenged — often several times a day — I know how pesky this sort of thing can be.
Obama's fame right now has little to do with his political record or what he's written in his two (count 'em) books, or even what he's actually said in those stem-winders. It's the way he's said it that counts the most. It's his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is "articulate." His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn't called his opponents names (despite being baited by the media).
Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.