Eliot Weinberger’s Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective was clearly written in the heat of (interim) triumph:
Just when you thought [Clinton] had hit bottom, she went even lower. She tried to cast Obama as a scary black man who, as subliminally suggested in her infamous (and mercilessly parodied) ‘3 a.m.’ ad, would break into your house and murder your cute little sleeping blonde daughter. She cast doubt on whether Obama was really a Christian and not a scary Muslim. And when that didn’t work she reinvented herself as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama – the son of a single mother on welfare – as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she’d presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House and the Senate. Those regular people, she explained in one of many embarrassing moments, were ‘hard-working Americans, white Americans’.
I like ‘one of many’ – shorthand for You think that’s bad? There’s more where that came from – plenty more… Weinberger states and restates his contempt for Clinton in open-handed, effusive prose; he’s generous with his derision. It’s all good fun, if you’re on the same side as Weinberger – at least, if you’re not on one of the sides he’s not on.
On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September … Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’ … And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics
You get the picture: Clinton arrogant and ridiculous, McCain ridiculous and old. And Obama? When it comes to Obama, there’s something rather more complicated going on.
Obama didn’t win because Clinton lost. He was, in American terms, the better candidate. I knew he’d win when I first watched him on television in Iowa, for he has the quality Americans most prize in their presidential candidates: sincerity.
Obama, by all accounts, has remained true to his vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation; he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions. In a country that believes, above all, and largely to its great detriment, in individual self-reliance, he is a self-made man whose message emphasises that progress must also begin at home.
What’s good about Obama wavers in and out of focus here. He’s got a vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation: a contradictory vision, by the sound of it, as well as one which doesn’t have much to do with the office of President. He’s a self-made man, and as such appeals to a country which believes – to its own great detriment, i.e. incorrectly – in self-reliance. He’s personally sincere, or at least manages to appear sincere, which makes him (in American terms) a good candidate for Head of State.
Perhaps the key to what Weinberger’s saying about Obama is that odd line “he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions” (emphasis added). Consistency as a virtue, with the implication that a candidate who doesn’t contradict him- or herself is, perhaps, a candidate with fixed principles: and that in itself is something to be prized, irrespective of what those principles are. This ties in to an oddly lenient passage in one of Weinberger’s many critiques of Clinton:
Believing that it was the only way a woman could be elected, she had built her image as a Thatcher-like Iron Lady, not only supporting the Iraq war, but also identifying with various military and defence issues. Assuming she would be running against the right, never imagining a challenge from the left, Clinton was not prominently identified with any progressive legislation in her six colourless years in the Senate, for fear that it would ultimately be used against her. On the contrary, she largely tried to burnish her credentials as a hardline patriot, even introducing a bill against flag-burning, though there had been only one known incident since the Vietnam War – some drunken frat boys at a party.
Clinton, here, is pure political tactician; if she used her influence as a Senator to the benefit of the militaristic Right, this was because she wanted to avoid anything that could be used against her and to burnish her credentials as a supporter of her enemies’ favourite causes. Weinberger presents all this as a series of self-seeking tactical manoeuvres; if we accept this, Clinton’s great error was not moving Right, but failing to anticipate that moving Right would become a liability.
Anyone who remembers my comments on Davis won’t be surprised to learn that I find this a deeply unsatisfactory way of thinking about politics. Actions have consequences, and in politics symbolic actions can have material consequences: the US political sphere and US society were affected, however infinitesimally, by every right-wing speech Clinton made as a senator and by her every refusal to support progressive legislation. I’m arguing, in a sense, for something like Benjamin’s messianic perspective on history: I’m suggesting that the music stops every so often, and that in those moments we can see who’s done what and judge them on that basis. Or rather, I’m suggesting that we should imagine that the music stops every so often, and that we can hold politicians to account in terms of what they’ve actually done.
Looking at Clinton’s Senate career, we need to think of its effects on the outside world as well as on Clinton’s subsequent electability. Conversely, we shouldn’t let Obama off the hook because he appears to have principles of some sort. Obama should be seen as a politician – someone with the power to make changes, benefiting one group rather than another – as well as a dreamer of dreams (that music eventually stops, too). And Clinton should be seen as someone who has made a difference – mostly for the worse – as well as a mere ladder-climbing politician.
The worst thing you can do with politicians is believe in them: the best of them is much more (and less) than a principled idealist. The second worst is to disbelieve, reducing politics to court intrigue (that’ll embarrass him… how’s she going to get out of this?…). It takes a sincere reactionary to start fires deliberately, but cynical hacks do a lot of playing with matches – and the fire’s just as real.