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Sunday, April 20, 2008

McWhorter and Loury

John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have been, far and away, the most worthwhile duo to watch on Bloggingheads.tv, period. Their most recent episode, "Michelle Obama Ain't a bargainer" is golden.

I'd go further and make a point that dovetails with a key unspoken aspect of the McWhorter and Loury discussion: if the 2008 campaign were, at this point, as many people expected, simply a contest between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, we wouldn't be watching John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have this kind of excellent, insight-filled discussion on Bloggingheads.tv.

I said previously that Barack Obama was the driving force of the 2008 campaign, that without him this campaign would not have the substance and drive it does. In response to Loury's ongoing support of Clinton, I'd like to expand on that.

There's a point in the discussion when Loury responds to what had been a series of celebrations of Barack Obama by McWhorter with a summary of how he views the core rationales for supporting her:

Loury: Several reasons, one is...I think she's more competent. I genuinely do. I understand that that question is arguable. But every time I hear them discuss affairs of state, including in that debate last night, I come away from it with the sense that her grasp is deeper and that her vision is more mature. And, you know, there's gonna be experience. Experience has been made into a bad word. [snip]

How did experience become a bad word? How did a lifetime or decades of experience at the top of American government get equated to having had the foresight or the judgment to stand against the war which I was against from the very start just like Barack Obama. So, I think she's better qualified and I just think again that that showed last night.

They were asked some questions about foreign affairs and so forth and they were also asked some questions about domestic issues and her answers were just more elaborate, richer and more thoughtful in my opinion.

McWhorter:...well, they are.

Loury: The idea that some talking head on MSNBC is going to dismiss all that as wonkery. I'm just too serious a person to be persuaded by that. Wonkery is exactly what I want in the person whose finger is on the button. That's what I want. I want wonkery in the person who's gonna be making the decisions that are going to be affecting life around me. So I think she's better prepared to be president of the United States.

Secondly, I'm gonna just confess here. Some people vote because, well, the guys black, I'm black, let me vote for the guy. That's not me. I vote because the woman's 60, I'm 60, let me vote for the woman.

In other words, what I'm saying is there's a generational connect that I have with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And not only with her. Yes, we are baby boomers. Yes, the 60's were the formative decade for us. Sorry, that's true. Yes, we were quite numerous in that we've had an outsized impact on the culture for decades and I'm sure that Generations X, Y and Z are sick and tired of it. I understand all of that. Nevertheless, we 55 to 65 year olders have journeyed through life to reach the prime and the peak of our capacity. All of it has come to now. And now's our time, you know, is kind of my feeling.[snip]

I really admire her grit. I admire her toughness. You know, the kitchen sink? From my vantage point in this campaign she's endured a great deal. She's kept her chin up. She's soldiered on. She's fought the good fight.

I disagree with Loury here. If Hillary Clinton serves as a kind of stand in for the baby boomer generation, forged in the crucible of the 60's, and whose life experience has now yielded a wisdom that leaves her newly competent to govern with a wise wonkery like Plato's guardians, why did Clinton vote for Bush's misadventure in Iraq? That's not some idle question; it goes right to the heart of the matter.

One of the reasons Clinton appeared appealing the other night was that she gave the most unequivocal answer she has ever given about her position about withdrawal from Iraq. Her answer in the Pennsylvania debate, however, was nowhere near what her position was at the outset of this campaign. (Initially she would not commit to a withdrawal timeline with any teeth at all. It was not clear that Clinton would withdraw from Iraq in her first term in office.) It's also nowhere close to what she said, four long years ago in 2004, when Bill and Hillary's equivocations about the war in Iraq helped reelect George Bush to a second term.

The Clinton position on Iraq belies every argument Loury makes for her. What did Viet Nam teach her generation that Clinton somehow forgot when she cast her vote for the AUMF and against the Levin amendment? Why, in the cauldron of the 2004 election, did Bill Clinton come out in support of the President's policy in Iraq and Hillary adamantly refuse to reconsider her vote for the AUMF? More to the point, how does that now prove that Clinton is "better qualified" to lead in 2009?

It doesn't. Clinton's position on Iraq proves exactly the opposite.

When Loury extols wonkery, he has the wrong candidate. Obama is clearly the candidate poised to bring a refreshing and open-minded approach to policy solutions to our government. What's more, he will do this in full view of the public and not locked away in private; Obama is committed to transparency and sunlight in the decision making of our government. Clinton is not.

Why has Clinton, for all the "elaborate richness" of her answers, simply mischaracterized her history with NAFTA and health care reform outright? When Clinton was elected to the United States Senate she enunciated very clearly what her stance was on root and branch reform in Washington. Incrementalism was the key. Is that wonkery, or is that more Mark Penn fueled, poll-driven policy based on micro trends?

I think we all know the answer.

Without Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain would be locked in a traditional "Red State/Blue State battle." Loury's dream of a kind of rehash of the lessons of the 1960's played out in a battle between a 71 year old and a 60 year old whose lives were utterly shaped by that decade 40 years ago would be at hand.

I don't think that battle or that rehashing would do our nation any good or serve to move us forward.

Without adding fuel to the fire of an inter-generational battle that Loury alludes to, let me say this, if the Clinton campaign wanted to prove that it could do more than run on a Loury-esque "It's our time, we've earned this." platform, Clinton had to reach out to the generations who came after the baby boom and win us over.

There were some very clear ways to do this. One would have been to speak frankly about the error of her vote on the war. The second would have been to engage with voters under 40 in an absolutely new way. (Look at what the Obama campaign has done on and off line.) And, most importantly, Clinton needed to address the reality that for voters under 40, the legacy of the Clinton/Bush years directly impacts our future. The failure to ratify Kyoto, the lack of progress on energy independence, the triumph of big corporations against efforts at sane regulation, the stagnation of wages and the utter failure to make progress on health care reform has meant that 20 and 30somethings now face an adult lifetime without any margin of error dealing with these major issues. Our children face a lifetime of a planet in peril.

The bill for all this was passed to our generation while those older than us profited immensely from an era of cheap oil, SUVs and REITs.

That era is over.

Does that spell competence and wisdom? Does that spell a breadth and depth of experience? I don't think so.

The vote to enter the war in Iraq took place in 2002. We are now electing a president to serve a term that would run between 2009 and 2013. That very same war in Iraq looms large in dollars and lives lost. Nothing has changed in our environmental policy. We have made absolutely zero progress on containing global carbon emissions. We have not even begun to forge the international consensus needed to make the changes needed to address global warming and to address the very real threats to the community of nations posed by nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.

Has Hillary Clinton in the leadership she has shown as Senator given us any reason to think she is ready to undertake that challenge?

Quite frankly, she hasn't. She has not even bothered to take that leadership role. That's the myth of Clinton's competence. Where has she been in the Senate?

Where Loury sees competence and sagacity, I see a candidate who has learned the core lesson of the Bill Clinton years: don't say anything remotely impolitic while fighting a continual rear guard battle with the right wing. That's the old way.

There's a better way. We can make a change. But to achieve that change Barack Obama will need every generation of Democrats united behind him. We cannot afford to be divided. Not with the challenges we face.

One candidate has driven the 2008 campaign. He has raised the money, brought in the new voters, done the mass registration drives, enunciated the policy positions, elaborated the core message of 2008 and campaigned across the entire United States.

If Hillary Clinton wanted to decisively prove her claim to the presidency for the years between 2009 and 2013, she needed to enunciate something more than what she has so far. She played it "safe" when "safe" was actually anything but.

While I respect Glenn Loury and am grateful to have a chance to watch him and John McWhorter discuss the state of the 2008 race, I have to respectfully disagree with the ease with which he yields the entire ground of experience and competence to Clinton.

I do not begin to accept that premise. There's a better way than the Clinton way.


  • Thank you for that. It was very well put.

    One thing I particularly agree with is the idea that simply being a wonk or not is not the right question.
    The right question is "what kind of wonk?"

    For Obama's part I do very much believe that he is a constitution-wonk. I believe that because much of his livelihood has been focused on the constitution for a long time-and because of what he says and how he says it.

    At this point in our history, after eight years of imperial presidency, aided by a compliant judiciary, has warped the balance between the executive and the legislative branches, we need someone who will offer principled restraint.

    I don't know for sure that Obama will be restrained in his use of executive power, but I know for sure that neither McCain nor Clinton will.

    By Blogger jiminy jilliker, at 12:38 PM  

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