Changing the Tone in Washington, D.C.

28 January 2008, Kennedy, Obama and Clinton at the State of the Union

How about that for changing the tone in Washington, D.C.?

Clockwise from the top, they are the good ol’ boys’ club, courtly intrigues, and the snub.

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Polymorphous Personae

The thing that Hillary Clinton doesn’t get about campaigning — and that John Kerry and Al Gore didn’t get either — is that you need to pick a persona early and stick with it. There is an analogue in creating a persona to framing around an issue. Framing works by repetition over a long period of time. This is probably the one thing that Democrats at large don’t get.

All politicians are fake, it’s just that Republicans have a consistency in their fakeness. And when you’re consistent, people don’t catch on. When a politician grabs one persona this week and another the next, it doesn’t take long before voters conclude that such a politician is a fake.

At least with respect to his persona, Barack Obama gets this. He has been positioning himself as a certain sort of person all along so when it came primary time, people had a well cultivated set of beliefs about him that he could easily and naturally play upon. Hence the gentleness of his campaigning style: all the heavy lifting is in the frame. Hillary Clinton was the candidate of experience — until it turned out that that was not what voters wanted. They wanted change, so now she is the candidate of change. I have no doubt that should she dispatch Senator Obama, we will never hear the word “change” from her again in the general election. If she is up against Governor Huckabee then she will be all about compassion rooted in her humble upbringing and her faith. If Senator McCain gets the Republican nomination, she will be boasting about what a maverick she has been all along. If Mitt Romney gets it, well, then she can continue to be the always-yes-saying robot that she has been all along.

The crazy thing about Al Gore is that he had spent years as a Senator cultivating signature issues of the environment, nuclear weapons and high-tech. But when the 2000 campaign came around, the Democratic consultants came in with their everything-to-everybody strategy, told him to pitch his long-standing associations and cycled through a rotating list of Gore personas until everyone in America was left asking who the real Al Gore was. After the beard and paunch growth soul searching and some consultant detox, the real Al Gore is back.

If I could introduce the Democratic party to one concept, it would be opportunity cost. In order to be one thing, you have to foreclose the possibility of being some other thing. You’re going to have to piss someone off. Pick something and come to terms with saying sianora to the rest.

Battle Tested

One of the characters of mythic proportion here in D.C. is that of the hard old pol: that tough political boss, heavily scarred from many a close-fought election battle. Think Tip O’Neal or Edward Kennedy.

Last night Senator Hillary Clinton showed that she has it. It’s not just a good ol’ boys club. Joshua Marshall points out (“Making Sense of It,” Talking Points Memo, 9 January 2008):

And I do not think that any of Clinton’s critics can say that she won this one by overpowering Obama with money or mobilizing a dominating political machine or by expectations of inevitability and certainly not with the help of a friendly press. However you slice it this was a real victory under pressure. And if she’s the nominee she’ll be a much better one for it.

After last night’s win, everyone should take a long, hard look at Senator Clinton. She’s hard to see because we’ve all been made to see her through the filter of tabloid in this modern world, but after last night, she seems more like something of an other, older tradition. The politicians who make something in this world all end up compromised in some way. There is a proper rule for how and when to hold that against a politician. It makes me think of Auda abu Tayi’s boast in Lawrence of Arabia: “I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle.” Damage or disfigurement is not always a mark of shame.

In the bright light of day people will say that what they want is clarity and principle and happy things like hope for the future and positive vision and big think. But the astute know that what politics really calls for is what Senator Clinton has demonstrated. They call it the greasy pole. To climb it, you have to get a little dirty.

Tears of Victory

CNN is currently showing Hillary Clinton ahead of Barack Obama at 40 to 36 with 13 percent of precincts reporting. It is pretty early and this could be one of those urabn districts-rural districts thing, where different types o districts report at different rates. Or maybe younger voters still getting off work versus older voters available to vote all day long. Senator Obama’s lead in Iowa didn’t really start to lengthen until later in the evening. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it swing before the night’s end.

It would be hard to figure out what happened so quickly were Senator Clinton to win. Maybe with yesterday’s little tear Senator Clinton pulled off the same thing that happened with Rick Lazio in New York. The big mean man coming on too strong provoked an outpouring of paternalistic sympathy for the hurt little lady. That would be ironic after all the left-blogosphere angst yesterday over the media reaction if it rebounded to her advantage. I half wouldn’t put it past her to have staged the whole thing. Some people have commented on how she has mastered female dog-whistle politics.

Apparently she was answering a reporter’s question all normal then suddenly veered off track and got somber and serious. That’s when the mist happened. It’s not like Hillary Clinton to get off message, to deviate to any place that she doesn’t want to go. I can just imagine her having hatched the plan with her campaign strategist. “Remember what happened to Rick Lazio in 2000 when he got all physically aggressive, and you seemed vulnerable and it turned the electorate? How could we achieve the same effect with Obama?” And then waiting for the right question. Half way through a normal response it occurring to her, “Oh, this is the one to go with!”

Business Loves Hillary

Business Loves Hillary Clinton, Fortune, 9 July 2007

Fortune reports (Easton, Nina, “Who Business is Betting on,” vol. 156, no. 1, 9 July 2007, pp. 45-52):

One of Hillary Clinton’s most important courtships began early last year, around a formal dinner table at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. Her targets were Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and his wife, Christy. Mack was already active politically — but on behalf of Clinton’s political opponents. A Bush “Ranger,” he had raised at least $200,000 for the President’s reelection bid and was one of the most prominent business names on GOP donor lists. At one time his name had circulated as a potential Bush Treasury Secretary.

The conversation that night ranged widely, but always returned to one subject: health-care reform. …

Hillary Clinton was on familiar territory — and managed to charm the couple not only with her “intelligence and educated responses,” as Christy Mack recalls, but also with her one-on-one charisma. “You have these preconceived ideas about people you see in the public eye,” says Christy. “But we were extremely impressed with her ability to connect with every single person. She was an amazing listener, with tremendous warmth.”

The relationship could have ended there — a New York Senator engaging her local constituents. But early this year Clinton upped the ante with a phone call to the Morgan Stanley CEO, asking him to support her presidential bid. When he demurred, she asked for a meeting. Once again — this time over coffee — John and Christy Mack found themselves enticed. When Mack returned to his office, he told Nides he was ready to commit. “John, you can wait, you don’t have to commit yet,” Nides responded. “No,” Mack replied, “early support is better support.” Days later Mack picked up the phone and sealed the deal. Clinton, Nides recalls, “put the time in.”

On the one hand, this bodes well in that some have pointed out that Senator Clinton has nowhere to go but up and when people are exposed to Hillary Clinton in person instead of Hilary Clinton the myth, they are pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, one would really like to know what Senator Clinton could say (or maybe even promise?) to a Bush Ranger — in 2004 nonetheless — about healthcare that would cause him to back her for the presidency.

Cusping on a new Gilded Age, it would perhaps be best to have a candidate that business loathed. But I guess that’s what cusping on a new Gilded Age means: the money men vote first, then the rest of us chose from the slate they have prescreened.