Thursday, December 20, 2007

Media diary, December 19

Because I was running late this morning, I was in the car to hear part of BBC World Service on public radio. The program is celebrating its 75th anniversary and has been rebroadcasting clips from its early days. Today a BBC producer commented on what she learned from combing the audio archives. During the Second World War, BBC broadcasts were important not just to the British people but to the French Resistance movement across the Channel--for instance, BBC carried speeches and announcements by De Gaulle, in French. The letter V was a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance: I knew about Churchill often flashing the V for Victory hand sign, but also, French residents under occupation chalked V's onto sidewalks and buildings. In addition, BBC began tacking on, as an intro or outro, a short musical phrase played on a tympani: bip-bip-bip-bummm, bip-bip-bip-bummm. Dot dot dot dash--the letter V in Morse code.


Reflecting on the developing rivalry between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, Slate posted a piece today about tensions between the LDS Church and the Southern Baptist Convention since about 1980. I was intrigued to learn that Mormons have converted a lot of Baptists and made serious inroads in heavily Baptists areas like Atlanta and Dallas. Evangelicals respect people who offer a testimony, and those clean-cut young Mormon missionaries certainly qualify.


Matt Bai has written a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, dated December 23 but pre-posted on the Web, about Bill and Hillary Clinton--his past, her present and future, and their relationship to the Democratic Party.

It's worth a read. Bill Clinton is much more present and prominent in the article than Hillary; Bai interviewed Bill a few times for his recent book, and draws on that material. (Bai and Bill scheduled an interview more recently, but Hillary's campaign quashed it, and Hillary would not be interviewed herself.) I would have placed the emphasis in different places, but Bai engages a lot of the relevant issues for a party searching for a new identity.

Certainly, the legacy of Bill's presidency has a complicated relationship to Hillary's presidential prospects. Bai's notion is that among rank and file Democrats, Bill is personally very popular, but "Clintonism" (expressed both in his founding work with the DLC and in his White House tenure) is not universally popular in left circles. There's some truth there, but Bai overlooks the need for Hillary to stand on her own feet, regardless of Bill's continued popularity or lack of it. Bai quotes poll data that Bill's record reflects well on Hillary among voters. I had a "no duh" response to that: Hillary's political existence depends on Bill; it's not that he benefits her, it's that she wouldn't exist without him. The dilemma for Hillary's campaign is not just how to show him to best advantage, it's how heavily to deploy him in public.

Another of Bai's guiding theses is that Hillary's campaign is a referendum on Clintonism. I'm not so sure. I'm overwhelmingly conscious of the 2008 election as being a referendum on Bushism, and so are many rank-and-file Democrats, and we evaluate the contenders for their potential to defeat Bushism at the polls and in Washington over the next quadrennium.

I plead guilty to not appreciating what we had with Clinton-Gore when we had it; I made gruff Naderite noises in '96 after welfare reform, and in 2000 when the legacy of Clintonism seemed merely the effort to be all things to all people. Seven years later, I long for a government that is competent, innovative, fiscally responsible at home, morally responsible abroad--that respects the rule of law and balances ideology with merit and fairness. Clinton-Gore did a solid job of providing that kind of government. Moreover, they deserve a lot of credit for accurately diagnosing the American condition in the 1990s: most notably, the shift to a post-industrial information-based economy.

Yet I have trouble giving all that much credit to Clintonism as a philosophy of governing.
Bai discusses Clintonism as both a philosophy and as an electoral strategy. Both Clintons would attest that the former is irrelevant without the latter. Bai concedes that the Clinton style of campaigning was probably the only way to win in 1992, to exorcise the ghosts of liberals past, but he also seems to agree with Al From: "Just as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism by dealing with its excesses, Clinton saved progressive governance, and he saved progressive governance all over the world."

Maybe I came of age too late to understand properly, but I don't see much cause to regret the "overreaches" of liberal policy in the 60s and 70s. Did the Dems go astray in ensuring civil rights? Did they go too far in pressing the interests of women and environmentalists and labor unions? On the whole, I don't believe so. They got caught up in a culture war that was bigger than they were, and they suffered a backlash on civil rights, which perhaps they could have countered better but which in the long run was worth suffering for the sake of racial justice. (Even knowing what we know about the tenures of Nixon and Reagan and the Bushes, which of us would go back in time and BLOCK the Civil Rights Act?)

The Democrats' problem is more one of image and public perception. I'll concede that they may have been too closely identified with the poor rather than the middle class, a hangover from FDR and the New Deal when the country faced starvation and homelessness. Adjusting to postwar economic growth, Clinton helped the party change the frame, away from protection against poverty, toward access to opportunity. But mainly, due to the old internal party machinery (which is a different thing than the policies), the Democratic Party gave us an excess of dry, humorless technocrats as candidates. In an aside, Bai mocks Dennis Kucinich as having been "teleported straight from 1972." My main perception of Kucinich is he's a mousy little guy, reminiscent of Mondale and Dukakis and other also-rans, who lack that ineffable "want to have a beer with him" quality that Bush supposedly has in spades. I don't mock Kucinich for lacking that, I weep for myself and our politics that we place so much weight on that.

Bill Clinton has that charisma, and thank God he's also brilliant and an insanely hard worker. But the hallmark of his governance (Bai reminds me of the term) was triangulation: co-opting an issue near and dear to the Republicans (welfare, for example), acknowledging the problem, then proposing a more moderate and humane fix than the Goopers were offering. That may be a sound strategy much of the time, but not all the time. It strikes me reading this article that triangulation is probably an apt term for what Hillary has tried to do as a Senator regarding Bush's foreign policy: acknowledge his assumptions about Iraq's and Iran's treachery, and HOPE that he would act soundly and proportionately, although she had no leverage. The most charitable read on her votes is that she was suckered. Triangulation isn't appropriate when the other side doesn't play fair. It isn't compatible with being the principled opposition.

I wonder how old Bai is. It's worth being reminded that political renewal comes in constant cyclical waves, always with young people chafing at the assumptions of their elders. Today's insurgents will be tomorrow's establishment: From and his DLC still perceive themselves as the gatecrashers that they were in their heyday.

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