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Political Notes: Of Kings, and Kingmakers

February 15, 2008, 1:53 pm

Several summers ago, following George W. Bush’s re-election, I had the pleasure of sitting down informally with two progressive Democratic party activists. Over evening drinks, a group of us discussed plans for the next election. This couple — who are well-to-do but not mega-rich fundraisers — were quite confident that Hillary Clinton would be the party nominee. I remember feeling both a great thrill that I had tapped into this insider conversation, and pretty annoyed that it was all over before we had begun. My annoyance was tempered, to some extent, by the fact that these two activists were genuinely interested in how Clinton would play back in New England, what our issues were with a potential Clinton presidency, and so on.

As the Clinton candidacy teeters on the edge of Big Trouble, I look back on this conversation, and think: “Well.” (This is how Radicals sometimes verbally mark an unexpected turn of events. Sometimes a twist of fate is also signaled by “Ahem.” Or “My goodness.”)

But I also wonder whether there is a historical change in how national politics work, and whether it is a change being created by the candidacies themselves, as the Obama people want to persuade us; or whether it is being forced by shifts in media, the proliferation of arenas for activism and perhaps increased voter sophistication. Here are some things that seem different to me.

Announcing early can significantly damage a candidacy since, as time passes, the capacity of the candidate to say something new (or have policy shifts perceived as distinctly fresh) diminishes. Historically, we might also look at the Nixon campaign for hints as to how this works. That’s a difficult comparison, however, since although it was assumed from election day 1956 on that Nixon would be the next Republican candidate, Eisenhower simultaneously made it clear how little he liked his vice president for the four years that Nixon worked to persuade the party base to turn out for him. Which they didn’t, at least not in sufficient numbers to defeat a relative upstart.

Now Clinton, although her husband’s presidency sometimes hangs like a lodestone around her neck, has altered and expanded her talking points since she announced her candidacy, many months and millions of dollars ago. A die-hard centrist, she has also moved left as the discussion has moved left. So I would say there is no question that she has grown into her candidacy. But Obama gives the impression of having grown more as a candidate, in part because his transformations, in some cases less progressive than hers, have occurred in a drastically shorter time frame. Thus, although I am not sure that he is genuinely more dynamic, he appears to be so. Furthermore, to announce early, I would argue, is also to give a false sense of one’s actual support among voters. In the absence of other candidates, the poll numbers may represent supporters, who, in reality, would vote for anyone reasonable compared to the president they have had for the past eight years. Those being polled had no one else to choose except perennial outlying contenders like Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader. If you had asked Democrats if they would agree to change the constitution and make Arnold Schwarzenegger President, they probably would have said yes in lower, but significant, numbers.

My point is that the Clinton candidacy could only have degraded over time, barring no challengers at all, and that gives the false impression that she is less and less vital as a candidate, when in fact that is not the case. Her positions have become more complex, and more progressive. Obama’s positions continue to mimic those of other candidates. He too has moved left, but his policies are unoriginal and less well framed, particularly since he has chosen to differentiate himself from Clinton by articulating himself as the voice of a movement (a people person) rather than a policy maker (politican.) People who believe that movement politics are the way out of a neo-liberal impasse in the Democratic party (my friends, to whom I dedicated my primary vote for Obama) have faith that the innovative policy making will come later. I hope that this is right. But it also creates the danger that should the “movement” not push Obama into the candidacy, that they will have little left in common with each other or with the Democratic party.

The candidate with the most money does not necessarily win.That big money donors bypassed the electorate to hand-pick candidates was a central criticism in the next to last chapter –”Who Are the Secret Kingmakers?” –of Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 blockbuster, A Choice, Not an Echo. Ironically, the conservative movement Schlafly spoke from and to revitalized the Republican party in the 1970’s and 1980’s by replacing one set of kingmakers (northeastern liberal Republicans like the Rockefellers) with others (rabid right-wingers like Richard Scaife and Adolph Coors.) One thing that has changed the terrain is grassroots fundraising, which I would suggest makes it possible to level the playing field somewhat. This has helped the Obama insurgency, not just because small donations add up, but also because a campaign can use its data on small donors — who are they, how many, where do they live — to go to big donors and get them to pony up for a candidate who is developing a powerful, demonstrable base: small donations simply give you better data on actual voters who are supporting a candidate than large donations from the same old party fundraisers can. Hence, I would argue, the small donors can alter the giving patterns of the “kingmakers.” Big donors who originally gave only to Clinton are now hedging their bets and giving to Obama as well because of the traction he has demonstrated, not just through primary victories, but through small donation data.

Another hypothesis that needs to be tested is this: that if there is something slightly noxious about a candidate, being rich makes it worse. The Romney candidacy seems emblematic on this point. I know, we have to control for the fact that the Mormon thing made him odd to people, and that he was a shape-shifter as a conservative. Also, as Paul Begala said on National Public Radio, that he is widely perceived as a “big phony.” George Bush seemed like a big phony to slightly more than half the voters in 2000, and not to slightly less than half, so this might be less of an issue by itself. However, Romney — unlike Bush, Jon Corzine, Mike Bloomberg, and others — was not able to buy the nomination, nor did his deep pockets persuade the party apparatus at any juncture that his candidacy was viable.

The pollsters can’t give us reliable, hard numbers the way they used to. One feature of this, as my historian colleague Dr. Victorian pointed out, is that there are large numbers of young and not so young people who no longer have land lines, and that pollsters have no way of getting to cell phones systematically. This becomes a huge issue with a candidate embraced by the young since those of us who have done phone-banking know that it’s not “Who do you like?” that is always the most important question. “Do you plan to vote?” is at least as important. But has anyone but me noticed that, while white people are consistently being broken out by gender, black voters are not always broken out by gender, and Hispanic voters and working class voters rarely are? This suggests to me that pollsters are unfamiliar with how to work with gender difference except among the group the
y have been working with since telephones made polling possible in the 1920′s, comfortably well-off white people. Or middle-class white people. Whatever you want to call them. And in the same vein, it seems that the activism of people of color, as voters and donors, is outpacing the knowledge of pollsters and political scientists about how to discuss these groups as necessarily internally segmented audiences. Catch up, boys and girls.

Conservatives are just as worried about weirdos as liberals are worried about weirdos or conservatives. Frankly, I find this comforting. McCain’s surge to the candidacy, when he does not poll well among conservatives at all, suggests that conservatives are working actively against a Mike Huckabee candidacy at this point. Yes, conservatives tend to want lower taxes and less government. But it’s rare that they suggest eliminating revenue collection altogether. If you watch CNN you have probably seen the Huckabee ad where he tells you dead seriously that he plans on closing the Internal Revenue Service by Presidential order as soon as he is inaugurated. In itself, this is a wacky idea, and makes you wonder how he intends to either continue prosecuting the war in Iraq or bring the troops home (heck, maybe we’ll just leave them there!) But it also makes you wonder — what else would he close? Is it time to start stockpiling canned goods again?

A final note: this is utterly impressionistic, but have you noticed that while both Obama and Clinton are battling for a very active demographic of poor voters, each of them still talks relentlessly about what they will do for the “middle class?” It is a truism of American history that, since the 1950′s, working class and wealthy people have collectively identified as “middle class,” but do poor people working three to five jobs as a family still identify as “middle class?” What’s the deal here?

A final, final note: which candidate will be the first to say that FEMA is lying when they say they didn’t know that people living in trailers filled with formaldehyde and other chemical products were in danger?

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