Sunday, January 06, 2008


Last month, I drew comparisons between Hillary Clinton and Tracy Flick, the character played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election, whose ambition, narcissism, and unscrupulousness swallowed up any positive traits she possessed as a political candidate. I thought, however, that the comparison was a bit harsh to Hillary and admitted as much – by acknowledging that Flick was, after all, a “stereotype.”

But that was before last night.

I don’t know how many of you had the displeasure of watching the Democratic Presidential debate in New Hampshire, but it got ugly. Bill Richardson said that he attended hostage negotiations that were more civil, and I don’t doubt that for a second. What Richardson – always diplomatic – didn’t say was that the ugliness wasn’t bilateral. It was all being generated by one candidate. Last night, she was once again channeling Flick, only this time, it wasn’t the Flick who was thrusting up her hand in class to answer all the teachers’ questions but the Flick who was ripping down the posters of her opponents. This Flick was purely and unabashedly mean. Don’t believe me? Just look at the photos of Hillary on today’s Huffington Post. I’ve seen more pleasant faces during the climax of Kubrick movies.

Hillary wasn’t simply making faces; she was venting her spleen. Interrupting her opponents at will, she’d briskly unleash a diatribe against one Obama position after another. At times I felt she would mischaracterize the facts (I’m still puzzled by her criticizing him for saying he wouldn’t support any funding for the Iraq War; as far as I know, he opposed the war from the beginning, but never said that under no circumstances would he vote for war-funding bills), but then again, this wasn’t about the facts. She seemed more interested simply in showing that she was the aggressor, and as every fight fan knows, when in doubt, “give the round to the aggressor.”

Grudgingly, Hillary had to acknowledge Obama’s likeability, but that was about the only concession she made all night. Her campaign now has a mantra, which is, in essence, “Obama’s a guy who only talks about change, but Hillary will implement it.” If I heard that one time last night, I heard it ten times. And what it amounts to is the willingness to treat the Obama’s candidacy with utter disrespect. She didn’t explicitly call him an “empty suit,” but she may as well have. And this, folks, was in a primary. You can only imagine how she’d treat an opponent in a general election.

Perhaps this was a new strategy unveiled last night. Perhaps Hillary has decided that America doesn’t need civil debates, it needs a return to the era of Saturday Night Fights. Truly, watching a bunch of people standing on a stage respectfully outlining their own positions and respectfully drawing contrasts with each other can get a tad boring. Hillary was, if nothing else, the opposite of boring. Still, I have trouble believing that the American public will go for that sort of performance. Stated another way, I’ve always assumed that if Tracy Flick were to be stripped bare in front of the entire study body (figuratively, that is), she would have lost that election. Hillary, though, seems to think that Flick unplugged makes for a pretty attractive candidate. Go figure.

If you’re trying to figure out the justification for Hillary’s new in-your-face strategy, look only to the words of her former co-President. After his gal lost in Iowa, he returned to his old strategy of whining about the mass media. If Hill has to go negative against Obama, Bill suggested, it would be because the media has forced her to do so with its inappropriately negative coverage of her candidacy. Here are Bill’s precise words:

“… “Nobody would be happier to see all this go away than us. But you can’t ask somebody who is at a breathtaking disadvantage in the information coming to the voters to ignore that disadvantage and basically agree to put bullets in their brains.”

Class, huh? And I think it is especially classy to use that “bullet in their brains” image to refer to a fight she is about to wage against an inspirational black candidate like Barack Obama.

Memo to Bill: You and your wife have been propped up by the media. You have no grounds to complain. It was the media who did your wife’s bidding by slamming Obama this past summer for daring to suggest that if our military had to go into Pakistan to get Bin Ladin, we should do so. And it was the media who did your wife’s bidding by slamming Obama this past summer for daring to suggest that we should speak to tyrants around the world – just speak, mind you, not make concessions. From what I can tell, Bill, prior to last night, the media hasn’t been pushing down your wife at all. It has simply been marveling at Obama’s incredible talent. That talent has been on display for anyone who watched him speak after the Iowa caucuses, just as it was displayed on numerous occasions dating back to his Democratic Convention speech in 2004. Rhetorically, Obama is the closest thing we’ve had in Presidential politics to a Martin Luther King. That’s patently obvious. So why Bill, just why, would you talk about your wife’s battle against him with metaphors about putting “bullets in … brains”?

I’ll tell you why Bill Clinton invoked such a violent metaphor. It wasn’t because he wants to see someone use violence – these Clintons may be a tad sick, but they’re not (as some suggest) evil. It was because for the Clintons, winning political elections is so important that it has become almost a life and death proposition – much like it was for Tracy Flick. For Bill, had Hillary simply ran a civil campaign, calling attention to her differences with Obama but in a respectful manner, then Hillary might actually lose this election. And to lose this election would be tantamount to putting “bullets in [one’s own] brains.” Hillary brought that do-or-die attitude to the stage last night.

The irony of Bill’s statement, of course, is that by fighting like Flick (unlike, say, the way Obama fought when he was behind in the polls this past fall), Hillary might indeed be destroying her own candidacy with the speed of a bullet. Bill might want Hillary to fight like the great Duk Koo Kim. (You might remember Kim as the Korean who fought brilliantly against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini for 15 rounds, literally giving it all he had, but after he died from the injuries suffered in that fight, boxing reduced the number of rounds in championship fights from 15 to 12.) In fact, however, if the Clintons want to attack Barack like Kim attacked Mancini, I doubt seriously that they’ll make it to the 15th round, or even the 12th.

Surely, Hillary’s biggest fans will enjoy performances like last night’s, just as Kim’s fans enjoyed the Mancini fight before they heard about its outcome. I can just imagine all the “You Go Girl” chants that erupted last night across the country. But if you want to win an election, you can’t just appeal to your base. You’ve got to reach out and attract the skeptical. And if many skeptics were persuaded by what they saw last night, then this country is even scarier than I thought it was.


Anonymous said...


I think there are several reasons that Clinton did well in NH.
One - her policies are intelligent. Have you seen Krugman's latest column in NY Times?
There you might notice some reasons why people that rely on their heads rather than their guts for decision making might prefer Clinton.

Two - You clearly identify with Barack. However, not everybody does. Interestingly, Clinton got more poor people's votes than Barack in NH, while Barack got more educated upper middle class votes. I think it might be a sign of trouble for Barack. American public seems to distrust intellectuals. Moreover, older people preferred Clinton.

On a personal note, the person you are attacking is Clinton's professional persona. Many people that know her personally really like her.
She is clearly a very smart and very competent woman and I would hate to see her dismissed similarly to the way Gore was dismissed because his professional persona appeared "boring."

This brings me to my final point about the dangers of judging other people by projecting your own issues and personality into them. Clinton does represent authority more than Barack. Does it make you uncomfortable? are you uncomfortable with ambitious professional women in general? are you uncomfortable with authority? with acting as an adult? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, your dislike of Clinton has more to do with who you are than with who she is. I think that when we project own issues on others, we do not act as "empathic rationalists."

Daniel Spiro said...

You took some cheap shots in that response ... but I probably deserved some. Not all (the sexism allegations, for example), but some. I've admitted that my views on her aren't 100% rational. But I would say the same for my views on certain men. That doesn't make me anti-man any more than it makes me anti-woman.