Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A follow-up on the weak feminism of the Clinton campaign

I can’t help but be a bit amused by this week’s evaluations of Hillary Clinton’s Saturday speech, in part because they fit a very old pattern, and in part because they fit a brand new one.

I am hearing two themes: 1) It was the best speech she has ever given, and 2) it was the first time she sounded like a feminist.

To the first point, it may or may not have been her best speech (though it was certainly better than her generally underwhelming mean), but it was a speech that struck a different tone. That was to be expected because it was made from a place of concession. Also to be expected, most every pundit and talking head would praise it.

I think it was Hubert Humphrey who said, in the last weeks of his life, as he received a litany of accolades from former friends and enemies alike, that they always praise you once you are no longer seen as a threat. Many of the encomia bestowed upon Saturday’s speech sounded like they would have made Humphrey smile.

As for the second idea, it reinforces what seems to be an emerging consensus (or, if not a consensus, at least a common talking point), one that was expressed last week in Meghan O’Rourke’s Slate post, “Death of a Saleswoman.” O’Rourke’s opening proposition can be summed up in the quote, “Her problem wasn’t that she was a feminist. Her problem was that she wasn’t feminist enough.”

I wrote about that piece last Thursday. In my post, while not completely disagreeing with O’Rourke, I felt that other important issues—specifically, many positions taken by Hillary Clinton—were given less than their due by such an identity-driven analysis.

After I wrote my brief analysis, O’Rourke and others hosted a chat over at the Washington Post, so I turned my post into a question. . . and that question got a pleasantly affirming response:

New York [me]: It wasn't just that what HRC did to inoculate herself against the sexism inherent in the system made her seem more like a man -- it made her seem more like a Republican.

To my eyes, while it seems like a plausible argument to say that Hillary Clinton failed to cast her campaign as a sufficiently transformative endeavor, and though it might have been harder for Clinton to seize the day than her male competitor, HRC could have avoided many of the pitfalls of identity politics if she had not spent her time in the Senate and on the campaign trail trying to split the mythical difference between core liberal Democratic positions and what she thought were the ones that made her more electable.

What do you all think?

Meghan O'Rourke: I agree with you -- she spent a lot of time trying to split the difference on issues, and it harmed her. George Lakoff, who just wrote a book about political rhetoric, and what's behind it, was on NPR yesterday talking about the differences in how Obama, Clinton, and McCain use the word "bipartisan." And his point was that when Hillary uses it, she uses it in a way that downplays - or tries to paint over -- the difference between her and those who disagree with her positions, in order to imply the disagreement isn't that profound. Obama, on the other hand (according to Lakoff) uses it to acknowledge there ARE real differences, but to stress that he'll be open to compromising when it comes to policy.

If that makes sense--Lakoff explains it much better.

I happened to hear that George Lakoff interview (or one just like it on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show), and I think what Lakoff actually said about bipartisanship was a little different.

At about the 10:50 mark of the segment, Lakoff moves to refute the idea that McCain is a bipartisan, and throws in HRC for good measure. Lakoff argues that someone like Hillary believes, as McCain does, that when you need to, you adopt conservative positions on specific issues. It doesn’t mean that McCain is moving to the left, it means that he finds conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman to bolster his claim of bipartisanship. Similarly, Clinton would move to the right to achieve her notion of bipartisanship.

Obama, says Lakoff, doesn’t do this. According to Lakoff, Obama looks for shared values on specific issues. Certain conservatives might value the environment (like hunters and some Christian evangelicals, for instance), so Obama might reach across the aisle to work with those people on environmental problems. On different issues, Obama might look for others with different common values. Obama doesn’t move to the right himself, he just works with the right when he can find common ground with them.

I don’t find the examples that Lakoff presents on McCain and Clinton to be exact parallels, thought I think I get the gist of what he is saying. Certainly, McCain’s solidly pro-Bush voting record refutes any assumption that he is a bipartisan maverick. Clinton, on the other hand, spent years trying to triangulate or split the difference between grass-roots Democratic values and the positions that she thought would be necessary for her to hold in order to triumph in a general presidential election. Whether the triangulated positions mirrored Clinton’s deeply held beliefs is sometimes hard to say, but the impression left by her fence-straddling was of a candidate that was less than transformative, and, at times, less than sincere.

As for what George Lakoff has to say specifically about Obama, I remember thinking as I listened the first time: I sure hope he is right. It is too early to tell if Obama’s political allegiances are free of expedience, but I have my concerns on some topics.

What I am sure of, however, is that John McCain has spent his whole career pandering, glad-handing, and claim jumping to get ahead. What represents a “core value” to John McCain is defined by his own personal ambition.

As to the original issue of Senator Hillary Clinton and her failed campaign, I feel vindicated in my long-held belief that her political calculations not only did her ambitions no good, they sold her constituencies short, as well. I look forward to a post-presidential candidate Clinton taking to heart some of these lessons and emerging as a more progressive and more effective legislator for years to come.

(cross-posted on guy2k, Daily Kos, and The Seminal)

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