Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 2, 2008

Hillary’s Folly?

Filed under: Obama Administration,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:04 pm

I do plan to have some thoughts on this “team of rivals” Cabinet concept, if I find time. The shorter version is that while it may be a good idea for a disciplined leader like Barack Obama to fill his Cabinet with strong personalities in this especially gutless, herd-minded age, the idea that this follows Abraham Lincoln’s example is considerably off-base, the adorable Doris Kearns Goodwin notwithstanding. Though the media and popular historians love to see genius strategies in every move that popular past presidents made, at the time of his election, Lincoln really was a minor figure laboring under serious political constraints — winning a four-way election where you were not even on the ballot in many parts of the country will have that effect — and he desperately needed all major northern factions on board with his presidency, including unionist Democrats and various state party bosses. In other words, the original “team of rivals” was a bug, not a feature, and the avoidance of “groupthink” was very far from being one of Lincoln’s most serious problems. Obama is in a vastly different and far stronger position.

Also, a memo to Hillary Clinton: Lincoln also chose his chief party rival, William Seward, as a Secretary of State, but that precedent may not portend great things for your historical stature. Once I started training to be a historian, I learned that Seward was one of the true giants of 19th-century American politics. Seward expected to be running Lincoln’s administration, and understandably (though inaccurately) so, as he was a co-founder and longtime standard-bearer of the Whig and Republican parties. But what happened to Seward’s public image after eight years as Secretary of State? He ended up a trivia question. The only thing I remember learning about William Seward as a school kid was “Seward’s Folly,” the purchase of Sarah Palin’s moose-hunting grounds. Seward was so eclipsed by Lincoln that the schoolbooks even left out the fact that John Wilkes Booth’s assassination conspiracy tried to get Seward, too, but only succeeded in stabbing him repeatedly in the face.


April 23, 2008

Another great moment in Pennsylvania political history . . .

Filed under: 2008 elections — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:43 am

. . . from the state that brought you President James Buchanan (who recently lost his one historical distinction, the Worst President Ever crown, to the current illustrious occupant), Lincoln’s corrupt & incompetent war secretary Simon Cameron, Boss Matt Quay, Boies Penrose*, FrankI’m so tough I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a f—-tRizzo, and the MOVE bombing, just for starters. It’s been (almost) all downhill since the state inaugurated competitive presidential politics by swinging to Jefferson in 1796. In 1800, the Federalists in the state senate stopped a state presidential election from even being held.

Actually just looking up some of the guys listed above, I realized how hopeless this was for Obama from the beginning. I do wish Hillary luck with those Rizzoheads in November. She will need them once she finishes completely alienating younger voters (than 50!) and the African-American base.


April 22, 2008

From the teacher of one of the best courses I ever took

Filed under: 2008 elections — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:12 am

Harvard’s Theda Skocpol recalls Hillary Clinton’s deep connection with ordinary working-class voters circa 1995:

But what is clear in both in my memory and my notes is that there was extensive, hard-nosed discussion about why masses of voters did not support Clinton or trust government or base their choices on economic as opposed to what people saw as peripheral life-style concerns. Hillary Clinton was among the most cold-blooded analysts in attendance. She spoke of ordinary voters as if they were a species apart, and showed interest only in the political usefulness of their choices — usefulness to the Clinton administration, that is.

I vividly remember at the time finding it impressive that Bill Clinton (not Hillary Clinton) showed real empathy for the ordinary people whose motives and supposedly misguided choices were under analysis. Ironically, just as Barber reported, Bill Clinton was the one who combined analysis and empathy, much as Obama himself did in his full San Francisco remarks.

I think this whole angle of “gotcha” politics about snippets of speech transposed from one context to another is ridiculous and pathological for democracy in America — and I cannot fathom why the Clintons or George Stephanopoulos are descending to this dirt, not to mention the guilt-by-association crap. It is particularly despicable of them to criticize Obama for the sort of observation/analysis that was routine in and around the 1990s Clinton White House. And I cannot help but feel there is a psychological edge of pure envy in Bill Clinton’s attacks: Obama is empathetic and charismatic as well as smart, just like Bill was back then, in those so much better days!

I doubt Theda Skocpol remembers me — I have not really had any occasion to contact her since leaving grad school — but her “American Political Development” seminar class was quite crucial to me at the point when I was just starting to write my dissertation. Not that it is easy to tell that in terms of how my work has evolved; I was the only student doing anything remotely early American in that class, but it was very bracing and helpful to encounter some other scholars with broad interests in American politics, an article that seemed to be in short supply among the historians I had met up to that point.

Skocpol was also quite a Clinton fan/fellow traveler back in the 90s, so her take on Hillary’s late conversion to ersatz lunch bucket politics really means something.


April 8, 2008

Policy Positions Actually Matter

Filed under: 2008 elections,Economy — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:56 am

The title is what I take to be the meaning of Hillary Clinton’s collapsing Pennsylvania lead in the face of her close advisor Mark Penn’s quasi-resignation from her campaign over the news that he was lobbying for a trade deal with Colombia. You know, the type of trade deal that the Clinton campaign has opposed in the name of its professed devotion to working-class Rust Belt voters, especially those who might have an aversion to a black candidate. Clinton took this stance in contradiction of the free trade orthodoxy she and her husband had promoted very effectively throughout their careers up until recently. Her good buddy Mark Penn was only doing something that isn’t even considered corrupt in Washington: taking money for promoting something he already agreed with ideologically. His (and her) mistake was thinking that campaign rhetoric actually meant more than the policies they really supported in practice.


March 25, 2008

Easter Tuesday

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:13 pm

Just back from a family trip over the Easter weekend and not feeling terribly well, so blogging may be a bit restricted. So, briefly noted:

  • Bill Hogeland makes me feel bad about praising Obama’s take on the Founders the other day, what with me being such a harsh critic of popular authors misusing the Founders. Obama did not misuse anyone, but he did, as Bill argues, present a fairly conventional post-WWII-era patriotic rendition of the founding era. Mostly. The thing is, just to have a major presidential contender acknowledge even the slavery problem is quite an advance, not on public historical discourse as seen in better schools and museums, but on the remarkably retrograde version of everything historical that is typically deployed in presidential politics.
  • Robert KC Johnson takes David Greenberg’s defense of Hillary Clinton’s tactics effectively to task. Hillary’s race-baiting and general othering of a serious candidate in her own party is far worse than anything I have seen in a Democratic nomination contest during my lifetime. It is not so much Nixonian as Thurmondesque or Wallace-like.

March 20, 2008

Hillary Clinton’s “Experience”: A Double-Edged Sword

Filed under: 2008 elections — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:21 am

Hillary Clinton’s opponents really need to hold her to her claims about her experience, and make sure she owns up to the Clinton administration policies, and other stuff, that she really was instrumental in putting forward. For instance, we have some new evidence for what I said earlier about NAFTA:

First lady records show Clinton promoted NAFTA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton now argues that the North American Free Trade Agreement needs to be renegotiated, but newly released records showed Wednesday she promoted its passage.

The National Archives and the Clinton presidential library jointly released more than 11,000 pages of Clinton’s daily schedule as first lady from 1993 to 2001.

The release came in response to charges that she is overly secretive, and also allowed her campaign to promote her argument that she gained valuable White House experience during her years as first lady.

Clinton and Obama are battling to win Pennsylvania on April 22, the next contest in a closely fought campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to face Republican John McCain in the November election.

The documents clearly indicated that Clinton had a powerful role at the White House, frequently meeting foreign leaders and presiding over meetings. . . .

Read the rest here.


March 6, 2008

I knew it

Filed under: 2008 elections — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:07 am

Clinton campaign probably reassured Canadians about NAFTA before the Obama staffer did (via TPM). They just leaked about Obama. Have the Democrats (and all us other U.S. liberals and centrists) now learned that Canadians are not all nice, bland socialists? They have cutthroat conservatives too, and friends, your throats have just been cut. Later I will add a link about the dying independent MP the Canadian Conservatives tried to buy off with a million-dollar insurance policy for his wife.


March 5, 2008

“Vast Sociological Storms” and the March 4 Clinton Victories

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:40 pm

Trying not to get too emotionally involved in the Democratic race, without much success, but I will keep a brave face here. It is probably important to remember that yesterday’s results were more or less the same as the polls said after Obama’s last wins. Later, wildly fluctuating insta-polls seem to have given only the appearance of a wildly shifting race. The bottom line in places like Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island (along with parts of Mass, Calif., and other states) seems to be that some working-class Catholics, be they Latinos or “white ethnics” from older immigrant groups, still have a problem with voting for an African-American. Matt Yglesias had a good post on this, with some telling exit-poll data on the voters who made the difference for Clinton:

I guess this should not come as a surprise to those of who have read works like How the Irish Became White and Wages of Whiteness; racism, both incoming and outgoing, seems to be a continuing part of the working-class immigrant experience in this country.

Considering all the other analyses floating around this morning, David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo had a great line about morning-after explanations of political events that I think historians will appreciate:

Like tribal explanations for weather phenomenon, there is a tendency to ascribe cause and effect based on proximity of events. This is especially true among political reporters and TV people. The ads they run, the events they report, the insiders they talk to must be what propels voters: Muskie was sunk by his tears. Dukakis by Willie Horton. Kerry by Swift Boaters. Vast sociological storm systems reduced to a sound bite or a highlight reel.

Small universe alert: I never knew this until after many months of reading him as the mysterious “TPM Reader DK,” but David and I not only both live in Columbia effing Missouri, but go to the same church!


March 4, 2008

Hillary, NAFTA, and Ohio

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:55 pm

If Hillary Clinton wins Ohio tonight because of her allegedly tougher stance on NAFTA, it will be a little thick, as Bertie Wooster likes to say. Sure, the Obama staff’s Canadian misadventure did not look good, but this is the wife of the president who brought in NAFTA and counted it as a centerpiece of his economic policy. Hillary pretty much has to count her First Lady years to win the “experience” crown over Obama, but she does not seem to count NAFTA. Too bad Clintonian neoliberal political economy makes little sense without it. 

“Free trade” is an issue I am a little unsettled on myself, but if I were an Ohio voter, I would not be counting on any of this year’s candidates to significantly scale back NAFTA, least of all the Dems. Free trade in the sense of anti-protectionism is one of the Democratic party’s most long-consistent positions, something that Jefferson, Van Buren, Bryan, Wilson, Kennedy (I think), Carter, and B. Clinton all had in common.  Protectionism was a key reason industrial Ohio voted GOP all those decades, back when protection was seen as aid to corporations rather than workers, and half of the presidents were Ohio Republicans. I appeal to specialists: has there been a seriously protectionist Democratic president or major presidential candidate? Were FDR or Truman exceptions?


February 21, 2008

The Evitability of the Inevitablity Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,Political Parties,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:44 pm

hillary_clinton_022108.jpgThe primary campaign is by no means over, but the media and the blogosphere have now realized that the unstoppable Hillary Clinton juggernaut they have been building, image-wise, for these past 3 years is, in fact, eminently stoppable. The inevitable Democratic nominee is now one more big loss away from having to get the nomination Corrupt Bargain-style, and/or risk digging herself an even deeper hole by breaking out the racial codewords again. That seemed to work short-term in New Hampshire but also galvanized black primary voters down south behind Barack Obama and turned the race around. Ezra Klein of the The American Prospect has one of the better recent commentaries on Hillary’s troubles, “The Underperformer.”

We historians know that Olympian historical contextualization of everyone else’s opinions is a sure way to alienate friends and family, so I say, keep it on the blog. To wit:

Ed Muskie Campaign PosterAs historians could have told Hillary, and the media, “inevitability” is about the most evitable thing in politics. Has the “inevitability strategy” ever worked? Let’s ask the long line of prohibitive front-runners whose proud ships ran immediately aground as soon as actual voters were sighted: Ed Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller, Mitt Romney’s dad, the list could go on and on. I remember when John Connally and Howard Baker were big presidential names. Incumbent presidents have gotten the nomination through inevitability, only to have it flop in the general election. Remember Carter and Bush I’s Rose Garden strategies?

Inevitability may have worked occasionally in the Early Republic, for John Adams in 1796 and James Madison in 1808, but that was before such a thing as a nomination process was even invented. Alexander Hamilton’s plan of swapping Adams for a Pinckney might have done the job if there had been a Federalist Super Tuesday in 1796 or 1800. De Witt Clinton might have given Madison quite a shock if could have taken him on in a Pennsylvania or Massachusetts primary. Congressional caucus nominations meant never having to burst the Beltway bubble, if I may be permitted one final anachronism, er, counterfactual.

Back here in the modern world, when will the media learn that those early poll numbers measure nothing but name recognition? For the vast majority of citizens who do not follow politics closely, telling a pollster that they supported Hillary Clinton for president 1 or 2 years before the election was more akin to saying yes, they had heard that the most famous woman in America (non pop-star category) was running for president against that Jock Edwardson — the haircut guy — and noted Irish revolutionary or Muslim poet Brock O’Bama.

Once the identities of everyone else in the race came into focus, Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate did likewise: she was a deeply polarizing figure who brought along most of her husband’s baggage — especially his penchant for calculating triangulation — and little of his charisma; she was on the wrong side of the issue that Democratic primary voters cared most about, the war; and her track record of “proven leadership” began with mismanaging the only real chance at national health care the U.S. has had in my adult life. In addition, she just has not run a very effective campaign. How could Clinton possibly have been such a towering figure in the Democratic party for as long she has and still not have state organizations strong enough to do well in caucuses and navigate the delegate selection rules? Like most inevitable front-runners, she took the DC-centric view that fundraising and press coverage was more important, and waited for the electoral tides to come in. Oops.


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