Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keep the White House White

My purpose here is to provide a context for the fear mongering that will predictably occur in the 2008 US presidential election. That context is the 1983 Chicago mayoral election. There are a number of eerie parallels between these electoral contests. It is by no means a coincidence that the Chicago election was a significant inspiration for Barack Obama’s current run for president.

To provide a little background, Chicago in the 1980s was a city in transition. The first Mayor Daley had died in office and his son had not yet ascended to the throne. African Americans were slowly gaining in political power but the city was still politically dominated by European Americans. One fact that seemed constant was that politically the city was completely ensconced in the Democratic Party.

In 1983 the Democratic Primary for mayor came down to three candidates, Chicago’s first woman mayor, the incumbent Jane Byrne, the mayoral heir apparent Richie Daley (who combined represent Hillary Clinton in today’s drama) and the dark horse Harold Washington (obviously played by Barack Obama today). Thanks to an evenly split electorate along with Harold Washington's rhetorical skills and personal charisma, he pulled a huge upset to win the Democratic nomination of mayor.

Normally in Chicago at that time, being elected the Democratic Party’s nominee would represent an automatic ticket to the becoming the next mayor (this is somewhat analogous to how near the beginning of this election cycle most political pundits predicted that the Democratic nominee for president would be a virtual lock to be elected in a year in which America is suffering from acute Bush-fatigue). But the completely unexpected nature of Washington's win combined with its implications regarding the changing nature of the city awakened something ugly in a significant portion of the electorate and their representatives in government.

As a result, the true political power brokers in the city rallied around that year’s Republican sacrificial lamb, a little known former government functionary named Bernard Epton (yesterday’s version of John McCain). Their efforts managed to transform this political "dead man walking" into a seemingly viable candidate. The irony that a Jewish politician was Chicago bigotry’s last best hope for salvation was not lost on many of us. One of the “wits” at the time came up with an unofficial slogan to explain the ballot options: “Press 2 for the Jew or 9 for the Shine”.

Bernard Epton’s official slogan perfectly epitomized that campaign. I still derive a certain perverse amusement from it: “Epton, Before It’s Too Late!” This was the perfect catchphrase for speaking to unspoken (and sometimes unspeakable) fears. Vote for Epton or whatever you’re most afraid of will happen: black people moving into your neighborhood, taking your job, burglarizing your home, raping you or one of your loved ones. Whatever you’re afraid of, voting for Epton will prevent it. A vote for Epton is not a shameful vote for racist bigotry; it’s a noble vote for stability, safety and security.

Nonetheless, Harold Washington won the Chicago mayoral election of 1983 and after a long hard struggle actually won over the heart of the city; only to die shortly after being re-elected to a second term. But the fact that Epton, a candidate who under normal circumstances would have done well to garner 4% of the vote, only lost by that amount says something about how effective such an approach can be.

Barack Obama was a citizen of Chicago in 1983. He admits to having been deeply moved from the saga of Harold Washington. Somehow circumstances have Senator Obama playing out or portion of that bygone municipal drama on today's national stage. Now that he has secured the Democratic nomination, the threat of him having to face a Republican 527 version of “Before It’s Too Late” is palpable.

Today “Before It’s Too Late!” sounds a bit heavy-handed but rest assured, it captures the essence of the promised Republican campaign against Barack Obama. Listen for the setup in lines like “He is too different from us”, “He doesn’t share our values” and “He associates with the wrong kind of people”.

In a campaign where for once, the candidates are poles apart on almost every major issue, how could such blatant fear mongering be more important than the issues? Because some people are looking for an excuse to not vote for someone who to their minds, embodies the fears that they are no longer free to articulate in polite company.

Today's Republicans can’t explicitly use “Before it’s too late” as a slogan but their contemporary fear mongering has a similar, though unstated objective: “Keep the White House White”! Directing this message at the low information white voters making less than $50,000 per year (the Information Age euphemism for “poor white trash”) represents like a cynical attempt to go after a demographic that is stereotypically seen as racists.

This is not to say that the Republican Party and John McCain are racist bigots; they are simply political creatures willing to win the White House by exploiting the not insignificant racist bigot constituency that spans party lines within the American electorate. As such, the 2008 presidential election represents a litmus test of sorts that will indicate how far America has truly advanced over the past 25 years.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Primary Reaction: My Problems with Hillary Clinton

The First Woman President?

While I would truly like to see the US elect a woman president, I believe that the first one should be so extraordinary that she transcends gender stereotypes. I liken it to asking African Americans who would you rather the first African American Supreme Court Justice had been: Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Thomas? Who would you rather the first African American baseball player had been: Jackie Robinson or Barry Bonds? How proud would women feel if Harriet Meyers had been the first female Supreme Court Justice instead of Sandra Day O’Connor or if Lisa Nowak had been the first US woman in space rather than Sally Ride? How proud do Latinos feel about Alberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic Attorney General, having to resign in disgrace? To my mind the better “the First” is, the more likely there is to be a second.


There are appropriately extraordinary women in the US who would be outstanding leaders of this nation but to me, Senator Clinton just isn’t one of them. For one thing, she is not a true leader, she is simply a good politician. I say this because good politicians make you feel good about them and what they can do for you while leaders can make you feel good about yourself and what you can do for others. Such empowering inspiration is the hallmark of a leader. While I am sure there are those who find Senator Clinton empowering and inspirational, the majority of her backers seem to speak more to how much she can do for them rather than how she makes them feel they can do more for the country and the world.

The Bill Factor

How viable would the presidential candidacy of Hillary C. Linton be? If Senator Clinton were to win would we really be electing the first woman president or merely initiating the second Clinton co-presidency? For some reason, the gigantic shadow of her husband behind her seems to lend credence to the outdated stereotype that for a woman; how far you can go in life is determined by how well you marry.


At this point no one can say for sure if the Clinton name would be more of an asset or a liability in the general election. But it is my belief that a greater percentage of the people who voted for Senator Clinton in the primary would be likely to vote for Senator Obama in the general election than the other way around. I say this because Senator Clinton’s voters tend to be party regulars who are likely to vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination. By contrast, Senator Obama’s voters tend to be independents and new voters who are more likely to jump to the other side if McCain is waiting for them or simply not vote if they find the Republican candidate unsupportable. In addition, it is difficult to imagine Senator Clinton getting more than a tiny fraction of people who voted Republican in the primaries to vote for her in the general election. At the same time, if her name is on the ballot in the general election it will definitely serve to energize the Republican conservative base.


The baggage of the Clinton name is so heavy that without a 60-40 majority in the Senate, Hillary Care II (Universal Healthcare of All Americans), the Hillary Amnesty Bill (Immigration Reform), the Hillary Tax Increase (any Economic Stimulus package) and pretty much any significant legislation she would hope to pass while in office would be DOA. Conservatives will be lining up to oppose her legislative initiatives, not based on any perceived lack of merit but because she is President Clinton. Under President Hillary Clinton the partisan gridlock in Washington would reach epic proportions unless she started making the same compromises her husband had to make to get legislation passed through a hostile Congress.

Agent for Change?

Senator Clinton is proudly running as the ultimate Washington insider who claims she can make the system work for her. As such, President Hillary Clinton would only see a need to change the way things are done there if she cannot reach an accommodation with Republicans. Being true to her word (i.e., campaign rhetoric) would be her only intrinsic motive to change things for the sake of the voters. But since she is a politician, I’m not sure how binding that is.

Primary Reaction: The Factions

This year US voters have been turning out in massive numbers to decide who will replace the second President Bush. Three primary factions seem to have emerged among the US electorate, all of whom are ignoring certain aspects of the preceding narrative to varying degrees for varying reasons.

The Republican Faction represents those who insist that on the whole, the second President Bush was on the right track and we must simply give his policies more time. The Clinton Faction is comprised of those who say the Bush Years were a tragic mistake and we need to get back to the illusory Clinton Utopia. The Obama Faction is people who believe the problems run deeper than what the other two factions are saying, though their approach currently lacks focus.

To my mind the Republican Faction is psychotically wrong (in the post-Super Fat Tuesday world it looks likely I can start calling them the McCainiacs). They have so completely lost sight of what the true problems facing the US that they are meta-ignorant (they don’t even know that they don’t know). They generally believe the primary problem facing the US is liberals and foreigners. I have the least use for the Republican Faction since they are the furthest from being able to see, let alone solve, the true problems facing the US. As such, I have a tendency to dismiss them hopeless.

The Clinton Faction is delusional in their idealization of the 90s, which I see as a profoundly squandered opportunity. The Clinton Faction is living in a dream. This dream is analogous to a female baseball player whose husband, who in the last game of his career as a ballplayer, struck out to cost his team the championship. The wife has a recurring dream thereafter in which sometimes her husband and sometime she hit a home run instead and won the championship.

In her waking world she is trying to get to the championship game while still believing this dream is real and those who say otherwise are playing mind games as a part of a vast conspiracy. Unfortunately, the pitcher who struck out her husband last time will be pitching against her in the championship with an even nastier arsenal of pitches. Ultimately the Clinton Faction believes that simply undoing the last 8 years will end our national nightmare and solve all that is wrong with the US.

The Obama Faction is also led by a dreamer. Their dream represents escaping from a terrible nightmare into a hazy world of limitless opportunity but not knowing how to exploit it. The haziness of Obama’s vision is in part based on the fact that it is about creating a new paradigm instead of a reaching a specific destination. A “Where” is always easier to articulate than a “How”.

The Obama Faction must realize that “change” is not the objective, advancement towards a specific ideal is. Getting out of the frying pan also represents change. While this faction seems to have the best appreciation of the fact that the problems facing the US run deeper than foreigners, liberals or the previous president, so far they seem to be more focused on the symptoms than the root cause. The Obama Faction has the right idea but does not seem to know precisely what to do with it.

Nonetheless, I qualify as a member of the Obama Faction by default. This is because, if history is any guide, the Republicans will never admit to being wrong and the Clintons will blame Republicans for everything that doesn’t go their way. Our situation is worsening by the day and we can no longer afford the luxury of such posturing.

The Republican and Clinton Factions are analogous to two doctors treating a cancer by each insisting that the patient will immediately get better if the other doctor is taken off the case. The Obama Faction is at least aware that a more substantive regimen will be required, though their leader is still short on specifics at this stage.

The potential I see in Senator Obama. It is not a potential that would be realized if he had the “experience” of a Senator McCain or a Senator Clinton. I see him as being the only person in the race who is even remotely capable of appreciating and thus addressing the true problems facing the US.

Primary Reaction: How Did We Get Here?

Now that Super Fat Tuesday is over I can unload some of how I have come to feel about this election and its implications for the future of the United States. But first some background:

  • With the end of the Cold War the US was faced with a tremendous opportunity to unite the world in peace and prosperity. Arguably such an opportunity was unprecedented in all of human history.
  • But George H. W. Bush, the president at the time, lacked “the Vision Thing” required to begin to take advantage of this opportunity and was kicked to the curb after one term in office.
  • Unfortunately, due to early political missteps, reactionary pandering and an ultimate lack of a moral compass, the next president, Bill Clinton, managed to polarize the US political discourse, leaving the nation a political basket case as was demonstrated by the election of 2000 (anyone charging me with “blaming the victim” here needs to remember who was in charge at the time).
  • Many US Democrats see Bill Clinton’s presidency as a near Utopian period that was only interrupted by term limits and his vice president’s inability to run a competent campaign. But these people generally lose sight of the fact that President Clinton was impeached, and while his crimes may not have arisen to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” he did lie under oath. President Clinton had a scandal-plagued administration and not all of it can be blamed on partisan Republicans creating something out of nothing.
  • In addition, it should be noted that the economic revival of the late 90s that led to the first federal budget surpluses in decades, was primarily fueled by the end of the Cold War, the expansion of the Internet Bubble and Y2K-based expenditures, not by Clinton economic policies.
  • The lasting legacy of President Clinton is that he made it easy for Republicans in general and conservatives in particular to see liberals and Democrats as not merely misguided, but as evil. This feeling was relatively one-sided until President Clinton’s successor was elected in 2000.
  • The election and presidency of George W Bush made it easy for Democrats and liberals to demonize all things Republican, conservative and fundamentalist in return.
  • The second President Bush upped the ante in his handling of the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. President Bush not only squandered another chance to unite the world in peace, he polarized the world stage in terms of “US versus Evil”. His so-called “War of Terror”, potentially ruinous Iraq policy and pandering to corporate interests run amok to the detriment of the shrinking US middle class have left the United States teetering on the edge of irrelevancy; the post-Cold War opportunity in tatters.

Friday, February 1, 2008

It's Time

I was inspired to write to this blog because of the recent attitudes that persist in the “ether”. The questions of “is America ready for a Black president” and is “race” a factor in determining the next president and various notions, have emerged due to the history of images of “the Black Man” being shown as “bad men”. In the Michael Moore film “Fahrenheit 911”, there is mention of how fear is used to manipulate. In this climate of fear baiting, news viewers have been bombarded with images shown on the nightly news of black men “doing the perp walk”. Such images serve to inform people that all black men are suspect, are criminals, and should be approached with caution. Thus fear of a black man. These images are so firmly engrained in our minds, that we end up making negative assumptions about black men and don’t even know the reason for such ideas.

Because of the historical significance of the Obama campaign, this blog will be primarily devoted to chronicling thoughts on the political events as they play out. It is my intention, through the musings of this blog, that ideas for overcoming these fears can get out into the “ether”.