HILLARY AND POLITICS….Sean Wilentz echoes some of my own feeling about how presidential politics plays out every four years:
There’s always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one of them. Tsongas was one of them. They’re the people who are kind of ambivalent about power. “Should I be in this or not… well, yes, because I’m going to represent something new.” It’s beautiful loserdom. The fact is, you can’t govern without politics. That’s what democracy is. Democracy isn’t some utopian proposition by which the people suddenly rule. We’re too complicated a country for that. We have too many interests here. You need someone who can govern, who can build the coalition and move the country forward.
Wilentz is making an argument against Barack Obama (a Stevenson-like candidate) and in favor of Hillary Clinton (a political candidate). And it’s a good one. Every four years the press falls in love — momentarily — with a candidate who strikes them as a fresh voice. Someone who tells people what they don’t want to hear. Someone who doesn’t waffle or hedge. Someone who’s a truth teller. But these candidates never win. Never. Bradley and Tsongas didn’t win, and neither did John McCain or Gary Hart or John Anderson. That’s because most people want to vote for someone who agrees with them, not someone who stands aloof from their most deeply held beliefs.
It’s funny how our perceptions change so rapidly. I’m reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment right now, a very engaging book about FDR in the years 1932-33, and one of the things that comes through clearly is that during the 1932 campaign the press felt pretty much the same way about Roosevelt as they do now about Hillary Clinton. He was a waffler, a triangulator, and a politico. You had to parse everything he said with care, and even then you couldn’t be sure you’d pinned him down on anything. He could be personally engaging when he wanted to be, but it was mostly an act. Behind it, he was a ruthless manipulator.
This is all conventional wisdom these days, but Alter does a better than usual job of making it come alive. And of course, reading it today you mostly just laugh along. What a rascal that FDR was! But that’s not how it struck people in real time. (At least, not at first.) For obvious reasons, most of us dislike people who not only manipulate the political process but seem to actively enjoy doing so.
At the same time, we’re also routinely disappointed when we elect someone who doesn’t know how to manipulate the political process and therefore gets nothing done. On that score, my guess is that if Hillary Clinton is elected president — and I think she will be — she’ll turn out to be a pretty good one. Like FDR she has a good idea of where she wants to go, even if she doesn’t know every step of the way there. She understands politics, she understands what’s possible, she’s become a shrewd calculator of the odds, and she understands her enemies. She’ll never end up with her portait on the dime, but I’ll bet that when 2016 rolls around she’ll have accomplished more than most of us expect.