Democratic Frontrunners' Duel of 'Firsts'
February 20, 2007
The American public's appetite for politicians who at least appear to be outsiders is insatiable--or at least the Democrats running in 2008 think so. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are stirring up excitement among voters and big donors by dueling for the role of "first"--first woman, or first African American, to sit in the Oval Office. "Anyone can be President," Hillary Clinton told a cheering crowd in Columbia, South Carolina, even as she intimated that she, not Obama, has the experience—i.e., establishment bona fides and big money—to win the general election.
As the candidates raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Hollywood (Obama) and lock up the most veteran political advisers and ad men (Clinton) we ought to realize we are kidding ourselves, a little bit, when we imagine that the new-kid-on-the-block candidates represent real, radical change.
The cognitive dissonance involved in powerful politicians positioning themselves as outsiders is so familiar to American audiences that people hardly notice anymore. The masters of "anti-government" politicking are the Republicans. Newt Gingrich drove his party to victory on the anti-Washington battle cry of reform in 1994, even as he inaugurated a new era of close relations between K Street lobbyists and legislators who shake them down for contributions while granting favors.
George Bush and, incredibly, the consummate Washington insider Dick Cheney, ran on the "I'm not from around here" message not only in their first campaign but in their second. Now, as details of Cheney's mastery of leaking, whisper campaigns, and backstabbing emerge in the Scooter Libby trial, the New York Times awarded him special honors as an accomplished "infighter." If ever there were an evil bureaucrat, Cheney is it.
One silver lining of the disastrous last eight years of the Bush Administration might be that the Republicans have to stop pretending to represent the little guy against those big, bad Washington insiders.
After eight years in office and, until the 2006 Congressional elections, control of all three branches of government, the Republicans can't really clam to be the party of outsiders anymore. Perhaps that explains why, as my friend Lou Jacobson observes in Roll Call this week, both Bush and Clinton have presided over a stark decline in their parties' fortunes in downballot campaigns.
After all, we voters have only two real choices (other than casting a symbolic vote for a third party candidate). Voting for the party out of power is our only way of expressing our longing for relief from the same old corporate-financed political elite.
Even Al Franken, in declaring his Senate campaign in Minnesota,
used an old bromide that the voters who gave us Governor Ventura are "tired of politics as usual." It was his least-fresh line. Invoking his fellow Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and especially Paul Wellstone gave us a better sense of where Franken is coming from--a long line of liberal Democrats who thought government can and should work for the people.
The spectacle of the Democrats' female and African American candidates is still uplifting, if only because it's about time for a demographic shift in the White House. But, as the candidates raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Hollywood (Obama) and lock up the most veteran political advisers and ad men (Clinton) we ought to realize we are kidding ourselves, a little bit, when we imagine that the new-kid-on-the-block candidates represent real, radical change.