Monday, May 02, 2016

Is Hillary's lack of the "vision thing" a real problem?


There is an interesting article up on Politico, strikingly headlined "How Hillary could win the election and lose the country".  Writer Todd Purdum considers the problem of a centrist, status-quo candidate becoming president (Hillary) in a year when all of the drive and momentum has been on the side of the radical, change-politics-now candidates.  Not unreasonably, he points out Hillary Clinton's lack of a clearly articulated vision and essentially postulates the idea that she might win the election by default - in that the Republicans will choose a virtually unelectable candidate in either Trump or, less likely, Cruz - but then fail to appease a country seething with discontent once she's in office.

It is an alarming thesis but one that may also be giving too much credence to the noise coming from the energised masses of left and right.  It is in the nature of democracies to go through regular convulsions, and for the reporting media to announce these as the critical convulsions of an era.  Such is modern democratic politics.  But it is also worth noting that the majority of people vote for little more than a relative competence in governance and stability on the home front.  These are unexciting attributes that are hardly going to rouse great audiences or inspire click-baiting readerships, but they are the greater part of a country's polity.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton's advantage as a candidate is that she does not arouse unreachable levels of expectation, and that she offers instead a rational, pragmatic competence in governing.  Yes she does have her guiding principles - the traditional Democratic ones of greater fairness, positive but non-confrontational diplomacy, a broad liberal belief in the beneficial impact of wise but not over-reaching government.  Certainly it's true that, set against the moral certainties of a Sanders or a Trump these are significantly less exciting attributes.  But there is an argument that Clinton is winning the Democratic nomination - and is odds-on favourite to win the November election - because most Americans prefer to embrace the less exciting, but likely more productive, option.

Donald Trump is generating enormous publicity with his campaign, and can claim to be providing a voice for the voiceless in his brash comments, but in so doing he is also turning many Americans away from him.  The elderly Sanders has managed to tap in to the holy grail of youth support, but youth is ever fickle and unrealistic, unmatured by the wisdom of years which show that compromise and realism offer better paths forward amongst diverse and contradictory humans than the apparently clear-sighted vision of idealistic politics.

It is noteworthy that in Mr. Purdom's vigorous article, he devotes a paragraph to re-living the exalted rhetoric of previous presidents.  Observing that the key power of the presidency is the power of persuasion, he cites again Kennedy's words about passing the torch to a new generation of Americans, or Reagan's "morning in America".  These were powerful pieces of rhetoric, but they were just that, and neither Kennedy - cut off too early but already arguably in the throes of seriously under-performing to the high-blown tones of his inaugural speech - or Reagan, who ended his years enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, were able to translate their flights of rhetoric into reality.

More recently, it is often stated that one of President Obama's persistent problems throughout his eight year presidency has been that no achievement or policy could ever match the soaring heights of his first election's rhetoric.  A brilliant candidate became a troubled president whose achievements live consistently under the shadow of the expectations he aroused.  More notably, possibly, is the fact that Obama's popularity is growing as he works out his last year because his rational, reasoned speeches stand in such stark contrast to the populist and unrealistic rhetoric of some of his would-be successors.

Hillary Clinton is not a great candidate.  She is a work-horse determined to be a realistic president.  She has produced thought-through positions on many areas of policy but can't easily translate this into neat, visionary sound-bites.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that her failure to be a rabble rouser means that she has somehow missed the mood.  If her presidency begins with a sense of realism rather than over-articulated optimism, she may in fact have hit just the right spot and be in a position to tackle America's problems with the effectiveness of a political pro, rather than doom herself to disappointing her supporters because she raised up a whole level of unattainable aspirations.


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