Monday, March 12, 2007

My Dinner With Hillary – and 1000 Other People

All those times when I've sardined myself into a packed bookstore or high school gym to hear a candidate for free, I've wondered: Do you get what you pay for? If I shelled out some bucks and went to one of those high-roller fund-raisers, could I get serious face time with a big-name Democrat like Hillary Clinton?

Here's what I learned Saturday night at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual 100 Club dinner:

  • $100 doesn't make you a high roller.
  • Even the people who spent $500 for the pre-dinner reception looked pretty jammed together.
  • Hillary Clinton gives a good speech.
  • If you have a choice, go to a free rally.

The NHDP Celebrates

The 100 Club dinner, I learned, goes back to 1959 when the headliner was another ambitious senator from a nearby state: John F. Kennedy. And it isn't a campaign rally for the headliner, it's a celebration of the state Democratic Party.

At the moment, the NHDP is a party with a lot to celebrate. This traditionally Republican state started to go blue in 2004, when John Kerry narrowly won our 4 electoral votes and carried a previously unknown gubernatorial candidate in with him: John Lynch. In 2006 (our governors serve 2-year terms), that little ripple became a tidal wave: Lynch was re-elected with an astounding 74% of the vote. Both houses of the legislature flipped to the Democrats for the first time since the Grant administration. Incumbent Republicans were tossed out of both of our congressional seats.

If only we'd had a senate race.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Driving in, we waved and blinked our headlights at maybe 20 anti-war demonstrators. Once inside the Nashua Sheraton, my wife and I had to walk a gauntlet of young Hillary staffers wanting to give us a button or sticker and put us on their mailing list. I'm undecided and I have a policy against wearing buttons just to blend in, so I said no.

My lack of protective coloration attracted a predator: a reporter from Manchester's ultra-conservative Union Leader. He asked what advice I would give Hillary, probably hoping for something juicy and negative. I didn't deliver: "Show courage. Be bold. Talk about big ideas." He poked at that answer to see if he could get me to say that Hillary is too programmed. I didn't, so in the Sunday Union Leader my quote appeared well below the person who said "I think she'd do anything to get elected."

Speaking of blending in, I should have worn a suit. Except for the reporters, the cameramen, and one other guy, I was the only suitless man in sight. This high-roller thing is new to me.

The food was surprisingly decent. We sat at a table with eight people we didn't know and discussed the other candidates we'd seen. One couple, retired academics from NYU, had been impressed by Joe Biden. But they speculated that he was "too smart to make it." They were very nice people and probably had no idea that they were walking stereotypes of liberal elitism. Thank God the Union Leader guy never found them.

Senator Clinton, I noticed with disappointment, did not eat at our table or even in our room. I didn't catch sight of her until we filed into a large area where 800-1000 chairs were set up. During the transition staffers continued to work the crowd, offering Hillary chocolate bars in exchange for your name on a mailing list. (This idea was cuter when Wes Clark's people did it in 2004. Clark bars actually exist and don't have to be fabricated for the campaign. I am resisting turning that into a metaphor.)

The woman behind me was talking about the NHDP fund-raiser Obama did in December. I caught the words "unbelievable speaker" and "charismatic". The (apparently false) rumor was going around that Bill Richardson had pulled out of the race, and I heard someone talk about the money that it takes to run these days. "It's not right," she said.

A Long Series of Warm-Up Acts

Then the program started. It was interesting in an anthropological way, sort of like a high school graduation. The MC was outgoing party chair Kathy Sullivan, so every speaker had to make an obligatory comment about her remarkable term in office. (The heir apparent, Raymond Buckley, was just cleared of a Republican smear concerning child pornography. Manchester police concluded that the charge was "unsubstantiated and unfounded". That's the kind of thing we're up against.) An award was given to the three pro-bono lawyers who pushed a civil suit in regard to the 2002 phone-jamming dirty trick. New Hampshire Republicans paid $135,000 to settle the suit, but for some reason the U.S. attorney dragged his feet about a criminal investigation. Maybe he knows what happens to U.S. attorneys who investigate Republicans.

Then Governor Lynch spoke for fifteen minutes. He has picked up a lot of polish since I first saw him in 2004 at a local Democracy For America meeting in a bookstore that no longer exists. He might be someone to watch in years to come, and is going to turn up on somebody's VP list. He's not charismatic, but if you want to send a message that you're serious about good government and are willing to work with anybody who wants to be reasonable, Lynch is your guy. Or maybe Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

New state Senate President Sylvia Larsen and new state Speaker of the House Terrie Norelli began a theme of women in power. Larsen introduced all the Democratic senators, the majority of whom are female.

They were followed by new federal Congresspeople Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, who split about 15 minutes. Hodes had run for Congress before and figured to give the Republicans a close race, but Shea-Porter was an upset winner in the primary and came from nowhere to unseat Republican Jeb Bradley. I don't think he even realized he was in trouble until it was too late.

The two had contrasting styles but similar messages. Shea-Porter spoke in a relaxed just-us-Democrats manner, while Hodes gave a fiery campaign speech. The subtext of both talks was to have patience with Congress' painfully slow moves to end the war. Shea-Porter had just returned from Iraq, which she described as "an awful, desolate-looking place." Her voice expressed genuine sadness, something you don't hear very often from politicians. She also spoke with pride about the accomplishments of the House Democrats' opening flurry, including a bill to raise the minimum wage and let Medicare negotiate for better drug prices.

Hodes balanced his own opposition to the war with the importance of party unity. "The country needs to see that Democrats are ready to govern." He tossed the crowd the only red meat of the evening by describing the recent hearings on the Walter Reed Hospital and U.S. attorneys scandals: Democrats have "returned oversight and accountability to our government. We are uncovering the rot and mold." And he pledged to "keep shining the light of truth and justice in every dark corner."

Hillary's Speech

And then it was time for Senator Clinton. She talked for about a half hour and split the difference between the Shea-Porter and Hodes styles of rhetoric. The first half of her talk was full of local reminiscence and gossip, dating back to Bill's 1992 campaign. She knew the room was full of the state party establishment rather than undecided voters, and she clearly sent the "I'm one of you" message. A running joke through the evening was the state party's need to find new staffers because the Clinton campaign has hired them all.

Eventually, though, her stump speech began to break through. It's a really good speech. I had heard sound bytes from it before, but it has an internal unity you can't appreciate until you hear the whole thing. The central pledge is to "restore America's basic bargain: Work hard and play by the rules and you'll have the chance to build a better life for yourself and your children. And your government will be on your side."

She then laid out the speech's central image: That the people who do the hard work and make the hard sacrifices in this country are invisible to the Republicans who have been running the government and to their corporate-executive allies. This image, I have to say, is brilliant. It takes all the failures and scandals of the Bush administration and subtly ties them back to an attitude of upper-class obliviousness. If I were another candidate, I would steal it immediately.

The associated litany goes like this: "If you are ..., you are invisible." If you work for the minimum wage. If your job has been outsourced. If you were a 9/11 first responder and are now suffering health problems from it. If you are a wounded soldier returning from combat. If you are a child whose school never received the funding promised by No Child Left Behind. If you're a single mom who needs childcare. If you're a government scientist trying to warn people about global warming. If you're a U.S. attorney trying to enforce the law impartially. If you're one of the 46 million without health insurance. If you're one of the 90,000 Katrina victims still living in temporary housing. If you're one of the 13 million children living in poverty.

You're invisible. The government can't see you.

And the litany concludes with: "Well you're not invisible to us. And when we retake the White House you won't be invisible to the President of the United States."

She talked about how blacks were invisible in American society before the civil rights movement, and quoted Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter."

This introduces a litany listing things that matter. Families matter. Healthcare matters. Working people matter. Our soldiers. Education. Fiscal responsibility. Innovation. America's standing in the world. The war in Iraq. Each thing that matters is followed by a goal or a program or a policy that addresses that thing. The mention of the war, for example, is followed by this sound bite: "President Bush should end this war before he leaves office. But if he doesn't, I will."

That leads to the only claim she makes about herself: "I'm ready."

"I'm ready to run against the Republicans and win. I'm ready to govern and to lead our country into the future."

This, again, is brilliant. To me at that moment she represented her entire gender, standing on the doorstep of power and saying "I'm ready." I don't think I was the only one who heard that.

She closed by addressing the question of whether America is ready -- for a female president. She flashed back to JFK addressing the first 100 Club dinner, facing the question of whether America was ready for a Catholic president. And she concluded "We'll never know unless we try."

Speaking as a writer, whoever wrote the stump speech is a genius. It's structured. It's memorable. You can pull sound bites out of it. And the underlying metaphors should ring true for large portions of the American public. But that just means that her speechwriter should be the next presidential speechwriter. Whether Senator Clinton should be the next president is a separate question.


On Huffington Post this week, Thomas De Zengotita diagnosed Hillary with negative charisma. That's one of a long series of attempts by writers across the political spectrum to associate Senator Clinton with some nebulous, intangible trait that makes people not like her.

Does any of this sound familiar? In 2000 Al Gore had such a trait. In 2004 John Kerry did. By contrast, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both had some equally undefinable likeability. Even after Bush's poll numbers slipped into the 30s, the media kept telling us how much we like him. They're still telling me how much I like Laura, the Stepford First Lady who creeped me out at first sight.

This stuff is all nonsense. Hillary is "unlikeable" because she's the front-running Democrat. If Obama becomes the front-runner, the press will instantly discover something unlikeable about him too. They're already looking: He's too young. He's too black. He's not black enough. His middle name is Hussein. There will be something. Whoever we nominate, there will be some mysterious reason to feel uneasy about voting for him or her.

We've got to stop playing along with this garbage. Liberal Democrats have picked up this Republican talking point about Hillary and used it for their own purposes. Centrist Democrats pick up other Republican talking points about the "extreme left" and use them. This has got to stop.

In particular, we need to reject all these nebulous qualities. Some are just nonsense, and others are screens on which to project unconscious or unadmitted prejudices. On the conservative blogs they're already talking about how Hillary would certainly lose to Giuliani because he "looks presidential" and she doesn't. Maybe because he's a man like all our other presidents? Obama probably won't look presidential either, for some reason you can't possibly define -- unless you can see the difference between black and white.

For what it's worth, I saw no sign of negative charisma when I watched Hillary's speech. Quite the opposite, I found myself trying to make excuses for the legitimate things I don't like about her as a candidate. And in random interactions at campaign events I observe that a lot of middle-aged professional women identify strongly with her. Many of them won't come out and say they're for her, but if you criticize her they look like they've been insulted. I'll bet that translates into a bunch of unexpected suburban votes.

So here's what I suggest: Don't let the media tell you who you like or don't like. And in particular don't cast your vote based on some pundit's unsubstantiated view of who other people like. If some "unlikeable" or "unelectable" candidate speaks to you and for you, trust yourself and vote for that candidate.

Evaluating Senator Clinton

As a candidate, I don't see what's not to like about her. The word that sums her up in my mind is professional. She speaks well, she has poise, she's well informed, and her ideas are always well thought out. There was no question period Saturday, but I've seen her answer questions on TV. She appears to think well on her feet and to banter well with talk show hosts. We've seen with Senator Kerry how the media can manufacture gaffes out of anything, but I think Clinton will make fewer legitimate mistakes than any of our other candidates and will do a good job of getting herself out of whatever situations come up.

As a president, I have many of the same problems with Hillary that I had with Bill. The defeat of the Clinton healthcare program was the end of visionary leadership. In the final six years of his presidency, Bill Clinton specialized in capturing Republican issues: the budget deficit, free trade, welfare reform, putting more cops on the street. He seemed intent on proving that he could be a better moderate Republican than any moderate Republican.

That was great for him personally. He was a popular president in spite of the incredible attacks on him, and he remains popular today. But the party didn't do so well under his leadership. Democrats didn't recover from the 1994 losses until 2006.

The problem, as I see it, is that Bill Clinton didn't leave behind any Clintonism that the party could run on. A Clinton Democrat is opportunistic and pragmatic. You can't predict what a Clinton Democrat will do until the situation actually arises. So Clintonian vision is almost a contradiction in terms. Now after six years of President Bush, who won't let actual events or the American people interfere with the world he sees in his head, that's not all bad. But it's not all good either.

This is the source of Hillary Clinton's Iraq problem. She's for military action that works and against military action that doesn't work. If Iraq were stable today and headed towards a bright democratic future, she'd be taking credit for her role in supporting the invasion. If the CIA came to her as president with a plan to topple the Iranian government, I think her first question would be: "Will it work?" not "Is it right?" She'd react to the plan rather than pursue a vision of America's proper role in the Middle East.

Now, I think that view represents the American people. Hillary appears to shift her positions in response to their popularity, but I think it's more accurate to say that her positions shift with their popularity. The American people are opportunistic and pragmatic, so they'll change their minds at about the same time Hillary does.

As I said about Bill, that's not all bad. But I have a problem with the Clinton level of pragmatism. Pragmatists react to the issues that are already on the agenda, and the American agenda today revolves around Republican issues: Should we invade more countries or not? Should we cut more taxes or not? Where can we cut the entitlement programs to make them more affordable? Which civil liberties should we give up to fight terrorism? Democratic issues like universal health care or open government or a renewal of international institutions are as invisible as the working class people Hillary talks about.

I don't doubt that Hillary Clinton can work through that Republican agenda more competently than the Republicans have. But I'm looking for a president who can change the agenda, one who can redefine liberalism for a new era. It's hard to see Hillary in that role.

So, for now, I'm still looking. If in the end I don't find what I'm looking for, I may come back to Hillary Clinton. She's good. And I won't let the best become the enemy of the good.


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