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can hillary turn the page?

Hillary’s challenge last night was to articulate her case for why she should be the President. For me that means articulating her governing philosophy. So far — and this includes last night — she has not really done that. She has built her case almost entirely in opposition to Trump. She is right to do so of course. Trump cannot be allowed to occupy the White House. And her safest course to victory may be simply to assert that the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Maybe that will be enough. But I actually hold to the idea that the winning candidate for President is always the one who has a clearer view of the challenges and opportunities facing the country and articulates a viable roadmap for how to navigate them. Despite the fact that he is a clown, I am convinced that if Trump wins it will not be because people are blindly enamored of his celebrity but because they are persuaded by the governing philosophy that many of my friends on the left refuse to acknowledge he has. He has one. And so I don’t think it is enough to paint him as a mad man. His ideas need to be taken seriously and countered.

Briefly, as I wrote last week, Trump’s philosophy rejects the culture wars along with a lot of the GOP’s Reagan era economic policy to adopt straightforward nationalism. It does so in service of a relatively coherent view of the problem facing America. Specifically, (1) that our politics are too wedded to monied and “special” interests; (2) that US politicians have lost touch with what power is and how it is used both domestically and internationally, and; (3) that our governing class has become dominated by an elite (Republican and Democratic) consensus centered on a philosophy of globalist multicultural “cooperative” governance. In its place he wants muscular monocultural nationalism; a view that resonates with a big part of the public.

Impressively, Trump took on his own party’s orthodoxies to make those arguments. There was no way that Hillary was going to similarly confront the Democratic Party. In fact, just the opposite. Obama compared Hillary to Ginger Rogers saying, “she had to dance the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backwards and in heels.” But that significantly understates Hillary’s challenge; she needs to dance backwards in heels with not with one but with two ex-Presidents–Bill and Barack–simultaneously. She is charged both with reviving and redeeming her husband’s term, which many see as having not lived up to its potential, while at the same time preserving and extending the important but reversible victories of the last eight years.

Yet both the Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s governing approach *are* each in need of updating. The inward turning nationalism that lay at the center of Trump’s campaign has also swept the UK, France and much of Eastern Europe. So it’s not just the ravings of a single madman at stake. It is a widespread movement that is a direct affront to the central themes of both her husband’s accomplishments and those of Barack Obama. That debate will be the central political challenge of the coming years regardless of who wins. It is intellectually the core what is at stake in this election. Yet I don’t think the other side of the debate–including the side that favors a global perspective–has recognized it.

Bill Clinton’s pitch in 1992 was to a middle class that “played by the rules” but still struggled. He was for welfare reform and the crime bill. But the very center of his argument–his positive case–was that the American middle class needed to aggressively embrace globalization both for security reasons (the more economically integrated we with our ideological adversaries, are the less likely we are to go to war with them) and for economic ones (we cannot try to protect outdated industries, we should let those go to developing countries while aggressively expanding into new ones).

Obama adopted most of that. Early on of course he was mainly focused on confronting the possibility of a catastrophic collapse of the global economy and along with it, the Western-led order of global governance. But as a result of that experience Obama has come to the view that that Western-led order of governance is fundamentally flawed and unbalanced. China needs to take its place at the table. And Europe needs to stand as one along with the US as a global superpower. The Middle East needs to evolve but without overt influence from the west. And as Africa and South America and Asia develop, they need to be integrated into this new emergent multipolar system of global governance.

To achieve that, Obama brought a deep conviction that real institutional and social change–whether it is global governance or civil rights–happens slowly and often painfully. There are no short cuts. He also brought a very particular view of his own role within those processes. His personal story was central to his argument for why he should be President, at least initially. Obama is the physical manifestation and embodiment of global cosmopolitanism. So much has been made of him being black. But the real message of his background was so much more complicated and interesting than that. He is the product of many criss crossing cultures: Black and white. Christian and Muslim. Eastern and western. Of the global North and of the global South. His claim was that this kind of multicultural multi-vocality was essential in a complicated global world. Obama asserted himself as a highly talented–highly socially skilled–institutional entrepreneur which was married with his justice-bending long-arc perspective on history. He saw his role as laying the best foundation possible for the natural course of events to unfold.

I think it is safe to say that that approach seems naïve in hindsight. And moreover than Hillary never bought into it. Both on style and on substance. Substantively she is a pragmatist, an interventionist and an internationalist who sees the US as the indispensable arbiter of a Western-led global order. Obama long ago abandoned the idea of achieving a reformed economic global order. Rather, on trade and international finance, he has been forced to accept that the US and China will ultimately fall into two competing blocks with Africa, Asia, South America and — somewhat shockingly Europe too — dancing between them. He achieved something closer to his ideal with the climate change accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, but at the cost of significant concessions and loopholes.

It was barely–if at all–mentioned in the convention, but Hillary has never been a globalist in this sense. She rejects Trump’s nationalism but she is perfectly comfortable with asserting Western values and interests with the US taking a visible and unambiguous leadership role in opposition to China and Russia. Personally, while I was totally into Obama’s claims on this, I’ve evolved. The world isn’t ready for the US to step back as much as it has on the global stage. We cannot go back to the Bush era “arsenal of democracy” malarkey. But we should build on the good will that President Obama has rebuilt and re-fill the vacuum of global leadership that has developed since 2000.

Achieving this requires a deft approach. Stylistically, she makes a very different claim to Obama. There were a few themes that the convention wanted to get across about her leadership style. That she doesn’t give up and the she is a tireless advocate. But the key one is that she is a listener (a point made by every single one of her primary surrogates). The implication of this was that she was open to good ideas and that by listening incorporating this good ideas, she conveyed a kind of respect that produces cooperation. (I find that a subtle dig on Obama’s aloofness).

Maybe it was just a cute historical story, but This passage the closest thing in her speech to a statement of her perspective on leadership: “When representatives of thirteen unruly colonies met just down the road from here, some wanted to stick with the king. Some wanted to stick it to the king and go their own way. The revolution hung in the balance. Then somehow they began listening to each other. Compromising. Finding common purpose. And by the time they left Philadelphia they had begun to see themselves as one nation. That’s what made it possible to stand up to a King.”

The upshot: listening and discussing is a process in which new identities are forged. What is her personal role within that process? I don’t think it is to lay the foundation for a natural process of social evolution. Rather, it is her role to nudge that process toward a desired end goal. I know this partly from experience. My first job out of college, in 1994, was to work on health care issues with the UAW. That was the peak moment of the Clinton health care initiative, that sprawling deliberative coalition of groups meeting “in secret” to devise a grand plan which I partly got to see (as a super low level staffer) from the edge of the inside. It’s secretiveness was a political mistake, but a procedural necessity. If you want to really have a dialogue you need to have the freedom to speak your mind without fear. And you need a chair who is not simply allowing endless dialogue, but who is rather pushing toward a goal. Everyone concedes that Hillary is excellent at this. And that it is precisely the kind of skill one needs to be an excellent senator or diplomat.

Robert Caro, however, famously argued that while Lyndon Johnson was a creature uniquely crafted for success as the “Master of the Senate”, that those same highly honed skills served him poorly when he became President of the United States. Senate leaders are first among equals who guide passage of discrete legislative solutions to discrete problems. Presidents set a moral and substantive compass. They are of necessity consumed by the big picture and must have the ability to communicate simultaneously to multiple constituencies. (If you are a sociologist, they must be multi-vocal on the way that Padgett and Ansel portrayed Cosimo do Medici). It is almost impossible for someone well adapted to one milieu (and its associated style of leadership) to succeed at the other.

Perhaps this is a gender-biased view; maybe Johnson couldn’t pull it off but it is possible to lead through listening and consensus-building. And maybe it takes a woman to lead the village. One could argue that Angela Merkel has shown herself adept at pulling it off whereas a Tony Blair would have taken a very different, and unhelpful, approach to Europe. But there is also evidence that the prerequisite for its success–confidentiality, nuance and subtlety–are increasingly difficult to come by in the extreme glare of the White House. And I wonder whether the public will buy it compared to the muscularity of Trump’s shtick.

Without it what you are left with is the idea that Hillary is a fighter; a trench fighter. This view accepts that dialogue and consensus are pipe-dreams. The gridlock and obstructionism of the last few decades are endemic and are not going anywhere so relieve yourself of any fantasy of changing the tone or of changing the power dynamic. Elect her because she knows how to set goals keep focused pressure on it until it becomes a reality. This is what will achieve gun control. It is what will achieve wage equality. It will protect health care, the Iran deal and the climate change accord.

I prefer the first but worry that what we are really getting is the second. It is far, far, far superior to a Trump debacle which I am convinced would inflict deep wounds to our country. But it also runs very high risks.

Regardless it is a worthy debate to have; not one between a clown and a highly competent but, bloodless, automaton. But rather the election, to me, comes down to two very different worldview that are not being adequately articulated and debated. Which vision of the future should prevail? A nationalist one or one in which the US rebuilds the international order? Which skill set is needed: conformity enforced through brute power or a (somewhat confusing) combination of consensus-building and trench warfare? I doubt the debate will evolve this way. But I think it would serve the country well if it did.

Written by seansafford

July 29, 2016 at 8:12 pm

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