As the mid-term year kicks into high gear and all eyes are already looking ahead to 2008, Democrats search (and search, and search) for a voice in the crowd who will lead them to the promised land. POLJUNK contributor Mark Mattson wonders if there's anyone out there? Hello????
Bill Clinton is back in the news with a profile in the New Yorker focusing on his post-presidential work, while making waves thanks to his recent unexpectedly heated reaction to a Fox News reporter's questions (You Tube). Clinton has always been a fascinating guy: an avatar for his generation's ambitions as well as its foibles, a genuine gifted leader replete with tragic flaws. And he understands how politics are played in an era begun with Reagan, carried by Limbaugh, cemented by Gingrich, realized by Bush.
In this last aspect, looking ahead to 2008, Clinton stands virtually alone among democrats with national profiles. Sure, we love Barack Obama—at least, we love what we think we know about the man (indeed, his reputation in Washington, DC is currently inversely proportional to his popular image). Any other presumptive democratic leader (including Mr. Clinton's wife), competent and intelligent as they may be, suffers from charisma deficit—some tick in their character that makes them seem flinty, preachy, boring, long-winded, pedantic, shrill, inauthentic.
It is maybe unfortunate that charisma counts so much among Democrats in an age where the likes of George W. Bush serves two terms as president. Diehard conservatives no longer require the charisma Reagan brought to the show. To placate the Republican base, all one needs to do is hold firm to the ideology (particularly with regard to social issues). Grasp this, and you will grasp the basis of their incredible success over the last 15 years. Mr. Bush, a man with no gift for public speaking and an odd habit of smirking at inopportune moments, has proven this simply by not being trounced in either election.
Yet charisma means more than some superficial smoothness. It's a key component to leadership. And when you look at the current crop of Democrats, you see a lot of wannabe leaders, but few real ones. Each and every one of the Democrats' known quantities (I'll make a possible exception with John Edwards) makes some idiotic stab at image boosting designed to stand in for charisma. Witness Chicago-born Hillary in a Yankees cap. Or poor Al Gore—we like him now! But where was 'likeable Gore' during his campaign? And my favorite, John Kerry's utterly embarrassing military salute for his nomination speech. I see—you must've picked up those medals you threw over the fence, eh, John? Oh, the ones you threw weren't yours, huh, "war hero?" So where was your fighting spirit with the Swifties? Oh right, you promised to "kick their asses next time." Next time? There's no next time for you, son.
The Democrats loooove this new "Hey we've got guys in the military, too!" Right—then show us, don't tell us (repeatedly, with uniforms and jargon on cue). It is transparently desperate. Democratic strategists, doubtless inveterate nerds with minds highly evolved for policy nuances, still can't seem to grasp such simple concepts. Real leaders don't require an image boost.
But what about George Bush Mission Accomplished? Republicans do it too, right?
Doesn't matter. It was liberals who were overly concerned with George Bush's National Guard record, liberals who jumped to get a few military people into the election, and it's liberals who still seem overly concerned with projecting a pro-military image. These things simply don't matter to conservatives, who for any number of reasons can count on projecting a pro-military image. Not only does it not matter to Joe God-and-Country, it should not matter to you.
Thinking in this way ("Republicans do it too!") is based on anger—outraged, retaliatory anger. Anger over the Iraq War. Anger over corporate cronyism. Anger over the hypocrisy of hounding Clinton for 9 years. I understand this anger. But we must let it go.
Anger works well for conservatives. Their ideology is fear-based—they will tell you this, themselves. It's an ideology that requires enemies. And it was not invented by Rush Limbaugh—it's a timeless strain of human thought. And unless liberals are prepared to adopt a bit of fear-based ideology for themselves (I wouldn't be against it), they need to transform their anger into a winning spirit.
Sure, go ahead and continue to spout off about Evil Genius Rove, Halliburton's World Takeover, George Bush's AWOL coke binge, etc. Just do it among friends. All these characters have long become shibboleths of liberal outrage; that is, they've become monstrous stand-ins for realities that are less insidious than incompetent. Forget the "insidious," concentrate on the "incompetent."
Even Bill Clinton, who knows better, can't resist, and imagines he will defend his record—indeed, his legacy--to Fox News viewers. I can't blame him, and I do admire his fighting spirit. But he's not going to convince the drooling Fox Clinton-haters one bit, and thus his anger is misplaced, and maybe even a little pathetic. You see, he was ready for the broadside—he just miscalculated his response. Knowing the context he was in, he should have smiled, made a remark that his actions have long been a matter of public record, got in a nice dig against his detractors, and moved on talking about his humanitarian work.
Part of growing up is learning how to deal with feelings of anger. Ultimately, the best way to do this is to transform its energy, to allow it to motivate and drive toward a positive result. If this were easy to do, we'd all be perfect human beings and in no need of politics to begin with. Indeed, a fighting spirit is necessary, as long as it is not a destructive spirit. Democrats should not aim to "topple" a Republican regime. They should not be trying to "stick it" to conservatives. Democrats have too long made the objects of their scorn known--and they've paid a dear price for it.
You see, liberals are idealistic, but not ideological. We can't operate that way. Some still hope for a sordid scandal to tarnish the administration; some are cynical enough to want things to get even worse. Such hopes are craven and cynical. Therefore energy must be focused toward presenting a better alternative. In this bitterly partisan political environment, the best way to fight back is to appear not to be fighting at all. To do so is to play their game. It's a tall order: Democrats must communicate contagious enthusiasm for their vision for the future in a world that looks bleaker and more fractured every day. Bill Clinton is one of the smartest men ever to hold high office. He is also a tireless warrior. But his genius—what made him a winner--was communicating that enthusiasm.
So—all we need to do is find someone in politics of indomitable will and enthusiastic spirit! How hard can it be?