Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 27, 2008

Skeletons, Privacy & the Politics of Change (aka Clinton’s Conundrum)

“People need their secrets, and in the brief period that [the truth serum] Baby’s Mouth was available, dinner parties ended in gunfights, marriages foundered, and even the most saintly politicians were found occasionally to harbor uncharitable thoughts about their constituents. No society can exist without some bullshit.”     Ben Elton, from the dystopian comic novel This Other Eden (Simon & Schuster/Sphere, 1993)

Bill and Hillary strike me as good people, always have. Good people still make bad choices, though, as evidenced by Bill’s psychic battles with food, sex and other pleasures of the flesh. What people believe and what they do don’t always match up.

Furthermore, all people have free will, which is what makes their choices “good” when they manage to go in that direction. Maybe they’re thinking of other people instead of themselves, maybe they’re submitting to some rule or higher authority (whether divine or not), maybe they’re being flexible and practical and merciful and forgiving, or maybe they’re sacrificing for the “greater good”, as mentioned by publisher/activist Jim Wallis on The Daily Show last week.

Over the years, the Clintons and many other centrist Democrats (and some Republicans, too) have demonstrated that struggle to balance minority needs against what is good for the majority. When a politician looks at immigration from the perspective of the embattled American farmer, who depends on illegals to pick our fruit, he or she is engaged in that struggle. When the discussion is about small groups of people, instead of knee-jerk “issues”, then there’s a better chance that a compromise will be necessary to get something done. That’s politics, both legislative and presidential. More importantly, that’s life. We can’t all have what we want.

So for Hillary to try staking her claim as the “candidate of change”, as she’s done in some of the debates, is a mistake. She has not changed, so much as she’s matured. She’s been in the underdogs’ corner ever since she worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, probably ever since she was a young girl doing student council or Model U.N. in high school (I dunno if it existed then, but her daughter Chelsea did do Model U.N. when she was in school). But she’s not going to sell all she owns and give it away to the poor. There are limits to how low an upper-middle-class American will go.

My point is, the word “change” itself is a loaded word, almost counter-productive if used clumsily the way Clinton is using it. Because concrete change is difficult. Systems, both healthy and dysfunctional, are resistant to change — otherwise, we’d all have health care coverage by now. Plus, individual people resist change in their personal lives as often as they welcome it. And if a person or group values stability and commitment (can you say Christian Right?) moreso than change, then it becomes very easy to demonize those calling for change. (Demonization = those who would call someone who weighs new evidence and changes his/her mind a “flip-flopper”.)

Obama and Edwards are walking that fine line, playing the “agent of change” card, as much as Hillary is. It’s only natural, in a country where discontent over Bush’s politics of power have reached a screaming crescendo. But the other two leading Dems have the “outsider” advantage. They’re the rabble rousers, the shaker-uppers, whereas Hillary is somebody who has been close to the center of power for a lot longer, and yet she only managed to get a few good things done.

Why? Because change is hard… not because she’s ineffectual. President Bill is right in pointing out that the other boys, especially Obama, have not been scrutinized and evaluated for sixteen years in the way that Hillary has. Hillary is also right to point out some of the gaps in Obama’s voting record (even though her own voting, or her absences instead of abstentions, probably do not hold up to scrutiny any better than Barack’s… it’s sad how infrequently our legislators stay in Washington and actually do their jobs). But Bill is wrong in how he has tried to characterize what Obama’s positions or intentions have been. Absence of information is not the same as negative information. More importantly, lack of experience on Obama’s part is not the same as lack of wisdom or skill.

So here’s the sticky part: we don’t actually know why Obama voted “present”, or did not take sides, in the votes that Hillary is pointing to. What if he was actually further to the left than his party line, thinking he could not support such a weak bill on public transportation funding? Or what if he was looking to compromise and get something done, while a vocal group of obstructionist Democrats were too caught up in denying even six inches of ground to those “nasty Republicans”. Could a junior Democratic senator actually vote against his own party, in the interests of his hometown constituency or his own principles? I wonder… (And let’s not forget, we do elect these guys and gals to listen to and speak for us, not for their parties.)

I’m prepared to be wrong about Obama. But I refuse to believe that the kinds of changes that are needed in America can be brought about by yet another Clinton. Maybe they can’t be brought about by Obama or Edwards, either. Because if America really wanted “change” that badly, then Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul would be running against each other this November. Or Ross Perot would have been elected in 1992 instead of Bill Clinton. 


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