The sorcerer’s apprentices

Barack Obama’s campaign grows more “refined” by the day. On issue after high profile issue – Iraq, abortion, gun control, Reverend Wright, FISA, the funding of his campaign – Obama changes positions the way most people change clothes. It’s gotten so bad that even E.J. Dionne has noticed. (Dionne’s column about Obama’s flip-flopping on Iraq is called “The Stand That Obama Can’t Fudge.” Dionne thus simultaneously recognizes and excuses Obama’s fudging on everything else).

The more Obama fudges, the more he confirms his status as the true heir to Bill Clinton. As I wrote back in April:

Hillary is the nominal Clinton in this year’s presidential race, but it’s Obama who increasingly bears the resemblance to Bill. . . .Recently it’s become clear that, like the former president, Obama is fundamentally unserious about vital issues, including even those pertaining to war and peace. For both men, issues are not at root substantive problems to be addressed on their merits, but formal matters to be navigated and, to the extent possible, manipulated. . . . How else to explain [Clinton’s] statement about how he would have voted on the first Gulf War: “I would have voted for [the war resolution] if [the vote] was close, but the Democrats had the better arguments”?

At one level, this approach to issues is post-modern — a variation of the academic school that sees texts as infinitely malleable instruments with no fixed meaning, just waiting to be put to whatever use we find amusing. Substitute “issues” for “texts” and “expedient” for “amusing,” and you have described the essence of the Clinton-Obama political school.

At another level, though, Clinton and Obama are doing what politicians have always wanted to do and often did in the pre-modern era, when communications hadn’t developed to the point that such chicanery would likely be exposed.

Perhaps the real question, then, is: what has convinced Clinton and Obama that they can get away with the “self-triangulation” they practice so shamelessly? After all, politics isn’t literature; the electorate isn’t a doctoral thesis panel; and the communications system of today is capable of exposing deceit faster than ever before.

I think three factors are at work here. The first is modern legal education. Law students are trained to make and to contest distinctions. This means explaining how things that appear to be substantially the same are actually significantly different, and how things that appear to be significantly different are actually substantially the same. This is the sort of thing Obama has been doing a good deal of lately.

This ability to transform things so fundamentally (like into unlike; unlike into like) resembles magic, and to a certain kind of personality, it can be intoxicating. Among these types, one imagines, is the future politician. The risk of such intoxication is heightened by the fact that the post-modernism I described above has seeped into legal education, which means that too many law professors behave less like the retrained “sorcerer” and more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Clinton and Obama both were law professors when they were young.

The second factor is the boundless (and largely justified) self-confidence Clinton and Obama possess. Both are entirely self-made. Both came from the periphery of society and, seemingly without much effort, grabbed its most glittering prizes. For both, glibness was a key to the success itself and to the appearance of its ease. No wonder both believe they can magically talk their way out of contradictions.

To appreciate Clinton and Obama, it is instructive to consider their precursor, Richard Nixon. He too benefited from a top-notch legal education and he too was a self-made man who possessed self-confidence. But Nixon was educated in a different, less facile era. Moreover, Nixon wasn’t glib, and therefore didn’t make it look easy. As Jackie Mason put it, “Nixon lied, but at least he had the decency to sweat when he did it.” Thus, while Nixon was known with justification as Tricky Dick, he was far more constant than Clinton and Obama on a given issue. Nixon tended to triangulate by putting new issues on the table. He lacked the deep self-confidence to triangulate regularly through out-and-out self-contradiction.

Nixon was also substantially encumbered by a hostile press, and this brings me to the third factor that I think explains the audacity of Clinton and Obama – they believe the press will cover for them. Nor is this confidence entirely misplaced. For while new media outlets such as blogs increase the likelihood that campaign contradictions will become known, the liberal sympathies of the still dominant outlets provide hope that they will not become widely known.

Even so, Clinton ran, and Obama is running, a substantial risk. Whatever may be true in academia, the general public still doesn’t like slick talkers and it certainly doesn’t like slick talkers who sound like lawyers. The MSM may be able, up to a point, to obscure the specifics of this or that flip-flop, but it can’t obscure the fact that a presidential candidate is slick.

This helps explain why, pre-Lewinsky, Clinton failed twice to capture a majority when running for president. If Obama fails in 2008, a year tailor made for a Democratic victory, it will likely be because of the same kind of slickness born of the same kind of outsider’s self-confidence.


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