January 22, 2008 · Lessig
Watching the debate last night, I wondered what happens when we become as bad as they. (WE=Dems; THEY=Karl Rove GOP). For there was a cheapness and dishonesty in the exchange last night that I haven’t quite recognized before. Why I hadn’t registered this before is an obvious question — for of course, cheapness and dishonesty in presidential politics has been with us for a long time. But I recognized something about it last night I hadn’t recognized before.
Let’s start with the disappointment: Debates are not Obama’s forte. If he were running for Prime Minister, I’d have second thoughts. I can’t understand why he isn’t better prepared for the obvious exchange that was going to happen. It took way too long to get to (w/r/t the Reagan absurdity): “I obviously don’t agree with his ideas and never said I did, and indeed, I worked against them.” It took way too long to get to (w/r/t the “present vote” issue): “In the US Senate, voting present would be bad Senatoring. In the Illinois Senate, it is how the system works. My 180 votes out of 4000 is just the same as ….” And w/r/t health care, he never got to “my plan IS universal because it is made available, in an affordable way, to everyone. I just don’t believe in fining poor people. I believe in helping them.” Again and again, the echo of Obama’s message was “it’s legitimate for us to disagree about …” What good is that line doing — especially given the completely illegitimate charges raised against him by HRC? Someone has go sit him down and force him to spit back 10 second responses to these questions. It isn’t rocket science. It is practice and training.
But disappointment is one thing; (this word sounds too harsh, I know, but) disgust is something else. For there was a basic lack of integrity in the Clinton show last night. As a former friend of Clinton put it to me last night, “I now understand just why people hated the Clintons so.”
For example: The absurdity about the Reagan comments (and slowly the press is coming around to the recognizing the absurdity in the comments, at least if you believe the Obama survey of the sources).
First, when I heard about this, it struck me as a perfect example of the generation gap that is this campaign. The ridiculousness of people who think they need to continue to attack Ronald Reagan is simply a reflection of a different generation. For anyone under 50, it is obvious Reagan is a towering figure. And for people over 50 who would reflect upon the matter for a second, it should be obvious that Reagan transformed how politics and government is considered. Reagan’s was obviously a transformational presidency, in exactly the ways Clinton’s was not. Those of us who worked to elect Clinton hoped he would be the Dem’s Reagan. But it wasn’t a month into his administration when he signaled as clearly as he could that transformation based on principle was not his game (remember selling out the gays in the military issue? Reagan would never have done the equivalent).
So Obama said the obvious (that Reagan’s administration was transformational). And he also said that the GOP pushed a set of ideas in the 1980s that quickly captured many Dems (including, let’s not forget, Clinton (see, e.g., welfare reform)). That too was obvious. But just as it’s obvious to anyone with integrity that when Time names Putin as “Person of the Year” (or Hitler for that matter), Time is not endorsing the positions of Putin or Hitler, so too is it obvious (to anyone with integrity) that Obama was not endorsing Reaganomics. (Krugman, in my view, has that integrity. But he’s just gone off the deep end here. There’s no myth about the success of “voodoo economics” (as Bush the First put it) to be debunked). Indeed, as Obama pointed out in the most flashy line of the debate, he was on the streets of Chicago organizing against Reaganomics. His statement about “ideas” was simply identifying the kind of leadership he wanted his presidency to aspire to. That’s precisely the leadership I want a president to aspire to too.
Yet HRC repeated the slander that Obama was endorsing or recommending those policies. I understand the political gain from creating that impression in people. But someone who does that in that way betrays a basic lack of integrity.
So too with the extraordinarily cheap shot of saying Obama worked for a “slum lord.”
As Hillary Clinton of the Rose Law Firm (remember Whitewater?) certainly knows, even assuming (falsely) that Obama represented this “slum landlord,” that one gives a client a defense does not mean one has endorsed the ethics or values of the client. And more certainly, the fact that as an associate at a law firm, one spent 4 hours working on a memo does not signal that one has endorsed the ethics or values of the client. Pt the partner of the client. As the Washington Post Factchecker reports:
William Miceli, Obama’s supervisor at the law firm, said the firm represented the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corp., a nonprofit group that redeveloped a run-down property on Chicago’s South Side with Rezko. He called Clinton’s assertion that Obama represented Rezko in a slum landlord business “categorically untrue.”
“He was a very junior lawyer at the time, who was given responsibility for basic due diligence, document review,” said Miceli, adding that Obama did what he was told by the firm. According to Miceli, that was the only time Obama worked on a Rezko-related project while at the law firm.
But of course the irrelevance of this to Obama or his values is not obvious to people outside of legal practice. That means it was an effective charge politically. Clinton knew the truth. It was a plainly unethical charge for her to make. (Recall Advice and Consent: “Sir, have you no shame?”)
But what about Obama’s Walmart comment? (In responding to the charge that Obama endorsed Reagan’s economic program, Obama said he was organizing in Chicago to fight those programs during a time when HRC was sitting on the board of Walmart).
Obama’s reply must have been fun. It certainly got attention. It was in my view unnecessary. But even if unnecessary, it was certainly not unethical. His point was about his commitment to values that Clinton said he didn’t have. Showing his “experience” in contrast to hers was fair, and it was true. It created an impression that accorded with the facts, unlike the Reagan comment, or the “slum lord” slander. Thus ethical, in my view, but unwise.
We’ve heard this about the Clintons from the start: they would do anything. But watching her utter words she knows are false, or words which even if technically true, create a plainly false impression, was, again, disgusting. Just how small is this person now apparently leading the Democrats? Just how small have we become?
Now of course I am totally open to the charge of naivete. But I don’t think it just naivete. When you think about all the virtues that Obama plainly has over HRC — indeed, in some ways, the Reaganesque ability to inspire, set a vision, speak across divides, etc. — this cheapness feels different. The loss seems greater. Bush was small and deeply unethical when he allowed Karl Rove to destroy McCain in 2000 in South Carolina with totally false rumors. Many Republicans rightly thought the better man had been defeated by that dishonesty. We are soon to be in the same place with our nominee unless some measure of integrity surfaces in this campaign.