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Election 2008 Politics The Clintons

Shades of Grey

[digg-reddit-me]I got into a discussion in the comments to the Why Hillary Clinton Should Bow Out Today piece with a “Cori” about the moral compromises that inevitably come from being involved in politics.

Cori brought up some minor transgressions that the Obama campaign had committed – for example, citing the Washington Post in an ad saying his health care plan would save $2,500 for every family, when the Post quotation was citing the Obama campaign. She was using this and her other examples – which are in the comments linked to above – to say that Obama was “just another politician.” She continued:

He’s not the end all be all that all the pro-Obama fanatics are making him out to be. To be quite honest I see absolutely no difference between him and Clinton, or any other politician for that matter.

She then went on to explain that because she sees politics as existing in shades of grey she was leaning towards supporting Hillary Clinton.

I’ve seen this type of thinking in other places as well – and it bothers me because of the logical fallacy at its heart. Politics inevitably involves compromise – as taking any action does. But that does not make all compromises equal.

There is a world of difference between citing a source inaccurately to support something you believe and deliberately distorting an opponents words in order to deceive people about what he or she believes. Does the Obama campaign really believe that his health care plan will save $2,500 for every family? Probably so.1 Does Hillary Clinton really believe that Barack Obama supports the Republican positions of the past few decades? No, she doesn’t. 2

The fallacy is this: one compromise is morally equal to any other; every shade of moral grey is equal. When I say that politics is about compromise, I am not implying that all politicians are equal. When I say shades of grey, my focus is on the shades rather than the grey.

Those who see no difference between Obama and Clinton are just as guilty of moral idiocy as those that proclaim “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” You don’t get full credit for doing away with two opposing moral poles and replacing them with a single category in between which allows for no differences.

At the heart of Bill Clinton’s 1992 strategy was this compromise: fight dirty; fight hard; promise whatever you need to get into the White House; say whatever you need to win; and then, the real leadership starts.  This is memorably captured by the scene at the end of the barely fictional film about the 1992 election, Primary Colors based on Joe Klein’s novel of the same name, in which Governor Stanton tries to convince his aide, Henry Burton, to stay on with his campaign: 3

You don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit-eating back-country grin. He did it all just so he’d get the opportunity to stand in front of the nation and appeal to the better angels of our nature.

But Clinton proved to be no Lincoln.  His politics in office was the same as his politics in his campaign.

The differences between the two men are instructional: both men compromised, but each did so very differently.  Lincoln believed slavery was a moral evil and that it should be eradicated; but he also acknowledged that the political environment of 1860 was not ready for this radical change.  And so, on the great moral issue of his day, he compromised and campaigned on stopping the spread of slavery with the understanding that this would lead to eventual and gradual emancipation.   He governed on the same principle, until the changing facts on the ground led him to the Emancipation Proclamation, which still only offered limited emancipation.  In Lincoln, we can clearly see a moral man struggling with a difficult issue.

Clinton in 1992 campaigned on a Third Way of politics – splitting the difference between the harsher features of the Reagan-Bush legacy and the liberal ideas of the Democratic party.  The problem with this approach is that it was dishonest – and Clinton spoke out of both sides of his mouth.  When Clinton spoke to the Democratic base, he explained that he really believed what they did, and that if elected, he would be an unabashed liberal.  To the electorate at large, Clinton tried to show that he had digested the lessons on the Reagan Revolution.  He governed ineffectively as a liberal until the 1994 Contract With America made him realize that he might lose his power, and, at the behest of his wife, he brought in Dick Morris to calculate what he needed to do to win again.  His style of governance proved similar to his campaign as he again and again pleaded with Democrats to trust him as he promoted NAFTA, welfare reform, school uniforms, and balanced budgets while pushing for incremental liberal measures.  In many ways, Clinton did the best he could in a hostile environment.  His appeal to liberals was always the same: “Trust me, I’m doing the best that I can.  I believe what you do, but I can’t do anything about it or say anything about it.”  I still believe he was telling the truth about this.  But the difference with Lincoln is telling: while Lincoln was willing to make a moral and pragmatic comprise to attain political power, Clinton wanted power and was willing to do whatever he needed to get it.  The difference is one of degree and reflection.

Hillary is making the same argument to liberals now that her husband did in his presidency: Trust me, because I’m one of you; if I screw you guys over, it’s only because I have no choice.  The scene from Primary Colors is fictional, but it gets at the heart of Clintonism – a philosophy of governance and politics that Bill and Hillary Clinton together embody.  The problem is that the moment to “show true leadership,” to appeal to the better angels of our nature, never comes – because there is always another election, always another scandal.  Clintonism is about postponing progress.  It is about first and foremost making sure the Clintons win.

It’s time to try something new, to turn the page.

…while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.

Obama, like every other human being, is not perfect.  He will make and has made mistakes.  But the overwhelming evidence of his character, his history, his public record, and his campaign demonstrate that he represents something very different than the Clintons.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century theologian and political activist, wrote about exercising power thus:

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

The fact that taking any action involves moral compromise does not absolve us of our responsibility to make informed judgments.  Some compromises are more basic than others.  If we cannot differentiate between the many shades of grey, then we are lost without a moral compass.  That is what I imagine has happened to the Clintons.

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  1. Even more, the mistake doesn’t seem to be part of a broad strategy to deceive, but rather a mistake or laziness on the part of whoever was putting together the ads. []
  2. And the decision to attack Obama based on falsehoods had to have been approved by Hillary – as it was the theme of the messages, rather than a citation used in one. []
  3. I’m sure the video of the scene is online somewhere – so send it in if anyone can find it. []

5 replies on “Shades of Grey”

Joe, Good post. Although I don’t think the Clintons ever admit compromise. They just spin the results to indicate that they were somehow right all along: Along those lines, here are some clear-eyed observations about the Clintons from Victor Davis Hanson’s “Pajamas Media Blog.”:

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