Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 December 2007

If Barack and Hillary Were White Males


The movie Crash taught us a lot about unconscious biases. Many of us have them.

Conscious racism or sexism shocks most of us. The idea of deliberately suppressing the African-American vote, or of banning women from working as doctors or engineers, appalls us.

Yet many of us harbor unconscious biases. We say things like “Obama should run for vice president; he’ll help the Dems attract the black vote.” Or we say, “I don’t think Senator Clinton could be strong on defense.” Without a second thought, we can “reason” that a candidate with African ancestry ought to appeal only to people who share that ancestry, or that a woman, as a member of “weaker sex,” might fail to promote the national defense.

I use a mental trick to root out my own unconscious bias. In my imagination, I “turn off” the characteristic that might provoke bias, leaving everything else unchanged.

So I imagine that Barack Obama is Barry O’Brien, whose father was Irish, not native Kenyan. For Hillary Clinton, I imagine that she is the husband of our very first female president, who was greatly beloved but whose term in office was marred by sexual scandal and resulting impeachment. To avoid confusion with the real Bill, I don’t call my imaginary male Hillary “Bill.” Instead, I call him “Harriman,” the husband of Beth Clinton, our first female president.

So how would Barry O’Brien stack up against Harriman Clinton, all else being the same? Both are white males of Irish ancestry, so stereotypes can’t help me decide, even subconsciously. Nor can issues of gender. Women’s understandable hunger to see one of their own as national leader, nearly ninety years after first getting the vote, has already been satisfied. So the only thing that matters is who among the two Irish-American males is the better candidate.

The two have comparable political experience. By the time inauguration day 2009 rolls around, Harriman will have served in elective office for eight years, all as junior U.S. senator from New York. Barry will have served in elective office for a total of twelve years, eight as state senator in Illinois, and four as the junior U.S. senator from Illinois.

The quality of their political experience is different. All of Harriman’s eight years in office will be at the national level. Only four of Barry’s twelve years will be. Harriman also experienced eight years as the presidential spouse. Barry’s earlier experience is more direct and personal: he spent time teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and more time organizing some of the toughest parts of Chicago. Harriman watched his wife run the country and participated in government, both in “pillow talk” and in his own valiant but failed effort to create a viable health-care system.

It’s hard for me to compare these different experiences. I sense that Harriman has spent more time on the national stage. But I worry about his ability to solve a real-world crisis, as distinguished from a political one. I don’t believe for a moment that all problems are political and have political solutions, but I sometimes think that Harriman does. As for Barry, I worry about his lack of direct involvement with military affairs and his minimal direct acquaintance with foreign leaders.

The two candidates’ records in the U.S. Senate are similar. Barry served on the Foreign Relations Committee, Harriman on the Armed Services Committee. Both got personal exposure to the key issues of our day: terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither has his name as chief sponsor on any important or noteworthy piece of legislation. That’s not unusual; the U.S. Senate is famously a body in which junior members are seen but not heard. So there’s not much to distinguish Barry from Harriman there.

In the end, I conclude that experience is a wash. Any preference depends on other factors.

It doesn’t trouble me that the candidates’ resumes are not decisive. The presidency is no ordinary job. It changes people, often dramatically. Who would have guessed that George W. Bush, the “uniter, not divider” and a man unequivocally opposed to “nation building,” would become the most divisive president since Reconstruction and embark on a massive but so far failed attempt to rebuild Iraq? To paraphrase the standard disclaimer for stocks and bonds, presidential candidates’ past performance—let alone their statements as candidates—is no guarantee of future results.

So my choice comes down to personal qualities. “Who are these candidates?” I ask myself. Whom do I respect and trust more?

There’s a significant difference in age. Barry would be 47 upon taking office; Harriman would be 61. So there may be a difference in energy and stamina. But I haven’t noticed the older Harriman flagging in the grueling primary campaign. At least he has none of the signs of the heart disease that required his wife Beth to have a triple bypass after leaving office. So I count Barry’s advantage in youth marginal.

That leaves personality, brains, leadership, judgment and character. Since I know neither candidate personally, I have to judge these vital qualities on their public personae and public acts.

Both candidates have their personal quirks, but I like Harriman’s public persona more. He’s sunny and self-confident. Except when refusing to answer a “hypothetical question”—as he does often—Harriman always seems to have a glib and ready answer. In contrast, Barry is sober and a bit too thoughtful; he sometimes seems at a loss for words. Harriman’s artful dodging of questions troubles me, but I give him the edge in personality. He seems more confident and optimistic.

On brains, Barry has a clear edge. His academic record would be the best of any president’s since Woodrow Wilson nearly a century ago. It would make him a good candidate for professor at any law school in the country. Harriman never led his law school’s student journal, nor was he ever a professor.

Barry is also a brilliant writer and inspirational speaker. His position papers on issues are tightly reasoned and insightful, as are his books. His speech on health care has insights into how our society and economy work that, in sheer brilliance, are off the scale. I can’t recall anything that Harriman has said or written that impressed me as brilliant, as distinguished from politically savvy. Barry’s best book (on the need to restore hope in America’s promise) received universal acclaim. Harriman’s most notable book (on communal raising of children) provoked widespread derision from social conservatives. On intellect, Barry earns greater respect.

Leadership is similar. I can’t think of any issue on which Harriman has led the nation. Harriman himself acknowledges failure in his effort to lead on health care during his wife’s presidency, but he “spins” the failure as valuable “experience.” On the Iraq war, Harriman followed the president and the majority in Congress, to his embarrassment and everyone’s regret. In contrast Barry, not yet in the U.S. Senate, was a lone voice of reason trying to keep us out of Iraq.

Barry’s 2002 anti-war speech, given months before our invasion, described with uncanny accuracy exactly the problems that we now face. His ability to predict real-world consequences of policy choices was breathtaking. We desperately need that ability in our next president.

Barry also showed extraordinary understanding and moral leadership in domestic politics. His 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention turned our attention to the terrible damage that Bush’s divisive leadership had caused us and the need to restore our sense of unity and national purpose. That speech was one of the most memorable convention speeches in a generation. Leaders in both parties praised it. I can’t think of anything that Harriman has said or done that commanded such universal admiration.

Even during a grueling campaign, Barry’s leadership continues today. He has turned the nation’s attention to the serious threat still posed by Al Qaeda Central, now in Pakistan. He proposed a detailed plan to meet the threat. Harriman’s response was to accuse him of “inexperience” for having the temerity to raise the issue in public.

More recently, Barry has proposed a bold, new plan to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. That’s an issue he knows lots about. One of his jobs on the Foreign Relations Committee is to oversee the securing and destruction of Russia’s loose nukes. His plan for the future is brilliant, innovative, daring and fundamentally sound. Harriman has not yet responded, but that’s the point: can a candidate lead by responding to others’ initiatives?

The difference in judgment is striking. Harriman supported the president’s war without even reading the relevant intelligence report. Barry opposed it from the beginning, although he had no access to that report. His own brilliance and insight guided him, and his reasons proved entirely accurate.

Now Barry wants to make going after Al Qaeda Central a matter a national priority and a matter of urgent and open national debate. Harriman wants the issue resolved, in secret, by the executive branch without national discussion. Harriman’s first health-care proposal failed because it neglected two important and obvious constituencies—small business and people who liked their current health plans. His current plan has a similar but less glaring flaw. For a candidate whose supposed advantage is political skill, Harriman has had surprising lapses in judgment.

On character the choice is also clear. Harriman has never acknowledged error regarding anything, let alone the Iraq war. His attempt to “spin” his errors of policy and judgment, like his attempt to “spin” his failed health-care proposal as “good experience,” strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. I’d prefer to see him acknowledge error and move on.

There is also a clear difference in the two candidates’ tolerance for corruption. Harriman likes politics as usual. He has made no apology for the corrupt system of campaign financing that he is vigorously exploiting and that is slowly eroding our democracy. Barry is not perfect in that regard, but his heart’s in the right place. He constantly rails against corruption, refuses to take money from lobbyists, and credibly resists the worst temptations of corrupt politics. His own personal finances are simple, transparent and laudable: his money comes from royalties on his briskly selling books. Harriman’s and his wife’s personal finances are far more complex and suspect.

The candidates also differ in openness and transparency. Harriman seems to enjoy the security of the Washington elite. He is comfortable with executive secrecy, as in the case of general plans to crush Al Qaeda. (Specific tactics and strategies of course have to stay secret.) He seems far too ready to sweep real problems under the rug with superficial “spin,” or to deal with them secretly, out of public view. He doesn’t seem to like subjecting his actions to public scrutiny or robust debate. That attitude reminds me too much of Bush and Cheney for me ever to be fully comfortable with Harriman as president.

Finally, there is a recent troubling phenomenon: Harriman’s refusal to engage in normal pre-debate social interaction with his chief rivals, including shaking hands. While that might seem a minor matter, it troubles me. It betrays personal arrogance or insecurity that could be dangerous in a president.

In contrast, I can’t think of anything about Barry that makes me doubt his fitness for office. He’s nearly unique in his honesty and openness. In speech after speech and proposal after proposal, he has stressed honesty and transparency as the best ways to suppress corruption, restore our national prestige, regain our unity, and resurrect our democracy. He’s never done or said anything to make me doubt his faith in those principles or his determination to follow them.

So as I look at Barry and Harriman, my choice is clear. Their experience is comparable. Harriman has the edge in years on the national stage, media gloss and public personality. But Barry wins on what I want most in a president: brains, leadership, judgment, openness and character.

Since both Barry and Harriman are white males of Irish descent, my preference for Barry has nothing to do with bias or stereotypes. Nor is it based on a misguided desire to correct bias or stereotypes by electing our first female or African-American president for that reason alone.

My choice reflects only the two candidates’ personal qualities, public pronouncements, and public records and my personal judgment based on them. If Barack and Hillary were both white males like my imaginary Barry and Harriman, the Dems’ choice would be easy.


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