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

04 May 2008

Why Hillary is Dangerous II: Pandering

This is the second of three essays analyzing why Hillary Clinton would be the most dangerous Democratic president in my lifetime, and why I would prefer John McCain (without Romney!) to her. The first essay dealt with foreign and military policy. The last will deal with character. This one deals with Hillary’s habit of pandering.

Pandering has become a prominent feature of our political landscape. All political candidates pander to some extent. Both Hillary and Barack have pandered to Joe and Mary six-pack by bashing international trade.

In our complex and diverse nation, the temptation to pander can be irresistible. “If pandering can win over an obscure—or not so obscure!—ethnic, interest or demographic group,” the candidate thinks, “what’s the harm? I’ll increase my vote count, and the rest of the voters won’t care.”

But pandering is not a victimless crime. It debases our politics and subjects us to risk in five ways.

First, it distracts us from real issues. Many pundits think Karl Rove put Dubya in the White House (twice!) by pandering to American religious extremists on abortion, gays and the perceived evils of a supposedly debauched secular culture. In the process, Rove and Dubya distracted part of the electorate from real issues like the true cost of war, bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan, energy independence, our dilapidated infrastructure, the hollowing and mistreatment of our military, and the weakening and corruption of our economy. Those chickens are now coming home to roost.

Hillary and our media have been doing the same thing. For three weeks, they have focused our attention almost exclusively on the words of an obscure Chicago preacher whose church Senator Obama attended. Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to deteriorate and our economy continues to slide.

Second, pandering is deception. Candidates who pander have little, if any, intention of following through. Bush and Rove didn’t really want to make America a Christian theocracy; they just wanted the religious right’s votes. (That’s why thinking evangelicals, if they vote at all this time, are likely to support Obama.) Hillary doesn’t really want to “obliterate” Iran; she just wants the votes of Jews and religious extremists who think that annihilating Iran once and for all would be a good thing.

Hillary probably has no intention of imposing a dangerous five-year interest-rate freeze on our delicate credit economy. If by some exercise of dark magic she becomes president, and if the mortgage crisis has not begun to resolve itself by that time, all of her economic advisers will advise her against doing so. But her pander would have helped her become president by convincing voters who have never taken a course in basic economics that she is “decisive” and “knowledgeable.”

This point segues into the third reason why pandering is dangerous. It encourages us to forsake competence and expertise for belief in magic. When Hillary assures voters that a five-year interest-rate freeze, a summer gasoline-tax holiday, or a health-care mandate will solve their economic problems, she is moving down that road. More subtly, she is asking voters to believe in the myth of American invincibility—a national brain cancer that is eroding our collective contact with reality. She is encouraging voters to trust in magic, myth and wishful thinking, rather than science, technology, and informed expert knowledge. That road leads to third-world status.

The fourth reason why pandering is dangerous is that it promotes a cult of personality. A “leader” gains our love not by showing us how to solve real problems, but by convincing us that coddling our worst prejudices will solve them. The “leader” tells us what we want to hear. Then her image on a placard replaces competence and results as lodestars of political skill, and a cult of personality is born. As the neglect of real problems makes life worse, prejudice and anger increase, fueling the vicious cycle of propaganda and feeding the cult of personality. Supporting competence takes a back seat to supporting a leader who seems to care about us. Hillary has shown us just how this is done in courting Joe and Mary six-pack with a toxic combination of voodoo economics and thinly veiled racial prejudice.

The fifth reason why pandering is dangerous is that it has unintended consequences. When any American presidential candidate speaks, the world listens. Pandering targets a domestic audience alone because foreigners don’t vote. But foreigners do hear the pander and react accordingly.

When our free-world allies hear a serious candidate for president proposing solutions to economic problems worthy of Hugo Chavez, they begin to doubt. They begin to wonder whether the nation whose leadership created the modern global economic system has lost its competence. They begin to act on their own, ignoring American leadership and sometimes neglecting even to consult with us. Global economic coherence dissolves.

When the world hears Hillary promise to “obliterate” Iran, it doesn’t discount that statement as pandering to American Jews and other Iran haters. It worries. Iranian extremists (including Ahmadinejad) cite the implied threat to strengthen their political base and turn Iran toward greater extremism. Al Qaeda redoubles its propaganda that American is an anti-Islam “crusader.” And Israeli intransigents take heart, believing that Americans will support them no matter how short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating their foreign and military policies may be.

The irony is that “obliterate” is exactly what Iran’s leaders need to hear, but in private. As I have argued at length, Iran’s leaders need to understand what nuclear weapons can do. They need to see pictures of Hiroshima just after the blast. They need to see video of our fifty-megaton hydrogen explosion over the Bikini Atoll. They need to understand how absolutely puny North Korea’s one-kiloton dud was in comparison. Their technical experts need to understand how many decades behind they are in weapons development and how much better they could serve their people by devoting their scarce technical expertise to peaceful economic progress. Their religious leaders, who have their heads in the clouds and the Koran, need to see scientific and technical reality, if only in pictures of devastation.

But we can’t even begin this process of technological education by issuing threats in public, which Iranians and everyone else will see as empty. We’ve got to start direct talks with Iran, which Senator Obama has been recommending for nearly a year now. Only then can our emissaries make these points in private, secret meetings of technical experts, with full-motion video. Throwing reckless threats across the international diplomatic transom undermines this serious expert-level diplomacy and makes our leaders look no better than Ahmadinejad himself.

Some people compare Barack Obama unfavorably with Hillary Clinton because Hillary is more glib. But glib isn’t necessarily good. Barack speaks more slowly and deliberately than Hillary because he’s thinking more.

Hillary thinks about how her pandering will play to a purely domestic audience. The geographic scope of her thinking ends at our national borders. Her historical perspective ends with our general election in November of this year.

In contrast, Barack is thinking about the big, wide world outside our borders. He is pondering how his words will play there, not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. He’s got a lot more to think about, so he speaks more slowly. He’s thinking about us and our future, not himself.


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  • At Mon May 05, 12:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jae said…

    I love your blog. You always make me think. Whether it's the way I was thinking or a new way ... I love it. Realization and present thought is the thing most of us lack.


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