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

29 August 2008


[For comment on Sarah Palin, click here.]

Ever since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about whether he can be tough. Is he tough enough to beat John McCain, govern the country, and stand up to Iran and the Russians? At times, I’ve been among the hand wringers.

Last night’s speech left little doubt.

I won’t presume to summarize or critique the speech, or even to outline it. Obama writes better than I and is far more politically astute. Anyone who cares about our country and is undecided should not just read the speech, but watch it.

Obama’s stern tone, powerful delivery and strong words—invariably polite and accurate though they were—dispelled all doubt about his toughness and ability to serve as commander in chief. He looked and sounded presidential.

But what I want to explore in this essay is something else: the reasons why many of us think we are seeing this side of Obama for the first time. There are at least three.

The first is the primary contest’s extraordinary character. Obama’s opponent was Hillary Clinton, a woman much like his mother. Hillary is about the same age that Obama’s mother would be had she lived. Like Obama’s mother, Hillary is white, highly educated, opinionated, and passionate about justice. Hillary is blond while Obama’s mother was brunnette, but that’s about the only difference apparent to the casual observer.

Most of us have debated our mothers on politics at one time or another. But how do you do that before an audience of millions, especially when your mother was your sole parent, the chief adult figure in your life, and the person primarily responsible for your own values and world view? That was Obama’s challenge from the very beginning of his debates with Hillary.

I still remember Obama’s gesture, in one debate, of holding Hillary’s chair as she sat. At the time I thought the gesture was fraught with risk. Was he just being polite? Was he risking the ire of feminists, many of whom don’t like the custom of men holding doors or chairs for women? Would his gesture be interpreted as African-American subservience to a white woman?

I can’t begin to get inside Obama’s mind, but I settled on the view that his gesture was instinctive with him. He did what he would have done had Hillary been his mother, whom she so resembles.

The second reason for Obama’s extraordinarily gentle and circumspect approach to Hillary requires less armchair psychology. Obama is the most skilled and sensitive politician of his generation. Long before and much more than others (including me) he understood how extraordinary women’s support for Hillary was and is.

Their support has virtually nothing to do with substantive issues and little to do with relative personal merit. It has everything to do with a sense of alienation and marginalization and a feeling that 88 years of women’s suffrage has accomplished little in making individual women more powerful.

Obama understood these points from the beginning. Accordingly, he handled everything relating to Hillary with extreme sensitivity and gentility. When Hillary and her husband made racial innuendoes, he seemed weak for not striking back. People doubted his strength when he gave the Clintons partial control of the convention just ended.

But in retrospect, we can see that Obama did exactly the right thing. One does not force a lady to make up her mind, whether by male logic, browbeating, or impatience. One waits patiently and preferably mutely (no matter how much restraint it takes) until she decides. How much more important is that self-restraint when the stakes are not just the harmony of an evening or the success of a marriage, but the fate of a nation?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The convention went swimmingly. Hillary did what she had promised and had to do. So did Bill, methodically and brilliantly refuting the self-serving lies he had told about Obama during the primary campaign.

If the adoring looks shown on both female and male faces during his acceptance speech are any indication, Obama accomplished his mission of attracting Hillary’s supporters as fully as it was humanly possible to do. Sometimes self-restraint is not just good character but good strategy as well. John McCain just confirmed the correctness and importance of Obama’s political judgment by selecting a woman as his running mate.

There may be yet a third reason for Obama’s extraordinary reticence and self-restraint in dealing with Hillary. I’ve argued at least twice on this blog that Obama’s race is a net disadvantage. Only a few of us have overt prejudice, but many of us still have trouble believing that a person of Obama’s race is as transcendently skilled as he is. That unconscious and largely innocent tendency to disbelieve is something that Obama will have to overcome—especially among white working folk— in order to win.

But in one small way, Obama’s minority status is an advantage. When you are a minority boy engaged in childish fisticuffs in white society, you learn to see not just your opponent, but the mood of the crowd around you as you box. You develop a sixth, political sense. You learn to think about how everyone will react, including your “brothers and sisters,” the white majority and everyone else. You learn to play three-dimensional psychological chess in your mind.

That, I think, is one source of Obama’s extraordinary political skill. He understood from the outset that even the slightest perception that a “black” man was roughing up a white lady would not help him win.

Now, with Hillary safely in his corner, the gloves can come off. Obama can’t mistake John McCain for his mother. If anything, McCain will remind him of his father, whose absence during his formative years he probably still resents. He can use as sharp elbows as he ever did in the innumerable basketball games that he plays to relax and socialize. Yet with his sixth sense born of minority status, he will still observe the bounds of politeness, mutual respect and self-restraint. Thus he will keep most of us on his side while he trounces McCain in both substance and style.

You could see all this on Joe Biden’s face last night. Before Obama’s speech, Biden was all smiles. The pundit Mark Shields remarked that he seemed to have 42 teeth (the usual complement, my physician wife tells me, is 32). Together his and Obama’s smiles might have provided illumination enough to help solve the energy crisis.

But Biden’s smile vanished by the end of Obama’s speech. As Biden joined Obama on the podium, respect, if not awe, had replaced the smile. It suddenly hit Joe what a powerful, skilled person he had hitched his star to. It suddenly struck him that he would be vice president. With Iran and Russia on the march, a grave sense of responsibility no doubt began to sink in.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of folks who doubted Obama’s toughness and resilience are, like Joe Biden, going to believe. Obama can be tough as nails, even ruthless, as his quick reversal on federal campaign financing showed. He is no John Kerry (although Kerry might have won if he had campaigned as well for himself as he is now doing for Obama).

At the same time, Obama is so sensitive and subtle that most of us might not understand what he’s doing until weeks afterward. That’s what happened to me. I was skeptical of his handling of Hillary and Bill, but now I understand.

Obama didn’t rise from keynote speaker to presidential nominee in four years despite a racial handicap for nothing. If you want both smart and tough, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Sarah Palin

[For an update on Sarah Palin now that we know something about her, click here.]

My first reaction to John McCain’s appointment of Alaska’s unknown governor as his running mate was the same as every other Democrat’s. Sarah Palin’s high-pitched voice and simplistic appeal to female chauvinism made me think McCain had mistaken the vice presidency for chair of the PTA.

“What a dumb choice!” I thought. “He’s thrown his ‘inexperienced’ rap against Obama—inaccurate as it is—out the window.”

But first impressions are often misleading, and these may be among them. Hillary and Bill made a fatal mistake in underestimating Barack Obama. We Democrats should try not to do as poorly with Sarah Palin.

Several things suggest there may be more to Sarah Palin than at first meets the eye. Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed piece she wrote, explaining her opposition to putting polar bears on the endangered species list.

I personally don’t know much about polar bears except that global warming is destroying the sea ice they need to hunt. I learned something from Palin’s piece, including polar bears’ population (25,000) and that fact that federal studies show it staying relatively stable over a long period. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Palin’s conclusions, her piece was nuanced and thoughtful and on its face made sense. A key sentence in it showed that she recognizes the existence and importance of climate change.

Polar bears are a small issue in a small (in population) state. As a New York Times blog commenter noted, a good Central Park concert can draw more people than Alaska’s entire population of some 670,000 (as of 2006), let alone the miniscule population of the small town that Palin served as mayor. Yet on that single, small issue, Palin’s op-ed piece met two of my five criteria for vetting candidates: it showed she knows something and can think.

A third criterion is whether she’s an admirable person or a jerk. She’s got a good start there, too. Out of nowhere, Palin helped clean up massive corruption in a one-party state. Some of Alaska’s legislators once wore caps with initials arrogantly proclaiming their “Corrupt Bastards Club.” Palin helped rout these jerks in her state, earning herself 80% popularity, so she’s probably not a jerk herself.

As for her putative “scandal,” the jury is still out. She may have used her influence as governor to get Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner fired because he would not fire her sister’s ex-husband as a state trooper. That incident might reflect an arrogant abuse of executive power. It also might reflect an attempt to break an “old boy” network in public safety that kept an abusive spouse unwisely on the force. We all need to avoid prejudgment and await the results of the investigation now ongoing.

Only three things about McCain’s choice for veep are now clear. First, it’s completely changed the dynamic of the presidential race. Second, we Democrats would blunder badly in patronizing or underestimating Palin. Not only might we be wrong; even if right, we might trigger a feminist backlash of the kind that Obama worked so delicately to avoid with Hillary.

Third, our media have an enormous job to to. They have to get off their duffs, stop pontificating about trivia and gossip, and find out who this woman is, every detail of her history, how she thinks, acts and lives. The fact that they must visit one of the most beautiful, exotic and pristine states in the Union should make that an enjoyable task.

Like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin is successful woman who’s done some remarkable things. It would be a mistake to try to rough her up, just as it would have been with Hillary. It’s clear that her experience in office is lighter than Hillary’s, and her political outlook is far different. She may have many flaws in her record and her character, yet to be discovered. But it’s already clear she’s not stupid.

So at the moment, the best approach to Sarah Palin is circumspection and caution. We are all in information gathering mode. We Democrats should honor another of my five rules for vetting candidates: treating opposing candidates and the issues with respect, unless and until they are shown to deserve less.

Footnote: While arguing that an endangered-species listing for polar bears is not now justified, Palin wrote, “What is justified is worldwide concern over the proven effects of climate change.” Few Democrats, scientists or even Al Gore would disagree with that sentence. What Palin would do about her “concern” remains to be seen.


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