Clintonistas, Busheviks & Obamaphiles: Beyond Labeling
The media are ablaze with speculation about whether President-elect Obama will be able to "control the Clintons", whether his stature is so monumental and secure, after an admittedly meteoric rise, that the vanquished senator from New York will devotedly voice his foreign policy and look good doing it, whether the White House will be infiltrated by "re-treads" from the Clinton years, whether the socialist bailouts of George W. Bush's own red October are enough to give Obama a pass on the anti-supply-side dictates of a potentially necessary "new New Deal".
We hear at a constant clip the talk of "Clintonistas" coming "back to power", of "Bushies" and "Busheviks" leaving a scorched earth behind them in Washington, with the entire potential for cross-party negotiation having to be restructured from scratch, of "Obamaphiles" calling down prophetic hopes from a blue sky vision of national renaissance, a 21st century reshaping of the messianic strain of Western thought. We are asked to believe that major policy initiatives are as easy to formulate or predict as a seating chart, as judged by résumés, for the first Obama cabinet meeting.
Is Obama another Lincoln, in the good sense? Is he a reformer who comes in a moment of crisis at the end of a figurative civil war of cultural values and economic ideologies? Is it at all rational to say that someone who worked in government in the 1990s is automatically a "Clinton loyalist"? Is it impossible to understand that "post-partisan" is not an entirely new idea and some professionals have ably served the policies of presidents from both parties with diverse political philosophies and violently divergent personality types?
We hear of "preternatural calm", a beautiful if haunting phrase to speak of the unique quality of poise and gravitas that the president-elect exudes, even in moments of extreme political pressure, such as difficult primary losses, bruising personal attacks, financial crisis and ferocious tactical debating gimmicks. Obama is not exactly "preternatural", not immortal, not a gift from Heaven, but he does exhibit a tremendous devotion to information, to acquiring, sorting and facing evidence, to dealing with crisis from a position of confident assertion.
Clearly, President-elect Obama, like any gifted politician, basks in the glow of the reverence shown him by his cheering supporters; as is only human, he appears buoyed by this, by moments of sublime connection with a multitude incomparable in modern politics. But buoyed and determined are different things: he is different from his two predecessors in this quality, not requiring so much the adulation of the masses and reassured by their support for his principled optimism and determination.
This means that the Clintonistas have a chance to come into his fold without necessarily having to make ideological hay; the Busheviks can forgive his party and his progressivism, and confidently say he will be a towering historical figure and capable of working "across the aisle". The question is not whether Busheviks and Clintonistas will throw off their guerrilla trappings and work in the rarefied air of informed policy and pragmatist public service, but whether the Obamaphiles are as magnanimous as their hero.
This, I think, is why we are witnessing one of the most seriously heavyweight cabinets put together in modern memory, with rivals and divergent views, monumental egos and past clashes, coming together at one table to make sense of a time of historic peril and crisis. We are seeing allies of McCain, not just Clintonistas, but Hillary Rodham Clinton herself, former and current Republicans, major legislative over-achievers, hard-hitters and natural diplomats, even a Kennedy or two —according to many in the press—, getting together to fight out the future intellectually, before they force us to take a chance on tired ideas.
This is an historic opportunity, and the media are doing us all a disservice —not least the president-elect or his 67 million voters— by oversimplifying, commodifying and Page-sixing, the transition process. There is a lot of excitement among wonkish types and historians, and we are getting that fix too, but it must be said, we are witnessing what may be the generational restructuring of the dynamics of hard politics in our country, and the "label politics" of the 1990s and 2000s is far less relevant than many in the press seem to believe, and, consequently, very unhelpful.
What we are seeing now is the beginning of the Obama period in our national political history. He is not a Clinton, nor will his administration function as if it were Clinton III, we can be assured of that by any number of obvious traits exhibited by Senator, Candidate and President-elect Obama. He is certainly not Bush and there is no Rovian dealing steering the transition; he has shown truly preternatural abilities to avoid getting bogged down in the ugly name-calling and character assassination that has dominated for two decades in Washington. This is of great historic import, have no doubts.
Barack Obama has promised the most transparent administration in our nation's history, and as such, a reinvention of government, civics and the nature of the Executive. Getting there will be a major challenge, and it is not wrong to posit the argument that it may be impossible. But 8.5 million more people thought he was the man to do it than thought so of John McCain. So now, as we watch and wait, speculate and gesticulate, rhetorically, about the weight and nature of every breath taken during the transition, we owe that democratic conscience a chance to prove its wisdom, a chance to see transcendence get underway.