Politics, Honor, Respect: A Confession
by Glenn Smith, Wed Mar 05, 2008 at 11:35:10 AM EST
As the Texas returns came in last night I listened to the political professionals in the room with me analyze the results. The consensus was that Barack Obama had failed to counter-attack, giving Hillary Clinton an open-field advantage the final weekend of the campaign. This is smart, if conventional, politics.
But I was distracted by thoughts of my own highly-emotional advocacy for Obama over the last few days and weeks. I have my reasons for supporting Obama, but I'm not going to revisit them here, except that I will make one positive observation of his character in order to make a larger point about the difficulty of acting with honor and respect in contemporary campaign settings. First, my confession.
As this presidential primary has unfolded, I found myself more and more strident and less and less thoughtful about the race. I've been in politics a long time, and I'm competitive. Competition, athletes tell us, can put them in a performance zone that makes them better. But my stridency was not making me better. It was making me unhappy. It was clouding my judgment. It wasn't making anyone around me happy or more thoughtful either.
The presidential primary is about to test us all in this regard, whichever side we may be on. One great difficulty is, attack politics works. Unless I'm wrong, it's about to get even more aggressive and more negative as Obama and Clinton use the proven tactic of negative campaigning against one another. I don't think anything can stop it; as a professional, I couldn't in good faith give either one of them the advice to lay off the attacks. Attacks work.
I am assuming Obama held back before March 4 because he thought he could eke out a victory in Texas and enhance his arguments with super delegates that Clinton, by attacking him, was threatening Democrats' chances for victory in November. I have no inside information. It's just my guess. But now Clinton (for strategic reasons) has proved, once again, that negative campaign tactics have their desired effect. I am not critical of that decision. It worked.
Here's the part about Obama's character, about honor and respect. In my conversations last night, many suggested -- and I heard my friend Paul Begala repeat this on CNN -- that Obama should have immediately fired the staffer alleged to have given the "wink-wink" to Canadian government officials with regard to NAFTA. This is also conventional and smart advice, advice that Obama didn't follow.
Now it turns out that the NAFTA story was a fraud. Had Obama acted as most professionals would have advised him to act, he would have acted without honor. I commend him for choosing honor over political expediency.
My point is that our contemporary political practices force upon us tactics and strategies that are without honor, that disrespect voters, that threaten the substance of our political negotiations with one another. I wrote a whole book, the Politics of Deceit, about this once.
But, if in the course of a hard-fought campaign, I forget my own advice and let my stridency get the better of me, how can I possibly ask others to do differently? Combine that with the obvious political advantages of deceit, deception and attack politics, and how do we escape the bind?
That's a big question. One answer is to pursue, as best we can, an honorable course, in our conversations and our campaigning. Muddle through. Another will involve the development of more personal, engaging politics, something that diminishes the impact of politics-at-a-distance, of the dominance of television advertising and sound-bite politics. This sounds so pie-in-the-sky I almost can't write it.
Meanwhile, I'll try to follow the example of honor, and respect those of you who disagree with my preference this year.