Agonizing Over the Candidates and Who They Really Are

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Will Hillary Clinton really keep stroking the most anti-Castro crazed elder generation of Miami’s Cuban-American community? Or will she look at the demographic and polling data that show that most Cuban-Americans want a new course in US-Cuba relations, particularly with regard to travel to and from Cuba for Cuban-American families?
Some near Hillary Clinton tell me that given Fidel Castro’s recent hint that he is moving from the front line of Cuba’s political machine to a row further back (or up) in order to make way for a new generation of leaders, she is considering a full-scale policy review of her stated US-Cuba policy (i.e., potentially changing her position away from embracing the Bush administration’s direction in US-Cuba relations).
This would be good — but the bottom line is that we are forced to guess about what she might do and don’t have certainty about what she will do.
Will Barack Obama tilt more towards campaign advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision of tough-minded calculation of how to re-sculpt America’s place in the world or will he tilt more towards the priorities of his other campaign advisor Anthony Lake?
Lake is actively promulgating a “Concert of Democracies” initiative that seems to ignore the fundamental reality that American power has deteriorated and that most of the challenging problems ahead are with areas of the world where democrats and democracies are practically non-existent. This isn’t to say that a Concert of Democracies doesn’t have some appeal as a sideshow at some point — but it does little to re-establish a stable global equilibrium and to get America’s national security portfolio on a positive rather than destructive course.
Obama was brave and visionary in suggesting an alternative course for US-Cuba relations. One could think that his willingness to think out of the box and to escape the incrementalism of the current strategic class and the vested interests of today’s national security circumstances would be worth embracing and supporting.
But then what happened when the next opportunity came to show the same sort of boldness Obama did on Cuba? Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and nearly all of the candidates — except perhaps Biden and Christopher Dodd and the non-candidate Chuck Hagel — went silent during the Annapolis Peace Summit which drew together most of the Arab world, the P-5 nations, Israel, and many European and Southeast Asian nations in an effort to restart negotiations between Israel and Palestine over their long-term standoff. They all went silent as best I could tell.
I agree completely with Zbigniew Brzezinski that America’s “defining challenge” in this era is its challenge in the Middle East — and that not to get America back in a situation where it can help birth a cascading set of positive trends will ultimately turn America into a ‘hegemonic has-been’ (although the trend may be irreversible). The fact that the leading Democratic contenders had nothing to say about the Annapolis Summit raises legitimate questions about whether they have the commitment and wherewithal to tackle the complexity of America’s defining challenge in this era.
John McCain and all of the leading Democrats are all clearly anti-torture while Mitt Romney has been working hard embracing George Bush’s tough brinksmanship on Iran and recommended doubling Guantanamo. At the same time, Romney’s national security adviser has written articles suggesting that America must engage Syria. In fact, Romney’s national security team is about as pro-engagement with some of the world’s trouble-making regimes as Obama said he would be during the debates.
But this begs the question of who is the real Mitt Romney and what would the real Mitt Romney do in the Middle East or anywhere else? It’s hard to say with confidence.
Ron Paul is the less cluttered and complex version of Jack Murtha — completely anti-war and wants America’s military engagement in Iraq to end now.
Paul is attracting anti-war Republicans and Democrats far beyond the libertarian base that he would normally draw from. He is attracting a lot of progressives who believe in global justice, want the war over, and want to return to a benign American model rather than a view where America is the dangerous destabilizer of the international system.
But then Ron Paul shocks this crowd by running an advertisement that is as hostile to immigration that I have ever seen. He actually has a shocking, Jesse Helmsian line, that outdoes anything that Rudy Giuliani has said: “No more visas for students from terrorist nations.” This kind of position would appeal to those buying John Bolton’s new book as a Christmas present and who are reverential to the kind of pugnacious hyper-nationalism that Dick Cheney manifests.
Who then is the real Ron Paul?
I could go on in a similar way about Edwards, about Giuliani, even about Huckabee — who flip-flopped and was pro-economic engagement with Cuba when Arkansas’ Governor and now is harsher than George W. Bush when running for President.
One can do this with all of the candidates.
The fact is that no matter who emerges at the top in the coming set of primaries and caucuses, we aren’t going to know the real candidate. . .perhaps ever. All of these candidates are vessels for the interests and perspectives that surround them.
I remember sitting in the kitchen of a very close friend who is one of John McCain’s closest personal advisers. This friend was deeply disturbed by McCain’s speech at Liberty University and his triangulation on the the war and the Bush administration, designed to try to court the Republican “establishment” that Bush and Cheney presided over.
But this person who knows McCain better than most made the point that sometimes the “person” that the candidate is just doesn’t matter all that much — at some point, the candidate becomes a franchise of so many interests and perspectives, sometimes in internal conflict with one another, that what the candidate really thinks or feels becomes less important.
That is why I spend a lot of time looking at advisers, funders, and other interests that surround these candidates. Each is somewhat of a free trade zone unto himself or herself for political interests vying to steer him or her this way or that.
It’s lousy that this is the case — but it is, and we need to be engaged as American citizens in trying to compel the candidates one direction or another — and to punish or reward based on the positions that they are occasionally brave enough to articulate.
I’m personally sick of platitudes from the candidates.
I want to see pragmatism and steely-eyed commitment to solutions-oriented efforts on both America’s domestic and international fronts. I want to see some evidence of sensible judgment. I want to see someone who has an understanding of where incremental trends are taking the nation and some Acheson-like wizardry in re-imagining a different set of global and domestic arrangements (with detail) that can help the country leapfrog out of the morass it is in into a better, sustainable position.
It is really easy to understand why most of the candidates have not captured a decisive edge in the competitions ahead. Few of them want to sculpt in fine detail their political and policy personas and want to remain blurry.
They want us to guess what they might do — and some of us who turn our guesses into votes for an ultimate winner will still find ourselves disappointed that the reasons we supported this or that candidate got shelved in the end.
Despite all of the drama of this campaign process, when I think this through, I can very easily constrain my enthusiasm for any of the candidates.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

28 comments on “Agonizing Over the Candidates and Who They Really Are

  1. iphone app development says:

    Very helpful information. Very helpful, great share.

    Reply

  2. Kathleen says:

    Like you, Steve, I too am waiting for my Goldilocks moment when a candidate is just right. I’m not holding my breath.

    Reply

  3. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve wrote:
    “I agree completely with Zbigniew Brzezinski that America’s “defining challenge” in this era is its challenge in the Middle East — and that not to get America back in a situation where it can help birth a cascading set of positive trends will ultimately turn America into a ‘hegemonic has-been’ (although the trend may be irreversible).”
    American hegemony was a by-product of the convulsive global changes brought about by the Second World War, during which the US was able to use its relative geographical security in the western hemisphere to build a powerful military-industrial state. In the aftermath of the war this state machinery, built for war-fighting, was transitioned to Cold War purposes, and the extensive national security and intelligence apparatus created to meet emergency wartime needs was cemented in place, and even extended. The devastation wrought by the war throughout Europe made it easy for the US to establish leadership of the western coalition, build a consensus around that leadership and expand its power. And the new national security state generated powerful corporate and governmental interests, combining into a peculiar economic interest of enormous, and seemingly unstoppable, influence. It also created a class of intellectuals and technocrats whose education is organized around the service and maintenance of this state.
    But with each passing day the old postwar order disintegrates further, and along with it many of the external and internal motives supporting the coherence and dynamism of the postwar national security state. There is no common unifying purpose or obvious common enemy of sufficiently imposing size and importance, despite efforts of the ruling class and partisans of the old order to manufacture one: “Islamofascism”, “democratic enlargement” etc. If this loss of coherence and fragmentation of purpose means an end to the era of American hegemony, then perhaps it’s about time.
    But what can come next? What is needed is a new internationalism to combat political, social and economic challenges on a global scale, and prevent the disintegration of what currently exists of a global community into a nationalistic, mercantilist order with states acting on behalf of narrow, local interest. And by “new internationalism” I don’t mean quite the same thing as the “liberal internationalism” beloved by parts of the American ruling class. The latter is just a name for hegemony-by-alliance, an America-centered western liberal order which relies on a multilateral network of vassals and lesser nobility – or capos and lieutenants if you prefer – to support that order. It is organized behind a program of perpetual expansion of the liberal world-system, the support for private capital’s restless pattern of greed, exploitation and accumulation by dispossession, and aggressive confrontation of both weak and powerful states that lie outside that order.
    What we need is American participation in a global social movement to build a new framework of international political and economic institutions, geared toward the challenges of 2008, not those of 1945, and truly reflecting the interests of all of the world’s people, not just the interests of citizens of the affluent liberal states. Americans need to turn more of their political attentions to the global crucible, and begin to think more about organizing and participating in transnational parties and movements; calling global parliaments; establishing multinational regulatory mechanisms and a new, more egalitarian economic order; and creating security and policing structures that consist of more than just a few troops and helicopters on loan from the national armed forces that retain all of the sovereign control, and which are at the same time using those assets to project and apply muscle in the competitive global gang war for power, wealth and territory.
    Participation in national politics is obviously a vital activity, but should be increasingly regarded as analogous to participation in local and state politics. Americans have to begin to think about political organization and mobilization in broader global terms, and develop a stronger sense of identity as members of globally extended, extra-national communities. They need to seek out and demand new transnational media that do not cover all events from the standpoint of parochial American interests. They need to strengthen affective, sentimental attachments to communities and movements that extend beyond the United States, and not limit their political affections to the totems, anthems and myths of American political culture. They need to see to it that their children learn several languages, and encourage extensive social networking with people abroad. Perhaps they might think about flying a UN flag alongside their US flag.
    I think most of us have a pretty fair notion already about what are the most pressing global needs and challenges. But here is my own top ten list:
    1. Environmental protection and restoration.
    2. Promoting and preserving the global peace, including peace among nations and civil peace within nations.
    3. Enhancing energy security, and promoting and managing the global transition to a more efficient, clean and sustainable energy system.
    4. Reform of the global financial system.
    5. Reform of the global media order.
    6. The promotion of sustainable global development, and general prosperity under economic systems founded on principles of equality, and conducive to the preservation of equality.
    7. Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as disarmament and demilitarization in conventional areas.
    8. Combating the trafficking in weapons, harmful drugs and human beings.
    9. The promotion of artistic, intellectual and cultural exchange; and promotion of social conditions conducive to the widespread flourishing of human potential, and broad and equal access to the experiences of artistic beauty, natural beauty and spiritual refinement.
    10. Defense of fundamental human rights of fair and equal justice, speech, conscience, assembly and political participation.

    Reply

  4. DonS says:

    The post captures a good deal of the frustation surrounding what passes for a political process these days; who can put on the best show.
    On occasion I get the wistful notion that someone (well, someone not a total whackjob) who actually could cut through this fog and speak truthfully from morning to night would be so “awsome” that it would be a cake walk to the WH. Ah, but they they never would have risen anywhere in the “system” from which to make a run.
    They are indeed “franchised”.

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  5. Sally says:

    It’s a matter of the lesser of the evils and that’s no consolation. I’ve been looking forward to the Bush/Cheney exit but have real misgivings about where we are going from there.
    If there’s a genuine democratic leader out there, the system has failed to find her/him.
    As for policy details, not many voters are demanding them.

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  6. CarsonCity says:

    Steve, I totally agree with this post. You have captured it. CC

    Reply

  7. DreadPirate says:

    It’s more shameful how much has already been wa$ted to sustain the insatiable egos of these candidates, rather than “real leadership” that our country really demands — for change in DC. Sadly, each of these candidates are as inspiring as following bloated ticks that become lured towards the promise of blood money. (GOP neocons are more like leaches, however, as they leave a permanent scar.)
    Yet in the end, we’re all suckered — again.

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  8. Donna Z says:

    Who’s on those adviser lists?
    People who vow their support to raise their own legitamacy (looking for a high-profile job)
    People whose support raises the candidates legitamacy (not after a job)
    People who fit within both classifications
    Not everyone listed is actually listen to or even asked for their opinion.
    I’d like to know why Sen. Clinton has Lee Feinstein (foreign policy), Gen. Keane (military adviser), and Michael O’Hanlon on her list?

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  9. susan says:

    Atrios sums it up:
    Shorter Candidates
    Obama: The system sucks, but I’m so awesome that it’ll melt away before me.
    Edwards: The system sucks, and we’re gonna have to fight like hell to destroy it.
    Clinton: The system sucks, and I know how to work within it more than anyone.

    Reply

  10. Koshembos says:

    It is nothing short of a major joke to think of Zbigniew Brzezinski as anything but a clown. The grant Middle-Eastern policy can be an essay by an average high school student. It’s relevance is questionable and its decade old framework has never proven to be anything worth spending time on.
    The possibility of a new world where China, Russian, the EU and the US are co-equals and to deal with China and Russia, two totally neglected issues the last 7 years, is at least as important as any other area in the world. The impending climate catastrophe will eliminate everything else from consideration.
    Bottom line: not everyone speaking earnestly with a foreign accent is as wise as Kissinger was.

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  11. pauline says:

    Carroll wrote:
    “If they aren’t willing to go into the nitty gritty details when asked point blank…
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Isn’t HRC’s biggest campaign contributor Big Pharma? And, isn’t the military-industrial-complex her second biggest contributor followed, of course, by all the tentacles of AIPAC?
    Who in their right mind would even vaguely consider voting for this power-hungry control maniac?!
    Oh…I guess I forgot the many “honest” folks whose livelihoods are very much dependant on the status quo — Big Pharma, military-industrial-complex contractors and AIPAC. If Edwards somehow sneaks in, AIPAC might just fear DC doors could start closing if Edwards’ reforms somehow came true. With these three super contributors, money is not an issue and HRC loves it.

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  12. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Straight from the AIPAC website….
    Bush Signs Bill Allocating $2.42 Billion in Aid to Israel
    President Bush signed the foreign-aid bill on Air Force One.
    President Bush on Wednesday signed a bill that allocates $2.42 billion in U.S. aid to Israel, including $2.38 billion in military aid and $39.6 million in assistance for the resettlement of refugees from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. Earlier this month, the House and Senate approved the funding as part of a comprehensive federal funding package that included the annual U.S. aid to Israel. The bill also includes restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), including a prohibition from using U.S. funds to pay the salaries of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In addition, Congress has for the first time linked Egypt’s economic and military aid to Cairo’s efforts in stemming weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
    http://www.aipac.org/130.asp#6888
    If you REALLY want to know “who the candidates are”, you have to look at who they are turning tricks for. It seems the “majority” might not be able to pass any bills that reflect the will and the wishes of the American people, but they sure as shit can make sure Israel keeps sucking us dry.

    Reply

  13. Lost from NYC says:

    You certainly have a much better perspective on this than I or at least are a lot closer to it, but can’t understand at all how Al Gore abdicated any interest/responsibility to run and just walked away. He is the only person i see who potentially has the vision and both domestic/global legitimacy needed to put US back on the track to as you say give “birth a cascading set of positive trends” though mean that in a broader sense than in terms of the Middle East specifically.

    Reply

  14. JohnH says:

    You certainly can’t judge the candidates on what they say. They will say as little as they can get away with and hint at most anything to get elected, i.e. platitudes and babble.
    You have to look at what the candidates have done. Unfortunately, this crop of Democrats has done almost nothing. So we’re forced at looking at how they voted and reading tea leaves on who is funding them and who is advising them.
    And who has the character of a leader? Is there anybody? It’s a total crap shoot.
    I hope that anyone who has not disavowed the Iraq Occupation falls quickly by the wayside. Ditto with anyone who doesn’t give us a quick path away from health insurance companies who profit by denying coverage.

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  15. Earth says:

    guys and girls (blondies)! tell your boss Mr Mdoch i will cancel my fox-box! not happy with the reporting,too right wing…too biased…too fascist…a bottle of good wine is better than sky news!next year i will spend my money more wisely!…ron paul….who is ron paul…..blondies…lets find it out!….I wish you all a very happy RON PAUL presidental New Year!!!!!

    Reply

  16. Forest Ranger says:

    As with the other commentators, thank you for the interesting post.
    Unfortunately, most major candidates do not provide details behind their policy initiatives, and it’s doubtful that any would. Nonetheless, one can still judge a candidate by what they say and don’t say. For example, does the candidate pander to his/her base, or does he/she challenge the base to review an issue in a different way? That’s the type of leader I want – one who is not scared to confront and challenge the orthodox thinking.

    Reply

  17. Carroll says:

    Speaking of lack of details from candidates on their plans..
    I was listening to one of Hillary’s people, some young woman on her health care team I suppose, on c-span the other day.
    No matter how many callers tried to pry some detail out of this woman on exactly what the plan was..she stuck to the same rote campaign babble…it’ universal, you will have choices, blah,blah, would absolutely not give out one detail.
    If they aren’t willing to go into the nitty gritty details when asked point blank I have to assume they have something to hide from people who are going to be looking at their plans and comparing, and from the people who are going to comment on them to the public.

    Reply

  18. Frank Wilhoit says:

    “Agonizing Over the Candidates and Who They Really Are” is entirely unecessary and pointless. Each of them is either a Republican or not; that is all that matters. Unfortunately, even among those who are not Republicans, one does not find any candid and forthright acknowledgement of the absolute illegitimacy of the Republican Party.

    Reply

  19. Steve Clemons says:

    Croatoan — Thanks for the counsel. Good point, and I just fixed it.
    best, Steve Clemons

    Reply

  20. Eric says:

    “Despite all of the drama of this campaign process, when I think this through, I can very easily constrain my enthusiasm for any of the candidates.”
    How depressingly true. As the semester wound down and my students asked me, in the end, who I would support, I honestly said, “I still don’t know; I can come up with good reasons not to support all of them and no truly compelling reason to support any of them.”
    I also think you really hit the nail on the head on the importance of who the advisors are, and not just the list of names but who actually has influence.
    Another sad reality, however, is that most voters will not understand the differences in the candidates over major foreign policy questions, and foreign policy will rarely be the deciding factor. Sure, one can point to the importance of the war in Iraq, but even there the difference in opinions among the candidates on what to do in the region as a whole receives less attention than the intended timeframe to remove all troops.

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  21. croatoan says:

    the leading Democrat contenders
    It’s the Democratic Party, so this should be “Democratic contenders.” Please don’t follow the Republicans’ example of disrespectfully shortening the name.

    Reply

  22. Michael Kahn says:

    Wonderful, wonderful posting, Steve. A Clemons classic. Bless you.

    Reply

  23. Carroll says:

    “I am personally sick of platitudes from the candidates”
    “Despite all of the drama of this campaign process, when I think this through, I can very easily constrain my enthusiasm for any of the candidates.”
    — Steve Clemons
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Ditto,ditto,ditto.

    Reply

  24. Dennis says:

    Millions and millions of Americans would welcome a choice on the ballot that says, “None of the above.”
    But the powers that control what is on the ballots, and both political parties, are afraid of the results.
    The truth would come out, Americans are not happy with their government and the corporations that control it.
    You don’t have to be a blind conservative not to see it, just an ignorant one to deny it.

    Reply

  25. LInda says:

    Perhaps it’s a good week to just think about New Year’s Eve, parades, bowl games and see what happens in IA and NH. There just have been too many contenders for way too long–and the media and debates have not been demanding much in the way of substance for all this time. It doesn’t really even matter who is advising which candidate as that will change in six weeks or so when it should be clear who the nominess of each party will be. And somehow most all their bitter rivals now will end of endorsing each party’s nominee.

    Reply

  26. Pernicious Pavlovian says:

    Platitudes are pandering and the candidates are spineless demagogues. America is sans “effective and real” leadership so one could suppose that we get what we pay for. Or, we get what we ignore. The Clinton/McCain/Obama/Romney/Edwards/Huckabee Medusa is as disgusting as it is perverse. ‘We the people’ have taken a rain check on civic duty and substituted ‘excess and distraction’ for actual participation. The dueling political parties fill the void with whatever sells. How are the American people awakened? Maybe the complete collapse of the American economic system will finally wake up the masses. However, it will be too late and America’s flirtation with fascism will come to fruition. Where hides Chuck Hagel when America really needs him?

    Reply

  27. anotherpissedoffguy says:

    clemons, this is why i read your stuff. you hit the nail on the god-damned head.

    Reply

  28. TulsaTime says:

    Yea verrily Steve! Way too much fluff and not enough substance in the candidates. Not that they get any reward for substance at this point of the cycle. It just provides more of a target for the ‘others’ to shoot at, so a non-starter for one and all.
    But if history shows us anything, it’s that the things that will really test the next president will not come up in the race. This race will probably center on foreign policy, but the future holds economic catastrophy. Good luck finding discussion on peak oil or the impending bank system failure!!

    Reply

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