Clinton, Obama and Fear

One difference between Obama and Clinton does not seem to me to have been stressed enough. They are of different Democratic generations. Clinton is from the traumatized generation; Obama isn't. Clinton has internalized to her bones the 1990s sense that conservatism is ascendant, that what she really believes is unpopular, that the Republicans have structural, latent power of having a majority of Americans on their side. Hence the fact that she reeks of fear, of calculation, of focus groups, of triangulation. She might once have had ideals keenly felt; she might once have actually relished fighting for them and arguing in thier defense. But she has not been like that for a very long time. She has political post-traumatic stress disorder. She saw her view of feminism gutted in the 1992 campaign; she saw her healthcare plan destroyed by what she saw as a VRWC; she remains among the most risk-averse of Democrats on foreign policy and in the culture wars. Here's a simple current example: her position on needle exchanges to reduce HIV transmission among IV drug users. Ben Smith recounts the tale here. The last Clinton administration refused to prevent HIV transmission this way, regardless of the science and epidemiology, because they were terrified of being labeled "liberal" by the GOP machine. Clinton still hasn't out-grown that (which is why I confidently predict that if she becomes president, progress toward gay equality will slow, because a leading Democrat will impede it in a long slog of triangulation and risk-aversion). Her classic formulation today is what it was before:

"We'll have as much spine as we possibly can, under the circumstances."

Obama is different. He wasn't mugged by the 1980s and 1990s as Clinton was. He doesn't carry within him the liberal self-hatred and self-doubt that Clinton does. The traumatized Democrats fear the majority of Americans are bigoted, know-nothing, racist rubes from whom they need to conceal their true feelings and views. The non-traumatized Democrats are able to say what they think, make their case to potential supporters and act, well, like Republicans acted in the 1980s and 1990s. The choice between Clinton and Obama is the choice between a defensive crouch and a confident engagement. It is the choice between someone who lost their beliefs in a welter of fear; and someone who has faith that his worldview can persuade a majority.

In my view, the call is not a close one.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus