Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Two Pragmatists? Two Pragmatisms: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Cross-posted at DM Smith. Some last minute, insomniac thoughts about the presidential debate. Maybe this isn't the best forum for this, since its pretty contentious political stuff I'm going to say. Hopefully you won't take it as rude, and you'll just take it as interesting. Let me know if you think I should take it down. Have a good Super-Tuesday!

Hillary Clinton, in recent debates and throughout her campaign, represents herself as the hard-headed pragmatist in the contest. In her opening remarks in the debate with Obama in Hollywood last Thursday, she said:

... the next president will walk into the Oval Office, and waiting there will be a stack of problems ... I think it's imperative we have a problem-solver, that we roll up our sleeves. I'm offering that kind of approach, because I think that Americans are ready once again to know that there isn't anything we can't do if we put our minds to it.

Music to my ears, in a way. This is certainly an attitude I'd like to see more often in politics---not big ideologies and grand visions, but tough problems and the gumption to get to work and solve them. Clinton gives us a stack of problems that we (in the reality-based community?) uncontroversially face: Iraq, Afghanistan, economic disparity, the health insurance gap, energy, and global warming. She's ready to talk about how to solve them.

(Though, of course, in the very first question, she says, "I believe absolutely passionately that
we must have universal health care. It is a moral responsibility..." Which makes it sound like an absolute vision, rather than a pragmatic problem-solution. Of course, this rhetoric is very useful, so it is not likely to disappear anytime soon, but I think we can be suitably deflationist about it in the context.)

Barack might seem, by contrast, to be the idealist in the race, and Clinton certainly wants to set him up as such, the naive, unexperienced idealist (though let's not mention that, if we're talking about first-hand political experience, he's got a heck of a lot on Clinton). Obama talks big talk about hope, about change, about new directions:

And at this moment, the question is: How do we take the country in a new direction? How do we get past the divisions that have prevented us from solving these problems year after year after year? I don't think the choice is between black and white or it's about gender or religion. I don't think it's about young or old. I think what is at stake right now is whether we are looking backwards or we are looking forwards.

He pushes for a politics free from "special interests" and the influence of lobbyists as they function today. And yet, when asked to describe the major policy differences between himself and Senator Clinton, Senator Obama doesn't make the distinction as one of moral compass, or in terms of ideology. He makes careful points about the difficulties of policy: if you mandate health care, you may end up hurting those that you want to help. If you freeze interest rates, you may make things difficult for those you want to help. If the president meets with Iran, we may be able to resolve our differences in a way that doesn't cost lives and billions of dollars. These differences are based in careful analysis of policy and the practical problems therein, not in mere ideals and visions.

On the other hand, to mix up analysis and personal prejudice for a moment, the type of hard-headed policy analysis that Hillary Clinton is willing to engage in frankly terrifies me. Consider the much-publicized statement by Hillary in October last year:

Iran must conform to its nonproliferation obligations and must not be permitted to build or acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran does not comply with its own commitments and the will of the international community, all options must remain on the table. (my emphasis)

Really, Hillary? All options? Would that include bombings? War with Iran? Nuking them? Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that approved the Bush administrations case for war with Iran, so that, in her words, we would have "leverage when we negotiate with them." This was not unlike her attitude in approving the war with Iraq. Recall her reaction to Mike Gravel, who exposed her in the September debate as voting for Kyl-Lieberman: she giggle, no, cackled at him. For his naivete? For not being willing to "put teeth" into our negotiations with Iran.

Unfortunately, we don't know what Obama would have done in this vote; he wasn't there. We know that Obama was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, whereas Clinton did not. And we know that he's in favor of more open negotiations with Iran. To try to be a little more removed for a moment, it is clear that Clinton is more willing to take a tough attitude to get what we want, to "do what it takes" to get the job done, whereas Obama is less willing to take the tough route.

While we might be inclined to regard the difference between Clinton's pragmatic attitude and Obama's idealism (perhaps, idealistic pacifism?), this seems like a mistake to me. I've come around to see the difference instead as that between a hard, unflinching pragmatism in Clinton and a hopeful, empathetic, softer pragmatism in Obama.

Let's return to the worry about hope from earlier. In another speech a few weeks ago in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama lays out part of what we might call his politics of hope that he has been talking about at least since the Democratic convention in 2004:

Some are scornful about my message of hope. "He's talking about hope again. He's so idealistic and naive. He's a 'hope-monger'." Love, education, and hope were my birthright. Hope is not blind optimism, it is not ignorance of the barriers and obstacles and hazards that stand in your way. Hope is just the opposite. Nothing worthwhile has happened in this country unless somebody, somewhere decided to hope. (1/20/2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church)

Far from being an exhortation to faith, or a naive ideal, Barack Obama's talk of hope is talk about moving forward, about finding a way to work together to achieve better things.
Richard Rorty also talked about hope:

[The Right] sees the Left's struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved...

[Dewey and Whitman] wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God... it is a matter of replacing shared knowledge of what is already real with social hope for what might become real. (Achieving Our Country, pp. 14, 18, my emphasis)

And elsewhere, he compares Dewey and Foucault, arguing that while they were trying to do the same thing, Dewey did it better because he gave us room for hope, ungrounded and ungroundable though it may be, rather than attempting to make the very concept seem like nonsense.

We can look to hope, not just to the machinations of and struggle for power, or to whatever will give us "leverage" or "protect" us from threats.
Far from being a vice of idealism, hope is one of the paradigm virtues of the better kind of pragmatism of Dewey and Rorty.

A crucial component of Obama's politics of hope is "unity."

In his MLK Sermon, Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.


That is the unity---the hard-earned unity---that we need right now. It is that effort, and that determination, that can transform blind optimism into hope---the hope to imagine, and work for, and fight for what seemed impossible before. (1/20/2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church)

In order for hope to become efficacious, we need unity. We need to work together to achieve our country. In his discussions of "hope" and "unity," Obama sets himself up, probably without knowing much about it, as the heir to the democratic ideals of Dewey. His is the kind of politics I would want to call pragmatist.

In contrast to Obama's politics of unity, we have Clinton's politics of "us vs. them." She outlines "the differences that we have with Republicans... because its really a stark difference." While Obama also outlines his differences with Republicans, he also talks about "bring[ing] Democrats [and] Republicans together to get it done." Clinton is eager to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a huge chunk of the Iranian government, a terrorist organization. Obama is eager to have talks and attempt to find a way to reconcile with Iran.

In contrast to Obama's politics of hope that we can work together towards what seemed impossible, we have Clinton's politics of playing tough, to force people who don't know better to do what's good for them, to force "the others" to get in line with our interests, or else.

Just the difference by itself is interesting. William James argued a century ago that temperament had a determining role in philosophy that was rarely recognized, and that the defining feature of pragmatism was that it mediated between the extremes of "tough-minded" (empiricistic) and "tender-minded" (rationalistic) temperaments. Of course, not long after he said it, it was pointed out that within pragmatism as a movement, there were still leanings towards one temperament or another. And there were even wider swings within pragmatism of political temperament. It is interesting just to look at not only the degree which pragmatism rather than moral absolutism plays such a role in the major democratic hopefuls, but also the quite different forms that pragmatism takes between them, what we might call their very different temperaments.

There's always a time for playing tough, and there are cases in which we have to do what's good for people against their will, when the other options have run out. But these should be the exception, not the rule. In my view, now isn't the time for an approach of getting tough, of us-vs-them. We need a softer, more ameliorative, more hopeful pragmatism in 2008, and it seems like Barack Obama is more likely to deliver it.


Tom said...

see video: FRAUD on Voters by The Nation and Chris Hayes, Part 1 (Obama violates international law)

Theron said...

Hey Matt,

Interesting pragmatismy analysis of the democratic presidential candidates.

I do have to say that I think some of the complaints about Hillary's mandatory health care plan are a tad unfair. True, everyone will be forced to purchase some kind of plan, but (1) people will be free to choose basically whatever kind of plan they want, and (2) people who otherwise could not afford health care will receive subsidies such that they can afford it.

I think Obama plays off of Americans' fear of a monolithic, government-run, individuality smothering, healthcare system. In almost every debate since this summer, Obama has tried to draw people away from Hillary's (and Edwards') plan by evoking this kind of yuck-reaction.

Instead, in discussing Hillary's plan, it would be refreshing if he first pointed out (1) and (2), and THEN moved on to say what's wrong with her mandatory health care proposal (supposing he does have a good argument somewhere underneath all the rhetoric). This would certainly prove to be a more responsible form of debating this issue.

Also see: "Why Does Obama Fear Mandatory Health Care?"

That said, I actually like Obama. If he gets the nomination, I will enthusiastically support him!