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Ask Auntie Pinko

December 2, 2004
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

Many of our progressive friends are already promoting Sen. Hillary Clinton as their favored candidate for 2008. But if the recent election tragedy tells us anything it's that a New England liberal with little charisma doesn't have much appeal in the heartland of our great country.

Even though Hillary has all the correct policy positions she'd probably suffer the same horrible fate as Kerry, Dukakis, and Gore. And though you and I might love Hillary, her negatives were the highest for any First Lady in American history. (I guess there's a reason she chose to run for a Senate seat in New York rather than Arkansas.) So, should we jump on this bandwagon, or not? I hope you can help.

Matt
Riverton, WY


Dear Matt,

Looking forward to the next Presidential election is one good way to keep a little positive energy going after the disappointment of the election just past. I hope many Democrats are joining you in beginning to think about how to make the future positive!

Before I give my opinion of Senator Clinton as a candidate, though, I'd just like to remind all of my readers that four years is a long way away, and many things can change between now and then. Although you may (or may not) have a favorite already, or think you know what kind of candidate might win, your perceptions could change, maybe several times, between now and 2008. And if we spend all of our time until then arguing with one another over the respective merits of this or that candidate, Auntie doesn't think we'll be doing the best service to our Party and to America.

Rather, we should spend the next couple of years doing two things:

  • Identifying and prioritizing the qualities we really want in a leader; and

  • Paying attention to Democratic elected officials nationwide, to see how well they live those qualities.

I say "qualities," rather than "positions" or "issues" quite deliberately. The Democratic Party embraces too broad a spectrum of beliefs and priorities about issues to ever achieve a consensus about a single individual based on her or his actions regarding a whole array of issues. Rather, what do a Democrat's actions tell us about their ability to lead, in many different contexts?

For instance, if you're looking at a Democrat in an executive position (mayor, county executive, governor, etc.) how effectively do they seem to be able to work with their legislative colleagues - both those who agree, and those who oppose them? How well are priorities communicated, and how well does the public respond to them? What does she or he regard as the major accomplishments of their administration? How effective and efficient are the bureaucrats appointed by this individual?

If you are looking at a Democrat in a legislative position, are they regarded as leaders by their peers? Can they accomplish legislative goals from both minority and majority positions in an ethical manner, without excessive costs in goodwill or sacrificing future goals? Can she or he resist the temptation to play to the media with impressive-sounding but comparatively minor feats, and accomplish the unglamorous incremental steps that lead to real change? How effectively are the concerns of the larger citizenry balanced against those of their own constituency?

There is always a catch, though, and in this case it lies in the fact that the answers to these questions are not going to found in the coverage of mainstream media. Mainstream media coverage is useful, but woefully incomplete. Rather, we will need to look at the actual source materials - legislative records of bills passed, lists of appointments, budgets, and so on. If it sounds like a lot of work, you're right - it is.

Fortunately there is help. Lots of groups with a particular interest or agenda make it their business to track the actions of elected officials, and will pull together quantities of information in one place for people to review. A good mix of mainstream media, the reporting and analysis of several (not one!) interest groups - both those you agree with and those you disagree with - and a little research of your own in key areas of particular interest, will give you a good picture of a potential candidate's qualities as a leader.

You may start with as many as eight or ten possibilities, and then with the research, narrow it to two or three, and continue to follow your favorites in more depth and detail. If you start this process now, Matt, by the time 2008 rolls around, you will have a very good, well-informed start on choosing the best candidate! Auntie thanks heaven for the Internet, because even if the noise-to-signal ratio can be deafening sometimes, it makes this kind of research easier than ever before.

Now, you asked specifically about Hilary Clinton. I share your ambivalence about her potential as a candidate, given the level of controversy and hostility her every move seems to generate. On the other hand, I met Ms. Clinton back in the early 1990s, before Mr. Clinton was nominated as the Democratic Party's candidate for President. She came to speak at a meeting about the relationship between the economy, health care, and the well-being of working people.

Ms. Clinton impressed me then as one of the smartest people I have ever met, with tremendous leadership qualities. And in person, she was warm and engaging and connected well with the hundreds of people who attended the meeting and the talks that she gave. Of course, back then, she had never had to deal with lengthy and relentless public bludgeoning of her every professional and personal action. It may be harder for her to make those personal connections, now.

I don't agree with all the positions she has taken and the priorities she has exhibited since being elected to the Senate. Nevertheless, she has shown great moral strength and a deep value for making America a place that can be proud of how we treat the least fortunate amongst us, as well as the most fortunate. If she continues to show the kind of principled and effective leadership that I value, she will certainly deserve consideration on my "short list," and, I hope, on yours, Matt. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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