Sunday, July 01, 2007

Is Politics Like Making a Child Custody Decision?

The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes a wonderful (which is not at all to say "positive") review of the latest books about Hillary Clinton (A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein and Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.) Early in the piece, the reviewer, Michael Tomasky, asks a rhetorical question that Democrats who support a candidate other than Clinton on the ground that she can't win because she starts out with high negatives:
After an unprovoked war built on lies, the deaths of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, illegal domestic spying, government-sanctioned torture, the indefinite incarceration of suspects, a scandal surrounding efforts by the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer to install prosecutors willing to undertake blatantly political prosecutions, and astonishing tales of congressional corruption, is it not at least demeaning and superfluous to be presented with one-thousand-plus pages revisiting such questions as how many hours of billable work Hillary Clinton actually performed for Madison Guaranty?
The answer, of course, is of course. It's not just demeaning. It's also insulting. If Clinton ends up as the Democratic nominee, and if she ends up losing the general election because some number of voters who find her otherwise more qualified than the Republican nominee vote against her because they are turned off by the largely bogus scandals of the 1990s, that will be a profound failure of democracy.

Still, what are Democratic caucus and primary voters to do? If you support another candidate because you think that other candidate would make a better President than Clinton, there is no issue. But suppose you think that Clinton is actually best for the job but you worry that for a variety of bad reasons---including sexism as well as Clinton fatigue---the general electorate would be more likely to vote for some other Democratic nominee than for Clinton, and that this could be the difference in the overall race. Should you therefore support this other Democratic candidate?

In part, this is simply the familiar issue of electability. I do not mean to suggest that it's never legitimate to consider electability in deciding whom to nominate. But where electability tracks affirmatively bad reasons, we might worry about the Palmore v. Sidoti factor. In that 1984 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a family court judge could not choose to award custody to a single-race couple over a mixed-race couple on the ground that a child raised by the latter would face racial prejudice. To do so, the Court said, would be to adopt that very prejudice. To make the issue as sharp as possible, suppose that you think Clinton (or Obama) is the best candidate on the merits but you also think that if she (or he) got the nomination, enough voters would go for the Republican on sexist (or racist) grounds to tip the election. Could you in good conscience decide to support a different candidate (Edwards, say), without thereby effectively acting as a conduit for sexism (or racism)?

11 comments:

egarber said...

These are good questions.

It also seems the Republicans have their own version of this dynamic (though not one driven by gender or racial consideration).Undoubtedly, there are many on that side who feel Rudy is the most electable candidate -- but will those voters sacrifice core social issues like reproductive privacy?

In a sense those voters can ask the same question you brought up: Could you in good conscience decide to support a different candidate, without thereby effectively acting as a conduit for reinforcing Roe, etc.?

David C. said...

There are probably two different types of people who are, as you ask, conduits. There are those who invoke others' prejudices in order to mask their own (even to themselves). Those people aren't even really conduits, they just get to maintain their prejudices and a sense of enlightenment at the same time.

As for purer "conduits," this is probably a prevalent problem. If I am responsible for hiring in a law firm, I might have no problem with [insert minority group here], but I may correctly or incorrectly perceive that my current and prospective clients would have a problem with that minority group. So I hire the white guy. He may not be more qualified, but he won't make anybody uncomfortable when he walks in the room. Similarly, if I own a restaurant, I may have no problem being patronized by [insert minority group here, or, even something like goth-dressing teenagers], but if I fear my other customers might, I may start putting out hte word to my staff to give substandard service and cold shoulders to the disfavored group.

In these cases, it seems difficult to tolerate conduit-prejudice, because there likely is a feedback loop. The more the actually prejudiced people go to law firms or restaurants and see them devoid of the disfavored minority group, the more they feel secured in the correctness or shared nature of their belief. And then it never goes away.

So what to do about Clinton or Obama? It's tough to say what's right, because so much rides on the election. Still, it may be worth it to send a message that there are vast amounts of people in this country for whom "female president" or "black president" are not contraditions in terms. It may mean losing the general election this time, but it will be another step on the long road to tolerance.

Carl said...

How exactly is it "of course" demeaning after all these terrible lies and crimes perpetrated on the American and Iraqi public by the present administration that someone might call into question a candidate's disposition to tell the truth and obey the law? This seems to be "of course" exactly the question we want to be asking.

egarber said...

On the Republican dynamic here, the roundtable on MTP made some interesting observations.

One participant was a correspondent from the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Russert asked him about Rudy.

The guy basically said that evangelicals might be ok with Rudy's personal views, as long as he stays on message about "judges, judges, and judges." In fact, Judy W. said that Pat Robertson approves of Rudy (maybe has even endorsed him?), and Russert mentioned that 65% of self-described evangelicals would or might vote for the former NY mayor.

I guess my point is that there are social conservatives who have figured out a way to support the most "electable" candidate.

PG said...

I think Clinton is difficult to elect not precisely because of the scandals in themselves, but because of the generalized sense of dislike so many people feel toward Hillary Clinton that probably isn't traceable to a specific instance of *wrongdoing*. I'm not devoid of this myself -- while I'm wholly indifferent to Whitewater and associated nonsense, I'm really annoyed by some of the ways in which she'd tried to pander to the right, particularly on social issues. As a law school graduate, she's presumably somewhat conversant with the First Amendment, yet she's called for a statute to ban flag desecration and made a minor fool of herself over Grand Theft Auto.

In other words, the concern is that Clinton is insincere and willing to say anything to get elected. This is different from Obama's problems, which are that his campaign staff is imbecile and he tends to spout off without thinking. (Though I do think some of the stuff he says off-the-cuff will freak out white people particularly.) They make for a nice study together of the Scylla of insincerity and the Charybdis of incaution -- a candidate somehow needs to be real, but not raw.

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