Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

Matt Bai Breaks Down the Democrats’ Rebuilding


Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats' return to political dominance in The Argument.

Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats’ return to political dominance in The Argument.

Life is good for the Democratic Party these days.

In firm control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than a generation, the Democrats have seen their ranks swell with the recent defection of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter’s switch gave the Democrats a near filibuster-proof majority of 59 senators – something that may come in handy during the upcoming nomination process of Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama recently put forward to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first Latina in the nation’s history to serve on the court.

The Democrats have had a string of successes since Obama’s inauguration in January, overseeing the passage of a $787 billion stimulus plan, starting to implement a withdrawal time line and process for the war in Iraq and moving both to close Guantanamo prison camp and repudiating the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies that many described as torture.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are struggling.  Mightily.

Each week seems to bring new headlines that suggest a party in disarray,  with an unclear voice, hierarchy or direction.  One week it’s Rush Limbaugh saying that Colin Powell is not actually a Republican. Another it’s Meghan McCain, daughter of the defeated presidential candidate, slamming conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

In this climate, it can be easy to forget that the political scene was completely reversed less than five years ago.

After Bush soundly defeated John Kerry in the November 2004 presidential election, the Democrats seemed to some to be poised on the brink of irrelevance, or, even worse, obscurity.  Bush’s victory,  which gave him the opportunity to later appoint two Supreme Court justices, was the seventh by a Republican in the previous 10 presidential contests.  Continued majorities in both the House and Senate accompanied his triumph.  

New York Times Magazine political reporter Matt Bai remembers this dry period in the Democrats’ history.

He traces the party’s path back from the political netherlands to reclaiming the House, the Senate and the majority of governorships, in The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.

The road to political redemption was a twisted one, with many engaging characters and twists along the way.

Bai begins the book with Kerry’s crushing, and apparently surprising, defeat in 2004. (I had had a strong feeling about the race’s outcome from the point that he did not respond forcefully to the Swift Boat attacks in August and thus I did not share the surprise of some of the sources Bai interviewed.  If anything, Kerry’s lack of response reminded me strongly of Michael Dukakis‘ failure to counter the Lee Atwater-conceived Willie Horton ads that had such a devastating effect on his candidacy.)

From the loss, Bai moves to explore the different level of change in party operation and vision that Democratic strategists and members felt were necessary.  Democracy Alliance founder Rob Steinn is shown as playing a key role in raising party awareness about the degree of organization the Republicans had fostered, thereby helping people understand what Democrats confronted. 

Bai spends a lot of time in the book talking about the ascending role of technology – a development that led to the surprisingly successful candidacy of Howard Dean and his later selection as party chairman, the emerging power of organizations like Eli Pariser’s MoveOn.org and the potency of bloggers like Markos Zuniga, creator of the wildly popular DailyKos.

Technology also is a lense through which one sees some of the major conflicts between, on the one hand, the 1990s Clinton-era establishment, which modernized and moved the party toward the political center and fashioned two presidential victories by traditional methods of fundraising and politicking, and, on the other hand, the more progressive and technologically-oriented new guard embodied by Zuniga and Pariser.

The resulting conflicts are often messy.

Bai describes one party gathering where the former president lost his temper when questioned about his wife Hillary’s vote to go to war in Iraq  and proceeded to rant about all kinds of right-leaning policies and directions he said were ascribed to him.  Bai also shows the ongoing and occasionally public struggles between current White House majordomo Rahm Emanuel and the then party chairman about Dean’s 50-state strategy – an approach which Emanuel felt diverted valuable resources from battleground states. 

In the end, the Democrats swept to victory. Each of the groups and people listed above and a host of others could claim some share of the triumph, if not the spoils. 

The inside argument about remaking Democratic politics is less clearly answered.  Bai ends the book with a lion in winter-like address from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who reminds the exultant Democrats that, despite their smashing electoral victories, they still “have no big idea.” 

The Argument has a number of the strengths and weaknesses that characterize much of Bai’s work that appears in The New York Times magazine.  His intelligence, writing skills and thorough reporting are apparent throughout the work; and yet one often leaves his pieces, and, in this case, the book, feeling like she has not actually learned much new or different.

The Democrats’ need to articulate a vision greater than “We are not the Republicans” has been known for a long time, for example. So, too, has the Republicans’ superior ground level organizational capacity, forged during the late 70s and 80s by people like Richard Viguerie, strategist Grover Norquist and strengthened in the 90s by Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.  Bai’s explanation of the rise of blogging is engaging but not particularly informative to the tens of millions of people who have clicked onto DailyKos during the past decade.

Bai does not explore the mixed legacy of the Clinton presidency as fully as he could, and Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman, which Bai seems to herald as the triumph of the new way, seems a bit hollow given Lieberman’s ultimate triumph.  

One gets the sense while reading The Argument that Bai is writing for those people who were among Rob Stein’s target audience – Democrats who did not get why their party was being consistently clobbered in elections, yet did not think that drastic action or rethinking needed to be taken to stop the slide.  

Which brings us back to Obama and the Democrats’ current strong position. 

Obama appears in The Argument as a skilled writer who unsurprisingly adopts a both/and position toward traditional party stalwarts and the emerging online progressive movement.  He contributes a spirited articulation of his position in a lengthy blog post which urges people not to demonize Republicans, affirms the establishment’s importance and uses available technology to share his views.  

Written during the throes of Obama and Clinton’s fight for the Democratic nomination, the afterword includes the following somewhat prescient thought:

“Should Obama win the nomination, though, and perhaps even the White House, he will face a choice where the powerful progressives in his party are concerned: whether to attempt, through the power of his personality and argument, to lead the new movement away from the limited politics of hostility and toward some modern vision of liberalism, or whether to become, like so many political leaders before him, a reflection of the movement he inherits.  If Obama can’t change the trajectory of the new progressive movement, then the movement will very likely change him.”

Obama has not been president long enough to definitively answer the questions Bai or Cuomo pose, and the answers to those questions may go a long way toward predicting whether his victory is a blip on the screen of Republican dominance or augurs a new era in liberal thinking.

For posing those questions, and for providing an enjoyable read along the way, Bai deserves credit, even if The Argument does have a number of flaws.


Russian Reset, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Richard Rhodes' outstanding work provides valuable context for Hillary Clinton's recent joke.

Richard Rhodes' outstanding work provides valuable context for Hillary Clinton's recent joke.

I wrote last week about President Obama’s efforts to “reset” the United States’ relationship with Russian, its former adversary while in its incarnation as the Soviet Union.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up on the metaphor, handing her counterpart, the witty Sergei Lavrov, a fake “reset” button during a meeting next week.

Good humor aside, relations between the former Soviet Union and the United States went through very tense periods during the Cold War, none more so than during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

At stake: the possible destruction of the world by nuclear weapons. 

While some saw Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to turn his ships around and avert a possible nuclear confrontation as a clear victory for then-President John F. Kennedy, others later said that Khrushchev’s willingness to turn away from the brink may have averted a nuclear catastrophe of apocalytpic proportions.

The number of nuclear weapons at the leaders’ disposal had grown exponentially since the dropping of bombs Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The bombs not only ushered in a new age of unprecedented destruction, but marked the culmination of a furious design effort headed by the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an authoritative account of the physics, physicists, geopolitics and consequences of making the bomb that caused Oppenheimer to quote Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and say, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Rhodes’ book richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize it received upon its publication in 1986. 

He weaves three major and interrelated narrative strands together seamlessly in this massive work: the evolution of atomic physics; the physicists’ gradual awareness of nuclear power’s destructive capacity; and the changing political and historical context in which they eventually saw the bomb as a necessary tool for survival to defeat the Axis Powers.

Any one of these topics are sufficient enough to fill a library.  Rhodes’ skill is that he shows the connections between the areas.  I have comparatively little education in and understanding of physics, but found myself able to understand Rhodes’ explanation of the syncretic contributions of luminaries like Albert Einstein, Eugene Wigner and Niels Bohr.  Rhodes similarly does a fine job of bringing these individuals, their passions, their competition and their belief, especially on Bohr’s part, on the value of an open society in which rank does not matter and the best ideas are implemented.

Rhodes also effectively shows the rise of Hitler’s fascist government in Germany, his hasty dismantling of the fragile and fledgling Weimar Republic and his relentless move to war.  In one of the book’s many ironies, Rhodes shows how Hitler’s antisemitism led to the forced departure of many of the people who worked tirelessly to defeat him by creating the atomic bomb.

Rhodes also depicts the physicists’ desire to finish the job and, in most cases, remorse after the bombs had been dropped in Japan, and, instead of leading to the permanent end of conflict between nations, only ushered in the most lethal and potentially destructive era yet.  Oppenheimer spoke publicly about the physicists’ knowing sin, and he was far from alone in the sense of distress at the cause to which he had contributed and dedicated many years and his most concentrated energy and attention.

In short, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an outstanding book that I can easily picture making my list of Top 10 books for 2009.  People interested in understanding the meaning behind Clinton’s reset gesture would be well served to read Rhodes’ magisterial account of a time and place before nuclear weapons existed.

Black History Month: Gwen Ifill on The Breakthrough

Gwen Ifill puts Obama's victory in broader context in The Breakthrough.

Gwen Ifill puts Obama's victory in broader context in The Breakthrough.


Beyond his historic run for the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama has been a boon for the publishing industry.

In addition to his two memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope,  and a campaign primer, there have been close to a dozen books about Obama, his prospects for election, and, since November, the meaning of his triumph.

Longtime journalist Gwen Ifill, who moderated the debate between then-Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has entered the fray, too.  Her debut book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, puts Obama’s victory in context with other post-civil rights generation African Americans who have won political office at local, state, and federal levels.

The Breakthrough is an accessible and engaging read.  Ifill begins in the introduction by recounting some of her initial experiences as a reporter in South Boston during the 1970s busing era.  Racial tension was so high that she would get daily dispatches from the school superintendent about what had happened rather than go to the school and the neighborhood.  From this starting point, of course, Obama’s victory to the highest office in the land is nothing short of remarkable, and, as Ifill notes in the book, was inconceivable for many, many African-Americans.

His success has not come without a struggle-a fact that would not surprise Frederick Douglass, even if the source of some of the challenge would.  The section on Obama’s election, for instance, talks about the generational tension between folks from the civil rights era who would both at times tell the younger generation they could not understand what they had been through nor, in some cases, could the conceive of Obama’s victory being possible. 

One of the many interesting anecdotes that shows this latter point occurs when venerable activist Andrew Young says that Obama would make an excellent candidate for president-in 2016.  Ifill also shows the public disputes that emerged between Jesse Jackson, Sr. and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. at different points during the campaign as examples of that trend, too.

Ifill’s campaign recap includes a chapter onthe isssue of race and gender as manifested through the contest between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.  Ifilll argues that Obama did a balancing act about his race, but ultimately tried not to make his campaign about his race.  Clinton, on the other hand, cited her gender as a source of electoral difficulty, particularly when her once seemingly  inevitable maruch to the nomination started to falter.   This chapter is particularly interesting because it shows the divisions within the black community before Obama’s campaign gained steam, and how both black men and women who had supported Clinton switched sides as the campaign progressed.

Ifill also examines the issue of black identity, which emerged through the question of whether Obama was ‘black enough’?  One of the book’s most enetertaining nuggets comes from comedian Dick Gregory, who asked at an event sponsored by Tavis Smiley  how African Americans could embrace Bill Clinton as the ‘first black president’ and then question whether Obama was sufficiently black. 

 Obama is a major figure throughout the book, but Ifill’s spends full chapters on other black elected officials like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama.  Young, talented, and black, to paraphrase Lorraine Hansberry, these politicians are illustrative of a deeper trend, Ifill maintains-the electoral success of the post-civil rights generation.

Beyond these chapter length portraits of individuals, Ifill also has intriguing chapters about black political dynasties like the Fords of Tennessee and the Patersons of New York, and, near the end of the book, of other individuals who have had electoral success. 

The Breakthrough is a breezy survey of the community from which Obama comes and that was critical to his November victory.  Remarkably timely-Ifill includes scenes from the election night, like the elder Jackson shedding tears at Chicago’s Grant Park-and full of insight, the book, Ifill’s first, is a helpful step in placing Obama’s election in a broader cultural context.

Ifill also deserves credit for her analysis of Obama’s racial balancing act, which consisted of being perceived as suffciently but not excessively black by black and white voters, respectively.  She shows some of those calculations at the convention, for example, where Obama’s half-sister who is Indonesian appeared, while his half-sister who is Kenyan did not.  She similarly effective in noting that being elected is not the same as governing, pointing out repeatedly how Patrick’s tin ear and Booker’s lack of ties within the Newark community have impeded their abilities to enact their legislative agendas. 

Although it is not a work of history, the book is a bit thin on historical background beyond the civil rights era and an occasional Frederick Douglass quote.  More basically, she concentrates more on the number of elected officials rather than on voter turnout, which can be a more accurate indicator of the community’s political health.   While this did rise significantly during Obama’s election, on the whole voting in elections and other indicators of civic participation have declined in black and other communities during the past decades.

Still, there is no mistaking the monumental significance of Obama’s victory and the existence of a growing number of black officials, a number of whom like Patrick have been elected by a majority of white voters, throughout the country. 

Ifill posits at the book’s conclusion that the day may come when enough black officials have been elected that a subsequent victory will not be considered consequential.  That may well be true, and, if it happens soon enough, we will be able to credit her with her accurate prediction.