Picking a Fight

It will be different this time. Everyone learns, and Hillary Clinton must have learned that what she was doing in 2008, in those long months before Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, didn’t work. Don’t smile in that kind but condescending way, dismissing what your opponents are saying as sadly or sometimes amusingly naïve, because, after all, your nomination and then your win in November is inevitable, and on all issues you alone know better, as everyone knows. Yes, experience is cool. Knowing all those world leaders – many as first lady and some as a senator – is cool. Having been there and done that is cool – but that time you landed in Bosnia you weren’t really under small-arms fire. These things can be verified – and as far as healthcare reform goes your plan went nowhere.

There were missteps, and that left only what George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing” – a clear and compelling vision of what the nation should and should not do, and why and why not. The first President Bush admitted he just couldn’t manage that vision thing – he solved problems as they arose – but every politician who would be president needs that soaring vision of how the nation could be, and should be. That’s what gets people to get off their fat asses and vote – perhaps for the first woman president ever. But what would this hypothetical first woman president, Hillary Clinton, actually do in office? No one knew.

She’d solve problems as they arose, because she knew lots of stuff and many of the key players – in the Senate and in foreign capitals – just as George H. W. Bush had solved problems as they arose. That wasn’t very exciting. Competence without vision is boring. When the red phone rings at three in the morning in the White House, we all want someone competent and steady to pick up, but what about the other twenty-three hours of the day? That famous phone-call-in-the-night campaign ad fell flat:

David Plouffe, the campaign manager for Mr. Obama, dismissed the ad as a “shopworn tactic.” In a conference call with reporters this morning, he used the commercial as an opportunity to highlight Mrs. Clinton’s original support of the Iraq war. “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002,” Mr. Plouffe said. “It was on the Iraq war – she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”

Nothing was working for Hillary Clinton. Many saw her as smug and dismissive. Obama was neither. This cannot happen again.

This will not happen again. There will be no more queen-bee smugness. This time she’ll pick a fight on an important issue, one that will rally the base on her side, and infuriate the folks on the other side, because they really have no good defense for their position, and everyone knows it. That means that this won’t be about her at all, not this time. This will be about what’s right and wrong. That’ll solve a lot of problems.

The issue, of course, wasn’t hard to find:

Hillary Clinton called Thursday for sweeping changes to elections and voting laws, arguing that measures including universal voter registration and national early voting are necessary to counteract a tide of laws aimed at making it more difficult for some people to vote.

Speaking at Houston’s Texas State University, at a ceremony honoring the late civil rights leader and Democratic Representative Barbara Jordan, Clinton set her sights squarely on some of her potential Republican opponents, who she said are “systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting.”

In one of her most powerful and passionate appearances of her campaign thus far, the former secretary of state singled out four current and former governors, whose actions “have undercut [the] fundamental American principle” of the right to vote in their “crusade against voting rights.”

Instead of continuing along the same path, she said, “they should stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud” and work to make it easier for Americans who want to vote to go to the polls.

She wants all citizens automatically registered to vote when they turn eighteen unless they take active steps to opt out, and all fifty states should allow at least twenty days of early voting, and she hopes to see Congress take action to roll back the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling allowing nine southern states to change their voting laws without federal approval – because enough is enough. And because this isn’t about her, she named names:

The first governor she mentioned, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who launched his presidential campaign earlier in the day across the state in Dallas, described as “outdated and unnecessary” parts of the Voting Rights Act that were rolled back by the Supreme Court in 2013, she said.

She also took a swing at the Lone Star State’s voter identification laws, saying: “You can use a concealed weapon permit as a valid form of identification but a valid student ID isn’t good enough.”

In Wisconsin, Clinton said, Governor Scott Walker “cut back early voting and signed legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote,” while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refused to expand early voting. When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, Clinton added, the state conducted “a deeply flawed purge” of voter records.

So, think what you will of her, there are bad guys out there – this isn’t about her – but this is curious:

Clinton’s call for universal voter registration follows the March signing of a bill in Oregon that automatically registers every adult citizen who has interacted with the Department of Motor Vehicles since 2013. The measure is expected to add 300,000 voters to the rolls. In 2009, then-Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have enacted automatic registration there, arguing that “registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act.”

Is that the best they can do? No, not really:

Ohio Governor John Kasich lambasted Clinton after a campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire. “For her to say that there are Republicans who are deliberately trying to keep people from voting is just pure demagoguery,” he told reporters.

Kasich added that he doesn’t “know who put her up to this,” but said the election should be focused on “who’s going to improve America, not who’s going to divide America better than somebody else.”

“We live in a time when race relations are very sensitive, and using that kind of reckless language is not helpful to this country,” said Kasich, whose state has recently experienced a racially-fraught police shooting.

Last year, Kasich signed into law two bills that restricted voting access, by changing rules on early voting and on the handling of absentee ballot applications. Last month, Ohio Republicans introduced legislation that would require voters to show a passport, driver’s license, military ID, or state ID card.

That’ll keep a lot of black folks in Ohio from voting, and there’s this:

Walker, whom Clinton referred to in Houston, returned fire on Friday. “Hillary Clinton’s rejection of efforts to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat not only defies logic, but the will of the majority of Americans,” he said, in a statement sent by Ashlee Strong, national press secretary of his political committee, Our American Revival. “Once again, Hillary Clinton’s extreme views are far outside the mainstream.”

Christie, speaking with reporter outside a diner in Concord, New Hampshire, was equally scornful. “Secretary Clinton doesn’t know the first thing about voting rights in New Jersey or in the other states that she attacked.” the New Jersey governor said. “My sense is that she just wants an opportunity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.” He added, according to NorthJersey.com, that he was “not worried about her opinion.”

Steve Benen doesn’t get it:

Late last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), complained Clinton’s plan “defies logic” – he didn’t say why – and added, “Clinton’s extreme views are far outside the mainstream,” as if most of the country is hostile to expanded voting rights.

The result is a field of GOP presidential candidates that largely seems hostile towards making it easier for more Americans to participate in their own democracy. If their goal was to blast Clinton’s proposal, rather than voting rights themselves, it’s not working – they’re yet to raise a specific, substantive objection.

“What part of democracy are they afraid of?” Clinton asked on Thursday. It’s a question Republicans are evidently unprepared to answer.

Yes, she asked a question that wasn’t about her, and it’s an important question, which Ezra Klein tries to answer:

The case for Hillary Clinton’s proposal to make voter registration automatic is simple: it will make it easier for people to vote.

The case against Hillary Clinton’s proposal to make voter registration automatic is also simple: it will make it easier for people to vote.

If that sounds a bit odd to you, then read Daniel Foster’s argument against Clinton’s idea, which lays the objection bare: “the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots.” And who wants civic idiots choosing our next president?

For a rejoinder, read Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, who writes, “You get better at voting the more often you do it. Relatively uninformed voters in one election might become highly informed voters a few cycles later. More participation could make us a more engaged country.”

That gets to the heart of the matter:

Lurking in both arguments is this idea of the informed voter – the voter who can tell you that conservatives hold a slim majority on the Supreme Court, who knows that the House majority whip is an important position, who reads about politics and donates to campaigns and knows exactly where her polling place is.

That voter commands more facts, for sure. But is that voter truly more informed?

Maybe not:

In 2006, the political scientists Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels presented a paper titled “It Feels like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy.” In it, Achens and Bartels make a point that is so obvious we often forget its implications: “Very few politically consequential facts are subject to direct, personal verification.”

In other words, an informed voter rarely knows anything firsthand, the way we know the sky is blue and the sun rose this morning. Everything she knows is taken on trust; an informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they’re just more completely and profoundly misled.

The rest is depressing:

Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.

It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge – which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship by spouting things that sound that like facts, but often aren’t…

Similar experiments have shown similar self-deception among Democrats when the questions favor Republican ideas or politicians. Achens and Bartels’s conclusion is grim: much of what looks like learning in American politics is actually, they argue, an elaborate performance of justifying the beliefs we already hold. “Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize.”

And there’s this:

In a world where we pick our information and our experts based on whether we agree with them, it’s little surprise that sometimes the most informed can be the most badly misled. For instance, 9/11 truthers typically have a tremendous amount of information about 9/11 at their disposal. They know much more than the average American does about the physical composition of the Twin Towers, and the melting point of steel, and the pattern of warnings that preceded the attacks. But they have used that information to convince themselves of something that isn’t true…

The same process can play out, in less dramatic fashion, with hardcore partisans. In 2003, I knew a lot of very informed liberals who were skeptical that President George W. Bush would even allow a presidential election – at the time many lefties feared the establishment of martial law, or at least the wholesale theft of the election through the use of Diebold voting machines. In 2010, I knew many very informed conservatives who believed Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya, and therefore ineligible to hold the presidency.

If you ranked these groups in terms of political knowledge, they would be off the charts. They were constantly reading about politics online, learning about the issues, talking to other high-information partisans. But their information, as voluminous as it was, had profoundly misled them. They had a much less accurate view of American politics than people who paid far less attention to the news.

So we have what we have:

Hurdles to voting don’t primarily select for intelligence; they select for interest in American politics. That’s why Pew finds that people are most likely to vote when they’re consistently conservative or consistently liberal. Those are the people most ferociously committed to winning the ongoing war that is American politics – and for that reason, those are the people who see the most reason to go to the polls, and those are the people the two parties make the largest effort to push to the polls.

But a ferocious commitment to destroying the other side in American politics doesn’t necessarily lead to clear reasoning on the issues facing the country. Partisanship is normal and even healthy in a competitive democracy, but it’s not such an unalloyed good that we should be biasing the electorate toward hardcore partisans.

But that only means Klein comes down on the side of Clinton:

Universal voter registration won’t necessarily mean that dumber Americans heads to the polls; it will mean that less politically attached Americans head to the polls. And in an age as polarized as this one, that’s probably a good thing.

Kevin Drum tends to agree:

In a modern democracy, we don’t try to decide which voters are highly informed and thus “worthy” of voting. You can vote if you have an IQ of 200 and you can vote if you’re a nitwit. The reason is simple: the decisions of the state affect both voters equally. Everybody gets to vote because everybody has a stake in the outcome.

This is not the way it’s always been, of course. In early America only white male landowners could vote, because others were thought incapable of properly exercising the franchise. (That was the official excuse, anyway.) But even then, there was also an argument based on engagement with the state. White male landowners were thought to have a real stake in the decisions of the government, and therefore would vote their interests more intelligently.

Both those things have changed over time. Everybody is now acknowledged to be capable of voting in their interests, and everybody is now acknowledged to have a stake in what the government does. That’s the argument for making it easy for everyone to vote. It doesn’t matter if this means we’ll get more voters who don’t read National Review or can’t name the Speaker of the House. What matters is that all these voters have just as big a stake in what the government does as you or I do. And if they have a stake, we should make it easy for them to vote.

And then there’s reality:

Of course, no one really cares about this. The real argument for making voting easy is that it will increase the number of Democratic-leaning voters. And the real reason for making voting hard is that it will lower the number of Democratic-leaning voters. Everyone knows this. Sadly, all the other high-minded arguments for and against are just kabuki.

But here’s a modest proposal:

As it happens, my own guess is that highly engaged voters probably vote more stupidly than people who live normal lives and don’t even know what GDP is, let alone whether it’s gone up or down under the current occupant of the White House. If I had my way, anyone who shows an actual interest in politics – all of us who read and write blogs, for example – would be deemed obviously neurotic and forbidden from voting for dog catcher, let alone president. People like us would get to rant and rave and publish op-eds, but only people who are bored by us would actually get to vote.

Drum is kidding of course – maybe – but Hillary Clinton is sitting pretty, and Digby (Heather Parton) notes the change:

Apparently most observers thought she would run as if it was 1992 and the long-disbanded Democratic Leadership Council was in its heyday. But you have to admit that even by comparison to her run in 2008, she is taking a much more aggressively progressive stance on a number of issues from immigration to criminal justice reform to voting rights that just a short while ago would have been seen to be dangerous ground for a Democratic candidate for president.

For decades Democrats tried to finesse thorny racial issues (which is what many of those issues named above subconsciously relate to) while still being seen as the party friendly to racial minorities. It hasn’t bought them a white Southern vote in a national election in decades. It was always a fool’s errand but it took the victory of an African American president to finally show the party how to win without them.

And Clinton, not being a fool, can see that quite clearly as well. But she doesn’t seem to arrogantly believe that the coalition that elected President Obama twice should be taken for granted – and good for her. It shouldn’t be and if the Democratic Party expects to win presidential elections it has an obligation to put the needs of those voters above the prejudices of voters who will never vote for them anyway. It’s hard to believe they ever thought that was a winning strategy in the first place.

But it’s still amusing for some of us who lived through the Clinton administration years to see people blinking in amazement that Hillary Clinton would be running for president on what looks so far to be a pretty liberal platform. After all, in the ’90s it was widely believed that she was the evil Rasputin whispering Marxist feminist theory in poor Bill’s ear every night.

And all it took was picking a fight on an issue where the Republicans had been peddling dangerous what they thought was likely-sounding bullshit for years. She called them on it, and suddenly they were caught flatfooted – and suddenly all the smug was gone. This wasn’t about her. This was about what was right for the country. That’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Hillary Clinton finally figured that out. It’s about time.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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