The Obama Clinton Saga Continues

One would have hoped, or at the very least thought, that once the Democratic nomination had been settled earlier this year there would no longer be the dramatic soap opera entitled “The Obamas vs. The Clintons.”  The battle waged during the primaries was vicious enough to nearly fracture the party and for many of us we were eager to put that chapter in party history permanently in the past.

But as fate would see to it, Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination did not put an end to the ceaseless guessing games and manufactured drama between the Clinton tribe and the Obama tribe of the Democratic party.  During the convention the question was whether or not Hillary and Bill would come out in support of Obama enough, or would they signal that they were tepidly holding out hope for 2012.  Following their full throated endorsement speeches, no shortage of commentators could be found to ponder and debate whether their speeches were delivered in earnest or just a very well conceived act.

And then there was the general election.  Would the former president and the senator from New York work hard enough, or just hard enough to look like they were looking hard enough?  Was Clinton’s remarks to McCain shortly after McCain suspended his campaign really a slight against Obama?

In short; did the Clintons and the Obamas have it out for each other in a way that could never be mended?

But with the 2008 elections behind us, of course the Obama/Clinton tensions are over now, right?  That is if they were ever truly of the epic proportions seen among the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, the latest buzz about drama surrounding the vetting of Mrs. Clinton and more specifically her husand in the filling of the Secretary of State role suggest that the Obama Clinton Saga will continue for at least a little while longer.

True, one would think that just the mere fact that Obama has Clinton at the top of the SecState shortlist would indicate a burying of the hatchet, but if nothing else the focus on the vetting process and the problems therein suggests that even if the rest of America has had its fill of the epic Clinton vs. Obama wars, the media has not.  In light of this, I find myself pondering two completely different trains of thought; the Democratic rivalry itself and the media’s fixation upon it, and the nature of vetting in modern politics as a whole.

Why is the media so enamored with any scrap of controversy between Clinton and Obama?  I suppose the answer is on the surface rather obvious; it’s interesting, especially considering that the President Elect is himself a rather boring man (I intend to flesh out this point a little more later on this week).  No Drama Obama may have been disciplined enough to win a presidential election, but for a political culture that thrives on drama, No Drama can be a terrible thing.

And at its height, the rivalry between Clinton and Obama was indeed a fascinating spectacle.  Partly this was because the two candidates themselves waged one of the bloodiest primaries in recent political history, but also because their two camps, the two tribes of supporters were perhaps more emotionally invested than we are used to.  It wasn’t just that Hillary and Barack were saying mean things about each other, but also that there were millions of supporters on both sides of the divide that were taking each utterance very personally.

But that rivalry ultimately did end in earnest, with Hillary Clinton coining one of the more memorable catch phrases of this election year, “No way, no how, no McCain!”  (On a side note, I really did like that line; it had a kind of old fashioned pork pie hat feel to it–too frank perhaps for modern micro targeted and message crafted politics)

A few handfuls of supporters on either side of the aisle who couldn’t get over their animosities aside, the Clintons and the Obamas making nice resulted in the rest of the party coming back together.  Hey, even myself and my almost PUMAish boss eventually buried the hatchet and by the time the election came she had me bringing her Obama buttons and posters.

With some reservations still lingering, the divide had been largely mended in reality, or at least as far as anyone looking at the situation with any kind of honesty it was.  But the fascination with the feud (or non existent feud if you like) continued, and still does continue.  Why?

I think it’s natural when you look at how symbolic the rivalry was, and the many implications of the eventual outcome.  This wasn’t merely just a contest between two popular stars of the Democratic party; no, instead the rivalry was more tribal, more archetypical in nature.  When I say the Clintons, I don’t mean the family, I mean that branch of the Democratic party that was first forged when President Clinton won the Oval Office in 1992, and remained the chief power center in the party pretty much until perhaps the 2006 election cycle.

And this wasn’t just a matter of specific individuals either; it was, but it was also generational too.  The Democratic party had become the party of Baby Boomers, and now this entire power structure was being challenged by a new tribe within the party; the Howard Dean/Barack Obama tribe.

And in this respect we are looking at a tribe that not only approaches the game of politics from a different perspective, but represents a different generation as well.  Thus, what was at stake was a kind of transition, not just one that could potentially see a new tribe rise to the status of power brokers and wielders, but also potentially see an older tribe already pushed to that of party elders.

Party elder doesn’t seem like that bad of title, but I can still imagine taking that final step can be difficult, especially when one has held the seat of power for so long.  For those in the past, like Jimmy Carter, or Al Gore, making that transition was ultimately an easy one.  Carter left office under less than ideal circumstances, and Al Gore after his bitter loss to President Bush found that he could affect the world in a way more suitable to him outside of elected office.

But when you think of just how much the Clinton power structure governed the Democratic party, and then you consider that now they must ultimately step down gracefully or step down ungracefully, there really are no other options, that can in and of itself be a moment of particular significance.  As it is too a moment of significance for those who have seen the symbolism of the candidates at the head of this struggle.

I’m rambling a bit, I know, but what I’m trying to get at is that I do think that the media has been generating more drama than there really has been ever since the Democratic convention, but at the same time I think they may have their noses in the right place for whether this drama is manufactured or not, it does at least speak to the significance of the moment.  It recognizes that in an election that has become synonymous with historic (painfully so, might I add.  I agree, it’s been an historic election, but can we just go ahead, recognize that fact once or twice, and then forego further mentions of how historic it is?  Please?), the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama carries with it a kind of gravity that goes beyond the actual personal rivalry that existed between the two.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are both being vetted, as one would expect, and if for whatever reason they don’t make it through the vetting process, on a very concrete level it means nothing more than just that; they didn’t make it through the vetting process.  And yet, we also understand that there is an almost metaphysical party meaning that goes along with this.

Speaking of vetting, I invite anyone with a better political memory than I to correct me on this, but it feels as though over the course of the past four years the public’s focus on vetting appointees has been at an all time high.  And, not to sound too terribly partisan on this in this age of post-partisanship, but I have to admit that to me this is all the fault of the Republicans.

More specifically, George W. Bush.

Put the cronies aside for a moment; let’s ignore Dick Cheney (granted, not exactly an appointee, but someone who had to go through the vetting process all the same) and Donald Rumsfeld.  Forget even “Heckuva Job Brownie.”  Instead draw your attention to two of the great vetting failures of our time.

You have Bernie Kerik, endorsed by former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, and nominated by President Bush to head up Homeland Security.  His nomination would be shortlived however, ultimately ending in scandal as it turned out that Kerik had partaken in some activities that were, how shall we put this, not quite legal.

Then you had Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.  The one time White House Counsel was panned across the aisle with even some of Bush’s most ardent supporters questioning her qualifications to serve on the highest court in the land.

Both nominations were enormous embarrassments for the Bush administration and further brought into question the competence of the President.

The final example of vetting failure came not from the current Republican president, but a Republican presidential hopeful.  When John McCain opted to have a little known governor by the name of Sarah Palin join him on the presidential ticket, it would turn out to be one of the most catastrophic examples of poor vetting ever.

The debate continues as to how much damage Palin did to the McCain campaign, but one thing is clear; she energized the base, but floated like a lead balloon among just about everyone else in the American electorate.  This was due not only to the fact that the McCain team didn’t seem to know that Palin brought with her all sorts of drama including an ongoing probe investigating potential ethics violations, but also they didn’t even seem to have taken the time to ascertain whether or not Palin could successfully sit for an interview, or even string together a logical sentence.

So there it is.  Three highly public examples of poor vetting, and that’s enough to get people paying more attention to the process.

The process itself makes sense.  Part of our vote for a politician is essentially a statement saying that we endorse their judgement to choose the right people to fill those government jobs that we don’t vote for.  Those politicians, therefore in good faith, should take every precaution to fulfill that trust bestowed upon them in making their appointments (or, for Senators, in challenging said appointments).

But then, who vets the politicians?  We don’t have teams of lawyers combing through candidates’ records.  While some organizations will have candidates fill out questionaires, it’s not like these questionaires are mandatory and will keep a politician off of a ballot.

In the end, when it comes to politicians they have one of three choices regarding any given potential problem during the course of an election.  They can either divulge it freely, get out in front of the story early and control the narrative, they can sit on it and hope no one notices it, or they can actively cover it up.

Think about John Edwards who had gone through the entire primary process without a peep about anything potentially devestating.  It wasn’t until after the Democratic nomination had been all but sewn up that it came to light that Edwards had had an affair with one Rielle Hunter.  Had history taken a different course and Edwards locked up the nomination, such a revelation could have had a cataclysmic effect on the presidential race.

On this topic, I do not even pretend to have any answers, or even any of the questions.  I just think the whole process is very interesting.  Vetting, to me is interesting because I wonder what questions matter and what questions don’t and what questions should?  Does infidelity really mean that a public figure can’t govern adequately?  When we talk about a person being qualified for a specific office, what exactly are those qualifications? 

In the end, it’s a simple matter that has a complex means.  We as citizens and voters want to ensure that the best person is put in place for the job, but it is questionable that the way in which we do this is very effective.

Your thoughts?

2 Responses to “The Obama Clinton Saga Continues”

  1. DrGail says:

    This one strikes close to the heart for me, Kyle. I make my living assuring the suitability of people for corporate jobs. Unless there is a great deal more going on behind the scenes than we realize, the process whereby people are placed in various government appointments is haphazard, at best. Your qualifications and suitability for your job were more thoroughly investigated than appointees.

    On the other hand, no one is subject to kind of personal and financial scrutiny that is normal for appointees. It’s almost as though a lack of skeletons in the closet is enough of a qualification for those positions. What a terrible way to run a railroad.

    I’m certainly no historian, but it seems to me that Bill Clinton did a pretty good job of finding qualified people for senior positions (e.g., James Lee Witt did wonders with FEMA), although several didn’t make it through the vetting process and went down in highly visible flames. I’m thinking here of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both candidates for Attorney General.

  2. You know, your second paragraph really hit something with me. I can’t remember when I had the thought… No… I remember now. It was during the Democratic primaries, and it was one of the many Hillary Clinton running themes. For a brief period of time, her major self sell was “I’ve been vetted.”

    No… actually that wasn’t it. It was earlier. I can’t remember when. But it was this terrible idea that the standard for public service was to as you say not have any skeletons in one’s closet. What a terribly low standard.

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