Transactional vs. Aspirational Politics
Getting back to the competing messages of the 2008 campaign, Hillary and McCain are sounding awful similar these days in their efforts to take down Barack Obama. As the (much) older candidates, both are arguing for experience; Obama is instead arguing for change and ideas. At least, that’s the soundbite summary of the campaign to date.
But I really don’t like that dichotomy of change vs. experience, and not just because of how often it’s been repeated by the candidates and the press. I also think it’s missing some undercurrent in their rhetorics.
After all, Hillary is claiming “35 years of experience” and McCain offers a “lifetime of experience”. But neither have ever been a corporate leader, a manager of an organization (except their campaigns), or a member of an Executive Branch of any government. And frankly, Hillary’s claim of 35 years includes everything since college. Barack has 20+ years of experience by that measurement, too – he’d have as much as her, but he’s 15 years younger than she is.
And frankly, being a corporate lawyer, wife to an ex-President, and a Senator for 7 years is hardly “35 years” of relevant experience that would actually help prepare you to be Commander in Chief. McCain has much more relevant experience, but it was all 30 years ago – so pretty useless unless you want to concede his Senate record as relevant.
As for the change matra, by repeating it over and over, Obama is actually allowing the meme of him being non-specific when in fact he is specific enough for any voter to understand his goals (and could go to his website to get more information). But he also understands that his record and platform are similar enough to Hillary’s that being too specific will either bore people to death or start nitpicking minute differences (like we’ve seen on healthcare in the debates).
So let’s discard change and experience and instead look at the undercurrents to those mantras – transactional and aspirational politics.
To use the experience argument in any election, you almost have to be making the case that the existing system isn’t likely to be changed by you but instead you have been there long enough to understand how it works and how to get things done within that system.
And it’s not that far a leap from that mentality to going to each constituent group and striking a deal: “for your support, I will try to get you this thing X”. It’s like trying to be hired as a real estate broker, or an interior designer – showing off what you’ve done to make the case you can do just as well or better in the future, without ever having to argue about whether your methods need to be changed.
This is often known as coalition-building, but it is also known as transactional politics. For a long time, the Democrats have been marked by this as part of their focus on self-identity, entitlements, and special interest groups. One person called it a “put a check by each box” electoral strategy. Make specific, micro-promises to each group within your party and presto you’ve got victory.
You can also see it now in Republican circles with John McCain’s 2008 effort. Back-track on immigration to satisify the Minutemen, check. Support Bush tax cuts to quiet the corporate cons, check. Support Scalia and Thomas and reverse your stand on Roe v. Wade to satisify pro-lifers, check. Support the Iraq War to get the support of neocons and President Bush, check.
But transactional politics is not inspiring, forcing you to either concede winnable states or rely heavily on your ground game and/or paid media advantages. One reason why Hillary hasn’t been able to beat Obama yet has been her relative lack of a ground game and the fact that Obama can outspend her.
Of course, it’s more than that – and has nothing to do with him being a Black Guy, Geraldine Ferraro’s comments notwithstanding. It has everything to do with what I call aspirational politics.
I believe it is in the realm of aspiration and optimism that liberals can find their sense of patriotism. While many conservatives are content to celebrate America as it is – liberals are very often at their most patriotic when they see a future America that they like and are willing to shoot for. The Kennedy brothers tapped into it, Bill Clinton did so to an extent, and now Barack Obama has done so.
And aspiration isn’t a liberal-only thing. Ronald Reagan was popular with the American people not because he cheered America for cheering’s sake, but because of his sunny view of where America could end up. And Mitt Romney staved off political disaster temporarily by talking about an economic turnaround in Michigan.
Liberals and many voters in general like being lifted up and told there is nothing we can’t accomplish – and we like it even more when the character and ideas of the messenger match the moment in history he’s or she’s pitching the message.
Barack Obama is a post-racial, post-machine politician trying to appeal for an end to partisanship, gridlock, and lobbyist influence in Washington. Most Americans would agree those problems exist and are at the heart of why America’s leadership is either not taking us anywhere, or is headed off into the wrong direction.
The trick with being aspirational, however, is you need to be great orator with a keen sense of our place in history and how issues related in the broader context – all while trying to convince voters to look beyond the micro-policies and transactional promises being made to their specific subgroup, to look beyond that and see a wider, national need.
All 3 Senators still running for President are fine campaigners, and would probably do a solid job in office. They all would certainly have the advisers and professionals on hand to give them the true experience and knowledge needed to handle the crises that come up. What is left up to the President personally is the judgment, character, and sense of self, to do the right thing when the time comes to make a decision.
No amount of experience as a wife or as a cancer patient is going to matter in those moments. Resume does not matter in a crisis. Rolodexes and IOU’s won’t matter.
So what the voters should be looking at is how the Presidential candidate is conducting himself, and whether or not his policies and record reflect the character and judgment you want when that 3 A.M. call rings.
And that being the case, given the last 7 years, I’m convinced we don’t want a President who is stubborn, angry, full of themselves, and unwilling to change the system. In other words, I’m convinced we don’t need transactional politics this year. We need some aspiration and inspiration to move this country forward.