Conservative Reihan Salam and Marxist Bhaskar Sunkara on Bill Clinton’s Big Speech

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Today in Instant Politics 2012 — in which a range of writers, pundits, politicians, and thinkers discuss the presidential race for Daily Intel — conservative commentator Reihan Salam and Marxist columnist Bhaskar Sunkara discuss the DNC speeches of Elizabeth Warren and Bill Clinton and how the post-presidential Barack Obama will spend his time.

Reihan: While the DNC and the RNC have both made a concerted effort to seem as representative as possible, you and I represent the least unrepresentative panel imaginable. My understanding is that hyperverbal South Asian dudes are a distinct minority in the American body politic, with the exception of Bobby Jindal, who I'm sure is your favorite.

Bhaskar: Me and Bobby J. are so close I still call him Piyush.

Reihan: So, as a Marxist and as a stinging critic of neoliberal technocratic orthodoxy, what do you make of the hero-worship of that old smoothie, William Jefferson Clinton?

Bhaskar: I can understand the appeal, I really can. He's absolutely dripping with charisma, and his speech last night articulated the Obama line stronger than Obama ever could. Of course, he oozes with a certain unnerving creepiness, but I think that response has more to do with my status as a guy skeptical of used-car salesmen rather than my status as a socialist. 

What was interesting about the speech and what "the boy from Hope, Arkansas" has always done well is mix a populist appeal, talking about shared prosperity and equal opportunity in the broad strokes, but actually delivering austerity quite well on the specifics. He did work to reform welfare, and he was a deficit hawk, yet somehow, Clinton manages to maintain the authenticity to present himself as a friend to the poor and downtrodden. It's the beautiful sophistry of the Third Way.

Reihan: I was particularly struck by his reference to the structural component of unemployment, an idea that has had a lot of postcrisis resonance for neoliberals who insist that a robust employment recovery might be beyond reach due to skills deficits, etc. — an idea that President Bush's CEA chair Edward Lazear, oddly enough, has recently challenged. Anything that set off your alarm bells?

Bhaskar: Yeah, it was only a few decades since full employment was a major plank of American liberalism. How the world has changed since the disco era. I'm trying to bring back the shiny suits, too. But what really struck me was the use of "fiscal responsibility" as a watchword and bashing Romney on those grounds, while it's obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense that the Democrats are the party far more tied to entitlement programs. Still, Clinton is a deficit hawk, so that seems fair enough coming from him.

In general, though, it's symptomatic of this feeling I get from the DNC. The Republicans are comfortable being about what they’re about — austerity, free markets, traditional values, and the like. But the Democrats are constantly posturing and pretending to be Republicans. The flag-waving and Elizabeth Warren–esque “ragged edge of the middle class" nonsense just doesn’t seem genuine coming from them.   

Reihan: There were, however, a number of extremely important and effective jabs, including a few that I've been surprised have been missing from the Democratic attacks on Romney-Ryan. The most important and compelling was on Medicaid. For straightforward political reasons, the campaigns have spent most of their time dueling on Medicare, despite the substantive similarities between their two broad approaches. But congressional Republicans have embraced really deep cuts in Medicaid over the next decade, the implications of which aren't as well understood as they should be. What Clinton did was connect these cuts to the fate of the elderly — that is, he tried to make sure that the GOP pays a substantial political price for being the party of austerity.

What do you make of the notion that the true face of the party — the progressive face, the feminist face — has been coming out before 10:30 p.m. every night and the poll-tested, hyper-cautious face has been coming out after? Or is your sense that it's the other way around?

Bhaskar: I don't think there is a true face of the party. I hardly even think that what we have in America qualifies as a party system in the traditional sense of it. The Democrats are a big-tent, centrist party. I often feel like they have enough room for the entire mainstream of American politics. I know that might edge out me and you, but ...

Reihan: One of the really striking, stark differences is the demographic difference between the older, whiter GOP convention — offstage, that is — and the rainbow coalition vibe of the DNC. And my sense is that this has a huge amount to do with why many people who are left of liberal still feel a strong, instinctive connections to the Democrats, however disappointingly centrist they might find the party. Or am I imagining things?

Bhaskar: I think you're right, but it goes beyond sentiment. The Democrats more closely represent, and consciously, the interests of labor unions and oppressed and marginalized groups than the Republicans do. The alternative isn't between two centrist parties, but a party of the center, with quasi-social democratic wings (Congressional Progressive Caucas, etc.) and a party of the Right.

Reihan: To return to Clinton, what is your sense of how he'll play with voters of "your generation" — as a recent grad, I wonder if you're encountering a lot of anti-political cynicism among your peers? (And I suppose I should cop to the fact that I'm not averse to anti-political cynicism.)

Bhaskar: I think Clinton plays well with any demographic. The guy is charming and articulate, and we have good memories of the Clinton era. I was getting tucked in at night, enjoying the Power Rangers, my father moved from the "ragged edge" of immigrant life to something comfortable ... I don't actually sense cynicism, though, in my generation.

There's a mixture of faith in Obama, some still-bubbling sentiment that's vaguely to the left of that and, on the other extreme, anti-politics politics in the form of the Ron Paul fetish. It's a bit different than the jaded generations before.

Reihan: His greatest feat, to me, is speaking with such confidence that he kind of defies fact-checking. To his credit, he treads really lightly on premium support, and his Medicaid critique was on really solid factual ground. Yet his brilliant line about private-sector job creation relied on an important distinction between the private employment count and the private payroll count — which makes GWB look worse and Clinton look better. So, he jumbles together refreshing honesty and slipperiness in this really conversational package.

Is there a Democratic politician you can imagine the left, or rather the left-left, rallying around? I remember when Rick Perlstein would tout Jesse Jackson Jr., and, of course, some people were enthusiastic about Barack Obama.

Bhaskar: That's just being a politician, right? He's the master narcissist in the Laschian sense, an outward directed personality.

I think the emergence of a truly social democratic candidate would totally fracture the left that was reenergized around Occupy. A lot of that movement was built on a facile anti-electoralism on the one hand, and then a rather conventional liberalism on the other hand. It was an odd alliance between anarchist ultra-leftists and MoveOn. I think there's a radical center there that can embrace something like a solid center-left campaign without illusions and as a tactical step to a more militant movement, but it's not a significant trend within Occupy at present.

Reihan: What do you make of the heavy emphasis on abortion rights and contraception, as distilled in Sandra Fluke's address? Do you personally find it compelling?

Bhaskar: I think this is an important issue for Democrats to press home. Obama hasn't been all that good on reproductive rights, but the other side is really off the wall. A blanket ban on abortion, without exception for rape or incest. They’re still opposed to the “morning-after” pill, too. Abstinence-only sex ed for teens. That Republican platform was very straightforward, almost admirably so, in its extremism here. Sandra Fluke was right to call it an offensive relic.

Reihan: So, despite your objections and reservations, you fundamentally see Democrats as the home team. I take it you’re not enthusiastic about any of the minor party candidates of the left?

Bhaskar: Marx has a quote, which I insist that I'll pass through the New York Magazine censors, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances ... " I don't see any hope in third-party projects of the left in the short-term. Vote for the Democrats, at least in New York, I can do it through Working Families party, challenge the worst ones in primaries, and build the movements outside until we're at the point where we can break off labor and other key groups and maybe mount an effective effort.

I think real radical politics needs to start at acknowledging the situation at hand, not purist posturing. Where would the conservative movement have been if the Buckleyites had launched a third party in the fifties out of frustration with Eisenhower centrism? They wouldn't have gotten Goldwater.

Reihan: The Clinton speech has been celebrated for its efforts to work through complex policy ideas in a clear and accessible, if polemical, way. Do you think we'd have a better democratic conversation if the convention featured dueling arguments and detail-heavy speeches of the kind the former president gave last night?

As for third-party projects, I can see your fifties counterfactual working out somewhat differently, but that's a separate issue.

Bhaskar: Sure, it was a notch above what we've come to expect from convention speeches, but do you actually think the average viewers swooning over it were really digesting all of that and bringing Clinton's talking points to their "kitchen table" to debate?

It seems to me that the format of this kind of electoral politics more generally is largely anti-democratic and top-driven. Partisan instead of ideological.

Reihan: I think the genius of the Clinton speech is that it gives people the confidence to shield themselves against doubt — when one hears a contrary argument, you can put it in the bin, "This person is obviously a crazy extremist who can't be trusted, as I've heard cogent-sounding preemptive arguments against trusting such people." And the failure of the Republican convention is that there wasn't a similar speech that could give partisans that same spring in the step.

Any other thoughts on the other speakers from last night?

Bhaskar: I thought Elizabeth Warren was horrible. Flat clichés, nothing risky, mix of folksy autobiography and standard talking points. The way it ended: “Joe Biden is ready! Barack Obama is ready! I’m ready! You’re ready! America’s ready! Thank you! And God bless America!” ... I would've rather been listening to Chris Christie. What did you think of her?

Reihan: I find her fascinating. I had never been totally sold on her scholarly work — I should plug the really brilliant and interesting work of Neale Mahoney, an economist at Chicago Booth who works on closely related issues — but I absolutely see why people identified her as a political talent. Though I disagree with her on most issues of consequence, she has a near-perfect biography for a center-left politician. But yes, her thing isn't my thing.

I was thinking, on a separate note, about Clinton in the context of post-presidencies. Clinton was still relatively young and vigorous when he left office, and one assumes that the same will be true of Barack Obama when he does the same, whether in 2013 or 2017. So, I wonder what his post-presidency would be like. Clinton has become this amazing global brand. Will Obama be this presence hovering over the Democrats and the left for decades? And if so, I wonder what role he'll play — perhaps as a defender of social liberalism, or a champion of progressive causes who rues having had to work with recalcitrant Republicans, etc.

Bhaskar: Yes, of course, he's the first African-American president. He's going to be an icon as long as the Republic exists. I think he'd focus mostly on humanitarian and international issues, in the Carter/Clinton mold. As for his actual politics, he's not a radical-in-disguise, not even when he was on the South Side of Chicago hanging out with Bill Ayers, he's always been a neoliberal consensus politician. A particularly intelligent and likeable one, but I don't anticipate a move leftward post-presidency, but maybe that's just my pessimism of the intellect talking.

But yeah, Obama's here for the long haul, and posterity won't judge him as just another president — just for what he did.

Reihan: I have these opposite and parallel reactions — my pessimism of the intellect always leads me to think that the center-left will triumph. The sociologist Lane Kenworthy has been making the case that American egalitarian social democrat types are far less optimistic than they should be for the simple reason that they can always wait out their opposition and try again. So, Clinton fails to expand coverage in 1993, Obama succeeds two decades later. Republicans try to roll it back, but they know they have a really limited window of opportunity to do so — and even if they do, progressives will be at the ready.

Any last thoughts before we break?

Bhaskar: Not much, I watched the Giants game last night.

Reihan: Was it compelling enough to distract swing voters? And have you noticed that there are two NFL teams — the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals — that could serve as stand-ins for South Asians?

Bhaskar: Being a part of an internationalist Leninist conspiracy, I reject such identiarianism. But I will note this sir: I've gotten around five or six #FF plugs from you, but I just checked and you're not following me on Twitter — horrible ethnic solidarity.

Reihan: I applaud you for your cosmopolitan working-class solidarity. I prefer tribalism myself. And the Twitter thing is just because I have to manage the number of radicals in my feed, or I'm liable to go storming barricades by accident.