Thursday, April 26, 2012

Elsewhere: Sex Scandals and Representation

Just one item today: over at Post Partisan, I have a post on Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and representation; in particular, about the nature of "promises." I'm arguing that the reason (former) supporters are so bitter about Edwards but not about Clinton is because the Edwards family was really central to his 2008 campaign, and so lying about the nature of the family meant breaking a promise that was central to his relationship with his supporters.

I think it's a good piece. As longtime readers know, representation is one of my big interests, but I haven't written about it for awhile. The way this one happened is that Ryan Lizza tweeted a comment about the different reactions to their seemingly similar transgressions, and I answered "Representation. Edwards broke an implicit promise to supporters; Clinton was semi-honest from the beginning", and he said "???." At which point I realized that I really needed to explain it, and it was going to take a lot more than 140 characters. So there you are.


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    1. Let me try that again. I believe you may be overthinking this a bit. The most obvious difference is that Clinton had run twice for the presidency and won both times; Edwards, by the time we learned about his affair, had run twice and lost both times. So Clinton got points for being a successful politician, and of course as the incumbent he was someone whom other party actors and advocates had a big stake in defending.

      Further, I'd like to see the empirical evidence that Edwards' former supporters "are so bitter." Yeah, there's been a media pile-on, and nobody's going to defend him from that because it's in nobody's interest to do so. But are his ordinary onetime supporters, out here in the cheap seats, really bitter? I'm not. Do they even really care? Was Edwards' family story really what drew people to support him who otherwise wouldn't have? Because the people I know who supported him were more drawn to his message about "Two Americas" and a style that made him seem readier to take the fight to the other side than Obama would be. Seems to me that if Edwards had been drawing support more widely based on a nonideological appeal like his family story, then, like, maybe he wouldn't have come in third, right?

      Anyway, is there any polling on that? Or is this another case of political pundits and insiders -- the only people still talking about Edwards -- mistaking each other for the electorate?

  2. Another possible reason: Dem voters knew they had a strong chance to win the Presidency after 8 years of not having it. What could screw it up? A major scandal involving the nominee. The resentment comes from Edwards running for the nomination when it was so possible that his scandal could break.

    1. I supported and phone banked for him in 2004, and this is the big thing other than the obvious 'don't cheat on your spouse' stuff. If this guy had won the nomination or been picked as the running mate, and then it all came out, it would have ruined everything. He knew that and went on anyway as if everything was fine. Lucky for us, the political folks around him must have sniffed him out and known he was no good.

  3. If there is a difference, it's because Elizabeth Edwards was sooo much more likable than Hillary Clinton. Remember "bitch is the new black?" Even her PUMAs probably didn't LIKE Clinton very much.

    That Edwards was a loser didn't help.

  4. To me - and, I'd guess, most other people of my generation - Edwards' and Clinton's transgressions weren't even remotely similar.

    One got orally pleasured by an intern; the other had a multi-year affair and fathered a child out of wedlock.

    I think that explains the bulk of the difference in reactions.

  5. I've not read Jonathan's stuff on this topic, but I believe Jeff's comment above misreads something: the relevant comparison is not Lewinsky v. Rielle Hunter, its Gennifer Flowers v. Hunter.

    The wives' reactions play a huge role in this, it seems to me. Even in 1992, when you first saw this famous 60 Minutes interview, you knew - in real time! - that WJC was full of shit, you knew his White House would be an extravaganza of astroturfed El Caminos and prurient behavior. Importantly, though, you also knew that HRC would have his back (even as a parade of platinum blondes would have his front).

    The contrast with Edwards couldn't be starker. The poignancy of Edwards' story was his dying wife not only divorcing him but also taking extraordinary measures to protect their small children from Edwards. Forget the immorality; voters don't really care about that. Its the extraordinary personal weakness of Edwards, revealed by his dying wife's transparent revulsion at him, that is so bracing.

    We live in an era where a dug-in and intransigent Republican party fights tooth and nail, in an ad hominem manner, against a sitting President who is about as honorable as they get. (Jeff, among others, notes this fact frequently). As a result, I find it almost unfathomable that the profound personal weakness of Edwards, reflected most strongly by his dying wife's bitter revulsion toward him, in no way disqualifies Edwards, in Jeff's mind, from the task of taking on that right-wing machine.

    1. The WaPo item of his that JB links to is not about Gennifer Flowers, it's explicitly contrasting the defense of Clinton in 1998-99 with reactions to Rielle Hunter. On that, I recur to my comments above. And yes, CSH, I think we're misunderstanding each other. Edwards was onto the 99% vs. 1% concept before it became hip. (Maybe his "Two Americas" formulation didn't catch on because he didn't attach numbers to it.) But sure, clearly, he disabled himself as the champion of the 99% that I hoped he would be. We know that now, but we didn't find it out until he'd already auditioned for the role and lost. Yes, it shows how reckless he was, and maybe some of his big donors or prominent endorsers still cared enough at that point to feel betrayed, but why would it matter to the rest of us? It is, if anything, even less relevant to left-populist politics going forward than the belated discovery of Martin Luther King's dalliances was relevant to the cause of civil rights going forward. (At least King was a successful movement leader, and therefore one in whose reputation people still felt they had some stake.)

      Granted, this might be different if Edwards' family story really had been "central" to his political appeal. I don't remember it that way, though. I was on his e-mail list in the runup to his '08 campaign, and the central message to supporters then was Two Americas. Whatever efforts he made to milk the family story (by way of reaching voters not already drawn to Two Americas) didn't work, apparently. I'm saying, if people didn't care enough about it at the time to be drawn to him in large enough numbers to make him a winner, why would we think they care enough to feel betrayed by it now?

    2. If we were at a gathering of knowledgeable liberals, and the topic of Newt Gingrich arose, there's no doubt but the piling on would be fierce, and surely mostly rightly so. Among Gingrich's misdeeds, the serving of the divorce papers to the cancer-stricken wife would be fairly early in that conversation.

      In light of that, how in the world could there be any equivalence between Rielle Hunter and Monica Lewinsky? Surely not from those Gingrich bashers - where family matters are concerned, John Edwards = Newt Gingrich.

      Even if we stick to Monica Lewinsky, there is no comparison between Edwards and Clinton. We knew from the 60 Minutes interview that Hillary was onboard with Slick Willie's junkyard dog ways; we voted for the guy anyway (and so we were onboard too) - when one considers that the Jones suit was ultimately settled out of court, there is no relevance at all for the hoi polloi about Clinton's testimonial fudgery.

      If Edwards - whose transgression pretty obviously ruined his dying wife - is no different from Clinton - whose transgression is transparently irrelevant - than Edwards' sickening misdeeds are, like Clinton's, transparently irrelevant to an otherwise judgmental public.

      Why do liberals then ever comment about Gingrich (or any other conservative's) flaws? Is it simply good for business?

    3. Again, I think we're talking past each other. I'm not saying (and I don't think JB was saying) either way how relatively appalling a character Edwards is compared to Clinton or Gingrich. That's a different discussion. You use the word "relevant." My point is that relevance isn't just a function of the substantive question (is Edwards a creep? worse than Clinton? etc.), it's also a function of the current political importance of the figure in question. Clinton in '98-'99 was the President of the United States. Lots and lots of people had a stake in defending him. Gingrich was not as important as that when we learned about Callista and so on, but he was still active in public affairs and did run for president again. (I think if you checked, you'd find very little discussion of his character, marital issues, etc. when he was in semi-retirement.) By contrast, Edwards, when we found out about Hunter, was out of politics and not likely to come back anyway. Even while in politics, he had never been a movement leader like Reagan, someone whose followers were still out there mobilizing. (I think becoming a movement leader was his strategy for winning the presidency, but it flopped.) I certainly might feel bitter toward the guy if he had messed up a presidential campaign or administration or harmed a movement I was rooting for. But he didn't; he was just another tabloid celeb by the time we found out, so there's no more reason for me to spend energy on his doings than there is for me to feel betrayed because Brad Pitt dumped Jennifer Aniston.

      Maybe this analogy would make it clearer: I admire George McGovern greatly. I even got to vote for him once when I was finally old enough and he made a quixotic run in the '84 primaries. But suppose we found out tomorrow -- or even, suppose we'd found out 20 years ago -- that he was an appalling cad or had faked his war record or something. I would see that as disappointing news, and undoubtedly worth including on his Wikipedia page, but why on earth would it make me "bitter"? I just question that that's the reality of people's reaction to Edwards. That's not because they're excusing him morally, it's because what's gained in even spending time on the matter when his actions can't affect me or the nation anymore?

    4. Jeff, I certainly take your point about the (near) irrelevance of Edwards as a politician, and I've enjoyed this discussion, as I do most of our tete-a-tetes. However, I'm quite pleased you mentioned McGovern, since I think he is a good illustration of my position.

      If we were having the following conversation: "People my ideological side dismisses reflexively, but should take seriously, due to personal merit", McGovern would be very near the top of my list. Like you, I have a lot of admiration for the guy, but in my case it is mostly immense personal respect for what he did with his life, moreso than representing my team, which he obviously didn't do.

      Suppose McGovern has a Rielle Hunter skeleton that emerges here in his dotage. Would that bother me? Of course it would. A lot of my admiration for McGovern is that - implicitly - he isn't a Rielle-Hunter sort of guy. Would it be a waste of time to indulge those feelings about a 90-year-old who long ago exited the stage? Sure, but I'm a caveman, and thus if I feel strongly in one direction, and then experience a jarring corrective, I'm upset, because I'm intrinsically not rational.

      Edwards is a pale personal shadow of McGovern, and was so long before the Hunter story. However - and I think this gets back to Jonathan's representation point - Edwards certainly framed himself as something closer to the McGovern ideal than WJC ever did. Maybe Edwards can plausibly deny ever intentionally doing so. But we the little people probably don't have to apologize much for having been a little bit confused.

    5. Right, CSH, but I just don't think that Edwards' framing worked, or that it was much of a factor for his supporters. If it had worked, he would have had more supporters, and then it would be truer to say he was "breaking a promise that was central to his relationship with his supporters" (JB). As it was, he had too few supporters for that to really hold. I realize I'm suggesting what may seem paradoxical, i.e. that those of us who WERE supporters, his natural base, we natural Edwards-ians if you will, are less moved by bad information about Edwards than people outside his base might be. But that's WHY were in his base: We already agreed with him. We didn't need a story about his family to create that agreement, so new information about him and his family has nothing really to disturb.

      As I see it, then: There's the base, which isn't going to be "so bitter" because they weren't relying on Edwards' good character in the first place in deciding to support him, and haven't been harmed by later revelations because he was no longer leading their cause at that point. And there are people outside the base, who aren't going to be bitter because they either didn't buy the shtick and didn't support him anyway, or they were weak supporters who maybe voted for him in a primary but made no more investment than that. So who's left to be bitter? A few big donors, maybe, or some pol somewhere who feels irked at taking a risk in endorsing Edwards against Clinton and Obama. But the reactions of those few people to Edwards as versus Clinton are easily explained without resort to analysis of either's moral failings: Clinton was the president. (Actually, I'm probably a better example of what JB means about Edwards if we look at Clinton's case. I don't know if I'd use the word "bitter," but I was pretty damn upset with Clinton for screwing around like that, because (a) I was a weak supporter of his, not someone who felt he was my obvious political spokesman, and (b) he had nonetheless become the leader of my preferred party and the incumbent president, and had therefore recklessly put my political goals at risk. If Edwards had won, it would mean there would be people like me relying on him the way I was relying on Clinton, and yeah, I could imagine the bitterness flowing pretty freely in that case.)

    6. Don't know if anyone is still reading this, but...I really do think that Jeff is wrong on this one. First thing is that I think he underestimates how much original support Edwards had. Not enough to be nominated, sure, but he came reasonably close, and I think a lot of Dems liked him even though they didn't support him in '08. I suspect the evidence would back me on that. As far as feeling bitter now...all I can see is that I've heard a fair amount of it from both former Edwards supporters and other Dems, and that when Lizza tweeted the question everyone jumped to explain it, not question it.

      And as far as how important the Edwards family story was to his '08 campaign: yes, the income inequality thing was the central policy message, but I really do believe the family story was quite important as well. But I'll readily admit that's anecdotal and my impression, and I don't have hard evidence on it.

    7. OK, fine..... The truth is, I don't have any hard evidence either. Maybe it's just that the Edwards supporters I happen to know (including me) didn't care about his family, but others did. I guess I would just say that if that's what he was depending on to win, it was a poor strategy, and it's not surprising he failed even before anyone had heard of Rielle Hunter. Having a good family story is next to useless. Obama and Romney both have them, and yet one of them is going to defeat the other. Carter and Mondale both had better family stories than Reagan, but look how that worked out. So if JB is right on this, then it just points up for me how hopeless the Edwards campaign really was.

    8. No question, a lot of this is anecdotal, and you could well be right.

      As far as family story as a strategy: I'd make a huge distinction between primary election and general election, with personal stories far, far, more important in primaries.


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