Barack Obama has developed a deserved reputation in this campaign as someone willing to tell the truth. This is evident once again today in the Chicago Tribune's exculpation of him regarding his relationship with Tony Rezko.
Obama's detractors won't grant this. Because he tries to inspire people with broad themes, instead of merely dwelling on policy specific, accuse him of selling snake-oil. But downplaying areas of disagreement with an audience, and relying on broad and inspirational language to find areas of commonality, are the tools of any public speaker, politicians especially. Obama is simply more adept at making those connections and more benign in that he tries to inspire them towards principled, patriotic, and personal activism.
But, he's not entirely above lying.
So far as I can tell, he has told an outright lie exactly once in this campaign. It was on January 5, in the New Hampshire debate, and it cost him:
You're likable enough, Hillary.
No, she isn't. That, we have to face, is her most significant problem.
SPRADLING: My question to you is simply this: What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight who see a resume and like it, but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more?
CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings.
SPRADLING: I'm sorry, Senator. I'm sorry.
CLINTON: But I'll try to go on.
He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.
OBAMA: You're likable enough, Hillary, no doubt about it.
CLINTON: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Obama's dry offhand comment was evidently made and taken in a light spirit by both Hillary and the laughing (rather than gasping) audience. Nevertheless, it may have cost him that primary. It smacked too much of the suave guy cavalierly dismissing the poor brainy girl. This emotional tableau was soon thereafter buttressed by Hillary's teary-eyed "this is very pesonal to me" moment, binding her to women who feel that they have been passed over by less-qualified men (regardless of color.) Richard Cohen, in the column linked to above, thought that Obama was being dismissive, supercilious, and mean.
I don't think he was. I think that this comment was an ill-advised, spur-of-the-moment attempt at gallantry. Someone compares someone unfavorably to you on a ground that may seem unfair, and you reject the comparison by wryly dismissing the negative comparison. But it came off badly. It came off badly in part, I suspect, because Obama knew that it was not true.
That was nice of him to say, but it conceded far too much.
My problem is not with Obama's using the word "likable." I'm not one who hates Hillary; while I'm angry at some of what she's done in this campaign, I'll vote for her over McCain without thinking twice if lightning strikes and she wins the nomination. I think that Hillary is likable: very much so, with some audiences. Her charm is evident in the clip linked to above, and it is evidently even greater in many one-on-one situations (although so, evidently, is her temper.)
My problem is with the word "enough."
She is not likable enough for the Democratic Party to bet the fate of this nation on the success of her campaign. She brings with her too much baggage, too much vulnerability to attack (both against her and her husband), too much outright hatred on the part of too much of the electorate. It is, to a great extent, unfair that she is so disliked by many of the people whose votes we will need this November.
Some dislike of her I would try to expel from my decision-making calculus After all, some dislike her because she is a woman (and rumored to be a secret lesbian), just as some dislike Obama because he is Black (and rumored to be a secret Muslim.) Let's assume that those pretty much cancel out, and are themselves counteracted by those for whom these traits are a positive. For years, Democrats have worried about how we might lose if we ever nominated a woman or a minority for the Presidency; those Democrats have no quarter this year.
Unfortunately, Hillary is also disliked for reasons less easily dismissed. Her problem is evident in her high negative "thermometer ratings" -- not ratings of job performance, where she and Obama both excel, but of positive or negative feelings towards her personally -- especially among non-Democrats. These negative ratings aren't applied to all women, nor even all Democratic women, so it's not simply a matter of gender. The degree to which she is disliked is evident as well in the difficulty she has had attracting honest support from independents and moderate Republicans, discounting the ones in places like Mississippi and Texas who exit polls say supported her without favoring her as a means of creating mischief within the party.
We have to take these emotional responses seriously. As Dr. Drew Westen argued at the last Yearly Kos conference, relying on his book "The Political Brain," voters make up their minds largely on the basis of emotional appeal. Hillary's liability -- not among Democrats or Obama-supporters, but among the broad public -- matters.
These high negatives are due in part to the emotional residue of over a decade of vicious Republican attacks on her character and scandals. They are due in part to the residue of her husband's problems with honesty and her role in defending him. I can't -- or at least won't -- blame her for those.
But they are also due in part to things under her control.
Her "win-at-any cost" approach to politics -- which leads her to keep her name on the ballot of the Michigan caucus, switch from dismissing the caucuses to arguing that they should count, challenging the longstanding legitimacy of the Texas caucuses, argue for the full representation of Florida delegates chosen in a dead-whistle play, and waver on whether she would try to convince the pledged delegates of her opponent to switch to her -- undermines her likability. Low-information voters don't necessarily know all of the details that we see here, but -- prompted in part by a political media that understands this well -- they get a general, and in this case accurate, impression.
Her secretiveness -- which allows her to hide her tax records and denounce those who explore her relationships with financiers while at the same time slamming Obama over ties with Rezko -- undermines her likability by making her seem like she has something to hide.
She is also, as President Bush is to a greater degree, a bullshitter. Professor Harry Franklin has given that term a technical meaning: making assertions (and insinuations) based on what's expedient, without regard to their truth. When she argues simultaneously that Obama is less qualified than McCain to be Commander-in-Chief and that he is nevertheless qualified to be her Vice-President -- or when makes the above arguments about Florida, Michigan, and Rezko -- the public doesn't believe that she is speaking out of princple so firm that it would apply even if the shoe were on the other foot. She's just saying what she has to say to get ahead. It's just business, nothing personal.
Unfortunately, this is simply too obvious for people to miss, and it's a trait they don't like in politicians. Hillary expects sophisticated listeners to discount her statements appropriately if she ever changes her mind (although she would adopt a stance of great offense if anyone accused her of doing so.) This is the "politics as usual" that the public rejects in choosing Obama. This is especially true of the lower-information public that may not know the issues, but can read people's emotions pretty well. John McCain will be wearing the cloak (frayed though it is) of the earmark-rejecting, straight-talking, finance-reforming honest man. The public will be very sensitive to arguments about trustworthiness and ethics in a race against McCain. They will not prefer a bullshitter to someone they think they can trust.
Ask yourself: is there anything Obama has said about Hillary that he would have to change if he had not run this year and was supporting her as the Democratic nominee? I can't think of a thing. Now, is there anything Hillary has said about Obama that she would change if she had not run and he were the nominee? Plenty -- starting with that 3 p.m. "experience" argument. She expects us to understand that those comments, which she would not make if she weren't still in this race, are what she has elsewhere disparaged as "just words."
I don't think that the November electorate would react well to a candiate who derides statements made during a campaign as "just words." The public, rightly, demands consistency and honesty.
In focusing on Hillary's likability, I offer an argument about dreaded electability, which many say we can't estimate and is an illegitimate point for discussion because it helps Republicans. I want to address this head-on.
First, of course we can estimate electability. We may not be able to do it as well as we'd like, but we can improve substantially on blind guesses. The whole industries of advertising, marketing, and public relations depend on our ability to make judgments about what people will like, including in situations of competitive attacks, and people get rich doing that. Choosing Dukakis because of his competence, Kerry because of his military background, Hillary because of her claims of experience, are all ultimately appeals to electability based on trying to predict the public mood.
Second, focusing on electability only helps Republicans if it brings something new to the table. This can be new information they might otherwise not find, such as Gore's bringing up Willie Horton against Dukakis in 1988.) It can also be a newly expressed opinion that can be used against the candidate, such as Pastor Wright's comments, for one, or Hillary's preference for McCain as Commander-in-Chief. The bad thing to do is to give the Republicans a new Willie Horton, or a new ad quoting Hillary favoring McCain. But if you're talking about things that are already out there in public, that don't involve secrets, then public discussion of electability does no damage. It is a matter of opinion, with which other people do or don't agree. In this case, I don't think that the public has to be don't that it doesn't like Hillary as much as it does Obama -- it already knows. Putting one's finger on the reasons that might be so -- such as her tendency to bullshit, that is to say what benefits her position without regard to its legitimacy -- may help the public undertand why it feels as it does, but the true damage had already been done, and by her.
Likability matters. Electability matters even more. We have a flood of information available to us -- tracking polls, exit polls, meters wielded by undecided voters watching debates, and election results themselves -- pointing to the conclusion that the public likes Obama more than it does Hillary. If I thought Hillary were still clearly the superior candidate, I would still prefer to nominate her, but I would dread the verdict of the electorate because of the prospect that she is not likable enough to win.
Obama offered a kind, conciliatory lie when he granted in that New Hampshire that Hillary's likability is not a critical issue in this election. Unfortunately, it is. She has not demonstrated that she is likable enough to have as good a chance of winning a race that we cannot afford to lose.