In this episode, Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brown University’s Glenn Loury reflect on the final days of the historic presidential election cycle, including negative campaign ads, recruiting younger voters, and how much race is impacting voter decisions.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
This Halloween, my grandchildren’s neighborhood was crowded with little McCains, Obamas, Bidens and Palins, knocking on doors and scaring us with threats and promises of trick or treat. Just like real candidates. For a moment I was grateful for an excuse not to be so serious about politics. But the children also got me thinking of how every election is always haunted by the ghosts of presidents past.
Soon after he was tragically thrust into the White House, my old boss, Lyndon Johnson, could be heard ruminating on all the fingerprints left on the place by his predecessors, as if he were struggling to reconcile his own destiny with their legacy. He ran hard in 1964 for election in his own right, to free himself from the past, as if that were really possible.
Barack Obama and John McCain couldn’t help being reminded this week that they are not wholly free agents, either. President Bush, an ethereal lame duck, paid a surprise visit to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington. The president, who hasn’t been seen publicly with his party’s candidate since May, told staffers and volunteers that McCain is within striking distance and all it would take was their hard work to put him over the top.
And then, in Florida, former president Bill Clinton, showed up at Barack Obama’s side to make a rousing endorsement:
BILL CLINTON: There’s not any real question here! This is not a close question!
If you’re making a decision based on who can best get us out of the ditch – he’s got the best philosophy, the best positions, the best ability and the best judgment – I think it’s clear. The next president of the United States should be, and with your help, will be Senator Barack Obama!
BILL MOYERS: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL columnist Daniel Henninger this week cast it as a potential change in America’s idea of itself – a “philosophical tipping point” he said away from the “free-market” model of capitalism toward the “social market economy” with a more decided mix of public and private forces. For some, that would be a trick. For others, a treat. One person’s scare is another’s salvation.
This election could be a watershed in another way as well. For the first time ever a black man could become president something many people never thought imaginable, given the unholy, past and present terrors of slavery, violence, and bigotry. Leave it to Jon Stewart to grasp the live wire with a light touch.
JON STEWART: I don’t even know how to bring this up. Obviously, your mother is from Kansas, she’s a white woman. Your father African. Are you concerned that you may go into the voting booth and…
BARACK OBAMA: I won’t know what to do.
JON STEWART: Your white half will all of a sudden decide I can’t do this.
BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, yeah, it’s a problem
BILL MOYERS: Over on CNN that same night, Senator McCain told Larry King he doubted race would affect the outcome
JOHN MCCAIN: Look, there is racism in America. We all know that because we can’t stop working against it. But I am totally convinced that 99 and 44 one hundredths percent of the American people are going to make a decision on who is best to lead this country— I have faith in the American people that they’ll make the judgment for the best of reasons, not the worst of reasons.
BILL MOYERS: So here we are, at one of those moments when we roll the dice and by the conglomerated action of 130 million or more people, give the rough beast of democracy a shove in a new direction. But which direction? Here to talk with me about this are two scholars of politics and democracy.
Glenn Loury was the first, tenured African American Professor in the Economics Department at Harvard University, he is now a Professor of Social Sciences and Economics at Brown University. His books include ONE BY ONE FROM THE INSIDE OUT: ESSAYS AND REVIEWS ON RACE AND RESPONSIBILITY IN AMERICA and this, THE ANATOMY OF RACIAL INEQUALITY this is his latest RACE, INCARCERATION, AND AMERICAN VALUES.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a regular contributor to the JOURNAL, is the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, her many books include this one, published this year, PRESIDENTS CREATING THE PRESIDENCY: DEEDS DONE IN WORDS.
Kathleen, Glenn, welcome back to the JOURNAL.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Are people exaggerating to read this as a potentially historic election?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Even if we’re not for the historic candidacies, this would be an historic election for the range and complexity of issues the next President will face. And if people doubt that, ask the issues that we didn’t focus on that the President has to address in the next term. Climate change about which there was actually substantial agreement between the two candidates, hence little discussion. And immigration reform, also areas in which there was a lot of agreement.
BILL MOYERS: Has either candidate addressed the world as it is?
GLENN LOURY: Well, I don’t know that the world as it is can be addressed in a political campaign. I mean, I think isn’t there something about the very nature of this marketing and persuasion enterprise which is the selling of a candidate that obviates dealing with the world as it really is?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON You also have in campaigns the kind of calculated ambiguity. So each candidate has some rhetoric back there that the candidate can fall back to say, “Well, we’re going to face difficult choices. And we may, as a result, have to create new priorities.” And I suspect that they’re going to go back to that kind of language to say, “Well, I did forecast that we might have to change some of those things. You do remember that I told you that, don’t you?”
BILL MOYERS: I heard you say the other day that what we need is heroic rhetoric. Now, what do you mean by that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON I was hoping that in this past week when Senator Obama had purchased the amount of time that made it possible to be on seven different networks, almost what used to be called road blocking, to speak to more than 25 million people, that he would also pay for a half hour for Senator McCain and say to the American people, “He can’t afford it. I can. And I’m going to give some of the money that you gave me over. Put my name at the end it ’cause I’m required to do that so that he has the chance to tell you how he sees the future of governing and what he will do and how it will differ from what I will do.
“And then I’m gonna tell you the same thing from my point of view.” And I was hoping that in this last week of the campaign each of them would say, you know, “We promised a lot of things in different circumstances. The world has changed in the last month to two months. The financial realities are now biting in. And as a result, there are things that we’re going to have to do differently, and here are the sacrifices and here are the tradeoffs.”
I think if President Obama or President McCain, either one, had set themselves into that situation and acted as president of the United States for a half hour, let us try on their presidency with the challenges, with the tradeoffs, and with the costs as well as the promises, we would have had an election outcome that everyone would have been happier with regardless of which candidate had won. And I would have considered that to be heroic.
GLENN LOURY: Well, lovely vision. Lovely. But the campaign that would have done such as you’ve just recommended perhaps would have also agreed to sit down for regular town meeting style conversations with the opponent over the course of the months in order to inform the American people respectively as to where they stood.
Such a campaign might also have entered into negotiations about the financing issue so as to preserve the general interests that we all have as Americans in limiting the role of money in politics – presidential politics more broadly. So while it’s a lovely vision, I kind of find it impossible to imagine that it would actually have been acted on-
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Let me ask you a question.
GLENN LOURY: -by this campaign.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON What does it tell you about the Obama campaign, which has been brilliantly run, probably the best I’ve seen in my lifetime, that it made those decisions? And does that for you forecast anything about governance?
GLENN LOURY: I don’t know that it tells me very much at all about governance other than we’ve got a shrewd, tough, smart candidate. If he gets elected, I expect him to govern shrewdly, toughly, smartly. But I don’t know if content-wise what that means. I don’t know what that means about free trade and protectionism and you know, agreements.
I don’t know what that means about war in Pakistan and Afghanistan five years down the road or whatever it might be. I’m not sure what it means about taxes given the huge, you know, budget problems and such that we’re facing. I don’t know.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON I think the question as we look at Senator Obama is, is he going to be acting out of the liberal progressive philosophy? Or does the way in which he’s conducted his campaign, the way in which it – he has moved on some arguments such as an individual right to own arms, for example such as the backing away from negotiate with certain foreign leaders without preconditions, does that demonstrate a kind of pragmatism-
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON -that is not anchored in a coherent ideology that we recognize from the past? This may be a campaign that forecasts a new pragmatism.
BILL MOYERS: Which means a lot of hearts will be broken out there, right?
GLENN LOURY: Yes, it does. And mine will be one of them. And, you know, I think some arguments are worth engaging and refuting. I mean, this is a thing that has fascinated me about the Obama campaign from the very start. The conflict is managed in an indirect way. We’re going to transcend, not litigate these culture war questions, for example.
We hope to bring people together around a table, hear all sides, and come up with a new synthesis. And that’s great on paper. But I wonder if one doesn’t have to have, you know, some fire in the belly and some fairly clearly defined ideological suppositions to guide one through the difficult, you know, negotiations and all the rest, keeping one’s eye on a bottom line. And I’m also wondering if voters don’t have a right to know about one’s bottom line before they cast their ballots.
BILL MOYERS: You said the other day to a colleague of mine that there’s something dreadfully wrong about our political discourse.
GLENN LOURY: We draw lines and boundaries about what is legitimate and illegitimate to be said. And then we conduct our political conversations mindful of those boundaries. And often times profoundly important, substantive matters get left by the wayside. So we’ve got two and a quarter million people under lock and key on a given day in this country.
Now, we are a nation of jailers, it could be said. We are international outliers relative to any other country in the world with respect to the intensity of incarceration. There’s a huge racial disproportion in what we do. Vast communities in our cities are policed in extremely heavy-handed way. You know here’s an opportunity to actually during a campaign engage the country on such a question and we don’t get there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that running what has been called a race-neutral campaign has helped or hindered Obama?
GLENN LOURY: I don’t think the campaign has been race neutral. I think the candidate has stressed that he’s not only a black candidate in the traditional sense. The candidate has stressed in his very DNA that with his mixed race heritage that he spans and bridges lines. And the candidate has pointed toward high ground with respect to that.
And yet I think how can one not see in the huge increase in registration, early voting, and the rest amongst African Americans in certainly key constituencies and the great sort of cultural up-swelling of pride and excitement about an African American candidacy and the narrative construction of, well, we had the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King. Somehow the wheel has turned. We’ve come to a completion of a certain historical dynamic and so forth.
All of that is based on race. All of it’s based on understandings about race.
And, of course, on the other side, on the Republican side, we’ve seen, I think, I’d be interested to know what Kathleen thinks, the mobilization of race, a kind of creation of a whiteness identity or promotion of a whiteness identity as a counterpart to the blackness identity that lurks just beneath the surface of Obama’s aspiration, or so it seems to me.
BILL MOYERS: But have you seen race injected into this campaign and using his term “subtly”?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Yes. And some of it not so subtly. In the last week and a half to two weeks of the campaign we’ve seen forms of advertising that have allied visually Barack Obama with Mohammad Ata.
FEMALE VOICE: Barack Obama’s plan gives a driver’s license to any illegal who wants one. Obama, too radical, too risky. The National Republican Trust PAC is responsible for the content of this advertisement.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Well, you see a visual amalgamation between Barack Obama and a terrorist.
And the suggestion being that a proposal about driver’s licenses taken out of context and made into a plan that was never articulated somehow suggests that he would abet terrorism, he would make it more likely that terrorism would occur. That’s playing on stereotypes. And those visual amalgamations, those are despicable.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think about that ad, Glenn?
GLENN LOURY: You know, well, there’s the election and then there is after the election. The ad is going to echo and resonate after the election.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
GLENN LOURY: Should Obama win, now you have a president of the United States who a lot of people think is illegitimate as a person who consorts with murderers, as a person who’s sympathetic to terrorists. It’s de-legitimating of the president of the United States. It’s poisoning the well in a certain way.
You do what you have to do to win an election. But then after the election the person has to govern. And now what has been said about that person continues to echo in the minds of citizens. And I’m worried that in this case the suggestion that Obama is somehow going to get in the White House and, you know, sell out the country will hurt all of us should he win and need to govern.
BILL MOYERS: You used the word “despicable.” Some of the really despicable signals have come in flyers that you can find on the train station and the bulletin board and other places. I mean, here’s, you know, you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. And there’s Obama. Then there’s the one, the famous one, Obama bucks United States food stamps. And it just goes on. And then here’s one very explicit. Do you want a black president? And then this one. America must look evil in the eye and never flinch. I mean, do you think these work?
GLENN LOURY: I don’t think the question can be do they work in the general abstract. I think the question has to be doesn’t it-will they be effective in certain key constituencies in certain states that are close where people are trying to fight this thing out? And I just don’t know the answer to that. I certainly hope not. I expect not. But we’re going to find out.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON One of the things that I think has happened in this election is that the symbol of Barack Obama has been taken by the world community as a symbol of change. And that’s not simply a change in a reconciliation with a troubled part of the United States’ past but also change from the Bush administration, change from a world in which anchoring in the international community was frowned upon. Here’s a candidate whose biography is anchored in the international community. Time in Indonesia, father from Kenya.
And so I think the symbolic importance of an Obama candidacy to the world community at a time in which our relations have with other parts of the world are somewhat troubled is, in fact, one of the important symbolic elements of this campaign.
GLENN LOURY: Certainly on the surface, it seems to me, there would be gains. There would be a re-branding effect beneficially to the United States in the eyes of many people throughout the world.
But what I’m wondering is how important can that be relative to the fundamentals that cause us to find ourselves in conflict with so much of the world? That is, we maintain a vast military capacity. We have arrogated to ourselves the right to go to war in places in the world when we feel like doing so if our interests dictate that with or without the consent of our partners in democracy or the United Nations Security Council, whatever it might be. We have staked out a position in the conflict in the Middle East which is alienating to many people in the world who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians and so on.
I mean, when we maintain a nuclear arsenal that’s capable of incinerating most of mankind, and yet one could wonder what the military rationale for that could possibly be. I’ve not heard any serious discussion about these things in this presidential campaign. And I’m wondering whether or not America’s problem to the extent that we have one with people elsewhere in the world, can be solved with cosmetics, you know, by the biography and the skin color of person who happens to be elected without addressing any of the underlying fundamentals.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON But I think there’s something else that one should say. Lost in this whole discussion and something that involves the world community has been the fact that we have presupposed as a political process that the war in Afghanistan is the good war, that we’re going to now continue to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.
There was no serious case made that perhaps that’s a problematic war. And when Senator Obama suggests that he’ll pay for some of his programs with cuts because we’re not going to be paying for Iraq, he is, nonetheless, forecasting ramping up in Afghanistan, which is going to take some of that money into that other venue.
BILL MOYERS: So is McCain.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON So is McCain. So when you have no difference between candidates, we don’t discuss the issue.
I think one of the things that we know about Senator McCain is that in important ways he isn’t President George W. Bush. And he hasn’t been able in the campaign to talk about those things.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Because to the extent that he does, he alienates part of the base that he needs to be elected. This was the person who stood up to the tobacco industry, favoring a tax and trying to ensure that the tobacco industry wouldn’t market to kids. He clearly sees a government role when it’s a role on behalf of those who are in desperate need of protection from something that potentially endangers them.
He didn’t defend his immigration policy, his immigration platform, although I don’t believe he actually backed away from it. He just simply reprioritized it. But he didn’t stress that because that also wasn’t popular with the conservative base. And he didn’t stress his proposals on cap and trade, global climate change legislation, which he championed with Senator Lieberman. And he didn’t tell us things about his own biography.
Speaking to this impulse to use government to protect people, virtually no one knows that he championed the Patient’s Bill of Rights, something that runs counter to virtually everything a real conservative would want to see government do.
BILL MOYERS: Is that a failure to communicate?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON It’s a failure to be able to find a way to deliver a message that would let his base still support him and yet speak to the rest of the folks about what his actual record was. And I wonder if he hadn’t stressed all those things, if his electoral equation right now wouldn’t be a lot more positive. I think he is more inclined than people think he is to use government when necessary to protect the individual against forces that are acting against them. I think largely the American people don’t know that.
BILL MOYERS: So is it the press’s responsibility to make up for what, say, a candidate fails to communicate?
GLENN LOURY: I think so. I mean I think that, isn’t it the press’s ultimate responsibility to ensure that the American public has the information that it needs in order to make an informed judgment in a democracy? And to the extent that that requires filling in the gaps, isn’t that, you know, going against the dominant narrative of a campaign when an analyst would have reason to think on the basis of objective evidence that that narrative is not faithful to the actual state of affairs? Sure, I don’t see why that’s not the press’s obligation to do.
BILL MOYERS: Speaking of narrative, I remember something you wrote on your website. You said, Obama’s candidacy is likely to interrupt the white narrative in this country. But it’s also likely to interrupt the black narrative in this country. And you said that if Obama succeeds, the prophetic African American voice, which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident outsider’s voice, could be lost forever. Are you still fearful of that?
GLENN LOURY: Well, I don’t know. I said that in the context of the Reverend Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ controversy and Obama’s speech in Philadelphia on race. And I was thinking at the time, as Obama distanced himself from not just the specific comments that Wright had made but, in a way, from the root source of those comments. This is the south side of Chicago, three quarters of a million African American people, movements as deep and divers as Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam on the one hand and Jeremiah Wright on the other, and many things besides.
And out there on the south side of Chicago tends to be where I’m from, you know, people take a pretty skeptical view toward American power in the world. They’re not exactly credulous about all the claims of the city on the Hill. They know from their own life experience that everything’s not quite right and everything’s not quite fair. And I know that Barack Obama recognizes that.
And in that Philadelphia speech he said as much on Reverend Wright’s behalf. But he also went on to say, you know, times have changed. We got to move on. We, in a sense, have to transcend this. Wright is a relic of another era. He’s stuck in the old times and so forth. And I’m thinking when I heard about black liberation theology in the 1960s, 1970s, I thought, well, I don’t know if I want to sign on but I kind of see where they’re coming from, you know?
And I’m thinking, you know, some of this stuff, maybe it won’t sell in middle America. But there’s nothing wrong with it as such. There’s nothing that should be disqualifying about it. It should have a place at the table of American conversation. And my fear was that as Obama, of necessity, needed to sort of marginalize that kind of thing, which had been important in his own life coming along. But now to move on, he needed to marginalize it, that the result would be that it would end up being marginalized across the board. It would end up a kind of commonplace assumption that that kind of talk is un-American or mildly offensive or whacko or something like that. And I just don’t think that’s so.
BILL MOYERS: Just this morning THE NEW YORK TIMES-CBS News poll said that Obama’s candidacy, whether he wins or loses, has changed some perceptions of race in America. Nearly two thirds of those polls said whites and blacks have an equal chance of getting ahead in today’s society. Up from the half who said they thought so in July. And while 14 percent still said most people they knew would not vote for a black presidential candidate, the number has dropped considerably since the campaign began. Do you take this survey as a positive development?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON Not if it means that we neglect the fact that African American youngsters have a more difficult time getting through high school and getting to successful graduation, that they’re underemployed in disproportionate percents. I think we need to realize that just because this remarkable individual has run a very successful campaign and may become president of the United States doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious problems that disproportionately affect particularly the African American poor.
BILL MOYERS: Are we saying that President McCain could more openly and aggressively take on the issues of the African American community, incarceration, and others that you have written and talked about than President Obama?
GLENN LOURY: Could and would are, of course, two different things. I think a case could be made that, you know, it’s a Nixon to China kind of case. That for a candidate to take on something like let’s say the hyper incarceration of poorly educated urban black males, the disparities of the impact of the war on drugs by race and American communities and so on, you might argue in some hypothetical argument that a more or less conservative Republican who was bent on doing something about that might have an easier time getting it done than would someone who had to look over their shoulder all the time for fear that they would be somehow pigeon holed, you know, as unacceptable to America.
No one’s going to think that McCain is somehow a radical black liberation theology loving whatever if he were to take it on. But the “would” part is another matter altogether. I mean, I think this is something that Obama would regard as very desirable to do if he could get it done. And I’m not sure that I could say with the same degree of competence that it would be as high on McCain’s agenda.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON This has been a disappointing election year in which there were major problems facing the electorate, a campaign process that didn’t address them, debates that didn’t do as much as they could to inform people about the tough challenges, the tradeoffs, and the likely solutions. Candidates who didn’t tell us the full truth about everything that we know that they stood for in the past and would stand for in the future but which nonetheless put forward I think two qualified individuals to be president of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: And there is considerable enthusiasm out there.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON And unprecedented amounts of potential involvement among a sector of the population that could forecast a different kind of century. If the young vote mobilizes in the numbers that we expect, what that means among other things is that politicians are going to start speaking in the long term and not having the young generation carry the costs of programs that we offer to the electorate today but plan to pay for tomorrow. So the energizing of the young is one of the most important things that’s happened in this election regardless of the outcome.
BILL MOYERS: Agree?
GLENN LOURY: Oh, yeah. I think that’s such an important and interesting point. The generational politics that are built into issues like Social Security and Medicare, where younger generations will be paying throughout their working lives but where the fiscal dilemmas are such that they might not expect to get the same benefits. And what would bring politicians to the table and force them to grapple with it? And the idea that a demographic transformation of the electorate would have the effect of altering the terms on which this generational politics has played out is fascinating to me. So we will get to see.
BILL MOYERS: Glenn Loury, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you very much for joining me.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON You’re welcome.
GLENN LOURY: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the JOURNAL.
I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.
This transcript was entered on June 10, 2015