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Sunday, November 17, 2013

THE FOLLY OF "FIRSTS"


It is now November 2013, and already the political media has started a speculation and agenda driven “analysis” of the November, 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Why?  The speculation part is simply what pundits do for a living, although tiresome to readers and listeners simply interested in current political news.  The agenda part comes from interest groups, pundits and editorial boards, eager to get a jump start on the selection process by building momentum for a particular candidate.  Thus the movement to create an atmosphere of inevitability around the Democrat nomination and election of Hillary Clinton is in full force.  A “super pac  (political action committee) has been established to raise millions on her behalf and squeeze out the fund raising efforts of other Democrat candidates who might challenge her.  A quasi-official campaign staff of volunteers is being organized and Hillary, who hasn’t made a public commitment to run, is traveling the country giving speeches before friendly audiences.

Hillary was also the “inevitable” Democrat nominee and “next President” in the 2008 elections, until an unconventional young candidate who matched her ambition and lack of credentials, pushed her aside and went on to win the nomination and presidency.  Besides having thin resume’s, an underlying theme motivated the most dedicated supporters of both candidates, the notion of “first”.  Hillary was to be the “first” female President of the United States.  This captivated the imaginations of women young and old who seemed to see it as some kind of validation of them as equal citizens. To feminists, it took on the characteristics of a revolutionary movement, not to be denied by such old fashioned “glass ceiling” concepts like qualifications and ideology. The thin reasoning offered by the feminists then and now, seems limited to the notion that a female president would provide an important role model for the nation’s little girls who could now aspire to that same high office.  Of course, the unspoken limitation imposed by such organizations as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Emily’s List, is that only a liberal Democrat female president would properly fulfill this role.  

Hillary was going to be “the first”, except she wasn’t. While the Republican well had been poisoned by George Bush’s multi-year military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the on-set of the “great recession”, Barack Obama offered his own “first” candidacy which appealed to the Democrat Left which was already put off by Hillary’s senate vote in support of the invasion of Iraq.  Essentially, the prospect of the “first woman president” was defeated by the attraction of the “first black president”.   On November 13, 2013 the Washington Post reported that “Guests descended upon the Japanese Embassy to celebrate (Caroline) Kennedy as the nation’s ‘first female U.S. envoy’, (ambassador to Japan.)  Here is a woman, noted for nothing besides her relationship to President John F. Kennedy, who died when she was six years old, and her inherited wealth.  She has a law degree but has never practiced, spending her entire “professional life” lending her famous name to  boards and advisory positions of non-profits, arts and education organizations. While she may be a charming and intelligent individual (or not), there is nothing in her background that indicates any knowledge of, or experience with , international relations and diplomacy in general, or of Japan in particular.  Ambassadorships are commonly awarded to financial and political supporters of successful presidential candidates as rewards for their patronage.  However, most of these appointments are to lesser important and socially appealing posts like Caribbean island nations or European fun spots like Lichtenstein or Luxembourg.  Relations with Japan are critical.  Japan and China are involved in a serious conflict over remote islands in the Western Pacific which may have important oil reserves.  The constant tension with the nuclear armed dictatorship North Korea presents an important regional security threat which requires continuous and sensitive diplomatic efforts among the U.S. and regional nations including Japan.  Another highly sensitive diplomatic issue with Japan is U.S. military basing agreements.  This is not the place for a social/political appointment of an unqualified “first”.

When President Obama decided that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would not be reappointed, it became known that his preferred choice for the position was Lawrence Summers, an esteemed economist, former President of Harvard University and economic advisor to the president.  However, feminist organizations immediately started a media campaign to use the vacancy to achieve the appointment of “the first female” Chair- (man; woman; person) of the Federal Reserve.  The person the feminist organizations picked was Janet Yellen.  Yellen is indeed qualified.  She has served as the Vice Chairman since 2010 and has a significant professional background in economics.  But her nomination was promoted on the basis of her being the “first”.  Again, no attempt was made to make the argument that her chromosomal make- up would provide special insights, competency, or even any policies that differed from either her predecessor or Summers.  The political heat became so inflated that Summers withdrew his name from consideration and Obama was able to make the “politically correct” choice necessary to accommodate the “glass ceiling” crowd.  In her recent Senate confirmation hearings Yellen supported the continuation of Bernanke’s bond purchase “stimulation” policy which has pumped billions of dollars into the economy and is becoming increasingly controversial, so expect nothing new.

Although George W. Bush appointed the “first black female” National Security Adviser who then became the “first black female Secretary of State”, “firsts” have been mostly the agenda of the Democrats. While  celebrations of “firsts” might be of interest to cultural historians,  few, if any supporters of individual “firsts” ever explain how the individuals who actually are the “firsts” are substantively different from others who might have been elected or appointed.  Thus, the question of appearance out weighing competence always remains below the surface. 

More recently, there has been press speculation about the political attractiveness of New Mexico’s Republican Governor, Susana Martinez as a potential presidential candidate.  Ms. Martinez is the “first Hispanic female governor” of New Mexico.  It was reported that Governor Martinez was considered for the Vice Presidential nomination by 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  This would have been a crass political event of Palin-like proportions, and would have achieved the same result.  Martinez may be an intelligent and capable politician but there is no question that her electoral success in generally liberal and heavily Hispanic New Mexico was aided by her ancestry which in theory is seen by some to be transferable to the national electorate. However,   there is also no question that her resume’ does not reflect sufficient qualifications for the most important political office in the world.  She has been governor of New Mexico only since 2011, prior to that she was a government lawyer.  That’s it.  Still, the ever pretentious editors of Time magazine in 2013, named her one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”, (along with rapper J-Z).  This is certainly a lofty credential, or would be if anybody took it seriously.  New Mexico has just five electoral votes out of the national total of 538 and a population of just over two million, a little less than Houston, Texas.  Thus, in spite of Time magazine’s over reach, her selection reflects the unfortunate devolution of the U.S. electorate into competing groups engaging in “identity politics”, that is, supporting candidates who share their ethnicity, gender, or even gender identification , and without close scrutiny of their qualifications .

The supporters of “firsts” feed off this tendency ignoring the down side, one of which is the unfair perception that choice of qualified candidates and appointees was mostly the result of their “first” characterization and not their achievements.  Of course, the major down side is the possibility that they are not qualified at all.

Based on her current resume’, and compared to the incumbent, Hillary is “qualified “for the office of the presidency.  However, in her role as Secretary of State ,after being sent out of the country for four years by Obama, the state of U.S. relations with the important nations of the world does not reflect a record of significant accomplishment on her part.  Relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinians, Russia, China and even European Union countries, are frayed to poor.  Thus there is an important difference between “qualified” and competent.  Obama was neither, and in spite of his status as a “first” and his success at breaking the “color barrier” to the White House, the nation is not any better off after his five years in office in terms of public policy or domestic race relations, or by any other important measure. Indeed, he may have done a disservice to future more capable black candidates.  By being the “first”, he may have become the “last”, for the foreseeable future.

And in spite of Hillary’s new and improved qualifications since 2008, the main justification for her candidacy is still to be the “first” female president.  Such a rationale without close examination of her public policy vision for the nation and her views on the proper role of the U.S. in the world will put the country at risk of another four or even eight years of decline.

 

 

 

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