Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Authenticity Sweepstakes

We’re hearing a lot lately about how, owing to a recent history of spectacular ideological flexibility, Mitt Romney is too “inauthentic” to secure the Republican presidential nomination (see, e.g., Michael Kinsley here). That’s not idle speculation. The perception of authenticity matters to primary voters.

It matters, in part, because primaries bring out more ideologically homogeneous electorates than general elections. And ideologically straight-laced voters reasonably prefer candidates who not only take the right positions on important issues, but visibly take them for ideologically respectable reasons. The average primary voter, being more sophisticated politically than the average general election voter, knows perfectly well that politicians are in the business of making a wide range of voters believe that they’re kindred spirits. That’s why ideologues look so hard for the real ideological specimen beneath the layers of artifice generated by any modern presidential campaign. When a candidate has had as many ideological epiphanies as Romney has had over issues that excite as much ideological passion as abortion and health care, it’s perfectly reasonable for voters to doubt that he’s a genuine ideological comrade worthy of their support.

Paul Waldman reminds us, however, that candidates cannot only be authentically inauthentic, but inauthentically authentic. “[W]hat [primary voters] often value more than anything else,” he observes, “is not authenticity itself, but the most convincing portrayal of the authentic . . . .” Perceptions of authenticity aren’t just a matter of ideologically minded voters doing their best to see through the layers of artifice covering a candidate’s authentic self. They're deploying their own artifices as well.

When conservatives wax indignant about Romney’s healthcare flip-flops they’re conveniently forgetting that, a few years ago, advocating health care reforms incorporating an individual mandate as an alternative to HillaryCare and a single payer system, was a respectable thing to do in conservative circles. When conservatives look down their noses at Romney for supporting RomneyCare in Massachusetts, they’ve repressed any memory of the fact that the conservative community has abruptly changed its collective mind on that score. If Romney is dead in the water as a presidential candidate, it’s partly because he’s a victim of conservatives’ huge ideological investment in their own forgetfulness.

The complicity between voters and candidates in generating appearances of candidate authenticity isn’t just a Republican and conservative phenomenon. Think back to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. All the serious candidates were for ending the Iraq war. But Obama won the authenticity sweepstakes going away because he was the only one who’d straightforwardly opposed it before it began. Yet, as I’ve argued before, a lot of adroit artifice went into the image he projected of himself as a steadfast opponent of the war. Bill Clinton had a point when he claimed that the notion that Obama had a materially better record on the war than his wife was “the biggest fairy tale” he’d ever seen. But liberals, as a community, chose not to remember the facts that Clinton was trying to bring to their attention.

The liberal community’s wishful thinking was more clearly in evidence in the fact that, among serious candidates, John Edwards placed, and Hillary Clinton only showed in the Iraq authenticity sweepstakes. It’s a little unsettling to remember that now when we've come to think of John Edwards as a poster boy for inauthenticity because he trafficked disgracefully on his wife’s cancer diagnosis while he was fathering a child with another woman. Yet, strangely, Edwards was widely regarded in liberal circles as being a more authentically liberal war critic than Hillary Clinton.

I say “strangely” because there weren’t any national Democratic politicians who were much more hawkish than Edwards between 2002 and the end of 2004. In 2002, he not only voted to authorize the war, but co-sponsored the Senate resolution of authorization with Joe Lieberman. When it became obvious that only a staunchly anti-war candidate could secure the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, however, Edwards repudiated his Senate vote with religious fervor.

It would be one thing if Edwards’s liberalism was rock solid in other respects. In fact, his flip-flop on the war was just one facet of the extreme ideological makeover he’d completed just in time for the 2008 presidential election. Contemplating Edwards’s latest presidential campaign, Russell Feingold, the authentically liberal junior Senator from Wisconsin, observed: Edwards “voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war … He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record.”

You’d never guess from liberal reactions that Hillary’s support for the war had always been more circumspect, and more defensible in liberal hindsight than Edwards’s. She’d justified her Senate vote authorizing the war at the time on the grounds that it would facilitate disarming Saddam through measures short of war. Unlike Edwards, she never flirted publicly with foreign policy neo-conservatism. She was adamant that her Senate vote not be interpreted as an endorsement of Bush’s unilateralism, or his nation-building project in the Middle East. She voted as she did to give Bush the leverage he needed to defend the nation by working within the international system.

Were you determined to think the worst of Hillary, I guess you could see her words as a cynical ploy, crafted to enable her to take credit if the invasion succeeded and to insulate her from blame if it failed. Yet there’s no denying that her hedges deftly anticipated the evolution of liberal opinion about the war. She never abandoned the liberal conviction that only “international law” as interpreted by international organizations confers legitimacy on the use of military force which, in any event, should only be used as a last resort. On any fair comparison of the substantive issues respecting Iraq, Clinton was not only more steadfast but, from the standpoint of today’s liberalism, far more correct than Edwards.

So why was Edwards widely regarded as a more authentic voice against the war in liberal circles than Hillary during the 2008 primaries? As far as I can tell, the answer is that Edwards apologized effusively for supporting the war and Hillary didn’t. That can only be decisive in an ideological community that observes distinctive rules of etiquette. Hillary’s problem was that, by 2008, liberals had converged on polite fiction that absolves liberalism of all responsibility for the war by shifting the blame onto opportunistic, inauthentically “liberal,” politicians—“polite” that is, to everyone except those it brands as cynical opportunists. According to this politically correct “memory,” there never was an authentically liberal reason for supporting the war. That’s why liberals suddenly decided that the recovering hawks in their ranks owed them an apology. The only remaining question in liberal circles was whether “real” liberals should be magnanimous enough to accept it.

Hillary’s position on the war going forward wasn’t materially different from Obama’s and, looking backward, her record was a lot better than Edwards’s. But she got into trouble with liberals for not pulling her weight in this Orwellian enterprise. The liberal community had offered its recovering hawks a generous bargain: they could politely excuse themselves for an ideological transgression that existed only in hindsight and receive ideological absolution in return. The liberal community treated Edwards and Hillary so differently because he’d taken it up on the deal and she hadn’t.

It's not just that "authenticity" is in the eye of the beholder.  Perceptions of authenticity are usually a matter of complicity among beholders and the candidate beheld.  Romney has run out of accomplices.

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