My head says Obama, but my heart wants Clinton.
I trust Hillary Clinton in my kishkes. I have the feeling I can count on her, the way I counted on a trustee in the town where I used to live. She was a corporate lawyer turned stay-at-home mother, and she had made herself the go-to person for everything having to do with local government. She listened to my problems, researched their background, and got back to me. She couldn't always help, but she always got to the heart of an issue and could map its points of intersection with the politics of village administration. She knew what could and couldn't be done.
Identity politics isn't irrelevant here. One reason I felt I could rely on this trustee is that she had parachuted out of a high-flying career to take care of people--first her children, then our town. I figured that meant that she couldn't refuse the call of human need, that she understood that little squabbles are microcosms of big ones. Clinton, another demonstrably good mother, doesn't lack ambition, but she knows what it's like to put herself second; she has given real thought to the care of the needy; and she is subject to attack for being small-bore, logistical, compromising, pragmatic, calculating. As a mother--to use the odious phrase of the identity activist--I want my politicians small-bore and calculating. I want them to attend, Lyndon Johnson- like, to the protocols of power--to master the details of policy, to defer to legislative custom, to speak to insiders as an insider and to the public in words we understand. That's the politicians' job. That's how they deliver for their constituents, and, during seven years in the Senate, having accomplished various feats of super-local statesmanship, Clinton has shown she can do her job.
Clinton wasn't always this good at delivering, of course. When she was Obama's age, she was Obama--a visionary bent on sweeping reforms. She was 46 when she first undertook health care reform. That experience left her wiser, humbler, and more filled with what Keats called "negative capability." She knew what she didn't know. She picked up some practical skills. With one exception: She still can't make a stump speech. I like her for this failing. She's a one- on-one person, she has to establish a connection before she can warm up, she lacks the gene for expansive, uplifting bullshit. (Her bullshit is narrow and targeted, like her policies; it's also self-protective.) In fact, Clinton has shown an admirable aversion to populist oratory. She refuses to utter the words Democrats want to hear about Iraq. She defended lobbyists--lobbyists!--at the Yearly Kos debate: "A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not," she said bravely, "represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses. They represent social workers. They represent--yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people."
Honest, yes, but this sort of thing handicaps her in the race. In contrast to Clinton, with her earthbound style, Obama knows how to scale rhetorical heights, and you can't underestimate the power of that. Americans feel soiled by the muck of the Bush administration; they want to be cleaned up. Obama promises the purifying air of bipartisanship. Clinton seems more likely to sort through the mess. Does uplift trump elbow grease? Probably. I think I'll vote for Clinton anyway.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic.
Part one: Randall Kennedy
Part two: Judith Shulevitz
Part three: Erica Jong