Many moons ago, I was a college student and heavily invested in campus politics. At one point, there was a campaign for student body president. There were two likely candidates, and I had to decide who I would advise and push for.
One of the guys was, to be blunt, a political animal. Let’s call him “Edmund.” He had his mind on the office as a stepping-stone towards his own future past college, and wanted the prestige the office offered on his resume’. He was also a master manipulator, and I found myself distrusting him.
The other guy — let’s call him “Barry” — was more of an average Joe. He had a few ideas that he wanted to carry out, but his main appeal was his charisma and amiability. I’d known him a bit longer, and had helped lure him into getting into campus politics.
An acquaintance of mine (our friendship was fading fast) was also a political animal, but was more interested in observing and commenting than actually dabbling. He and I argued about which would be the better candidate.
I argued for Barry. I said I couldn’t trust Edmund, that he was too interested in promoting himself and lacked idealism. he couldn’t be trusted to put the common good ahead of his own self-interest.
My acquaintance — “Will” — said that based purely on what I said, he’d prefer Edmund. Edmund, he said, could be trusted — to act in his own self-interest. it would be easier to engineer events to make Edmund’s own self-interests correspond with the common good — or, at least, persuade him that they did. Barry, though, would be more resolute. If he got it into his head to do something utterly wrong-headed, he would do it out of sheer principle and obstinacy.
A few years later, I started reading P. J. O’Rourke. In Parliament of Whores, he talked about why he tended to prefer Republicans to Democrats. (My copy is on loan right now, so I’m paraphrasing from memory. Oyster, can you correct me if I get it wrong? I know you recently got a copy and were reading it…)
P. J. said that he had faith that politicians from both parties will take from him. If he had his druthers, though, he’d rather be robbed by a Republican than a Democrat. If he’s robbed by a Republican, at least someone will be getting richer. When you’re robbed by a Democrat, it’s usually done in the name of the “greater common good” and the robber tends to wrap their thievery in lofty ideals and moral principles.
Further, the Republican thief has a fairly simple, short plan: to get personally wealthy. The Democrat tends to think long-term, and plan out even more thefts and argue with you about how the stealing was actually an act of social justice and necessity and it’s your duty to let yourself get robbed.
I was reminded of these two arguments as I looked at the last two Democratic presidential candidates standing. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tend to represent, roughly, these two schools of thought. Hillary is the pragmatist, the political animal, the Republican, while Obama is the idealist, the Democrat.
When I find myself weighing the merits (or, rather, the demerits) of the two, I have found myself siding with Obama. He comes across as more principled, more honest, and more idealistic than Clinton.
But as it becomes more and more apparent that one of these two will have a 50-50 chance of being our next president, I think about my long-ago discussions with Will, and P. J.’s observation, and wondering if I should bite back my disgust at Hillary Clinton and trust that she is the one more likely to be amenable to “doing business.” If she is the one who would do less harm to the nation. Obama strikes me as more likely to lock on to bad ideas, and press on with them out of sheer principle.
I don’t know where I’m coming down on this one. It’s a tough call. I can argue both sides, and can’t quite persuade myself to come down on one side or another.