Who's Being Partisan?

Sean Wilentz's Response

Kevin Mattson

Mr. Mattson is Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University.

I've admired Sean Wilentz for years. I read Chants Democratic in graduate school and found his merging of labor and political history inspiring. His next major book, The Rise of American Democracy, was magisterial. Though I disagree with some his interpretations, Wilentz showed how 19th century history provided enormous insights into contemporary political culture. I've also admired Wilentz's political engagement. When he lectured congressmen about the inappropriateness of the Clinton impeachment ten years ago, he did the country a service.

Some might argue that partisanship inevitably conflicts with the independence of intellect necessary for historical inquiry. I would disagree and cite a few classic cases. Consider C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, both a fine work of history and a hearty polemic against segregation. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. - clearly one of Wilentz's heroes - wrote a decent memoir about President Kennedy after serving the president and a fine book about his brother Robert Kennedy whom he once advised.

But partisanship can coarsen and blind the historian who tries to make political observations about the present. Such is the case with Wilentz's dedication to the cause of Hillary Clinton over the past few months.

With this in mind, I recently reread Schlesinger in 1979, when he endorsed Ted Kennedy's challenge against President Jimmy Carter. Schlesinger lost perspective and misread the times badly. At a 1979 speech before Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), he predicted (based in part on his theory of cycles in history): "We can be confident that sometime in the 1980s the dam will break, as it broke at the turn of the century, in the 1930s and in the 1960s. Our sense of adventure will revive. There will be a new conviction of social possibility, a new demand for innovation and reform." Boy was he wrong. Schlesinger's inaccuracy shows how a historian's partisanship can provide sloppy political forecasting in the context of a primary.

So too with Wilentz. I first noticed this during "Bittergate" and one of Hillary Clinton's more patently absurd moments. The Senator was playing up her populist credentials, downing booze in Indiana bars and talking up her love of guns. To which, Obama joked that she was pretending to be like Annie Oakley.

Wilentz's humorless retort was to suggest that Obama should have known that "Annie Oakley was one of the first great female superstars in American history" and the "star act in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." Didn't Obama realize that Oakley "performed before Queen Victoria and other crowned heads of state?" The gall, he insinuated, that Obama hadn't even googled Oakley before making his "ad feminam slur" (translation: sexist).

Worse, Obama was "trying to sneer his way out of his latest mess." Sneer? I saw the footage where Obama made these extemporaneous remarks, and he hardly sneered. He was joking, and I doubt details about Queen Victoria's appreciation of Oakley mattered in relation to the point he made about Clinton's phoniness in trying to be a (wo)man of the people.

After suffering through this trivial episode, I read Wilentz's earlier piece in Salon, "Why Hillary Clinton Should Be Winning." The article deploys the classic enemy of all historical thinking - namely, counterfactual reasoning. Wilentz started with the question: What if the Democrats didn't have a proportional system and so many caucuses? He concluded that Clinton would be winning. His fictional math gave her 1,743 delegates to Obama's 1,257. Wilentz also griped about Michigan and Florida. "Team Obama doesn't want to count the votes of Michigan and Florida," Wilentz charged, but are "using the same kind of tactics as George Bush's camp used in Florida."

The only response to this is: Who cares? If Clinton had recognized and strategized on the basis of the primary that had been set out ahead of time, perhaps she wouldn't face defeat. Nor could anyone profess ignorance that Michigan and Florida had broken Party rules and thus disqualified their primaries (Clinton herself recognized this before it was to her advantage to argue otherwise). In making his arguments, Wilentz didn't differ a stitch from Clinton's campaign message. His own voice - his freedom from the pressures of campaigning and his historical knowledge - added nothing to the debate.

Now we have the latest installment in Wilentz's perpetual gripe: "Barack Obama and the Unmaking of the Democratic Party." Wilentz portrays Obama as a dangerous revolutionary. His "supporters brand Hillary Clinton as a racist." Obama's campaign is tinged by "persistent, discredited New Left and black nationalist theories." Wilentz ignores Obama's actual campaign and instead sets up straw men to take down.

Professor Wilentz consistently goes over the top: Obama doesn't just have an "Appalachian" problem, as most would agree. Rather, he can't get any white working class support (well, what about Wisconsin, Oregon, and Missouri?). Obama isn't thinking about a new electoral map - one that emphasizes western states and swing states like Virginia - he's simply "unmaking the Democratic Party."

Wilentz threatens to write like a flack more than as a historian. What next? Will he try to legitimize Clinton's analogy between unseating Florida and Michigan and events in Zimbabwe? I can only conclude that Wilentz must be taking marching orders from his close friend and Clinton adviser, Sidney Blumenthal.

Especially disturbing is how Clinton's own attacks (and Wilentz's that follow hers) lift so much from the Republican Party playbook. Portraying Obama as out of touch with white working class people is simply the latest rendition of this (it follows the ?commander in chief? charge). In "Unmaking," Wilentz himself decries "the perceived elitists Al Gore and John Kerry" who "lost" the white working class. How does that not map out the Republicans' general campaign?

Which brings me to a disturbing conclusion I and others have drawn about Team Clinton. The Clintons seem to pick allies more for their loyalty than for their ability to provide intelligent strategy or insight about current political circumstances. How else to explain sticking with Mark Penn for so long, when his advice wasn't just bad but harmful?

When Wilentz went to D.C. to defend the Clinton presidency against impeachment, he did the right thing. But I wonder if loyalties started to overpower his critical intelligence at this point. His writing on behalf of the campaign suggests as much.

Sean Wilentz

Mr. Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, is the author of The Age of Reagan.

Normally, I don't reply to this sort of personal criticism. This case calls for some factual corrections to set the record straight..

--I wrote my little piece on Annie Oakley in a spirit of jest as well as criticism, after reading Barack Obama's mocking and (at least) borderline sexist jab at Hillary Clinton. (Can you imagine what a field day the press would have enjoyed if Clinton had noted Obama's "bamboozled," "hoodwinked" remarks before southern black voters -- and quipped that he was pretending to be Malcolm X?)  I sent the Oakley squib to HNN and not to one of the political Websites precisely because I’d written a barbed joke about history. Kevin Mattson doesn’t get it -- yet he calls me humorless.

--Mattson, like other outraged Obama supporters, has missed the point of my Salon essay, which was not some wishful, counterfactual "what if" exercise.  It argued that Obama's pledged delegate totals -- drawn in substantial measure from caucuses as well as from states where any Democrats will lose in November or that are outside the key battleground states -- gave a badly inflated impression of his electoral chances. (They still do.) Likewise, the essay showed that the Democratic primary system helped create a false and deflated impression of Clinton's electability.  Mattson refuses to engage my argument and instead concocts a malevolent story about how I created a loony, immaterial alternative universe.

--Mattson also misses the point of my Huffington Post essay about Obama's political problems with working-class whites.  I was concerned with Obama's failure to win over working-class whites in the lower North and mid-Atlantic region, and particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Beginning in 1964, I emphasized, no Democrat has won the presidency without carrying Pennsylvania and Ohio, even when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton picked up some southern states. Wisconsin, Oregon, and Missouri were and are irrelevant to my argument. (John Kerry, by the way, won two of those states in 2004 -- and lost the election anyway.)

--I did refer, at some points, to white workers generally, in order to rebut false and reckless claims that most white workers have long been lost to the Republicans, and that the Obama campaign can build a winning coalition without them. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod proferred these claims in a National Public Radio interview. They also appear regularly in commentary by some of Obama’s fiercest “progressive” supporters, who have railed against the “rubes, fools, and hate-mongers” residing in the nation's "shitholes."

--Mattson seems to think – he provides no evidence -- that the voters' impressions of Gore and Kerry as "elitists" came about solely, or at least chiefly, as a result of the smears by the Republican attack machine, which he says I have tried to emulate. To be sure, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove are experts at playing dirty; and they have received valuable help from an irresponsible political press that has trumpeted endless pseudo-scandals. But the exact same Republican attack machine and its friends in the media tried to smear Bill Clinton as an Oxford-educated, ‘60’s hippie, anti-war elitist.  It didn't work, and Kevin Mattson should ask himself why. Democrats who duck responsibility and say that their party has lost again and again because significant blocs of the electorate are mindless putty in the hands of the GOP smear artists sound like, well .....elitists. So do Obama’s supporters who can’t imagine how any fully informed, rational person could consider their hero condescending.

--In my substantive political essays, I provide evidence to back up my claims. Kevin Mattson not only ignores those facts; he doesn't bother to provide any of his own.  He polemicizes about Hillary Clinton's alleged bad faith, then attacks me for failing to concede what everyone just KNOWS about her. Lacking evidence, Mattson reduces himself to commending my political writings and activities when he agrees with them, but trashing them as coarse, blind, and anti-historical when he does not. This is more of a commentary about himself than about my work.
--I have never thought very highly of my late friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "thirty-year" cycle theory of American politics.  His timing was off when he forecast a liberal revival in the 1980s—just as his support for Edward Kennedy's forlorn primary campaign from the left in 1980 was not his most brilliant political commitment. Nevertheless, it is true that, by 1988, and certainly by 1992, the Reagan era had begun to unravel. I have just published a book that attempts to describe all this and explain it -- subjects for another occasion.  But when he sets up Schlesinger as a straw man, Mattson turns dismissive and smug -- and something less than valiant, given that Schlesinger is no longer around to defend himself and his theory.

--The innuendo that I write what I do in my political writings because I take "marching orders" from anybody, or because I sold out, intellectually and politically, to Bill and Hillary Clinton around the time of the impeachment drive in 1998, is a false and baseless cheap shot aimed at my integrity. It is the kind of foul personal attack I've gotten used to reading in the snotty Obama blogosphere. (I suppose I should be grateful that Mattson did not also advance the fiction, widely reported in the press and on the Internet as discrediting fact, that I am a close personal friend of the Clinton family.) But to see ad hominem hit jobs on HNN, and in a piece by Kevin Mattson, is surprising as well as dismaying. It indicates, I think, how low many of Obama’s supporters have sunk, attacking writers who disagree with them as apostates and worse. 

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More Comments:

James W Loewen - 6/9/2008

1. IF different rules had been in place for the Democratic primary, such as winner-take-all, then both campaigns would have played by them. Therefore we cannot know the outcome simply by counting delegates according to the voting pattern that occurred as a result of THIS set of rules. The Obama campaign, in particular, maximized his appearances and other resources in places where they would make the biggest difference under THIS set of rules.
2. The more appearances Obama made in a state, the better he did. This was not true for Clinton. He may simply be a better campaigner. Or maybe there is "Clinton fatigue." Anyway, this may be a positive factor in Nov.
3. His campaign was well-run, made good use of the new media, etc. While no disaster, hers was not so well-run, suffered from much more in-fighting, etc. Again, this augers well for Nov.
So, Sean, your candidate lost. Get over it....

Lisa Kazmier - 6/9/2008

Seems Dr. Wilentz can't take criticism for his obvious blind spot over his shilling for Hillary Clinton. I'm calling a spade a spade because I've seen it in piece after piece. Mattson was almost polite in comparison to what he could have done.

Come on, Dr. Wilentz. Let's hear you defend the comparison of Florida and Michigan to the Civil Rights issues and Zimbabwe. You haven't yet seen how you cheapened your own reputation yet?

I'm almost feel sorry for -- except I don't have a cushy tenured job.

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