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Don’t Get Tough, Barack

by James Grossman on Jan 31, 2008

Well, this is not the National Basketball Association, where a player who’s deemed ‘soft’ can drop a dozen slots in the draft. You play basketball, Barack, so you know why it matters underneath the basket. But this is not the NBA. Or the NFL. This is politics, where getting tough and acting tough matters not because it has to matter, but because people say it matters. But maybe it doesn’t. And maybe that’s the new politics that you are talking about.Don’t do it, Barack. The pundits have weighed in, and they’ve reached a consensus: it is time to take off the gloves. ‘Time to get mean,’ as one Chicago columnist puts it. ‘Democratic War!’ screams the headline in New York. The media have concluded that the Clintons have gotten serious, and it’s time to show how tough you are. Time to demonstrate that you aren’t as ‘soft’ as you have seemed.

It goes beyond politics to policy. One of Jimmy Carter’s biggest mistakes as president came when he listened to the pundits who told him it was time to get tough. He seemed weak. ‘Never seem weak’ ran the conventional wisdom. So Jimmy Carter exercised American muscle in Nicaragua and destabilized its politics. George Bush is one tough honcho and showed us how tough he is when he gloated over his possession of Saddam Hussein’s gun. Yes sir. We are big, strong and tough.

The conventional wisdom goes further. Not only does one never show weakness, but one never talks to foreign potentates you don’t like unless you know from the outset that the result will be a win. Don’t want to embarrass yourself. Don’t want to legitimize that tinhorn dictator by talking to him. It’s better to maintain the arrogance of American power and let the world know that we talk to whomever we want, whenever we’re ready.

This was the policy that you questioned many months ago. The pundits declared that it showed your inexperience, but instead it demonstrates why you’ll be a president who at least has a chance to restore our standing in the world. We are, perhaps, the world’s most hated nation. Or close to it. This is the challenge for our new president, and you’re the one most likely to change that. Not because you’re black. Not because you went to school in Indonesia. Not because of who you are, but because of your approach to politics.

This is why you understand that to stick our Democratic heads into the sand and refuse to recognize that Reagan brought new ideas to Washington is to carry partisanship to the point of foolishness. Reagan did have new ideas, new ways of thinking about government. You were right to remind us of that. It’s good history, and it reflects a willingness to give credit where credit is due. It’s also called generosity of spirit, a characteristic that is precious scarce in Washington. And it also is called learning from the opposition, one of the major qualities of good leadership.

So don’t do it, Barack. Don’t get mean. This isn’t war. You believe you’re the person most able to defeat the opposition in November and to provide a new approach to leadership. Hillary Clinton sincerely believes that she deserves the opportunity. The two of you generally agree on most substantive issues. By August you’ll need to work together. And a year from now, at least one of you will likely still be in the Senate, playing an important role in bringing change to Washington.

So let’s do it differently this time. Let’s acknowledge that we have two strong Democratic candidates, both of whom are decent individuals fully capable of governing. This is the politics that you stand for and stand by. It’s not war; it’s not about who’s the toughest dude on the court. A strong leader listens, collaborates and understands the virtues of generosity and collegiality.

James Grossman is the author of 'Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration' (1989) and a writer for the History News Service.