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writing for godot

May the best presidential performer win!

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Written by Robert S. Becker   
Monday, 08 July 2019 11:37

Here’s my response to Kamala Harris’ request for donor input to her “Official July Survey.” My, my, will we have one every month? Will they all be “official”? More than notching a list, here's my analysis, fully in sync with her “for the people” catchphrase.

Clearly, presidential elections no longer focus on ideas as much as entertainment — media drama, theatrical displays, ambitious sound bites — few achievable. The appalling Trump is only the final nail in this coffin. Historically, few top prospects trafficked in serious, in-depth, systemic reforms; that's because progress (and breakthrough legislation) depend on an insurgent Congress. This overall fall-off reflects spigots of cultural degradation: 24/7 media, failing education systems, mobile phone obsessions (favoring graphics over words), short-attention spans, boredom, cynicism, notwithstanding calculated distractions from human issues and the triumph of history as melodrama. When the status quo seems unshakeable, why not make politics recreational? When big money, rightwing judges and gerrymandered power command corruption, why not seek fun before climate disaster, Armageddon, or that sneaky, earth-bound asteroid strike in earnest?


Thus, performance in the moment is all: the world of politics IS truly “a stage,” both as transient sequences and fabricated productions. So, with any over-priced popularity contest, we’re talking emotional connections. Thus winning reflects two core variables: 1) the quality of the campaign; and 2) the “genuineness” of the star’s personality (tone, image, intangibles), especially to the critical plurality of key-state voters. With all neutrality, I say the best actor, with the savviest pitch, is assured the White House. In these terms, Harris is the most talented, Democratic performer, capable of matching Obama’s charismatic run. She’s much warmer and approachable — and won’t have to prove non-whites win.

Trump confirms how an operatic circus performer conveys “genuineness” with calculated, reality-exploding cheap shots. Yet, his blatant bad faith from chronic deceit opens the field for an impressive candidate/actor to come across as genuine without demolishing truth or insulting the majority. Harris’s brand, like most Dems, reflects a believably positive vision — that knowledge, experience, competence and mental stability identify the best rational adult capable of being presidential — and she adds a dramatic personality, with impact. Like Obama after Dubya, the next president can redeem the prestige of America— where diversity, freedom, tolerance and opportunity serve each other. Just imagine a stateswoman who doesn’t demonize allies, deny climate change, or befriend the darkest, planetary forces (dictators, white supremacists, major polluters).

Good faith beats bad

Bad faith oddly gives Trump the TV actor considerable range, lurching from snarky outrage to name-calling and ridicule, weaving in lies, scorn and contempt, then circling back to outrage and disgust. But he’s failing badly on his one big scam, to alone restore “greatness” — or whiteness, maleness, or bellicose “Christian” virtues. The great joke is Trump “greatness” (read decline) got exposed by electing this know-nothing — accelerated by endless buffoonery here and abroad. Trump’s epic whining presents himself as both world-weary (failing to buy enough politicians, he had to do it himself) yet also absurdly juvenile, as if this child-man is the last hope for so much “virtuous winning” (whose cup runneth over, he boasted).

The act’s wild contradictions are also more prominent: the fat cat so rich he can’t be bought — who sells himself (cheaply) at every craven chance. How long can he hustle his destined role as giant-slayer (of crooked hacks and evil elitists) when he slays almost no enemies of the people? Trumpery is all attitude, with meager payoffs to ordinary folks — no upsurge of better-paying jobs, no skills training, infrastructure or immigration gains — only the nightmare of bluster, caged children and abused asylum seekers.


Enter Kamala Harris, who can match Trump’s forward personality, with her own genuineness, plus the undeniable trifecta of brains, fortitude, and not lying every day. She connects emotionally with average folks, the first offset to Trumpery. The 2020 quandary: is a reactionary cult of personality re-electable?  That means Dems must offer a personable, smiling torpedo, without scandals or unchangeable negatives (like Biden, Hillary) who can PROSECUTE the most vulnerable, least presidential criminal on record. No brassy, volatile incumbent is a pushover, but having a fresh face who commands power gamesmanship is the key to exiling the great pretender. Success is less likely if Dems nominate a tepid centrist -- though the heady Warren is the other strong personality with campaign prowess against Trump.

Yet Harris’ expressive, winning persona sets her apart from all other Democrats, capable in one aria of presenting engaging emotions, even a richness of voices. That she is attractive, articulate, well-mannered, and can laugh at herself will help win over those wary of electing a black woman. Like Obama, she can rise to an occasion, anointing passing moments with epic overtones. Take the masterful scolding of Biden on busing: she set the trap (“did you not oppose the racially-liberating busing that made my career possible?”), then shredded his wimpy response by saying, without herself endorsing forced busing, “if not the federal government, who protects all human rights?”).

Poised, great acting instincts

Note her emotive valances, shifting from acquiescence (“I don’t think you’re a racist”) to heart-felt injury (“I was hurt” when you cozied up to racist, busing-hated segregationists), then her coup de grace: “do you not regret opposing busing, having just bragged about working with bigoted senators?” There’s no inexorable link between working with southern bigots and Biden's opposition to federally-mandated busing. But this keen prosecutor has superb acting instincts, and Harris married the two embarrassments (plus inserting a sympathetic personal story).  Here is a model of cornering your opponent, leaving Biden sputtering, as if just run over. Think how vulnerable Trump will be, likely over-reacting when cornered with nasty self-revelations (will he dare mock her looks, voice, ethnicity or gender?).

The evening was hers, both politically and emotionally; this is what superior political actors do, especially against a front runner.  Sound rational and impassioned, defend moral imperatives, then leave foes no escape route. I don’t dismiss her less progressive credentials (or spotty CA AG career), nor significant inconsistencies: does she support universal healthcare (with private insurance) or Sanders’ Medicare-for-all? She is less the systemic reformer than Sanders or Warren but still by any modern standard progressive.

In any case, my context is never one candidate or election but fomenting a New Progressive Era. Obama offered a tentative first step, a racial breakthrough with big words but weak, centrist negotiation skills (thus the modest results). Compared to heroic progressives lessened by "stylistic impairment" (like Sanders), Harris has the best potential to equal Obama’s (or Clinton’s) campaign performance brilliance. No one else across the debates delivered Kamala Harris' smarts, tactical finesse or dramatic impact — here's the up-spirited, engaging candidate to overcome the petty, endless, tiresome perfidy of Trump.

In short, charisma, even touched with slickness, offers the best insurance against another bout of inestimable Trump damage, a horror confirmed by his re-election. I trust she will clean up dubious policy positions and clarify her vision. If winning the White House is more than ever about performance, capable of upgrading a horribly degraded White House, Kamala Harris is right now IMO the best shot.

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