Profiles in Cowardice

A major reason I supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries was his uncommon political courage.  Now that his candidacy has died, I worry that political courage itself has been killed off along with it.

If courage is defined as saying or doing something at risk to one’s physical or social well-being, then political courage is saying or doing something at risk to one’s job or reputation.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book about it in 1957, and the Kennedy Library has bestowed a “Profile in Courage Award” upon worthy individuals every year since 1990.

It’s a shame that instances of public valor are so rare that they require official recognition whenever they occur.  Even worse, perhaps, is how the American people’s expectation for such high-minded virtue in their elected officials is so low that the very concept has essentially become a relic—particularly in an election year like this one.

All the same, it’s worth asking:  Has Hillary Clinton taken a single risk in her entire public career?  Has Donald Trump?  If we are to elect one of these people leader of the free world, shouldn’t we expect them to have assumed a gutsy moral stand on something—even if just by accident?

Barack Obama passed this test eight years ago by having openly opposed the Iraq War in 2002.  As for Bernie Sanders, you could say his entire tenure in Congress has been an act of professional chutzpah—specifically, his dogged insistence on calling himself a “democratic socialist” at every turn, despite the obvious hazards of identifying with a political philosophy that is still seen by millions as outright un-American.

In the case of Trump, the issue is complicated—as all such issues are—by the inherent unseriousness of Trump’s entire candidacy.  Since the Donald has shown, over and over again, to believe in nothing but himself and to change his political positions on an almost hourly basis, there’s really no standard by which we can say he has ever risked his so-called principles for any higher purpose.

Oddly enough, if he were a normal candidate with even a glimmer of intellectual consistency, we could say—with absolute truth—that he has taken brave political stances on multiple occasions throughout this campaign.  Indeed, Trump has, at certain points, unambiguously said things that, up to now, were considered ideological treason by the Republican Party and were grounds for excommunication from the party and the campaign.

For instance, there was that time he asserted—at a GOP debate, no less—that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”  Or his repeated claims that Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein than with George W. Bush’s war.  Or his related view that 9/11 was essentially President Bush’s fault.  Or his assurance that if Caitlyn Jenner walked into one of his buildings, she could use whichever restroom she wanted.

Ordinarily, any of the above would register as political audacity of the highest order, since no GOP candidate could reasonably expect to rise to the top with such heresies as those.

Except for two things.  First—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—there is no reason to think Trump genuinely believes anything he’s ever said (even many of his own supporters have their doubts).  And second:  By the time Trump even bothered making substantive remarks of any kind, he was already ankle-deep in sexist remarks, racist remarks, Islamophobic remarks and anti-immigrant remarks—all of which only enhanced his standing in the polls, thereby insulating him from all the usual rules of political logic thereafter.

In other words, once GOP voters bought into the bigotry, paranoia and white male victimhood that comprise the entirety of Trump’s appeal, they essentially stopped listening to anything else that came out of his mouth.  And Trump, sensing this, became liberated to break with any Republican orthodoxy that he wished, knowing it would have no adverse affect on his poll numbers—and, therefore, no longer qualify as political courage.

With Hillary Clinton, the calculus is mercifully simpler:  As a public servant, she is wholly preoccupied with the objectives of her various constituencies and the minutiae of turning those dreams into reality.  As such, she is possibly the most risk-averse person who has ever run for president and, if elected, cannot be expected to make any inspired leap of faith on any major initiatives.

To wit:  She supported the Iraq War until it started going badly.  For all her gay-friendly bona fides, she didn’t publicly endorse same-sex marriage until March 2013—10 months after President Obama did the same.  Her views on America’s various trade agreements tend to oscillate based on popular sentiment at the time, as do her positions on gun control, immigration and Wall Street.

There’s an interesting and worthwhile argument going on about whether Clinton’s identity as a cautious, finger-to-the-wind incrementalist is a virtue or a vice.  (In the interest of time, we’ll save that debate for another day.)  In either case, it means she will not—under almost any circumstances—be ahead of the proverbial curve on any controversial subject.  Indeed, it is not clear whether she believes a president should be a pioneer of that sort, or whether she should merely go wherever the public takes her.

Drawing from her research on Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that the role of a president is to be a step ahead of the people, but to allow them to take that extra step on their own terms—that is, by nudging them in a certain direction without being pushy.

Would it be too generous to call that an accurate summary of how Hillary Clinton operates?  If pressed for a one-sentence appraisal of Clinton’s character, I’d offer that she has genuine political views—often shaped by trial and error—but that her deference to public opinion precludes her from sharing them until it becomes practical to do so.  Some would call this calculation.  Others would call it democracy.

In any case, hardly anyone would call it courage.  Clinton fancies herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and as appealing as that may sound (to progressives), it suggests a dull, single-minded efficiency that doesn’t allow for thinking too far outside the box, lest it distract from the central task at hand.

In the long run—and considering the historically impotent Congress we now have—maybe Clinton’s limited imagination will do the trick.  Maybe big and bold are luxuries we can’t currently afford and perhaps we’re better off not deluding ourselves into thinking otherwise.

After all, it’s not as if courageous decisions are an inherently good idea.  In the end, they are only as worthwhile as the person making them and the circumstances in which they come about.  If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of candidates who aren’t concerned about the consequences of their actions.


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