Playing nice

A fantasy letter from Barack Obama to his supporters.

I just had a long chat with a close friend who is a Clinton insider but was not engaged in the campaign. He’s committed to electing Obama. In his view, the healing process isn’t going as fast as it needs to go for Obama to rack up a convincing win in November, and part of the problem is from the Obama side. He points, among other things, to some of the comments on sites such as arguing against the idea that Obama supporters should help repay the Clinton campaign debt and criticizing Clinton for not withdrawing sooner.

Now it’s my suspicion that much of the nasty anti-Clinton stuff from purported Obamites, like much of the nasty anti-Obama stuff from purported Clintonites, is so much troll scat from people picking up McCain points toward winning a toaster, or whatever prize for trolling he’s offering this week. There’s no way to find out how much, since the comments are almost entirely anonymous or pseudonymous.

Still, the problem is genuine even if many of the message are bogus. Is there anything the Obama camp can do about it?

I think there is. Consider the following email as something that might be sent out to the Obama mailing list. I used to get a message or two per day signed either by the candidate or by David Plouffe, though the pace has slackened considerably of late. They’re always headed “Dear Mark” and signed “David” or “Barack,” though in real life I haven’t met either man and am confident that neither of them could pick me out of a police lineup. So I’ve formatted the fantasy email accordingly, and tried (no doubt not very skilfully) to imitate Sen. Obama’s own style and tone. Note that this wouldn’t be an entirely new message; Obama said, even before Clinton’s concession, that his supporters should “be nice” to Clinton supporters. But it might make a difference, just the same.

So here’s the letter as I’d like to get it:

Dear Mark:

As we head toward November, the people involved in our movement are contributing in an uncounted number of ways. Some are doing the basic democratic work of talking to their neighbors and friends; some are volunteering at our offices or doing phone-banking from home; some are continuing to declare their independence from bundler-driven politics by supporting us with their donations through the website, some are producing their own videos, posters, T-shirts, and buttons, and some are making their voices heard in letters to the editor, on call-in talk shows, and in on-line discussion forums, both as diarists on sites such as DailyKos and as commenters on on-line media outlets and on blogs.

All are doing their part, and I’m grateful for all of the effort. This campaign is driven from the bottom up; the campaign does its best to support and organize your efforts, but neither I nor the staff presumes to dictate what form your participation should take.

Still, I have one very personal request to make: play nice. One of the premises underlying our movement is that it’s possible to get past the last two decades of scorched-earth politics. But we can’t do that by simply aping the prevailing mores. In this regard we must truly be the change we wish to see in the world. If you see someone who purports to be one of us (I say “purports to be” because for all I know some of these people are just trouble-makers trying to disrupt our efforts) questioning John McCain’s service to our country or messing around with his family, please put up a response, and say in my name that such tactics have no place in this campaign.

I’ve always been puzzled when people committed to change nevertheless act as if lies and hatred were so much more powerful than truth and compassion that lies must be met with lies and hatred with more hatred. Let us follow the example of David facing Goliath; if we fight with our own weapons we will find that the giants on the other side aren’t as tough as they appear.

Or, as Harry Truman said when one of his supporters told him to “Give ’em Hell,” “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s Hell.”

Most of all this applies within the great family that is the Democratic Party. We just went through one of the longest and most tightly contested nomination campaigns ever. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran an historic campaign, and she embodied for millions of Americans both the promise of shattering the highest and hardest glass ceiling and the memory of eight years of peace and prosperity, of progressive politics and law-abiding government, under President Bill Clinton. Her followers worked as hard and as passionately for her as we worked on our side, and they have every right to be proud of their candidate and the of effort they made.

Some mean things got said on both sides; family arguments can be like that. But now it’s time to move on, and to remember that comparing the distance between Hillary Clinton’s positions and mine on the issues that divide this country to the distance between where we both stand and where Sen. McCain stands is like comparing the distance between Chicago and Evanston to the distance between the the Earth and the Moon.

Campaigns cost money. Sen. Clinton’s campaign spent more than it was able to raise; they had to compete with us, and we were raising more than has ever been raised before. The money they spent included more than $10 million dollars in Sen. Clinton’s own funds; that is money that she will never get back. It also included a similar sum owed to the people who did the work and provided the goods and services the campaign needed. As Democrats, we ought to regard those debts as debts of honor, and (at minimum) do nothing to interfere with her efforts to pay them off in full.

So, once again: If you see, in some on-line forum or in live interaction, one of us, or someone pretending to be one of us, slagging Sen. Clinton or the people who worked for her and voted for her, I urge to you respond and tell whoever it is that he or she doesn’t speak for you, for me, or for our movement.

This country is too big, and this moment too great, for us to be small.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: