Quote of the Week: Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best. Genius must always have lapses proportionate to its triumphs. –Max Beerbohm
As a political writer, I take these words to heart. They are especially relevant to the risks that a writer must take as a natural part of the process. Not everything I do ever ends up being perfect; and it is astounding how completely different something I have in my head looks once I start putting it into words. Even outlines and drafts change radically as I enter words here, and often the transformation can be not only astounding but disheartening. Sometimes I have ideas that work just fine in theory but come out looking more like something I would have written in high school. At any rate, Beerbohm’s words indicate that as a writer I should be prepared to face a possible disaster (a “lapse of genius,” if you will) in order to strive for the higher goal of a well-constructed and delivered argument.
Looking past my own concerns, Beerbohm’s words are also relevant to the recent Iowa Caucus. Two candidates in particular (Clinton and Trump), as well as the media, made their results out to be more than what they really are. Clinton’s “virtual tie” (to use Bernie Sanders’s description) is painted instead as a “victory” (in a state she was expected to win, and by a good margin); at least in part because she is also expected to lose New Hampshire to Sanders, and needs to prevent a perception building up of an unstoppable Sanders momentum. However, Clinton does have hope on the horizon, in the shape of Nevada (possibly), South Carolina, and Super Tuesday. South Carolina in particular should be a big win for Clinton, and it is difficult to see how Sanders will keep up in the multiple-front onslaught of Super Tuesday. But to get her there, Clinton strives to shape perceptions of her campaign as the unbeatable juggernaut. She simply changed expectations at the last minute by having it appear that any win, even by the tiniest margin, was a “great victory,” regardless of the omens portended by Iowa. But Clinton is a genius of political organizing, and that includes being married to another great political organizer. Mediocrity is not a problem that Clinton suffers; and the campaign need not fear its lapse. The genius of organization behind the Clinton machine should be allowed to consider soberly the reality of Iowa and find a way to connect to the new, young voter (who is overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders, and who well may play a vital role, as young voters did in 2008). The genius of Clinton should be allowed its lapse; and it should be allowed to see and portray that lapse as what it is – not a fatal weakness, but a problem that needs to be fixed as the campaign moves on to its next objective.
Similarly, Donald Trump brought in a much lower percentage of Iowans than his pre-caucus poll numbers indicated. Those numbers gave him a second place not far from the first, held by Ted Cruz, but also even closer (by a single percentage point) to Marco Rubio’s third place. Trump is underplaying the result, treating it as if it had been expected. Yet Trump had more campaign stops in Iowa than any other GOP candidate. He clearly invested far more resources in, and expected far greater results from, the people of Iowa (despite at one point insulting them by asking, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”). He also moves on to New Hampshire, a state where he is expected to do much better – a likely win. And yet, the New Hampshire primary is basically “small time,” and like Iowa allows for much time and preparation, neither of which will be available for subsequent steps like Super Tuesday. Trump’s failure to understand the voters, to understand the campaign process, and to understand his own rivals for the nomination (Rubio especially, whom Trump simply never saw coming) indicates not so much a “genius” showing an inevitable lapse, but the expected results of mediocrity trying to compete with its betters.
With Trump in Iowa, we see mediocrity at its best; unable to look past his own nose, or hear past the crowd of those around him. Whereas with Clinton, we see political genius afraid to allow itself the comfort of a clear lapse. For the good of the American political process, Trump’s mediocrity would best continue to “be always at its best,” but Clinton’s genius should be allowed to experience both its first lapse as well as its potential future triumphs.
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