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Domestic issues Election 2008 Liberalism Obama Politics

Conversations on a train

[digg-reddit-me]To Tara from the train tonight:

You said something that I often hear – that Ms. Clinton knows how she is going to change things, while Mr. Obama is light on the details.   Yet each candidate has laid out detailed and similar plans.  They each have taken advantage of the growing liberal think tanks and combined the best of the various approaches.  Neither candidate can take credit for these ideas – as they are the product of a liberal consensus, and specifically, the consensus of many in think tanks and similar institutions in Washington, D.C.

There are minor differences in the goals each candidate is proposing – but I’ll leave those for another day – because what you said, and what I have heard many other people say, is not that Mr. Obama has different goals than Ms. Clinton, but that he has not thought out how to accomplish his goals.

This simply isn’t the case.  You can compare the level of detail in the plans on and Mr. Obama’s and Ms. Clinton’s website.

But Mr. Obama clearly talks less about policy specifics than Ms. Clinton.  The Senator from New York often will list a few dozen policies and rattle off some specific ways her plans will function.  It’s an impressive show.  But the show is also deceptive and ineffective.

Although Ms. Clinton explains how her plans will work, she does not explain how she will put them in place.  She cannot – because if she begins to, it ruins the illusion that is a great part of her appeal.  Ms. Clinton may have all the details planned out now, but her carefully wrought and nuanced proposals will not survive the legislative process.  When the time comes to make these policy plans into laws and programs, legislators, business interests, bureaucrats, and anyone else remotely affected by the policy will get their say – and the details will quickly change.  A major reason why her health care initiative during her husband’s administration failed was that she failed to change the details – and threatened to “demonize” anyone who got in her way, including the friendly liberal Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley.

Given Ms. Clinton’s history, she realizes that detailed policy plans don’t survive attempts to enact them.  Yet she still insists on presenting them as if they were what she would do, rather than what she would attempt to do.  There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.  I don’t blame Ms. Clinton for this.  This is standard politics – and it is also a major reason why so many Americans are fed up with politics, and those candidates who “say they will do one thing” but don’t.  Part of the problem is that candidates promise things that they do not control – and enacting Ms. Clinton’s policy proposals will not be entirely up to the President.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama.  He also has detailed policy proposals – but he does not present them as one of the basic pillars of his campaign.  Rather he focuses on creating a movement, an active citizenry, that will demand change; on changing the processes by introducing elements such as transparency and direct accountability.  Mr. Obama explains his approach and his thought process – two elements Ms. Clinton guards as a tactical secrets – because he acknowledges that he cannot promise specific items.

Not only is Mr. Obama’s approach more honest – it is also more effective.  Think of the last presidential candidates who spouted policies versus those who campaigned on broad themes.  Senator Kerry campaigned on policy; President Bush on themes.  Vice President Gore campaigned on policy; Governor Bush campaigned on themes.  President Clinton campaigned on some amalgamation of policy and theme – in a way I have only seen Mr. Clinton fuse them – and Senator Dole campaigned … you know, I don’t know what Mr. Dole’s campaign was about.  But going back further over the past half-century – most winning presidential candidates have focused less on policy, and more on character, themes, and narratives.

Drew Westen wrote a book about the matter last year – explaining why Democrats were losing.  His diagnosis of the problem was simple: Democrats focused on policies; Republicans focused on character and narrative.  Republicans did this because it was effective.  Now, we have Mr. Obama who can compete – indeed, dominate – the Republicans in rhetoric, in character, in creating election narratives, in weaving political themes into his moving speeches.

President Ronald Reagan was able to create a major realignment of the electorate in a conservative direction because, infused with a proud conservatism, he was able to explain to the American people why they needed Republican values.  He told the story of America and his punch line was: that is why you need someone who believes what I do in the White House. So, in 1981, it was Morning in America.

Mr. Obama is the only candidate today who could create a similar shift – who could reinterpret the American story and reshape the electorate to create a lasting liberal majority.

6 replies on “Conversations on a train”

Another very good post. What bothers me the most about about this “Obama is short on substance” crap is that it is deception straight out of the Republican play book. Clinton and her supporters have repeated this enough times that it has become conventional wisdom for many who don’t know any better. It is precisely what the Republicans always use against Democrats, no matter how many specifics Democrats have, it is always “My opponent doesn’t have any plans”, or if you are going against Bush, “My opponent don’t have a plans”. They once again overcompensate for their lack of truth with repetition. This race is no different, just with many of her other tactics, she attacks Obama in the way the Republicans generally attack Democrats (everything from calling them elitist because they happen to be better educated, or implying that we may be attacked by terrorists if she isn’t elected). The fact is, as you pointed out, that Obama is just as clear about specifics as Hillary, if you actually pay attention (which most apparently don’t). Her supporters don’t seem to understand that A) just because Hillary’s campaign says it, that doesn’t make it true, and B) you can inspire and talk about movements and change and still have specific positions and know how to achieve them. Anyway, I share your frustration. Every day I overhear someone repeating these fallacious Clinton talking points, and roll my eyes, grind my teeth. Apparently if you say something enough times, it becomes “true”. I thought we learned our lesson after we invaded Iraq and al-Qaeda and the WMDs weren’t there. I guess I was wrong.

Well said. I would also recommend any Obama naysayer watch one of his townhall style meetings he frequently holds. Get policy, how it works, and how he put in place.

I also appreciate his direct answers. I watched the Town Hall meeting in Alexandria, Virginia on CSPAN last night and the question of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came up. His case was strong for ending our nonsensical policy of barring gays from serving in the military if they are openly gay. No nuance. No parsing.

Again great post.

I dunno… even though I support Obama, the underlying assumption in a lot of your posts regarding HillaryCare is that she hasn’t learned from her past failure. But if the Clinton history teaches us anything, it’s that they know how to learn from their mistakes. Look at what happened when Bill lost the gubernatorial race in 1980: he learned and he bounced back.

You also say, “There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.” Isn’t that counterintuitive? It’s like you’re trying to attack Hillary while at the same time pretending not to. I know, I know… you qualify it with the “typical politics” comment (which is really just another jab, really), but I’m not sure that’s exactly it. Bill was pretty clear during the 1992 campaign that he was aware of how his promises were only best-case scenarios. That fact is out there, even if it’s not reiterated ad nauseum (which even Obama doesn’t do).

But I agree that, overall, Obama’s methods are much more effective. He convinced me, after all!

(Though why compare him to Reagen? Doesn’t that just play into the comparisons Hillary makes?)

To Grand Panjandrum,

I haven’t actually seen any of his Town Hall meetings..I’ll need to now.

Megan,

Regarding learning from HillaryCare – it’s not that I don’t think Ms. Clinton learned anything from her failure, I think she learned the wrong lessons from it. And more important, I think it demonstrates certain aspects of her character which she has not changed – for example, her tendency to demonize her opposition.

When I wrote “There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.” That was a dumb way to put what I meant. Which is: that it’s normal to campaign this way; and that I don’t hold it against anyone to do so; but I prefer the way Mr. Obama is campaigning.

My point in bringing this up is mainly that Ms. Clinton is basing a large part of her attacks on Mr. Obama on the fact that she is campaigning in this typical way – as if the fact that she is talking about the details of her plans means she is the only one who has plans. I was trying to explain both why people tend to think Mr. Obama doesn’t have plans and she does, while explaining why I preferred Mr. Obama’s campaign method.

And comparing Mr. Obama to President Reagan – It could be seen to play into the comparisons Ms. Clinton is making. But I think my points are true, and the comparisons on Mr. Obama to Mr. Reagan help demonstrate both what Mr. Clinton’s presidency lacked and what Mr. Obama could bring.

Regarding learning from HillaryCare – it’s not that I don’t think Ms. Clinton learned anything from her failure, I think she learned the wrong lessons from it.

But isn’t her current plan different from the original? That seems to imply a willingness to yield and learn from past failures. Plus, she has been an amazing negotiator in the Senate. One of the things the Clintons were great at the first time was listening to opposing positions and strategizing accordingly. Sometimes their openness to dissent blew up in their faces (see: Dick Morris). But on the whole, I think it was good for both them and the nation. And that’s something I love about Obama: he seems willing to listen to everybody’s opinion and make decisions from there. Reports suggest he even plays Devil’s advocate against his advisers during meetings. That’s the kind of intense op-prep that characterized Bill Clinton’s presidency, and a quality I admire in both men (and, presumably, Hillary).

And more important, I think it demonstrates certain aspects of her character which she has not changed – for example, her tendency to demonize her opposition.

I hear about this all the time, but I guess I’ve never been pointed to specific examples of it. More often, I see people (Pat Buchanan, the late Jerry Falwell) demonizing her. Plus, HillaryCare happened early in the Clinton administration. And quite frankly, I’m disturbed by so many Obama supporters’ need to demonize Hillary in order to build up our candidate. Being pro-Obama doesn’t mean being anti-Hillary. In fact, I worry that demonizing Hillary undermines Obama — “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

When I wrote “There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.” That was a dumb way to put what I meant. Which is: that it’s normal to campaign this way; and that I don’t hold it against anyone to do so; but I prefer the way Mr. Obama is campaigning.

Oh, absolutely! Obama’s campaign is genuinely inspiring, which is one of the reasons I support him above Hillary. While I like her, and I think she’d be a good president, Obama stands out among the crowd of politicians. I mean, sure — he’s a politician, too. He’s smooth and he has good political instincts. But there’s more to him than that. A lot more.

My point in bringing this up is mainly that Ms. Clinton is basing a large part of her attacks on Mr. Obama on the fact that she is campaigning in this typical way – as if the fact that she is talking about the details of her plans means she is the only one who has plans. I was trying to explain both why people tend to think Mr. Obama doesn’t have plans and she does, while explaining why I preferred Mr. Obama’s campaign method.

That’s fair, I guess. I just think you could have been clearer in the original post.

And comparing Mr. Obama to President Reagan – It could be seen to play into the comparisons Ms. Clinton is making. But I think my points are true, and the comparisons on Mr. Obama to Mr. Reagan help demonstrate both what Mr. Clinton’s presidency lacked and what Mr. Obama could bring.

Hmmm… but Bill was a “great communicator,” too. It seems to me that you just don’t want to make comparisons between Obama and Bill because you’re afraid that would make Hillary look better. I’ll believe you if you say you think Reagan is a genuinely better example (though his “communication skills” were often derivative of his ability to dodge questions in a seemingly satisfactory way, not to answer them in an actually satisfactory way), but I’m still not sure it’s the best move to make. Then again, sensible readers should be able to understand the difference between having similar communication skills and having similar policies. Let’s just hope that sensibility prevails.

Re:learning from HillaryCare.

I agree that Ms. Clinton learned something. Mr. Clinton did too. They learned to be afraid of doing anything that could be construed as “socialist” or too liberal and to balance their liberal positions with “tough” alternate ones. I don’t think this is an awful thing. And I admire the way Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama, and perhaps Ms. Clinton are able to understand and articulate the other side of political arguments. The problem is not this, but that Mr. Clinton and Ms. Clinton seem afraid to articulate their liberal beliefs while Mr. Obama does not. The games they end up playing with words to disguise what they really want, what they really believe ends up feeding the conspiracy-mongering of the right and turns off liberals. And it hurts the Democratic party and liberal ideas – as the continuous losses of Democrats at all levels of government in the 1990s attests.

On demonizing:

I agree that many people demonized Ms. Clinton, and continue to do so – and that this is awful. But she also has a reputation for demonizing her opponents.
For example, in 1993 while pushing HillaryCare, then Democratic Senator Bill Bradley attributed this quote to Ms. Clinton in conversations with Democratic legislators who had concerns about the bill: “We will demonize those who are blocking this legislation, and it will pass.” There is some question as to whether or not the quote was directed against Democrats or other opponents of the bill.
http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=hillarycare_mythology_did_hillary_threaten_democratic_senators

Ms. Clinton also led efforts to “discredit” – aka attack – her husband’s many liaisons. She attributed the attacks on her husband to a “vast right-wing conspiracy”. She said that Russian President Putin “has no soul”. She has said that America will fall behind again if Obama is elected (her “welling-up” moment in New Hampshire.) In every memoir or history of the Clinton administration, she has been credited with the strategy of setting demonizing the independent prosecutor, with holding grudges against and setting up an adversarial relationship with the press. (All Too Human by George Stephanoupolos is the only memoir whose name I know off the top of my head.)

On Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan:

I think you’re missing what I see as the difference between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Reagan’s presidencies. Both were great communicators. My comparison isn’t about communications skills.

In 1980, Mr. Reagan won so overwhelmingly on the backs of “Reagan Democrats” who crossed party lines to vote for him. Mr. Reagan proudly pushed a conservative agenda and conservative ideas; the entire country moved to the right – and Democrats and liberals were on the defensive. This was in part because of the times, and in part because of Mr. Reagan’s communication skills. In 1992, Mr. Clinton won by playing against the liberal type. He pushed forward the execution of an extremely mentally-challenged man in order to prove that he was tough; he spoke of welfare reform and of trying to reduce the numbers of abortions. He governed by co-opting Republican talking points and plans – such as the Defense against Marriage Act and school uniforms. Mr. Clinton was a liberal who tried to govern as best he could in a conservative time – and he was not able to reverse the most illiberal effects of Mr. Reagan. In fact, Mr. Clinton probably secured Mr. Reagan’s legacy by correcting the massive deficits resulting from Reaganomics and taking steps to correct entitlement programs that Mr. Reagan had not – such as welfare. Mr. Clinton may have been a liberal – but he governed, largely, as a conservative. He did not challenge Mr. Reagan’s legacy; he did not challenge the realignment of the electorate that Mr. Reagan had cemented.

Mr. Obama is a political talent who can achieve for liberalism what Mr. Reagan did for conservatism. That’s what I mean.

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