[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.
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.