Monday, February 4, 2008

Me vs. You (Goals vs Ideas)

On Saturday I caught a glimpse of Clinton and Obama stumping on the trail via CNN. Hillary was in California spending a lot time talking about health care, while Obama was in Minnesota giving his usual aspirational pep rally -- plenty of message reinforcement, not so much on policy detail (later that night I caught him give a similar speech in St. Louis).

The contrast in style was as sharp as one could draw: Clinton was relying on her mastery of policy issues to argue that what was needed for universal health care to be accomplished in America was a good strong fight against the pharmaceutical and insurance industries and she was the one who could take them on.

As does frequently happen when Clinton talks about health care, something she's obviously knowledgeable of, she mixes her wonky side with a little of the political knife-fighter in her. Here's what she said during a presser aboard her campaign plane afterwards, much of which was rehashing the rhetoric used during her stump speech hours earlier:

I think my strong advocacy for universal health care puts me in a much better position to take on John McCain. You know, John McCain’s going to get up there and say, ‘I have a health plan, it’s going to cover a lot of people. How many is your plan going to leave out?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, more or less than your plan.’ That is a losing argument for Democrats. As you’ve heard me say, I’m not running for president to put Band-aids on problems, if it comes to universal health care, I think it would be a real mistake for Democrats to nominate someone who has already given up on universal health care.”

(emphases added)
[By the way, as I've noted in the past, this is probably not a winning issue for Clinton, or anyone else for that matter, to base a campaign around.]

Obama, on the other hand, evoked the name of the late Paul Wellstone (as anyone visiting Minnesota would be wise to do) and then said something that immediately caught my attention -- Wellstone, Obama said, was "a guy who helped to create a movement here in Minnesota, because he believed in you the way I believe in you." (emphasis added)

Now, hold everything for a second.

As soon as I heard that I went digging through some old copies of the New Yorker. The contrast in styles between these is perfectly captured in a -- of all things -- cartoon caption used to illustrate this great and illuminating article by George Packer:

To Clinton, the Presidency is more about achieving goals than about transforming society.
That should be apparent just in that brief paragraph cited above. In just a few sentences she talks about herself five times and seems to argue that her health care plan is better simply on the basis that it covers more (or, in this case, all) people ... which is a goal ... as is defeating John McCain. There's almost no discussion of what universal health care would mean for the country or how people would benefit -- all I hear is that it's something Clinton wants done and she knows how she's going to get it. Basically, she's asking voters to have faith in her that she will be able to get the job done.

I've joked about this before, but Hillary Clinton really is a member of the Me Generation, and if you look closely at her own words, especially lately, it really starts to show.

In the meantime, I was really struck by Obama's deft bit of rhetorical judo at the rally in Minneapolis. Paul Wellstone was "a guy who helped to create a movement here in Minnesota, because he believed in you the way I believe in you." If anything, the clamor around Obama's candidacy has been his supporters' belief that he represents a transformational figure -- to have that potential change agent turn that around and profess his belief in the very people he's speaking to is a shrewd and telling statement.

Then there came this earlier this afternoon from Maria Shriver's surprise endorsement at UCLA:

"The more I thought about it, I thought you know if Barack Obama was a state, he'd be California," Shriver said to fierce applause. "I mean, think about it - diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition, innovative, inspiring, dreamer, leader. And the thing I like the best ... he's not about himself. He's about us."

(Emphasis added)
See where I'm going with this?

The two campaigns have gotten caught up in divergent narratives: Obama's campaign is now bigger than he is, whereas Clinton's is now almost exclusively about her. That's a huge liability for Clinton, who has to hide the baggage that she brings to the table by getting wonky and flaunting her more cerebral goods.

That would seem to make her candidacy the one of ideas, right?

Perhaps. But for what it's worth here's a bit of anecdotal evidence to the contrary: A old friend who now lives in the Twin Cities went with his wife to the rally yesterday at the Target Center and we exchanged messages after the festivities. I asked him what he thought and he replied: "I feel very confident about Obama now. he's [sic.] got some great ideas."

First among those ideas was making this race was making his race for the White House more than just about him. Here's a graf from the upcoming March issue of Vanity Fair (which has a great article on Obama's time in Illinois):

“This campaign cannot be about me,” Obama told a cheering crowd in Chicago on the weekend he declared his candidacy, a year ago. “I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.” But, for better or worse, his own campaign is all about him and the compelling idea he embodies.
This theme isn't new. It's what's gotten the Obama campaign this far and is what I hope will take him much further. There's little doubt in mind mind that Obama is ambitious, but he knows well enough to not seem as such. Hillary Clinton never picked up on this (and may never have actually been in a position to do so either). That's too bad, but I keep coming back to that line in the New Yorker: "To Clinton, the Presidency is more about achieving goals than about transforming society."

I'm confident the opposite is true of Obama -- that he sees the power of the Oval Office as something that will allow him to do great things, and chief among them is righting a ship of state that has been listing aimlessly these last few years. That may be the only idea that Obama is campaigning on, but it's a powerful one and something that is bigger than the sum of all of Clinton's goals.

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