Then There Were Two: Clinton versus Obama

It’s hard to believe that less than a month ago there were eight candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.  But Senators Joseph Biden and Chris Dodd dropped out after Iowa. Governor Bill Richardson withdrew after New Hampshire and Representative Dennis Kucinich accepted reality shortly after the South Carolina primary. Today Senator John Edwards suspended his campaign. That leaves only Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Oh, and former Senator Mike Gravel, too. However, he’s failed to raise either money or support, failing to get even one percent of the vote in any caucus or primary to date. So although he deserves better, he’s not really a factor.

So it’s now down to Senators Clinton and Obama. Democrats have a clear choice — not based on the issues, but on character, vision, experience and their approach to politics.

On most policy matters the Senators positions are very close. In tonight’s debate they’ll make the most of what little differences they have, but for the most part these nuances don’t mean a lot.

On the other hand, when it comes to how they approach politics and how they’re likely to govern there are real differences. Senator Clinton’s political career has been marked by constant attacks from her opponents. The right wing really were out to get her and her husband, President Bill Clinton, during their years in the White House. Listen to any conservative talk show and the vitriol leveled against her is harsh, cruel and vicious.

The result is a politician with an understandable bunker mentality. Listening to Senator Clinton one gets the feeling she sees the world as those who are with her and those who are against her. Us versus them. Within the Clinton camp the inevitability of her election was an article of faith and Senator Obama’s threat to reaching the promised land (apparently 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the promised land in the Clinton gospels) is nothing short of blasphemy.

In this regard, her political style is similar to that of President George Bush. In the current Administration, loyalty is highly prized, seemingly more than competence. Opponents are more than, well, opponents. They’re at best misguided and at worse unpatriotic enemies of all that’s right.

Senator Clinton’s bunker is, thankfully, more porous than President Bush’s. He’s the extreme case. She’s more open to working with opponents. She demonizes the enemy less, is capable of admitting mistakes and of evolving her position in a sincere effort to find the right solution. Yet, even though it’s a less virulent form, her world view is remarkably similar.  As is her husband’s, which could explain the anger he’s flashed on more than one occasion when reporters ask obvious, but to him, unfair, questions.

If she’s to wrap up the nomination quickly, Senator Clinton needs to vacate the bunker — or at least lower its walls a bit. She needs to emphasize the times in her career when she’s reached out to those who disagreed with her to accomplish a greater good. She needs to show the ability to break away from the harsh partisanship that pervades Washington. And she needs to do so soon.

Senator Obama’s political career has been different. He learned the art in the rough context of Chicago politics, but he quickly established himself as a bridge builder. He worked with Republicans in Illinois on tough issues like expanding health care and confronting the state’s approach to the death penalty. He seems to have lived out his constant phrase of “disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

This ability — and desire — to seek compromises that incorporates the views of his opponents stands in stark contrast to how Washington has operated for the past 15 years. Senator Obama seems more interested in co-opting the other side than demonizing them.

The other side of this coin, however, is that it makes understanding what he stands for difficult to define. Senator Clinton has more five-point plans on more issues than a herd of policy wonks. Senator Obama has … some. Senator Clinton plays on this dynamic by proclaiming herself ready to lead on Day One. Senator Obama’s response is that he’ll be right on day one, but that pithy rejoinder does little to bolster his credentials as being ready to lead the free world starting January 20, 2009.

Does this mean Senator Obama should whip together a few more five-point plans? Well, yes, it does. He can still emphasize his current theme, that this is an election between yesterday and tomorrow. But if he’s to deflect the attacks from the Clinton campaign, he needs to find his inner wonk. He needs to explain in more detail what tomorrow looks like. And he needs to do so soon.

Why the need for speed? First, because half the delegates to the Democratic Convention up for grabs this coming Tuesday. Second, because in a two person race (sorry Senator Gravel) the odds are one of the candidates will begin to be perceived as wrapping things up. The media, needs something to fill up time between commercials, A horse race makes for an easy story, but someone needs to pull away. That creates the tension — can anyone stop her?  will he stumble before the finish line? — that grabs viewers.

This tendency to simplify things also means, in a two person race, only one can be considered “winning.” And being labeled as the one who is “losing” is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. To avoid being on the wrong side of this equation, both candidates need to break out of their comfort zone. Whether either can, however, remains to be seen.

Posted in Elections, Health Care Reform, Politics, Presidential Campaign. Tags: , , . Comments Off on Then There Were Two: Clinton versus Obama
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