Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Distinctions and Differences

Matt Yglesias links to an interview of Hillary Clinton conducted by Michael Tomasky in which Hillary offers up a refreshingly intelligent response to a question regarding terrorist motivations and the lack of a monolithic purposes (even Matt, no fan of Hillary's, concedes that hers is the "right answer"). But then - after briefly noting the benefit of having someone, like Hillary, with a substantive understanding of important issues in the Oval Office - Yglesias complains that she is still overly cautious in her response, and not quick enough to push for a wholesale reframing of issues relating to terrorism:

Obama and Edwards have both shown far more inclination to do this than has Clinton (in part, obviously, because the exigencies of the campaign have forced them to) which is an important consideration in their favor.

This is a curious statement. On the one hand, Matt states that Edwards and Obama have been better on this front ("far" better is an overstatement - even with the recent points of separation, they have been more similar than different). And yet, Yglesias acknowledges that Edwards and Obama have been pushing the discussion in the desired direction in order to try to gain some momentum vis-a-vis Hillary in the Democratic primaries. He's right about that, but his conclusion doesn't fit with the premises.

Yglesias suggests that the rhetorical posturing of Edwards and Obama - which, again, is largely born out of campaign exigencies - should be "an important consideration in their favor." Why? Shouldn't their acknowledged motivations signal the opposite: that their main purpose for making such noises are political, and thus such speechifying does not necessarily represent a significant difference in the respective candidates' views?

In fairness to Edwards and Obama, it is likely that the attempt to re-define the rhetorical parameters of the terrorism debate is consistent with their actual beliefs (and that they would go even further if they believed it politically viable, let alone beneficial). By the same token, though, there is every reason to believe that Hillary's own views coincide with the type of rhetorical framing hinted at by Edwards and Obama. It's all about the gamesmanship that Yglesias recognizes - but perhaps does not fully account for in his final judgment.

Hillary, unlike her two Democratic opponents, does not need to better position herself in the Democratic field due to her commanding lead in the polls. Thus, as she has been doing all along, she is gearing up for the general election and tacking toward the middle. Remember, she is still viewed (or at least stigmatized) as overly liberal by most of the GOP and a compliant (at times vindictive) mainstream media. Thus, the caution that Matt decries is actually a manifestation of shrewd political tactics. Evidence of actual political acumen should come as no surprise, nor should its presence beguile us. She has the sharpest political mind in Democratic politics as her closest advisor - and spouse.

This type of Hillary-based cynicism is part of a larger pattern in much of the liberal blogosphere, unfortunately. For far too many, Hillary is viewed as some form of neocon light. In fact, a caricature of her anticipated foreign policy (war with Iran, torture, Bush-style authoritarianism) has emerged that would place her many ticks to the right of her husband's administration - a possibility that I find highly unlikely for obvious reasons. In this regard, she is consistently denied the benefit of the doubt when she makes what should be obvious pandering speeches to certain constituencies - speeches that are more readily identified as such and explained away when they are made by her primary opponents.

In the present example, Matt seems to recognize all of the underlying political machinations, and the way these are motivating the various messages from the candidates, yet still proclaims that, regardless, these rather minor, politically motivated shifts in language should be an important consideration for potential voters. Perhaps Hillary deserves a bit more credit, and a fair shake when assessing the way each campaign is strategizing - for the primaries and general election, respectively. Remember, she is trying to win an election, not sound the most pleasing notes to the progressive community (would that those two goals not be mutually exclusive).

This doesn't mean she'll be Bush III, however. At the risk of stating the obvious, candidates almost always say things in elections to make them sound more moderate then they really are - especially candidates that are fighting off extremist labels. Doesn't anyone remember compassionate conservatism as championed by the great uniter?

I'm not saying that Hillary necessarily has an ideal set of policies - foreign or domestic. But if you're looking for significant differentiation, Edwards and Obama aren't really offering it.

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