Monday, December 17, 2007

Krugman v. Obama

Back in October, I took issue with a Matt Yglesias post in which he highlighted some minor rhetorical shifts undertaken by Obama and Edwards, acknowledged that they were motivated by a desire to create perceived distance between themselves and the front-runner (Clinton), but then claimed that the image-conscious wordplay should be a factor in the decision making process when assessing the candidates, regardless.

At the time, I lamented what seems to be a glaring double-standard and knee-jerk hostility when it comes to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Whereas pandering and certain other campaign exigencies are harped on and magnified as overly-deterministic with Clinton, her opponents' similar shortcomings are quickly forgiven with a sophisticated wink and nod as to the realities of campaigning in the current American political landscape.

Along these lines, there seems to be a tendency on the part of progressive Obama supporters to project their desired positions on to a candidate who has, deliberately, traded heavily in vagueries and platitudes. In terms of more concrete policy positions, Obama has distinguished himself from Clinton only slightly (actually, in terms of Social Security and health care, Clinton is to the left of Obama). Admittedly, the Obama described by many of the bloggers that I greatly admire is an enticing candidate - I'm just not as certain that the real deal is as advertised. On the flip side, Clinton has become a lightning rod for all things that progressives find frustrating about Democratic politicians and politics, and the structural limitations/pressures that interplay with each. Obama, I am constantly assured, is different.

In response to Matt, I wrote:

This type of Hillary-based cynicism is part of a larger pattern in much of the liberal blogosphere, unfortunately...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.

...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...

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.

Today, Matt penned another post that fits the pattern. Matt looks at Paul Krugman's discussion of Obama's claim that he will usher in "bold new changes" in America's political sphere. The problem, for Krugman, is that Obama claims he will achieve this transcendence by hewing to a spirit of bi-partisanship and reliance on lobbyists, when it is precisely just such a commitment that undermines the goal of facilitating stark change. After ascribing the motive of petty revenge to Krugman's criticism of Obama (the post is entitled, "Payback"), Matt...brings up Hillary Clinton? Matt may be right that Clinton represents less of a dramatic model for change than Obama, but the differences (to the extent they exist) apear negligible, and certainly don't justify the non-sequitur. Matt wrote of Clinton:

Nobody would appoint Mark Penn to run their political team if what they really wanted to do was lead a bold populist revival.

And yet it is Obama's rhetoric (and proposals) on Social Security and health care that more closely mirror right wing talking points (and policies) - which is what drew Krugman's attention (and Obama's retaliation) in the first place. Matt's post prompted this from Scott Lemieux (who I very rarely disagree with on anything):

I agree with Matt that 1) it was stupid of Obama's campaign to pick a fight with Paul Krugman, but 2) Krugman's point is very misguided. I don't think that Obama's rhetoric about transcending old politics tells us much about how he'll actually govern. Bush in 2000, after all, didn't campaign as a 50%+1 conservative who would increase party polarization in Congress, but that's what he did. Obama's using this kind of rhetoric because 1) it's effective, and 2) he's very good at it.

Actually, Lemieux's argument about campaign rhetoric was the one I was trying to make to Matt re: the Clinton campaign in my prior post. I think Scott's right on this point generally speaking, I just wish more people (Lemiuex and Yglesias included) would be willing to give Clinton the same benefit of the doubt. Scott continues:

What actually matters, however, is the substance of his policies and record, and on that count he's clearly superior to Clinton (especially on foreign policy)...

Maybe I just haven't done enough research, but can someone really make the case that Obama's record in the Senate is "clearly superior" to Clinton's? In terms of policies put forth on the campaign trail, her Social Security and health care proposals are, in fact, superior to Obama's from a progressive point of view (as mentioned above). More from Lemieux:

I also second Matt's point about institutional realities...Given that she generates more hostility from the GOP (despite being more conservative), it seems very unlikely that Clinton is likely to get more accomplished if she's elected.

Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don't. During her Senate tenure, Clinton was criticized frequently from the left for working closely with Senate Republicans, but now that such experience might be considered a plus, it's downplayed or disregarded altogether. That's a stretch, and an all-too familiar one.

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