Wednesday, January 09, 2008

As they Try to Change their Worlds

Like Kevin Drum, I'm excited that my primary vote might actually count this time - for a change (for the first time in my life actually). There is also something else that I'm hoping Hillary's New Hampshire victory does: tamps down the breathless repetition of the "change" meme - in both phrase and concept. Watching the cable newsies (and candidate speeches) post-Iowa has been like receiving a direct feed from a dozen karaoke bars where all the participants are stuck on a David Bowie chorus. Maybe the record will stop skipping now that the first two contests have been split. But then, I'd also like to propose hanging the DJ.

Look, I appreciate that Obama has seized on a compelling narrative, but the media's wholesale and uncritical acceptance and dissemination of it has left me scratching my head trying to figure out where the there is. Beyond the spin, there are two candidates remaining that promise actual, bold change this primary season, one Democrat and one Republican. They are Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, respectively.

For Democratic voters who are uncomfortable with the Kooch - or rightly wonder about his ultimate electability - the candidate promising the next highest quotient of "change" is clearly John Edwards. Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are more moderate and, in effect, modest candidates. While they would both represent a major shift from the policies of the Bush era (an admittedly low bar), they are both less transformative in outlook than Edwards.

Yet, curiously enough, Obama has been tagged as the man who would shake up Washington - a new kind of politician with a new kind of message - while Edwards is ignored (or marginalized as "angry") and Clinton is pegged as the hidebound insider. Oddly enough, Edwards has assisted Obama in this regard at almost every step - claiming that he and Obama, and not he alone, are the candidates for change (while tarring Clinton as the status quo standard bearer).

One would imagine that with the change craze sweeping the nation, Edwards would try to corner the market, rather than willingly gift such valuable currency to one of his two major rivals. Strategically speaking, Edwards' best shot is to knock Obama out and become the most viable non-Hillary candidate, but his approach has only bolstered Obama and winnowed down his base. Message to Edwards: you're not even that appealing a choice for Veep, so you might want to reconsider.

Back to Clinton and Obama, though. Let's review their actual policy positions and voting records. Clinton, rather than Obama, has put forth a stronger domestic policy platform in terms of progressive change. Her health care plan does more than his, her energy plan is greener and her proposals with respect to Social Security represent a clean break from Bush era attempts to undermine the entitlement (though in this, she proposes change by maintaining the status quo). Obama, on the other hand, has perpetuated the "crisis" frame that the Bush team has relied on, and has proposed increasing payroll taxes to cover a Social Security shortfall that only exists, in the first place, because of Bush's ruinous tax policy. That tax policy, rather than Social Security, should be the focus in terms of change.

In terms of foreign policy, the pool of campaign advisors that Obama has amassed, as opposed to Clinton's team, is more promising in terms of bringing needed change (Brian Katulis in particular). Yet, despite this, Obama and Clinton have voted in near lock-step throughout their respective senatorial careers on foreign policy matters, and their actual prescriptions going forward (from Iraq to North Korea to non-proliferation) are almost identical (or at least they only vary on particulars within a similar framework). Not exactly the kind of separation that would warrant the disparate treatment. Edwards, on the other hand, is taking steps to create actual, non-rhetorical distance but, again, refuses to highlight this point other than vis-a-vis Clinton.

Much has also been made about the choice of pollsters and campaign tacticians - such as Mark Penn for Clinton - but, again, both candidates leave much to be desired on this front. Again: industry lobbyists are not agents of change (at least not the kind Obama's selling). Further, Obama's main rhetorical ploy - that he will bring bi-partisan unity and compromise to the process (even by including lobbyists in the decision making process) - is a sure fire formula to...prevent change. The problem with the Reid/Pelosi stewardship (blamed for the inefficacy of the current Democratic lawmakers - and Washinton in general to some extent) has not been the unwillingness to seek out bi-partisan solutions, unity and compromise. On the contrary: those impulses have led to inaction and inertia.

I'm not saying that Clinton is better than Obama, or that Edwards is better than both. But clearly if notions such as "change" or fealty to the more progressive agenda are driving your decision, Obama is an odd choice (think Edwards). Even if you think Obama is marginally better than Clinton on these fronts - and he is on some issues, not on others - does that justify the love/hate dynamic permeating the discourse? And shouldn't Clinton's strengths along these lines receive more attention/consideration?

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