Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Weak Tea

Apparently, the most telling moments of last night's SOTU address came via monitoring the applause habits of Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Hill offers up an observation that is beginning to attract a lot of attention from some of my favorite bloggers:

Clinton and Obama’s divergent views on the troop surge in Iraq, however, were plainly visible.

When Bush proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt,” Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated. The president’s line divided most of the Democratic audience, with nearly half standing to applaud and the other half sitting in stony silence.

This bit of subtle showmanship was taken as definitive, slam dunk evidence of, I suppose, a major divergence on Iraq between Clinton and Obama. Mark Kleiman states:

Tell me again that Obama and Clinton now have the same position on the war in Iraq.

Matt Yglesias adds rather bluntly:

And there you have it.

Scott Lemieux was prompted to flirt with notions of candidate ex-communication:

Maybe this doesn't disqualify her from the Democratic nomination, but being consistently wrong on the most important issue of the Bush era has to create a presumption against your candidacy when you're running against two credible, electable progressive candidates.

As for me, this episode is telling of what I find most frustrating about the Obama campaign, and the bent-backwards benefit of the doubt he gets from people that are supposed to be picking a candidate based on progressive credentials. His rhetoric is compelling - and sufficiently vague so as to allow moderates and Republicans to fill in the blanks along with progressives. But in terms of actual nuts and bolts, he is very close to Hillary - to her right slightly on Social Security, environmental issues and health care, to her left slightly on media/FCC issues and foreign policy.

Nevertheless, he is considered a progressive candidate, whereas she is Republicanesque - not quite "disqualified" but close to it. Like K-Drum, though, I just don't get too excited about stand up/sit down, and find that Obama tends to be "consistently wrong" on Iraq when it counts:

Yes, Obama opposed the war, and he opposed it for good reasons. He deserves a lot of credit for that. At the same time, taking a position when you're watching from the sidelines is a lot different from taking a position when you're in office and have to pay attention to the political winds more closely. So how has Obama done on that score? Let's be honest: since he entered the Senate, Obama has hardly been a leader of the antiwar caucus. In fact, his opposition to the war has been pretty muted and his voting record has been nearly identical to Hillary Clinton's. This strikes me as a more telling indication of what Obama would do as president than a speech he gave five years ago when he was in the Illinois legislature.

What I found interesting, as well, is that the paragraphs in The Hill piece that are before and after the excerpt being cited around the horn didn't seem to make the final cut on any of the posts in question. They are as follows, respectively:

But Obama and Clinton seemed to see eye to eye on Bush’s domestic agenda, sitting firmly on their hands through most of the first half of his speech.

Not surprising, but this closeness, again, belies the progressive/conservative dichotomy that many seek to impose on the race. And then this:

When Bush warned the Iranian government that “America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf” Obama jumped up to applaud. Clinton leaned across Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), seated to her left, to look in Obama’s direction before slowly standing.

Should I take this as definitive evidence that Obama is more hawkish on Iran than Clinton? I mean she did stand up eventually but only slowly and after Obama leapt to his feet with enthusiasm. If the reaction were reversed, would she get the benefit of the doubt?

The pressure being applied to Clinton from the left has been a net plus in terms of driving the discourse this primary season. It would be better if Obama were getting an equal share of the nudge because he needs it.

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