• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Molehill Politics

The Democrats didn’t expect so much pain. The assumption was that out of a patch of good candidates one would emerge to take on an inevitably weak Republican—the field was seen as lacking and George Bush as a drag on the party—and defeat him in what everyone knew was a Democratic year. But this has been the year of the unexpected. Now, anguished Democratic Party leaders fear that the increasingly bloody struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will continue until the end of the primaries or, worse, play out further at their convention in late August—which could only benefit the Republicans’ putative, and unexpected, nominee, John McCain.

The Democrats’ contest has changed from simply a fierce fight for “pledged delegates,” who are elected in the primaries and caucuses, which Obama is winning, into a battle to convince the as-yet-uncommitted superdelegates which candidate would be stronger in the general election—regardless of who has won the most pledged delegates. This is an issue injected into the contest by the Clinton campaign. Mathematically, there now appears to be no way for Clinton to catch up to Obama in pledged delegates; the final decision will be made by the superdelegates, who are under extreme pressure from both sides.

In this fight, the Clinton camp is the more aggressive of the two, and it’s adept at what might be called molehill politics: making a very big deal in the press about something that’s a very small deal—such as a single word in a mailing or a slip-up by an aide. Clinton’s strategists pounce on whatever opportunity presents itself to attack Obama, and try to knock him off his own message, and his stride. Clinton’s approach resembles her tactics in the White House, in which her inclination was to attack (which caused a number of problems, and was one of the reasons her health care bill was defeated). The Obama camp has sometimes been slow, and even reluctant, to respond, because if he attacks her personally (which the Clinton campaign would like him to do), he’s not Barack Obama anymore. Moreover, Obama takes care not to come across as the “angry black”—a stereotype he does not fit, but that could be imposed upon him by others.

While it’s true that the two remaining Democratic candidates have few substantive differences, they have very different approaches to campaigning, which give us clues about the differences in how they would govern—and that, after all, is what this whole thing is, or should be, about. It’s useful to try to imagine these people in the White House, and, from their campaigning, to try to figure what they will be like there: how they will use power; how well they would sustain their appeal over a considerable period of time.

It’s been long said among politicians that “the Clintons will do anything to win.” Unfortunately, they are increasingly proving the point. As the primaries in Texas and Ohio approached, the Clinton campaign, which has a tendency to announce its next steps, said that it would use a “kitchen sink” strategy against Obama—and so it did: with the famous and apparently effective “red phone” ad questioning his fitness to be commander in chief; and in frequent and heavy-handed conference calls to reporters (an innovation), in which Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson makes charges against Obama, raises questions about him, or moves “goal posts” designating what Obama has to do to win. (Obama “has to win Pennsylvania,” which few think is likely.) This propaganda makes its way onto cable and other news outlets. But where does, or should, a “kitchen sink” strategy belong in a presidency?

Hillary Clinton is employing conventional politics, while Obama is trying to create a new kind of politics. Similarly, as they respond to the country’s desire for change, they have very different concepts of what “change” means: briefly, for Obama it means changing the very zeitgeist of Washington, creating a new way to get things done by building coalitions that transcend longstanding political divisions. For Clinton it means passing bills—though sometimes she has suggested that it means electing a woman president. (“I embody change,” she said in a debate in New Hampshire.)

That Obama’s style didn’t work so well in Ohio and Texas, on March 4, is not surprising, although he is likely to end up with more delegates in Texas, thanks to the caucuses that followed the traditional primary voting. (The Clinton campaign is now challenging the outcome of the caucus voting.) Ohio in particular was not a welcome place for him. It’s a meat-and-potatoes state (I grew up there) whose voters demand practical solutions and are not given to the romance or the leap of imagination that Obama’s campaign involves.

The demographics there were not in his favor: it’s older and whiter than most other states, and has a higher population of women (to whom Clinton played heavily) than any other state the two candidates had contested. A declining rust-belt state, it also has a larger number of discontented blue-collar workers than any other state in which the two candidates had campaigned before. And unlike, say, Iowa, it has a higher percentage of blacks and a history of racial conflict. Obama had had a streak of eleven straight victories, but there was always a question of how he would fare when he hit the industrial states.

Obama’s victories in Maryland and Virginia on February 12, and then Wisconsin a week later, showed him gaining voters among Clinton’s constituency of women, white men, and blue-collar workers, which suggested a major reshaping of the race; but that trend stopped in Ohio and in Texas—where Bill Clinton warned the voters that they had to keep his wife in the race. Obama did poorly with Hispanics, gaining only 30 percent of their vote in Texas to Clinton’s 63 percent. If Obama could not win the votes of blue-collar workers and Hispanics in the general election—and this is not to say that he couldn’t—that could seriously damage his chances.

That the presumed neophyte Obama has stood toe-to-toe with the Clintons (for all of Hillary Clinton’s complaints about being “ganged up on,” Obama has had to face both Clintons every day), has beaten them more often than not, and still might prevail is in itself remarkable. But in one important way his campaigning has fallen short. A great many people who follow politics closely simply don’t “get” Obama, and can become quite angry about him. (This election is dividing friends and families like no other I’ve seen.) They see him as offering empty rhetoric, as simply building a movement, even a cult; the huge crowds he has drawn, his rock-star appeal, have only reinforced these suspicions. Actually, Obama is a serious student of policy—even, in the words of one adviser, a “geek”—and highly informed as a result. In Wisconsin, in some frustration—as Clinton was calling him “a talker, not a doer”—Obama said:

Everybody has got a ten-point plan on everything. You go to Senator Clinton’s Web site, my Web site, they look identical…. The problem is not the lack of proposals. The question is, who can bring Democrats, independents, and Republicans into a working majority to bring about change. That’s what we’re doing in this campaign. This is what a working majority looks like. That’s how we’re going to move the country forward. That’s what I offer that she can’t do.

Obama has a big idea: he believes that in order to change Washington and to get some of those ten-point programs through, and to reduce the power of the lobbies and “special interests,” he must first build a large coalition—Democrats, independents, Republicans, whoever—to support him in his effort to change things. He has figured out that he cannot make the kinds of changes he’s talking about if he has to fight for 51–49 majorities in Congress. Therefore, he’s trying to build a broader coalition, and enlist the people who have come out to see him and are getting involved in politics for the first time because of him. If he can hold that force together, members of Congress, including the “old bulls,” according to a campaign aide, “will look back home and see that there is a mandate for change.” Thus, Obama talks about working “from the bottom up” to bring about change. When he says he will take on the special interests and the lobbies, to him it’s not as far-fetched as most jaded Washingtonians think: he intends to do that with the army he’s building.

To understand Obama, one has to recognize the importance to him of his days as a community organizer in Chicago: he worked with churches, and “in the streets,” to organize people to take on the powers-that-be in order to improve their living conditions and get jobs. An Obama adviser told me, “His being a community organizer is the fundamental insight and philosophy of his campaign.” Thus, Obama has a fresh, even revolutionary idea about how to govern. The inspiring speeches have a far-sighted and pragmatic goal.

Being an organizer at heart—though he also practiced law in Chicago and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for ten years—in the first quarter of his campaign Obama focused on setting up campaign organizations in many states and raising money, mainly through small contributions via the Internet. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, raised money from the top, so that many contributors “maxed out” early.

Obama’s ability to inspire people, to draw tremendous crowds, has carried him a long way, but even though he began to season his speeches with talk about programs, he failed, in Ohio in particular, to clearly connect what he was saying to individual people’s lives. He didn’t bring the rhetoric down to earth, translate it into something real that voters could understand. And I think this is one reason he lost. Clinton, by contrast, got across that she was “a fighter” (her new self-description) who would produce “results for America” (her new theme) and would improve the lives of many Ohioans; she talked in specifics about what she would do, and made it all seem real. Since then, Obama has been dealing much more in specifics.

Obama’s wonkish side led him early on to steep himself in position papers on numerous issues, from defense policy to health care to climate change, and from April to December of 2007 he gave speeches describing in detail how he would approach various issues. It was at this time that the press was describing him as “flat.” And then he lit up the political world by giving an extraordinary speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 10, 2007. The last to speak, he roused the audience, and made some subtle digs at Clinton:

This party—the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy—has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose—a higher purpose. And I run for the Presidency of the United States of America because that’s the party America needs us to be right now.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print