Thursday, February 07, 2008

Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's

As a supporter of Obama and admirer of his rhetoric and the approach to politics underpinning it, I must say that I think Hillary gave the better speech on Feb. 5.

Both speeches were effective expressions of the speaker's philosophy of governance. Ultimately I think Obama's metapolitics - his claim that we can't craft effective policy until we fix our political process -- is what's required at the moment. Nonetheless...

Hillary, in the face of troubling returns, came out with impressive energy and ebullience. It's become a cliche that she relies on wonkish policy prescriptions, and she was indeed quite specific about what she wants government to do for various groups (mortgagees, veterans, students).

Her focus was narrower than Obama's. But she also concentrated fire more effectively on the Republicans than Obama did. Her attack had the pithy anaphoric logic of Bill Clinton's 2004 convention speech, with its refrain of "vote for them" (if you like destructive policies a, b, and c). Hillary's trope was a variation on 'more of the same':

Well, the Republicans want eight more years of the same. They see...tax cuts for the wealthy and they say, "Why not more?" They see $9 trillion in debt and say, "Why not trillions more?" They see five years in Iraq and say, "Why not 100 more?"

Well...they've got until January 20th, 2009 and not one day more.

Then the kicker, an effective projection of Hillary's pre-emptive 'don't tread on me' message to Republicans (and those who doubt whether she can beat them):

Now, we know the Republicans won't give up the White House without a fight. Well, let me be clear -- I won't let anyone swift boat this country's future.

Her peroration also had the rhetorical grace of strong repetition. Springing off the Statue of Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free," Hillary converts it to a "scope of work" statement:

So today we say with one voice -- give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veterans who need our care. We say give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end. Give us this nation to heal, this world to lead, this moment to seize.

The "us" here is of course a royal plural. That one voice is Hillary's, as the main effort is Hillary's. The speech expresses Hillary's p/maternalism: politics is "about the people who have shared their problems with me, looking for solutions."

There's a non-royal 'we' in the speech too. A litany of effective policies carried out in 'the America I see" ends with, "That's the America I see and that's the America we will build together." But the dominant chord is what Hillary can do for her country.

Obama's speech is already famous for a very different 'we', a we that is not royal but touches on the mystical:

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who've been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can. (Cheers, applause.)

We are the hope of the father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake with doubt that tells him he cannot give his children the same opportunities that someone gave him. Yes, he can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, he can.")

We are the hope of the woman who hears that her city will not be rebuilt, that she cannot somehow claim the life that was swept away in a terrible storm. Yes, she can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, she can.")

We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.

Some, confronted with this rhetoric, have cried a halt. Joe Klein today decries in "Inspiration vs. Substance":

And yet there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — "We are the ones we've been waiting for" — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. "This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you." That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire.

"It's not about me" is not disingenuous; it's paradoxical. Obama has come this far because he has the audacity to ask from the outset for a broad mandate. The power he seeks to 'transform our politics' depends on winning broad-based, lasting support . It's about him insofar as he asks, but it's about us insofar as we answer.

It's not hokum, either. The support he seeks cannot be won, he's told us, without him telling the truth consistently, and listening to all constituencies, and negotiating with all constituencies. Obama's political career began inside out, in organizing -- that is, asking disenfranchised groups what they needed most, and figuring out with them how to get the political establishment to respond. The career drama in Dreams from My Father is the process by which he learned to ask various constituencies (residents of the Altgelt projects) what they needed, and go for that, rather than try to determine what was needed himself. It's the listening skills, and the negotiating skills -- and the requisite political infighting skills -- that he's asking us to believe he can use to bring in enough voters and enough Republican lawmakers to pass an unabashedly liberal policy agenda.

Still, if I had only these two speeches to go on, I might have voted for Hillary, as I was inclined to do in the fall. On this night, Obama was a little too much MLK, not enough Hillary Clinton. His Denver speech packed in more specific policy prescriptions - and a much sharper attack on Hillary's career and campaign. Those attacks are important, because they bring him back to the process skills -- leadership skills -- that are at the core of his pitch. He's got to make sure he doesn't take off on us like the Wizard of Oz in his balloon.

Related posts:
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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