Monday, February 11, 2008

Obama decries the 47% solution

While sharpening his case against Hillary Clinton as nominee in a rally in Virginia on Sunday, Obama fused his case for electability with a case for 'governability.' He's casting electability not as an end in itself, but as prelude to building a working majority to push through what's in large part a consensus agenda among Democrats.

Obama is treading a delicate line when on the attack. He has to steer away from the 'say anything, do anything' politics he decries while suggesting that Hillary is mired in those politics. Hence his inoculating praise of both McCain -- "a genuine American war hero" he said again on Sunday -- and of Hillary. Taking a cue from Joe Biden, Obama, as reported in today's New York Times, suggested that she was hampered by forces beyond her control:
“She’s a smart person, she’s a capable person, she would be a vast improvement over the incumbent,” he said in response to a question at a rally with 3,000 people, with 1,200 more listening in an overflow room. “What is also true is, I think it’s very hard for Senator Clinton to break out of the politics of the last 15 years.”
And again, distancing the person from the criticism:
“Senator Clinton starts off with 47 percent of the country against her,” he said in response to a question in Alexandria. “That’s a hard place to start.”
Then, with perhaps a degree of mano-a-mano payback, Obama effectively named that albatross he was hanging around Hillary's neck "Bill Clinton" -- getting more specific than ever about the limitations of Bill's legacy:
“Keep in mind, we had Bill Clinton as president when, in ’94, we lost the House, we lost the Senate, we lost governorships, we lost state houses,” he said. “And so, regardless of what policies they wanted to promote, they didn’t have a working majority to bring change about.”
Finally, completing the contrast, according to the Times (curiously this passage is in print but not online):
Mr. Obama said he would be able to create a working majority because he did not 'demonize' his opponents, and because he had been able to attract independents and Republicans.

So there's the case: the man who can win a broad majority can also defang the opposition.

Fact-and-fairness check: first, the Clintons were more demonized than demonizing. Second, the loss of a Democratic majority on Bill Clinton's watch was not mainly his fault. As Obama never tires of reminding us, "now" is the moment for Democrats to show "audacity," thanks to multiple Republican train wrecks.

As David Frum recently wrote with admirable clarity in the Financial Times, “The conservative ascendancy in American politics is coming to an end... If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today’s 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s. Most ominously[to Frum!], US polls show an ideological sea change: a desire for a more activist government, a loss of interest in the tax question and a shift to the left on most social issues (although not, interestingly, abortion)."

As Obama has also said in other contexts, this change in zeitgeist isn't about him. His case is that he's the one best equipped to seize it, but it's fair to say too that Bill Clinton played great defense when the tide was running the other way. Does that mean that Hillary can't build a working majority? Not necessarily. Is Obama much better positioned to do so? Very probably.

Related posts:
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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