Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Truth and Transformation

The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson has put his finger on how Obama is hitting Bill Clinton's hot button. The nub is that the 'hope' Obama holds out is that his presidency will surpass Clinton's - that he will play Alexander to Clinton's Phillip:

Bill Clinton's brilliance was in the way he surveyed the post-Reagan landscape and figured out how to redefine and reposition the Democratic Party so that it became viable again. All the Democratic candidates who are running this year, including Obama, owe him their gratitude.

But Obama has set his sights higher, and implicit in his campaign is a promise, or a threat, to eclipse Clinton's accomplishments. Obama doesn't just want to piece together a 50-plus-1 coalition; he wants to forge a new post-partisan consensus that includes "Obama Republicans" -- the equivalent of the Gipper's "Reagan Democrats." You can call that overly ambitious or even naive, but you can't call it timid. Or deferential.

In fact, Obama's pitch for voters to join a coalition that could make him a 'transformational' President has grown more focused and explicit as the Clintons have ratcheted up the ferocity of their attacks. On Jan. 5, in the ABC debate, he said that while Bill Clinton deserved "enormous credit" for "balancing budgets," "we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done." On Jan. 14, he said that Reagan did build that majority ; he "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Finally, last night in the CNN debate, he said in effect that the Bill Clinton could not do this because the Clintons are not in the habit of telling the truth:

Now, this, I think, is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign, that there's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate. And I think that part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who's going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington...the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say. That is important, because if we can't, then we're not going to be able to mobilize the American people behind bringing about changes in health care reform, bringing about changes in how we're going to put people back to work, changing our trade laws. And consistency matters. Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.

And then there's the explicit pitch, that Obama can do the transformational:
What I do want to focus on, though, is how important it is, when you talked about taking on the Republicans, how important it is I think to redraw the political map in this country. And the reason I say that is that we have gone through the 2000 election, the 2004 election, both of which were disappointing elections.

But the truth is that we as Democrats have not had a working majority in a very long time. And what I mean by that is a working majority that could push through the kinds of bold initiatives that all of us have proposed. And one of the reasons that I am running for president is because I believe that I can inspire new people to get involved in the process, that I can reach out to independents and, yes, some Republicans who have also lost trust in their government and want to see something new.

So the pitch boils down to: because I don't lie like a Clinton, or polarize like a Clinton, I can be the transformational leader that Bill was not and that Hillary can't be. Yes, that would bring the blood to Bill's cheeks and the bile to his tongue.

Obama is a complex thinker. As the Clintons have ratcheted up their attacks, he has integrated his response into his critique of Clintonism: according to Obama, their distortions of his record demonstrate why Hillary is likely, as Bill did, to fail to win the trust and therefore the support of a working majority.

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