Saturday, March 01, 2008

Caldwell captures core Clinton-Obama contrast

Christopher Caldwell, honing in on What Obama owes to Reagan, has a dead-on diagnosis of the difference in approach to politics between Clinton and Obama. He hones in on a paradox: Clinton's positions are more centrist, but Obama captures more independents and Republicans. "Their biggest difference," Caldwell writes,
is in their attitude towards the US electorate. Voters sense that that is everything. They are right. The non-ideological differences between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton are vast, possibly greater than those between either of them and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain...

Mrs Clinton views voters as either committed friends or foes. There are good people on one side. On the other, depending on the rhetorical mood she is in, is "the vast rightwing conspiracy" or "the special interests"...

Mr Obama views the electorate's affections and affiliations as changeable - at least at certain pivotal times. He believes independents and Republicans will rally to his cause, and many have done so.
Caldwell rightly points out that Obama's bid to coopt the center and build a "working majority" owes much to Reagan: "To read Mr Obama's political autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, is to see an interest in Reagan that borders on fascination. 'I understood his appeal,' Mr Obama writes." This usefully reminds us that Obama's notorious hat-tip to Reagan in an interview with the The Reno Gazette-Journal in January did not come out of a void. Obama clearly has internalized what Reagan accomplished politically and how he accomplished it:
I think Ronald Reagan 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. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
Caldwell points out that Obama, like Reagan, is trying to move the center rather than move to the center:
Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 by attracting disaffected Democrats in millions. They did not jump to Reagan because Mr Carter was a particularly leftwing Democrat. Nor did Reagan appeal by watering his positions down into centrist mush. He ran as an unapologetic conservative, just as Mr Obama has run as an unapologetic man of the left. But the revolutionary coalition that Reagan formed was less ideological than he was. Reagan won because he solicited the whole nation's support at a time when lesser politicians mistook their parties' battles for the country's.
Obama is far from alone in sensing that the time is ripe now to move the center left. As David Frum memorably put it in the FT, "If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today's 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s." That's why Obama's invocation of "the fierce urgency of now" is no New Age mush (contra Caldwell's FT Comment cohort Gideon Rachman), but rather a very specific argument that the electorate is ready to be moved left if the case is made frankly, forcefully, and without demonizing the opposition.

One fascinating aspect of this election is the right's soft spot for Obama. Many Reagan Revolution alumni recognize the mirror image and respect what Obama is trying to accomplish. The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, writing on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page of all places, traced the parallels earlier this week, noting that "Throughout his campaign, Reagan fought off charges that his candidacy was built more on optimism than policies," and that Obama faces the same charge, though both laid out clear and far-from-centrist agendas.

Like Reagan, Obama casts his noncentrist agenda as a corrective. That's the opportunity of the moment. Just as Obama acknowledges that in 1980 Americans felt that government had grown bloated, so now even many conservatives are hung over by the results of triple-branch Republican rule. That leaves an opening for Obama to cast his tax and spending policies as a matter of restoring "balance" and "fairness," as he did while laying out his economic agenda in Janesville, Wisconsin:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
More broadly, in Lorain, Ohio on Feb. 24, he cast excessive income inequality as unamerican, and unity behind an agenda of strengthening unions, taxing outsourcing and greenhouse gas emissions, and spending on infrastructure and alternative energy as fidelity to democracy:
But in the end, enacting this agenda won't just require an investment. It will require a new spirit of cooperation, innovation, and shared sacrifice. We'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children. That's the kind of vision I have for this country, and that's the kind of vision I hope to make real as President of the United States.
Every candidate casts his or her policies as a fulfillment of American ideals. But to make the case that a sharp course correction left or right is a restoration of core values takes unusual political skill. So far, Obama seems to be making the case effectively, and building the "working majority" he frankly asks for.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
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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