Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pause, refresh: Obama's core case against Clinton

After several weeks' full immersion in what Obama calls the "silly season" of our politics, it's clarifying to look afresh at the core of Obama's case for himself rather than Clinton. Here's how he put it on April 22 in Evansville, Indiana, after congratulating Clinton on her win in the PA primary:

We can be a party that says there's no problem with taking money from Washington lobbyists - from oil lobbyists and drug lobbyists and insurance lobbyists. We can pretend that they represent real Americans and look the other way when they use their money and influence to stop us from reforming health care or investing in renewable energy for yet another four years.

Or this time, we can recognize that you can't be the champion of working Americans if you're funded by the lobbyists who drown out their voices. We can do what we've done in this campaign, and say that we won't take a dime of their money. We can do what I did in Illinois, and in Washington, and bring both parties together to rein in their power so we can take our government back. It's our choice.

We can be a party that thinks the only way to look tough on national security is to talk, and act, and vote like George Bush and John McCain. We can use fear as a tactic, and the threat of terrorism to scare up votes.

Or we can decide that real strength is asking the tough questions before we send our troops to fight. We can see the threats we face for what they are - a call to rally all Americans and all the world against the common challenges of the 21st century - terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. That's what it takes to keep us safe in the world. That's the real legacy of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Truman.

We can be a party that says and does whatever it takes to win the next election. We can calculate and poll-test our positions and tell everyone exactly what they want to hear.

Or we can be the party that doesn't just focus on how to win but why we should. We can tell everyone what they need to hear about the challenges we face. We can seek to regain not just an office, but the trust of the American people that their leaders in Washington will tell them the truth. That's the choice in this election.

Three interlocking points here. First, metapolitics: we can't change our policies until we change our political process. On one level, "Washington is broken, we need an outsider" is the oldest schtick in our politics. But Obama has done something about it, almost singlehandedly. He's refused lobbyist money, and pac money, and opened the floodgates of small donations. He's changed political funding forever. We tend to forget what a tremendous accomplishment this is. His argument is simple: change the money flow, and you'll change our politics. Why should we believe he can do this? Because he's accomplished part one already.

The second point is also simple, but true: I opposed this war from the start. I offer a clean contrast with McCain. Clinton can reduce this difference to "a speech he gave in 2002," but the fact is that Obama spoke out repeatedly against the war from October 2002 through to the day of invasion, March 20, 2003, and beyond. And the contrast has bite because there's resonance to the charge that Hillary supported the war primarily to preserve her own political viability. Why else would she neglect to read the NIE before voting to authorize force? Why else would she rally round in early 2003 when Bush "rushed to war" precisely as she warned him against doing in her Oct 10, 2002 speech supporting the resolution authorizing force?

Finally, there's the "truthiness"argument, which Obama grafted onto his "change our politics" argument back in January, when he first started calling the Clintons out for distorting his record -- and suggesting that these Rovian tactics undermine voter trust. Here's how he put it in the Jan. 22 CNN debate:
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.
In yesterday's Washington Post, Clinton's new chief strategist Geoff Garin tried to cast this three-pronged critique, which Obama has stuck to and sharpened for months, as a character attack. What it is in truth is a penetrating critique of Clinton's campaign and of her decisions and actions while in office. The attack is on "character" only insofar as Clinton's campaign and tenure in office express her character. Obama never suggests that Clinton is a bad person. He does argue explicitly that she is enmeshed in those elements of the political process he's trying to change. The attack also remains in bounds -- not violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- because Obama states repeatedly that Clinton will make a far better President than McCain (or Bush).

There may be 80% overlap in Obama and Clinton's written policy proposals. But the differences outlined above are real, and they're fundamental. The Obama campaign remains on focus.

Related posts:
Obama endorses Hillary!
Changing 'the rules' on Clinton
Debunked! Obama spanks the Clinton Kids again
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

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