Obama vs. Clinton: Long-Term Thoughts About Change in America

As part of my ongoing attempt to make my list of posts resemble a pay-per-view boxing channel, I am pleased to present “Obama vs. Clinton,” with apologies for not posting sooner in anticipation of Super Tuesday. (Tomemos did so; you can read his excellent post on informed indecision here, and the afterword on voting Obama here. Also, look for my upcoming post “Oilmen vs. Hitmen,” on P. T. Anderson and the Brothers Coen.) Of course, Hillary Clinton won my state, California, largely because California law gives certain people, including Jack Nicholson and Aaron Sorkin, one thousand votes each. Still, neither contender is as yet a clear favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s my choice. In a run-off determined mostly by negatives — reasons not to vote for Clinton offset by reasons not to vote for Obama, in the hopes of not electing another Republican president — Obama is making overtures to centrist “undecided” voters with a series of rhetorical tactics and policy positions that will cripple his Administration, hurt Democrats running for Congressional office, and make it hard for a Democrat to succeed him in office. By comparison, Clinton’s biggest flaws are her pro-Bush, pro-Iraq War senatorial votes.

Clinton voted the way she did because she didn’t feel any other response was politically feasible. It was a shortsighted vote, albeit an understandable one. If she’s elected, she’ll going to end the war and withdraw American troops for precisely the same reasons. It’s what she thinks her constituents want. From the way she’s running her campaign, it’s clear that she believes she can make the greatest political gains by challenging Republicans and capitalizing on widespread disillusionment with the Bush Administration.

Obama, on the other hand, believes that the key to success lies in presenting himself as a bipartisan leader. His television ads and campaign material focus on jointly-sponsored legislation he worked on in the Senate, and his proposed fiscal reforms are thematized around “restoring fiscal discipline” to government.

Here are my concerns about Obama’s candidacy, concerns that are not parallel for Clinton:

1. Blurred differences between candidates.

The Democratic nominee will be running against John McCain. McCain’s people have pushed hard to give him a reputation for bipartisanship and independence, and he will use that against Obama. Whenever Obama talks generally about bipartisan change, McCain will use a similar rhetoric to distance himself from Bush. Whenever Obama gets into the specifics of change, McCain will cast him as too liberal for America, and he will mock Obama’s biggest projects (e.g. the health care plan) as the opposite of “fiscal discipline.” I have the audacity to hope that Clinton will go on the offensive, drawing unflattering attention to McCain’s canny masquerade of independence.

2. Incoherence at the level of the grassroots.

It’s true that Obama has a lot of grassroots support, but unfortunately that hasn’t helped define him or us. Some people are enthusiastic about him because they think he’s more liberal than Clinton, while others support his critical rhetoric about big government. Whereas evangelical grassroots movements forced American Christianity into everyone’s consciousness, no equally powerful self-definition of America can emerge from Obama’s motley of advocates. Obama has to take part of the blame. His rhetoric lacks substance. His calls for change and hope aren’t backed up by an original approach to policy.

3. Conflating military spending with domestic spending.

The debt the United States has accrued by fighting in Iraq sucks money out of our economy; conversely, expanding social programs puts money into circulation, particularly when those social programs are designed to help the poorest Americans. Instead of criticizing Bush’s imperialism, Obama is criticizing his lack of financial planning, and in response has proposed “pay as you go” legislation that would make it impossible to authorize new government spending without compensatory budget cuts or new funding sources.

He will try to cut the military budget, only to find that Republicans will use fears about our national security to block new social programs to which they are opposed. He will try to raise taxes in order to fund his new programs, and the Republicans will foreground the taxes rather than debating the programs on their merits. By making every fight a fiscal battle as well as a battle over domestic policy, he will enable his opponents to choose the most favorable tactics each time.

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Clinton was weak during the height of the Republican era. Obama is weak now, and will lead a vulnerable Administration if elected. We need to lay the foundations for Democratic dominance, instead of setting traps for ourselves by using the Republican rhetoric of smaller, bipartisan government. It is the only way, long-term, to regain lost ground in the battle for an American government equipped to care for the American people.

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