The Democrats took stage in Philadelphia. It was billed as the moment when Barack Obama would take Hillary on, finally. All the pundits are handicapping how he did. The general conclusion, she survived. We’re still in the horserace mode and still headed to unprecedented early primaries that will likely give birth to an extended period of two shadow governments (no incumbents in this race) and likely non-stop campaigning or perhaps worse blatant and unproductive posturing. One only has to hope both Democrats and Republicans won’t be suffering buyer’s remorse by the time their conventions and the election comes around. This can’t be good for the country, which is already stuck with a highly unpopular administration in limbo, holding its breath that there won’t be some last ditch act of bravado that will cause us incalculable harm.
The Republicans most recent appearance was not a debate but a trip down pandering lane at the Religious Right’s Value Voters Summit. As pointed out by Frank Rich in last Sunday’s NY Times, it is a group whose leaders have only a faint shadow of their former influence. Indeed, David Kirkpatrick in the same day’s Magazine section, pointed to the major upheaval within the Evangelical movement that is upending its narrow obsession with abortion and gays in favor of poverty, the environment and, of all things, life beyond the womb. Martin King would be pleased to hear it. But the Republican pretenders didn’t seem tuned into these inconvenient truths. They were hell bent on showing their true Christian colors. Sadly that was one of the subtexts of the Values Summit – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and surely Atheists need not apply; having a Mormon present was as much of a big tent as they could muster.
There is one thing upon which both Democratic and Republicans do agree. George Bush is a nightmare that can’t end too soon. While the Democrats hammer away at the Bush-Cheney missteps, their opponents seem to have forgotten how to even mouth his name. They also seem to agree, for the moment, that Hillary Clinton is the target though obviously in a very different way. I myself still can’t warm up to her and continue to believe that, however good a campaign she has run so far, the country would be better served with someone who carries less baggage, who doesn’t find it necessary to court one and all. I continue to fear that her underlying world view may not be sufficiently different than that of the current administration. Her vote on Iran and its rationale speak volumes to that. The Iraq vote, she contends after the fact, was for further negotiations not war something she repeats almost verbatim this time around, leaving one with an unmistakable and unnerving sense of deja vu.
Regardless of these misgivings, I must say that the Democrats lined up in Philadelphia (including Senator Clinton) were an attractive group. Perhaps Denis Kucinich remains somewhat of a gadfly (UFOs and all) but there is something refreshingly pure about his straight forward position on both the war and the administration that rings true, however politically impractical it may be. These candidates, each in their own way, represent a change in course from what we have now and any of them would probably make reasonably good Presidents, vastly better than the travesty we now endure with such pain.
In many ways Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are the most seasoned, each with a highly commendable and thoughtful record in Congress. That is also a weakness because their statements almost always have that “and then I wrote” quality conjuring up yesterday, past glories rather than tomorrow. It’s the kind of experience that suggests pretty well established world views, which isn’t bad per say, but makes one sense an absence of any new and unfettered thinking. They are excellent and smart public servants, but as Bill Clinton might say, we can do better. Bill Richardson’s stand on the War is commendable and he is not afraid to voice specifics on the programs he supports, but with all his diplomatic skills, he was (if I remember correctly) somewhat of a go-it-alone lose cannon.
The big question everyone is asking at this point is why Barack Obama isn’t doing better? He has raised an impressive amount of money from more people than any one else. He draws huge crowds and his name is always on everyone’s lips. He is smart and, unusual for a politician, a fine writer. He delivered one of the most inspiring Keynotes ever heard at a political convention. The last may not be a good omen – great Keynoters rarely win their party’s nomination; Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards come to mind while Albin Barkley made it only to the Vice Presidency. If ever there was a time for a fresh face and a dramatic turn in a new direction this is it. So what’s the problem?
It was the answer to that question that struck me watching the two-hour debate and considering the campaign thus far. The Presidency is a unique office and the only national one. Running for President is unlike anything else and the rhythm of a campaign vastly more complicated and demanding than running for Senator or Governor. The question isn’t only why Obama seems to be lagging thus far, it’s equally why Ms. Clinton seems to be doing so well. The answer in both cases is the same, and it’s not a matter of who has sufficient experience to be President, but who has been on the road more often. This is her third national campaign and his first. True she wasn’t the candidate the first two times around, but perhaps that in itself is an advantage. She both participated (gave speeches and shook hands) and was able to watch; to pick up on what worked and what didn’t. Hillary has been there, done that and it didn’t take long for her to get into a comfortable stride. Obama, however large the audiences, is still on his learning curve. The foreshortened schedule is definitely not to his advantage.
To prove the point we only have to look at John Edwards who arguably did somewhat better than Senator Obama in the debate. He was more aggressive and, with Tim Russert’s help, probably got in the most telling line of the evening. Edwards has experienced a national campaign, one in which he was a disappointing performer, but then John Kerry didn’t exactly inspire greatness. Regardless, it has definitely given him a leg up in Philadelphia. That said, the contrast between the ex-Senator from North Carolina and the Senator from Illinois was not that great. In fact it suggests that Obama is doing pretty well after all, even that he might hit his stride in the few weeks left before the holiday hibernation and the Iowa Caucus.
One of my problems with Hillary, shared by others (though perhaps not by as many voters as I would think), remains dynasty. It’s the prospect of potentially twenty-eight (a young lifetime) years of Bush-Clinton. Some people say that’s unfair and my fears are unfounded. Perhaps so, but one of the things that bothers me about her campaign, something that may come back to bite her in the end, is an unmistakable sense of entitlement. Both the candidate and her most ardent supporters see this as “her turn, her due”. Without question she was a real trouper and loyal helpmate to Bill Clinton, putting her own career on the backburner as it were. But in fact that may be over done. She wasn’t, you will remember, back home in the kitchen baking cookies and she parlayed her experience into a best selling book and a Senate seat. The nomination was Bob Dole’s due in 1996 and you remember what happened to him. Nobody is due the Presidency.
I was (and remain) a big Clinton fan. Days after his first election I went to the Caribbean for a vacation and was so excited about him that I pinned a campaign button onto my beach bag just to glow in the victory. It is conventional wisdom to say he had a flawed character. Perhaps so, but in the bright light of 24/7 news, some of his predecessors would certainly have fared no better in that regard. The iconic FDR died with Lucy, not Eleanor, at his side and JFK…well. Hillary is no Bill and that probably speaks in her favor, but it also reminds us of what’s missing. There is something juicy about Bill, something almost primordially human. When saying, “I feel your pain” we truly believe it. Blood runs through those veins as opposed to Hillary who, while perhaps not feeding her heart with ice water, somehow lacks that natural and comforting connection. Presidents don’t have to be warm and fuzzy puppies, but we like to think they come from our neighborhood, or at least have spent enough time there to understand who we are and what we need.
Did Hillary get knocked out last night? No, but perhaps there was the beginning of something. Is that wishful thinking on my part? It may well be, but again I’m just not in the mood for replaying the best or least worst of all possible worlds. We’re in a very big hole and old roads are unlikely to lead us out of it. Hillary is good. No doubt about it, but we can and we should do better even if Bill doesn’t admit to it.