Saturday, January 12, 2008

Whither change.

“Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not.”

With her voice soft and her eyes showing a hint of tears, Hillary Clinton laid herself bare to the voters. Perhaps this will become the signature look that will convey the sincerity to the public that Bill mastered when he bit his lower lip as he felt our pain.

Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong.

In this YouTube moment, Hillary brought her campaign back, laid her claim to the presidency, and set forth her creed. Blunt words hidden behind the soft voice. Steel behind the moist eyes.

While the media focused on the emotional content and visual images, the words themselves expressed sharp differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

For months, the contest between Clinton and Obama was largely reduced to the themes of Experience and Change. However, that characterization has been seriously flawed from the outset. After all, Clinton’s claim to “thirty-five years of experience as a citizen activist” masks a resume that boasts just over one term in the Senate as a follow-on to her years as First Lady and her legal practice in Little Rock. Her years as First Lady certainly provided great exposure to the presidency, but its relevance remains an open question.

If nominated as the standard bearer for her party, her claim to the mantle of experience will not hold up long in the general election contest, whether she faces John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or Mike Huckabee, so better to set that argument aside now. The fact is that Clinton’s resume is as thin as any presidential candidate in memory. She has completed one term in the Senate, has never served in the military or held a foreign policy position, and has never been accountable for the basics of executive leadership: setting strategy, making decisions on limited information, building on successes, addressing failures, and learning from both. And however one spins her years as First Lady, even Bill Clinton would be forced to credit Huckabee’s tenure as Governor of Arkansas as a more proven credential.

Yes, Hillary led her husband’s efforts at healthcare reform. But the upshot of that effort does little credit to her claims, as it stands as the signature policy failure of her husband’s tenure. In the wake of that failure, Hillary did not regroup and soldier on, but rather she left the stage while husband Bill beat a tactical retreat as he tacked to the center and embraced Republican welfare reform legislation. Opponents of welfare reform might reasonably argue that the poor paid a heavy price for Hillary’s leadership failure.

Hillary’s words in New Hampshire bring back to center stage a central characteristic of her leadership style that will become pivotal before the election is over. Like the man that she seeks to replace in the White House, Hillary Clinton believes that she is right, and that those who disagree are wrong. And while the facts of her resume may belie her claim to the mantle of Experience, this central aspect of her personality makes the mantle of Change an odd fit as well, particularly in terms of what Change has come to mean in this election year.

The theme pf change that emerged in the Iowa victories of both Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee was not the appeal of the outsider, but rather it was a reflection of the exhaustion of the electorate with the politics of division that have characterized the current administration, and that characterized the Clinton years as well. Whatever their differences on policy, both Obama and Huckabee are comfortable with and reach out to people whose views and experiences differ from their own. Just as Obama visited and embraced the congregation of evangelical pastor Rick Warren––and they embraced him––Huckabee connected with African American audiences that were bypassed by the rest of the Republican field. They share an optimism and humanity that resonate with voters weary of years of Red and Blue, the use of patriotism as a rapier of political tactics, and the politics of personal destruction.

The real distinction between Clinton and Obama is not about experience. It is philosophical and sharp, and Hillary laid it out in her moment of sincerity in New Hampshire.

Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong. The words and the righteousness once reserved for the minions of the vast right wing conspiracy were now leveled at her antagonist for her party’s nomination.

The question that was raised from the moment he considered running for the presidency is about to be answered. We are about to find out if Barack Obama is ready. The campaign over the weeks to come will define both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton in terms of how much this fight means to her and the tactics that she will embrace. Obama by whether he can stand up against the fury of the assault that lies ahead, and whether it deepens his commitment to his core message or whether he shrinks from it.

The race is Hillary’s to lose. After all, all of the advantages are hers. Her team is experienced, and her message is simple. She is expected to do whatever it takes, so few will think less of her if when she goes on the offensive. And much of the core message has already been fleshed out, as it was delivered by Bill Clinton prior to the vote in New Hampshire:

Voting for Obama is a risk. He has no experience. His ideas are flawed. It is all an illusion. Get real.

And there will also be the subliminal messages delivered by surrogates to undermine the Obama campaign, such as the "testimonial" offered by Clinton supporter and former Senator Bob Kerry while campaigning in Iowa prior to the caucuses––and for which he apologized profusely later:

I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims.

Amazing, really, that after months of being the insurgent running against the inevitable nominee, Barack Obama was the frontrunner for all of two days. Barely twenty-four hours from when three polls were released showing him ahead in New Hampshire by ten points to the day the votes were counted in New Hampshire.

Then, a day after her dewy eyed performance, Hillary won by four points. And it was over.

Now we are back to where it all started. She is once again the presumptive nominee. The advantage is hers. But it will not be about Change, because we have seen this show before. Right or wrong, ready or not, this is about the real world of power politics. The question for the voters, and central to her challenger’s message will be whether we want to go back or whether it is time to move on.

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