Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where's the beef?

For a fourth time, the Obama campaign seems to be gathering momentum.

On each previous occasion––after the votes in Iowa and in South Carolina, and on Super Tuesday––Hillary Clinton successfully stemmed its rising tide. Now, the contest seems to be nearing its final moments, when Clinton will either succeed in turning Obama back for good, or find her campaign overwhelmed by the historical moment.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was built on three core strategies––Monopolize the money. Build momentum. Dominate the message––and early on her success was unarguable. During the year leading up to Iowa, the Clinton campaign locked down a large proportion of the major Democratic donors, and with that money in place the campaign built momentum on the theme of inevitability. The campaign was a juggernaut, and they fully expected Super Tuesday to mark the end of the nomination process.

Instead, the day after Super Tuesday, two legs of the strategy lay in tatters. The momentum had dissipated, and the Obama campaign stunned the political world when it announced that in January it had raised $32 million, including contributions from 170,000 new contributors.

Only Hillary Clinton’s message remains in tact, and she is looking for a Walter Mondale moment to regain the upper hand. Like Clinton this year, 24 years ago Walter Mondale was the presumptive nominee facing an insurgent challenger whose rhetoric seemed high on fluff and low on substance, until Mondale dispatched Gary Hart in a single, dramatic moment. Now, Clinton is hoping for such a moment, when she might turn to Obama in a televised debate and utter Mondale’s famous words, “Where’s the beef?”

And her campaign imagines the devastation it would wreck on Obama’s campaign as the shallowness of his response would be apparent for all to see, reverberating in the millions of YouTube replays that would follow.

But that moment is unlikely to come. Today, American's have lost faith in our political institutions––in Congress and the Presidency––and have become acutely aware that as a nation we cannot fix our problems until we fix our politics.

Over the past twenty years––since Lee Atwater and others perfected a style of politics that used wedge issues to divide Americans against themselves––political strategies and tactics have exacerbated our differences at every turn, as each party sought to find an edge in pursuit of power.

The American people now know that we have paid a steep price for the politics, tactics and divisiveness of the past twenty years, and it is now clear that these politics have failed the American people. The truth is that in a world where Americans find themselves competing with workers in China and India and Brazil, we know that we can no longer afford the luxury of the political games that have sapped our country of our ability to solve the real problems we face.

Hillary Clinton’s hope to take Barack Obama down on the basis of her greater mastery of the intricacies of policy and the superiority of her healthcare plan is unlikely to succeed. It will not succeed because the overwhelming reality is that for the American electorate today, this election is not about who has the best plan.

After all, fifteen years ago, America watched as Hillary Clinton led the Clinton administration's effort to fix our healthcare system. She had a plan then––as she has a plan now––and her plan may have been better than everyone else’s plan. But that effort ended in failure. And it was nasty and partisan and hostile.

Today, everyone has experts and everyone has a plan. But that is no longer enough. Voters are looking past the plans into the stance of the candidates toward the most fundamental problem we face: our politics.

So if she finds her moment and turns toward Barack Obama and asks him, Where’s the beef?, she should not be surprised if it does not work out as she hoped.

The fundamental difference between the Clinton and Obama campaigns is not about Where’s the beef? but rather about What is the beef? What is it that really matters if we are to move forward as a society and a nation?

Hillary Clinton believes that plans matter most. Barack Obama, on the other hand, understands that Americans are tired of perfect plans and perfect solutions that lead nowhere. Instead, they want solutions. Not perfect solutions, perhaps, but solutions that can work, that are built on comity rather than conflict, and that emerge from mutual respect rather than recrimination.

Clinton’s dilemma as she tries to slow Obama’s campaign one final time is that her message––the final leg of her strategy––is not resonating with the voters. Because the beef is no longer about detailed plans and brainpower, it is about a simple question: Can this candidate move the country in a better direction?

The American people know that we have paid a terrible price for the politics, the tactics, and the divisiveness of the past twenty years, and we know that if we make the same choices we did in the past, we can only blame ourselves if we get the same results.

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