Over at Corrente, VastLeft has an interesting run-down on Obama v. Clinton. (Obama supporters, be warned: it’s pretty snarky, so it might just make you angry.) However, I think he makes an excellent point here in the way these two candidates are perceived and described by Democrats and by the news media:
What? Their voting records are “virtually identical”!? Still, when Obama made those votes he was being an awesome, young, transformative progressive. When Hillary made them, she was old, machine-like, and totally Republican about it. How could anyone fail to see the difference?
It’s been interesting to watch Obama run the Bill Clinton 1992 primary and general election campaign against Hillary Clinton. Democrats have a history of loving their Washington “outsiders” and young (or young-ish) upstarts in Presidential politics, and arguably, those candidates have been the most successful of our candidates in second half of the twentieth century. (Think Kennedy, Carter, and Bill Clinton.) When Democrats have nominated insider favorites like Humphrey, Mondale, Gore, and Kerry, well–let’s just say that it hasn’t worked out so well, Gore’s victory in the popular vote (and in Florida, as it turned out) notwithstanding.
Obama’s problem, especially in some of the remaining primary states in May and June, is that lots of people in those states remember the Bill Clinton years very fondly. Historiann lived in southwestern Ohio during the second Clinton term, when gas was 89 or 99 cents a gallon, and the Ford plant in Cincinnati and the GM plant in Dayton were running three shifts turning out Explorers and GMC trucks like they were never going out of style. A lot of those men and women are now ten years older, gas is $3.50 a gallon, and people aren’t buying trucks and SUVs like they used to, so their jobs (if they still have them) are precarious. Their unions–if they’re still in one–have been forced to accede to contracts that erode their retirement and health care benefits. They’re looking at a future for their now-teenaged and older children that may not offer them as good a life as the life they enjoyed in the 1990s. The results in from Ohio and Pennsylvania suggest that these folks don’t think that Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the last seven and a half years of a declining dollar and global reputation, and increasing inflation and insecurity. Although Bill Clinton and Al Gore worked to pass NAFTA, which is part of the cause of much of their insecurity, they trust Hillary Clinton more to reform NAFTA and health care. (Obama has done a terrible job with NAFTA. He’s allowed H. Clinton to own fair trade, when he should have hung that around her neck like an anchor–a tactic I wouldn’t see as fair or just, but I think he missed a real political opportunity.)
Just as Hillary Clinton had to run as a wise elder stateswoman who can get the job done, so Obama had to run the Bill Clinton “third way” campaign of 1992 as the attractive, youthful outsider who can energize young voters and reform Washington, but that decision has potentially painted his campaign (and perhaps the Democratic party) into a corner. One commenter at Corrente, wasabi, summarizes the situation succinctly: “The only way Obama was going to knock off the [then] frontrunner was to tear the Clinton legacy apart. The only way to do that was to convince everyone that Dems and Repubs are all alike, and it’s time for a transformation. What a shame that he had to pick this time in history, when the country finally caught on to the destructive policies of the Republicans to push the meme that it’s not really the fault of the Republicans after all, but that darn partisanship.”
Maybe this turnabout is only fair play: after all, a lot of party people back in 1992 were backhanded by Bill Clinton’s centrist campaign, which implicitly suggested that the Democratic party had become too liberal and explicitly touted plans to help the “forgotten middle-class” (not the poor), as well as distanced him from core Democratic constituencies (a la his “Sister Souljah” moment.) And now, where there are differences between Obama and Hillary Clinton, he is running to her right on health care reform and gay rights, for example. Yet many of Obama’s supporters seem invested in the notion–contrary to most of the evidence–that he is the more progressive candidate. No one thought that of Bill Clinton in 1992–as I recall, the favored candidate of the brie-and-chablis set and the college Democrats that year (to the extent that we had one) was Jerry Brown. Bill Clinton was correctly understood as a “third way” centrist who was going to be as hard on the excesses of both liberalism and conservativism, the post-ideological policy-wonk candidate who was interested in ideas that worked, regardless of where the ideas came from. That’s pretty much who he turned out to be as President, while dealing with losing Congress and the years-long scandal-sniffing machine that culminated in his impeachment.
For obvious reasons, Obama must have and will continue to have a conflicted relationship with the legacy (and person) of Bill Clinton. Obama has run a (Clintonian) centrist campaign that’s been (un-Clintonianly) vague on the details. (Don’t take just my word for it–see Paul Krugman’s column this morning, for example.) If Obama wins the nomination and the general election, what kind of President will he be? I think the Clinton style and legacy will be with us for a long time, whether or not that’s the surname of the next President.
UPDATE, 4/27/08: Obama’s big interview on Fox News Sunday was today, and guess what? He thinks that “there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea,” such as industry deregulation, tort reform, and charter schools. And, he mentions Ronald Reagan as a president whose example he would hew to in revising the capital gains tax. Whaaaaaat? Does he realize he’s still running in the Democratic primary? So much for the school teachers, the trial lawyers, and anyone who doesn’t want a side of e-coli with their burger. That should put to rest those persistent delutions that he’s the more progressive candidate. It should, but it probably won’t. (H/t to mydd for the run-down.)
Actually, I kind of get it that he tossed out the bones of tort reform and charter schools–most people don’t know what tort reform is, and many public school teachers support and teach in charter schools. But industry deregulation? Is it possible to deregulate industry further after seven and a half years of Bush? Are people really unsatisfied with the amount of lead in their consumer goods and mercury in their fish, to the point that they’re demanding more? Sheesh.