Editorial: Clinton v. Obama Shapes Up

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 17, 2007

First, let me vaccinate myself: “The left is ... easily distracted, currently by the phantasm of impeachment. Why all this clamor to launch a proceeding surely destined to fail, aimed at a duo who will be out of the White House in 16 months? Pursue them for war crimes after they’ve stepped down. Mount an international campaign of the sort that has Henry Kissinger worrying at airports that there might be a lawyer with a writ standing next to the man with the limo sign. Right now the impeachment campaign is a distraction from the war and the paramount importance of ending it.” 

That’s Alexander Cockburn in The Nation, nobody’s limousine liberal, a man who has devoted his life to being lefter-than-thou and funnier about it to boot, and he’s not pushing impeachment. Nor is he even urging anyone to run against the poor bedraggled congressional Democrats, though he can’t resist roasting them because they haven’t managed to get much done with their thin majority (quelle surprise!). So please don’t jump on me for agreeing with him that impeachment is a foolish fantasy. 

But getting down to brass tacks, electing a Democratic president instead of the Bush-Cheney-Rove-Gonzales axis is bound to make some difference. I’m doing my periodic poll of some of the opinion leaders in my print universe. In brief, Bob Scheer, George Lakoff, Alex Cockburn, Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich have all said publicly that they don’t find Hillary Clinton very appealing, but that they do find Barack Obama surprisingly so. They all express skepticism, in varying degrees, about the Democratic party, the Democratic Leadership Council and the Democrats in Congress, but realistically, no one denies that the Dems are what we’ve got to work with if we want to dump the bad guys. 

There’s a lingering undercurrent of affection for John Edwards’ populist rhetoric, and some think Richardson might be a possibility. Scheer, however, speaks strongly against Richardson because he was energy secretary when Wen Ho Lee was kept in solitary for many months for something he didn’t do, which Scheer blames on Richardson. The sentimental favorite is Al Gore, who might descend from policy-wonk heaven at the last minute as a deus ex machina to save the day, but probably won’t.  

That leaves Obama as what used to be called in less enlightened times The Great White Hope, though it’s obviously inappropriate here. The Obama candidacy isn’t really about race at all, oddly enough, despite his African father. To his credit, he has embraced the experience of the African-American descendants of slaves who share his genetic background, but his history is not theirs. His family of origin was white and upper middle-class, with the attendant privileges, including education at private schools like the excellent Punahou School in comfortably multi-ethnic Hawaii. Nevertheless, it would be a very good thing for America to finally have a person of color in the bully pulpit, if he gets there. 

The cynic is tempted to view him as just another Harvard Law Review president: smart as a whip, ambitious, a smooth talker, but aren’t they all? But the recent dust-up with Hillary Clinton shows him from another angle: quick to speak from what seem to be deep-seated principles, not a fence-sitter or an artful dodger like many another smart lawyer (including Bill Clinton.) Hillary C. came off poorly in the exchange, jumping all over Obama for saying that he might be willing to sit down and talk to the miscellaneous bad actors now visible on the world stage. Whatever happened to the great line someone wrote for JFK’s inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate”? Maybe Hillary was still a Goldwater Girl at that point.....or was she in junior high in Illinois? Either way, she should know about it, and she doesn’t seem to. 

Then there was the back-and-forth about who’s ready to nuke and who’s not. Again, Obama’s reflex answer to a poorly-phrased question—that he doesn’t favor the nuclear option—was criticized by Hillary and her supporters. But he’s right and she’s wrong. Period.  

Both of these exchanges reveal more about her than about him. Many a candidate has talked peace in the campaign and made war later, including John Kennedy, but the ones who talk war even on the pre-election circuit usually find a way to use force later on. Sadly, women are often tempted to act macho just in case anyone suspects them of not being men: viz. Dianne Feinstein, police groupie, or Margaret Thatcher, who went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. (Who can remember where the Falklands are anymore?) 

The DLC crowd, the centrists who believe that trying to please everyone is the sure road to electoral success, have been quick to praise Hillary for blurring the lines between herself and the average Republican. The problem with that is that there are few average Republicans any more. The voters are now exhibiting an overwhelming anxiety about the ongoing Iraq war which crosses party lines and brings together many strands of opinion. Isolationism, the traditional Republican fear of foreign entanglements of every kind, is kicking in, and is being woven together with the traditional pacifism of the otherwise internationalist Democratic left.  

Henrik Hertzberg, a good writer and often a clear head, makes light in the current New Yorker of the Clinton-Obama clashes, dismissing them as “squabbles” and looking forward to more substantive debates. But the world now moves faster than we might like it to, and on a fast track reflexes count—and Obama’s look pretty darn good.  

He seems to be too smart to let himself get run down in the middle of the road. Hillary on the other hand, who after all did vote for the Iraq invasion and stuck with that bad decision for way too long, seems to be to continuing the dead armadillo posture. For the two or three of you who might not know what that is, Jim Hightower wrote a book entitled There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road Except Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos. More Democrats, the Clintons included, should read it and take its wisdom to heart.