I have tried to steer clear of national debates in my columns, instead focusing on campus issues and those affecting the New Haven community. But with the announcement this week that both U.S. senators Hilary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73 and Barack Obama would form presidential exploratory committees, the opportunity was too good to pass over. While interning for Clinton’s New York colleague, Charles E. Schumer, this summer, I had an opportunity to see both senators in action. I hope to offer a more candid and anecdotal look at the candidates than what has been offered in national publications.
I must admit I was not a Clinton fan until this summer. As a New York resident, I was suspicious of her moving into my state and immediately winning the Senate seat. Who did she think she was, Bobby Kennedy? (He did the same thing in 1964.) But then I witnessed her ripping apart disgraced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before the Senate Armed Services Committee in August, and my political heart melted. Clinton asked the hard questions and demanded accountability for the military’s actions in Iraq.
But I worry about Clinton as well. The inevitable question is whether the country is ready to elect a woman as president, particularly a Democrat from the Northeast who is married to Bill Clinton LAW ’73. The primaries will answer that question, but she already has my vote. Another concern is her bungled attempt to implement universal health care in 1993. But now, with over 46 million uninsured Americans and a Democratic majority in Congress, universal health care has become a hot topic again. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who despises “economic girlie-men,” is advocating it in California.
I first saw Obama in person when, posing as a Northwestern law student, I snuck into one of his “Constituent Coffees,” weekly open forums for Illinois residents he holds along with fellow senator Dick Durbin. He gave a powerful talk about the place of religion in politics and his own faith, a theme he invokes frequently and that distinguishes him from most religion-weary Democrats. Fun fact: Although a youthful 45, Obama has a few gray hairs.
Obama is the superstar of the Democratic Party right now. He was the most sought-after politician when stumping for other Democrats in November, he writes books (“The Audacity of Hope” is No. 5 on Amazon.com), and Oprah adores him. There is also something Kennedy-esque about him: He is a fresh face, young and inspiring.
And why not run? He has barely taken a stand on the issues — for example, he was not a senator when Congress authorized the war in Iraq — and easily slips in and out of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. He will only gain enemies the longer he waits and as his voting record materializes. (Some joke that he does not have one yet.) His exploratory committee announcement contained vague ideas about bringing America together but did not offer any real plans.
My own thought is that Obama is a little young. He is riding the wave, as he should, but I am not sure he is the best candidate. He is inspirational, but I do not think he would quite know what to do if elected. He has spent just about two years as a national legislator; even John F. Kennedy, also in a hurry, had had time in both the House and the Senate before the White House.
I believe Clinton has the requisite experience and proven record for the job. She has come down hard on the present administration on Iraq, has advocated universal health care and was the main supporter of making the emergency contraceptive Plan B available over the counter. These are concrete plans and achievements. As more of a centrist, Clinton also would continue to make the Democratic Party more viable in national elections. Plus, I kind of owe it to her: Schumer’s “Press Hits” obliterated her “Hill’s Angels” in an epic softball game she herself attended.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.