Devolving dialogues in the Democratic primary

After a year of political chatter leading up to the first 2008 contests, it’s hard to find anything new to say about the Democratic primaries. Now that Super Tuesday has passed without delivering any sort of verdict, anxious anticipation has been replaced by emotional exhaustion. The temptation to give up on this race in order to find some peace of mind is strong.

But despite the painful impression that every argument has been rehashed hundreds of times, a lot has been left on the table. Both Sens. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and Barack Obama face outstanding criticisms that their defenders have barely even acknowledged — let alone attempted to address.

On one hand, many left-leaners are worried that Obama’s emphasis on unity betrays his discomfort with progressive politics and heralds a return to Bill Clinton’s third way. The emergence of a significant income gap in primary voting patterns, with lower classes generally preferring Hillary, has heightened concerns that Obama’s rhetoric rings hollow to those with the most pressing material needs.

Many progressives have been haunted by the question of whether Obama’s unity message is a technique to appeal to independents or if it is a sign of the senator’s centrism.

Critics point to health care, to his early support in favor of labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group and to his timid stance on Iraq since he joined the U.S. Senate.

But Obama’s supporters often don’t realize this question’s importance. They see nothing problematic with his process-oriented message of unity and non-partisanship. And since they believe in putting process over substance, they see no need to defend him based on his policy proposals. When challenged to justify Obama’s progressive credentials, they call upon his transformative potential and new kind of politics instead of citing substantive positions.

In order to resolve this failure of communication, Obama’s ardent supporters should first acknowledge that their candidate’s rhetoric troubles many. In agreement over the terms of the debate, all parties could then examine the senator’s substantive proposals and answer a simple question: Do his policies hint at audacity or at caution? Unless Obama’s defenders are willing to make a case for the former (and there is a lot for them to draw upon — for instance, his efforts to pass mandatory taping of police interrogations while in the Illinois State Senate), many Democratic voters will remain skeptical of Obama’s candidacy.

Meanwhile, Clinton faces her own barrage of criticism that says she would take her party back a decade, forcing the country to realign along old battle lines. In particular, the concern over 28 years of Bushes and Clintons succeeding each other in the White House has been particularly damaging to her candidacy.

Clinton has failed to adequately answer this charge. Her comment at a recent debate — “It might take another [Clinton] to clean up after the second Bush” — was amusing, but it betrayed her campaign’s inability to attempt a serious rebuttal. Her standard defense consists of an exhaustive list of the “35 years of experience” that she has devoted to this country. Such responses, however, miss the mark because they offer policy positions to counter a process-oriented argument. Clinton’s promised reforms — however powerful they might be — cannot answer the desire to escape political dynasties.

Throughout 2007, the dominant narrative of the Democratic contest was the choice between change and experience, a dichotomy that was never fully convincing. Unfortunately, the two candidates have been increasingly caught up in this story line and have now fully embraced the roles allocated to them.

Clinton, the candidate of experience, barely attempts to counter criticism that is not grounded in policy. Supporters of Obama, the candidate of change, believe so strongly in his inspirational power that they glide over the substantive worries many raise about the Illinois senator.

The two camps are speaking two different languages and refuse to answer each other’s concerns. If the Democratic Party wants to avoid yet another train wreck at the convention or in the general election, it has to quickly rise above this absurd opposition between change and experience, process and substance that has transformed the Democratic primary into a dialogue of the deaf.

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