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 Now that Super Tuesday has passed without delivering any sort of verdict, anxious anticipation has been replaced by emotional exhaustion.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.


  • Anonymous

    This is one of that laughable breed of YDN columns that thinks it's saying something profound while really only scratching the surface of the issue it purports to touch. The concerns about each candidate brought up here are just a scattered selection of a much larger group of critiques, and for the most part the ones chosen aren't even all that important or central to the race. The most damaging critique of Hillary is that if she were elected there might be 28 years of Bushes and Clintons? Give me a break. How about her vote for the Iraq war, or her slash-and-burn style of campaigning, or the fact that she accepts money from and openly defends PACs and federal lobbyists?

    Worse, the author didn't even get his facts right. Obama didn't support labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group - Hillary did! Look it up! It's stunning that a supposedly well-informed columnist would get this 100% backwards.

    And by the way, the last part of that same sentence is also absurd. Critics say Obama has been tepid on Iraq since joining the Senate? And yet the author never even mentions that Obama was against the war from the start whereas Hillary voted for it?? That's just bias, pure and simple.

  • Frickin' Yale

    DEGENERATING! It's DEGENERATING, not "devolving," you nincompoop.

    Gawd I mourn for Yale and for America…

  • biased critique

    In response to #1 -

    it seems you are not upset that the author chose only to 'scratch the surface' of possible critiques, but more pointedly that he did not spend more time critiquing the candidacy of Clinton. Your post itself is biased in a way that discounts your own commentary.

  • Anonymous

    First anonymous,

    Get your facts straight. Obama co-sponsored a bill last April that sought to make the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.

  • First anonymous

    #4 - you don't know what you're talking about. The resolution you're referring to made no mention of the use of force and thus could not be used by the Bush administration as a justification for force. The resolution I'm talking about, which Hillary voted for and Obama opposed, mentioned force and was widely seen by anti-war voters as key to stopping a Bush administration attempt to use force against Iran. Here is the Senate roll call on that resolution:

    Trying to confuse the two resolutions is like Hillary's absurd claim that her vote for war was actually a vote for diplomacy. Uh, right. We all knew what that vote represented at the time, and this one too.

    Anyway, props to the author for venturing into the comments section to defend (sort of) his piece in comment #3. What, you think we couldn't tell that was you?

  • elizabeth

    A few disagreeing points with this article:

    Blue-collar support points to more favorable economic plans purported by Clinton is one reading. But it’s not an all-encompassing one. There are plenty of positive economic elements in Clinton’s campaign but this doesn’t really prove she has the best economic initiatives for lower/middle class workers. Assuming correlation misses an alternative reading: the Clinton name evokes a more favorable era for these voters. They are not necessarily voting on account of detailed policy studies that reveal an idyllic Clinton plan for blue collar workers in America. It indicates the value of name association.

    It's also somewhat disappointing to read the ways in which Obama supporters are represented as being lulled by pretty speech, blind faith, and not much else as this op-ed claims (i.e. Clinton being the candidate of "substance"). There exist many Obama supporters who remain critical of him and believe skepticism is an important part of the democratic process. The same is true for those supporting Senator Clinton. This piece presumes that coming to terms with Obama’s less then ideal Senatorial past would crumble his support. This is untrue for Obama as it has been for Clinton.

    To engage in thoughtful conversation between these two Democratic frontrunners, it would be constructive to address the strong claims about the progressive potential of both these candidates in a nuanced manner that moves beyond reductive language about the intellectual engagement of those who participate in either, specifically in this column, Obama's. Perhaps this respectful and more intricate starting place is a way to move past what Nichanian perceives is (and ironically participates in) a degenerating conversation within the party.

  • confused

    for comment number 3, since when does bias discount commentary?

  • Donald Connery

    Mr. Nichanian casts a skeptical eye on Obama's unity/non-partisanship style and message, then sails right by a striking example of his ability to bring people together in a good cause. He speaks of Obama's "efforts" to pass mandatory taping of police interrogations while in the Illinois legislature. How about "successful efforts"? Despite huge resistance in a "law and order" atmosphere, Obama won support for the taping bill from all parties involved--cops, prosecutors, Republicans, etc. It was passed unanimously by the Illinois Senate. No small achievement. Nothing close to this has happened in Connecticut where police are allowed to conduct unrecorded interrogations and the State Police have had a no-taping policy ever since the great embarrassment of the Peter Reilly false-confession case of 1973-77.

  • not confused

    in response to #7

    "for comment number 3, since when does bias discount commentary?"

    i think #3 meant that bias discounts commentary specifically when the comment sought to discredit the validity of the article/opinion on the basis of it being "just bias, pure and simple."

    It is meaningless to refute a supposedly 'biased' statement with an even more clearly biased comment.