Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Endorsing Obama

It's not about hating Clinton; I have a tremendous amount of respect for her, and I think she'd make a fine president. I think they're both smart, capable candidates who are about as progressive as you can be and still have a shot at being elected president in this deeply reactionary country.

I'm not assuming Obama is automatically more 'electable' than Clinton. I think they're both strong candidates with different electoral strengths: Obama is an incredible campaigner but remains untested against a non-Keyes Republican; Clinton has taken fifteen years of vitriol and is still standing, but starts out with maybe 40%+ implacably opposed to her. The bottom line is that Obama has a higher ceiling but a lower floor, could do better than Clinton but could also do worse.

What it is about is three things, in descending order of importance: the substance of their policies, the people around them, and the campaign style.

On balance, Obama's policies are more progressive than Clinton's. The difference isn't huge and it isn't across the board (her health plan may be a little better), but the biggest difference is in foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular. Clinton voted for the AUMF, and Obama opposed it. There are all kinds of ways to spin that, mitigating factors for the former and skepticism about the latter, but the difference is still there. Obama has proposed a detailed, carefully considered foreign policy that rejects the logic of the liberal hawks. Clinton has some of the most prominent liberal hawks (Michael O'Hanlon, for example) as foreign policy advisors. I think a President Obama would get foreign policy mostly right--and if a Democratic president gets foreign policy wrong, we're screwed for a long time to come.

To the people-around-the-candidates issue, add one more: Mark Penn. Union-busting consultant, flak for Blackwater, anti-populist, advocate of substantive triangulation--in short, a living caricature of every lefty criticism of the Clintons.

Both candidates are excellent campaigners. My preference for Obama on meta-issues comes down to words vs. music. We've always had candidates who said the right words but didn't know the music (Gore, Kerry, Dukakis, Mondale); the last candidate we had who did know the music was Clinton's husband. Progressives complain that Obama's speeches aren't 'specific' enough, but that's missing the point; read his position papers if you want the specifics. Speeches are about the music more than the words, and Obama knows the music. That's what people are talking about when they rave about what an amazing politician he is.

That is, as I said, the least important of the factors in my endorsement--but it's not a trivial factor. A candidate who is solid on the issues and can move people who aren't as issue-obsessed as we are--that is, the other 95% of the country--that's a candidate with the potential for greatness.