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Obambi Versus Clintzilla

By Robert Tracinski

This is perhaps the most wide-open presidential primary race in living memory.

It is a race with no incumbents, no heirs apparent, and (to the Clinton campaign's surprise) no "inevitable" candidates. Walking political almanac Michael Barone captures the flavor of it when he observes "I wrote a few days ago that there were 60 scenarios for the Republican nomination"--but after the New Hampshire result, "I think we're down to about 52."

There are a number of reasons for this bewildering flux. Eight years ago, George Bush's decision to choose as his running mate Dick Cheney--a man with no future ambitions for the nation's highest office--deprived the Republican Party of any prospect for a clear political succession. Meanwhile, the steady compression of the primary schedule, as more and more states have moved to earlier dates--requires voters across the nation to choose among a crowded field all at once on Super-Duper Tuesday, with little chance for candidates to build momentum or knock rivals out of the race prior to these votes.

(That, incidentally, is why poorly performing candidates such as Fred Thompson and John Edwards are stubbornly staying in the race. They're all willing to bet on the wild card of Super-Duper Tuesday.)

But the main reason for the unexpectedly protracted primary struggle we are likely to witness is the indecision of parties themselves. Each of the major political parties is deeply divided in a battle over its soul.

Let us focus for now just on the Democrats.

Iowa shattered the idea of Hillary Clinton's "inevitability," but New Hampshire (where Clinton did much better than expected, managing to win by a few percentage points) ended the prospect of a swift collapse of the Clinton campaign. Barack Obama, who did about as well in New Hampshire as the polls predicted--which is much better than he had been doing before his Iowa win--is certainly not out of the race, and he has just secured a crucial union endorsement for the next Democratic primary, in Nevada.

Horse-race types are now speculating that Clinton and Obama could trade victories in upcoming primaries, emerging from Super-Duper Tuesday still evenly matched, with no clear decision until later primaries tip the balance.

This is not what was supposed to happen. The primaries were supposed to be a Bambi versus Godzilla conflict.

Obama was considered inexperienced and naïve--he's been dubbed "Obambi" by his detractors--and with some justification. He is a "hothouse liberal," nurtured in the protective environment of local Chicago politics, which is dominated by the left, so that he has never faced a serious ideological challenger. (He practically walked into his Senate seat when the Illinois Republican Party sabotaged its candidate, then replaced him at the last minute with the marginally sane Alan Keyes.)

In this scenario, the Godzilla expected to crush him was the allegedly fearsome Clinton political machine, run by two seasoned political operatives with a large staff of political professionals schooled in the use of dirty tricks and backed up by a vast network of Democratic Party insiders and cronies.

But something odd is happening. Obambi is arguably beating Clintzilla.

The reason is not hard to discern: it is Obama's fresh, earnest idealism. The root of his appeal is that the damned fool actually means it: he puts forth every liberal bromide as if it were still 1960. He has inspired many comparison to JFK, with some dubbing his campaign "Obamalot," after the conventional view of the first years of the Kennedy administration as an idealized "Camelot." As I put it earlier this year, when Obama first emerged as a major candidate: "The left has always longed for a young, charismatic leader who will present the illusion of the left as a realm of bright-eyed, progressive idealists--an illusion that hides the tired, corrupt old ideas at the movement's core. They want JFK as they remember him--not the portrait of Dorian Gray represented by his brother Teddy. Obama restores that illusion for them."

But the problem of Obama's naiveté isn't just a smear thrown out by the Clinton machine; it is real and substantial. He demonstrated that when, in the early Democratic debates, he promised to solve the world's problems by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez for tea at the White House--and then, in a hasty bid to make himself look like he could still be a tough guy--clumsily followed up with a proposal to unilaterally invade the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. It was a policy that was incoherent at best.

Last fall, he proposed to solve the sub-prime mortgage crisis with a massive bail-out of over-extended mortgage holders, paid for by massive fines on the lenders--a proposal perfectly calculated to reward foolish behavior by the "little guy," while increasing the panic in the financial markets, discouraging lenders from ever extending another mortgage loan.

These proposals demonstrate an utter ignorance of both economics and foreign affairs. Voters could justifiably conclude that a President Obama would get taken for a ride by America's enemies abroad, while he carelessly mucked about with the economy at home.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is more sophisticated and hence more cautious and prudent. In responding to Obama's promise to meet with Ahmadinejad, for example, she was entirely correct to warn about the danger of granting free propaganda to anti-America rabble-rousers. Or consider her statements at a recent Democratic debate about an American withdrawal from Iraq.

I think we're in vigorous agreement about getting our troops home as quickly and responsibly as we possibly can, serving notice on the Maliki government that the blank check they've had from George Bush is no longer valid. We're going to have to have intensive diplomatic efforts in the region. I don't think anyone can predict what the consequences will be. And I think we have to be ready for whatever they might be.

We have to figure out what we're going to do with the 100,000- plus American civilians who are there working at the embassy, working for not-for-profits or American businesses. We have to figure out what we're going to do about all the Iraqis who sided with us, you know, like the translators who helped the Marines in Fallujah whom I met, who said they wouldn't have survived without them. Are we going to leave them?

You know, this is a complicated enterprise, so it has to be done right.

Translation: "We'll withdraw from Iraq, except that our responsibility to protect Western civilians and friendly Iraqis will require us to keep all of our troops there."

This, alas, is the style of Senator Clinton's superior sophistication: the art of embracing two opposite policies at once. She is, of course, either lying to the far left when she tells them that she intends to withdraw from Iraq--or she's lying to the center when she assures them that she will be responsible about protecting America's assets and allies there. Or she's lying to both.

It is no surprise that many Democrats--particularly younger ones--have chosen the plain-spoken idealist over the calculating, triangulating pragmatist. But Obama's naivete and his idealism are inseparably intertwined--as is Clinton's experience and cynicism. They are flip sides of the basic dilemma of the contemporary Democratic Party.

Jack Wakeland hit the essential issue in 2004 when he commented in TIA Daily on the eve of Barack Obama's speech Democratic convention, the moment that launched Obama as a nation figure: "He speaks without a shadow a moral doubt, as if the moral ideal of socialism had never been put on trial, found guilty, and destroyed as the system of government for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He speaks as if the socialist ideal were a new and untested plan that promises a bright future for the world."

Yet it has been tested, and more than four decades of experience have discredited the left's ideals. Collectivist central planning was discredited by the failure and collapse of the Soviet Union. The welfare state was discredited by the nightmare of the public housing projects, as the names of progressive idealists like Mother Cabrini and Robert Taylor became indelibly associated with the squalid, crime-ridden government-run ghettoes named after them. Even voluntary forms of egalitarian socialism have largely been discarded, as witnessed by the decline of the Israeli kibbutz, whose dead-end lifestyle has attracted fewer and fewer young recruits despite enjoying the dutiful admiration of a whole nation.

A foreign policy of negotiations and détente was discredited by Jimmy Carter, who presided over the final great expansion of the Soviets' tyrannical empire--and by Ronald Reagan, whose dose of hawkishness precipitated that empire's collapse. And the idea of the criminal as a hapless "victim of society" who deserves our sympathy was put to rest with finality by--well, by Rudy Giuliani.

In the face of this history--all of which he has lived through--Barack Obama's idealism has to be maintained through a naiveté that is carefully cultivated and zealously guarded.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, by contrast, have learned from experience--in their own way. Bill Clinton first came to prominence as a champion of the "New Democrats," who promised to moderate traditional liberalism (embracing welfare reform, for example) in light of the disastrous experiences of the previous decades.

But what the Clintons learned was not to reject liberal ideals, but to dissemble about them. They learned to promise the right that "the era of big government is over," while ceaselessly plotting to enlarge government--and to promise the left that America will withdraw from Iraq, while acknowledging that it would be irresponsible to do so. The Clintons call it "triangulation"; most of us would just call it "hypocrisy."

Hence the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. It is a choice between the only options available to a movement based on discredited ideals: naïve, stubbornly blinkered "idealism," and cynical, calculating, hypocritical "realism."

Take your pick as to which is worse.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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