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Clinton, Obama And The Belief In The Magic Power Of Words

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Along with her "ready to lead on Day One" mantra, Hillary Clinton's favored line of attack against Barack Obama is the reincarnation of Mondale's 1984 "Where's the beef?" attack on Gary Hart. In Clinton's version, Obama is little more than a shallow speechifier -- he believes that words are all you need to lead.

She made it explicit in a speech in Providence, Rhode Island on Sunday:

"I could stand up here and say 'Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open! The light will come down! Celestial choirs will be singing! And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect!' Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear!"

Last week it was: "Speeches don't put food on the table. Speeches don't fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills."

And her chief strategist, Mark Penn, summed up the "just words" meme this way: "She is in the solutions business while Obama is in the promises business."

Now, I agree with Clinton that it's important to look at how each of the Democratic candidates uses words and how rhetoric fits into how they've run their respective campaigns. And if you do, you'll see that one candidate does believe that words are like a magic wand: you utter them and reality changes. But it's not Barack Obama -- it's Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's use of words is disturbingly reminiscent of the way the Bush administration has used words: just saying something is true is magically supposed to make it true. Call it Presto-change-o Politics.

The examples are so notorious they hardly bear repeating: "mission accomplished," "heckuva job," "last throes," the endless "turning the corner" in Iraq. They were all said with the arrogant belief that merely saying these words was all that was needed: reality would literally change to fit the rhetoric.

Now let's look at Hillary Clinton's rhetoric and what is says about the campaign she's run. It started with her absurd claim that her vote for the war was really a vote to send inspectors back in. The name of the bill? "The Joint Resolution To Authorize The Use Of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq." Saying it was about sending inspectors back in doesn't mean that it is true that it was about sending inspectors back in.

And then how about the endless spinning trying to diminish Obama victory after Obama victory? Here was Penn: "Could we possibly have a nominee who hasn't won any of the significant states -- outside of Illinois? That raises some serious questions about Sen. Obama." Mark Penn calling Virginia, Georgia, Missouri, and Colorado, among others, not "significant" does not make them insignificant.

Or Clinton's "35 years of experience." She has had a distinguished record of public service, but it's not in any way 35 years of government experience, unless you want to include her time at Yale Law school, or going door to door for George McGovern in Texas, or working at the Rose law firm in Arkansas as government experience. But her campaign seemed convinced that by repeating "35 years of experience" at every stop she would magically acquire that 35 years of experience.

But as the Bush administration has shown, believing your own words and not being able to see things as they are is not a good thing -- either for a country or a campaign. The New York Times described some Clinton aides as "baffled that a candidate who had been in the United States Senate for only three years and was a state lawmaker in Illinois before that was now outpacing a seasoned figure like Mrs. Clinton."

As Matt Yglesias says:

"Whether or not you think the more 'seasoned' candidate ought to win presidential elections, it seems to me that any campaign staffer who could be genuinely 'baffled' by experience not proving to be a winning issue is demonstrating a scary ignorance of how things work. Is her staff baffled that Joe Biden didn't win the nomination?"

Or how about the Clinton campaign's abracadabra rhetoric, designed to make the reality of what they agreed to about Florida and Michigan -- poof! -- go away. They even set up a website that attempts to pull a rabbit out of the electoral hat. The site list several "facts": "FACT: Florida and Michigan should count, both in the interest of fundamental fairness and honoring the spirit of the Democrats' 50-state strategy." As Ezra Klein notes: "It's almost as if they thought putting it after... the word 'FACT,' would be like a Jedi mind trick."

Meanwhile, as the Clinton campaign was busy trying to use words to push the idea that losing is actually winning (you know, just like in Iraq), the Obama campaign was actually winning votes. To the extent that anything in a campaign is real, it doesn't get any more real than actual votes.

And, no, he wasn't winning them just because of his "words." He backed up his words with action: old-fashioned grassroots organizing. For instance, as was widely noted in the blogosphere, the Clinton campaign apparently found out only in February that the March 4th primary/caucus in Texas was sort of complicated:

"Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are worried that convoluted delegate rules in Texas could water down the impact of strong support for her among Hispanic voters there, creating a new obstacle for her in the must-win presidential primary contest."

As publius at Obsidian Wings says:

"While they were busy 'discovering' the rules, however, the Obama campaign had people on the ground in Texas explaining the system, organizing precincts, and making PowerPoints. I know because I went to one of these meetings a week ago. I should have invited Mark Penn I suppose."

Repeat that kind of organizing throughout 23 "insignificant" states, and it turns out you get a pretty healthy delegate lead.

So let's look at how Obama uses words. Contrary to Clinton's charges, Obama never claims his words will somehow magically create change. Instead, he uses his words to ask the American people to demand change. Very little change for the better happens in Washington unless it is demanded by the people. It's instructive that, back in New Hampshire, Clinton discounted the work Martin Luther King did in creating the political atmosphere that allowed LBJ to push though the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Which is why Obama's constant invocation is "Yes we can" -- not "Yes I can." Obama uses words to persuade, to mobilize and to get people to imagine that reality can be changed. And based on how his campaign has been run, on the ground, in state after state, it's clear that he knows changing reality is not done through magic -- it's done through hard work.

It is Clinton who uses words to deny reality, and expects them to magically change it. Haven't we had enough of that over the last seven years?

Update: Dana Milbank offers up yet another example of reality denial -- and the belief that saying something is so will make it so -- on the part of the Clinton campaign. This one comes courtesy of Clinton advisor Harold Ickes who yesterday told a gathering of high-powered Washington journalists: "We're on our way to locking this nomination down." No word on whether the journalists -- including David Broder and Maureen Dowd -- responded with a collective spit take.