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'Where's the Beef?' II: The Conventional Wisdumb on Barack Obama

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Now that Barack Obama has officially announced his candidacy for the White House, we can officially announce the kickoff of the most hackneyed take on his campaign from the Washington punditry. It's the Second Coming of 'Where's the Beef?' (the hole card of all boring old school politicians and analysts when faced with a captivating opponent or candidate).

This soon-to-be-inescapable talking point was formally launched on this week's Meet the Press, where David Broder, the so-called Dean of the Washington Press Corps (is that sort of like being the captain of the Duke Lacrosse team?), and Tim Russert, Dick Cheney's BFF ("best format" forever), each took the Conventional Wisdumb out for a spin.

"This is an arresting figure who now has center stage to try to fill out the portrait that he's drawn of himself," said Broder. "At some point pretty soon, I think he's going to have to put some policy meat on the bones."

Policy meat? Cue Clara Peller.

Picking up the rhetorical shank bone, and accepting Obama's substance anorexia as a given, Russert asked, "Is there now a second phase of the coverage of Barack Obama where reporters and voters will start demanding from him real specifics on the real challenges confronting our country and world?"

It makes me wonder: don't these guys own a computer? If they took the time to surf the websites of any of the candidates, they'd see that the presidential campaign is already awash in real specifics on all kinds of real challenges. Indeed, they should go to barackobama.com right now and click on 'Issues." They'll see something called "Plan to End the War in Iraq," which is... a plan to end the war in Iraq. But maybe the war isn't a real enough challenge for Russert.

They could also check out the page on "Creating a Healthcare System that Works" and read a bunch of real specifics about "Harnessing the Power of Genetic Medicine," "Fostering Healthy Communities," and "Fighting AIDS Worldwide." Though, to be fair, Obama has been willfully vague on what the co-pay is for a dental cleaning, and exactly what allergy drugs would be in the formulary of his prescription drug plan.

In fact, just two days into Obama's official campaign -- a full year and nine months before the election -- we know quite a bit about where Obama stands. But there is a much larger point here than the quantity of meat on Barack's policy bones. It's that when it comes to presidential politics, specifics on the issues are not really the issue. Campaigns for the White House -- especially this one -- are about leadership. Specifics are nice, but they're meaningless without the leadership skills needed to turn the policies into reality. And leadership is a much, much harder thing to come by than position papers.

Obama made this point himself earlier this month at the DNC meeting: "There are those who don't believe in talking about hope. They say, well, we want specifics, we want details, we want white papers we want plans. We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope."

This is one of Obama's most appealing attributes: his willingness to address perceived liabilities head on (apply directly to forehead), and to turn potential negatives into attributes.

Think I don't have enough experience? Then go ahead and elect Dick Cheney -- he's got a lengthy resume. Think I need more meat on my policy bones? Then gnaw on the endless, and endlessly detailed, policy laundry lists that, absent true leadership, have gone down to defeat together with the uninspiring Democrats holding them -- again and again and again.

People aren't hungry for policy meat. They are starving for prime-cut leadership.

Few people know this better than Gary Hart, who was the recipient of the original Where's the Beef? attack, leveled by Walter Mondale in 1984. Which is why I was surprised to see Hart quoted in yesterday's New York Times deriding Obama's 'we don't need white papers, we need to talk about hope' stance as "nonsense."

I called Hart, who told me that the story, penned by Adam Nagourney, didn't accurately reflect his remarks about Obama. He wasn't being critical of Obama's emphasis on hope and leadership -- and he doesn't think Obama needs to "present us with a box full of position papers." Moreover, he likes that, as a leader, Obama is stressing that he belongs to a new generation. "He is effectively saying," Hart told me, "'I'm younger and I see the world differently.' What I'd like to hear from him is his big picture thinking from 30,000 feet on how all the different revolutions impacting the 21st Century -- globalization, the information revolution, the changing nature of warfare -- have affected our world and America's place in it."

That's very different than judging a candidate by how detailed his policy specifics are. But for those who insist on using that criterion, I suggest they call the various campaign headquarters and ask for specifics. In no time, a truck will arrive, back up to their driveway, and bury their house in position papers.

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