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George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Posted: January 30, 2008 09:20 PM

What Counts as an "Issue" In the Clinton-Obama Race?


Political endorsements rarely make interesting reading. But this year is different. Take the endorsements of Hillary Clinton by the New York Times [NY Times, January 25, 2008] and Barack Obama by Caroline Kennedy [NY Times, January 27, 2008].

To the editors of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agree on policy goals:

"On the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two. They promise an end to the war in Iraq, more equitable taxation, more effective government spending, more concern for social issues, a restoration of civil liberties and an end to the politics of division of George W. Bush and Karl Rove."

What matters to the editors is experience in "tackling ... issues" -- in mastering details of policy and carrying them out one by one. "The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work."

To Caroline Kennedy, policy is not the real issue:

"Most of us would prefer to base our voting decision on policy differences. However, the candidates' goals are similar. They have all laid out detailed plans on everything from strengthening our middle class to investing in early childhood education. So qualities of leadership, character and judgment play a larger role than usual.


"I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved."

The difference is striking. To the editors of the New York Times, the quality of leadership seems not to be an "issue." The ability to unite the country is not an "issue." What Obama calls the empathy deficit -- attunement to the experience and needs of real people -- is not an "issue." Honesty is not an "issue." Trust is not an "issue." Moral judgment is not an "issue." Values are not "issues." Adherence to democratic ideals -- rather than political positioning, triangulation, and incrementalism -- are not "issues." Inspiration, a call to a higher purpose, and a transcendence of interest-based politics are not "issues."

It is time to understand what counts as an "issue," to whom, and why.

In Thinking Points, the handbook for progressives that the Rockridge Institute staff and I wrote last year, we began by analyzing Ronald Reagan's strengths as a politician. According to his chief strategist, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan realized that most voters do not vote primarily on the basis of policies, but rather on (1) values, (2) connection, (3) authenticity, (4) trust, and (5) identity. That is, Reagan spoke about his values, and policies for him just exemplified values. He connected viscerally with people. He was perceived as authentic, as really believing what he said. As a result, people trusted him and identified with him. Even if they had different positions on issues, they knew where he stood. Even when his economic policies did not produce a "Morning in America," voters still felt a connection to him because he spoke to what they wanted America to be. That was what allowed Reagan to gain the votes of so many independents and Democrats.

There is a reason that Obama recently spoke of Reagan. Reagan understood that you win elections by drawing support from independents and the opposite side. He understood what unified the country so that he could lead it according to his vision. His vision was a radical conservative one, a vision devastating for the country and contradicted by his economic policies.

Obama understands the importance of values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.

But his vision is deeply progressive. He proposes to lead in a very different direction than Reagan. Crucially, he adds to that vision a streetwise pragmatism: his policies have to do more than look good on paper; they have to bring concrete material results to millions of struggling Americans in the lower and middle classes. They have to meet the criteria of a community organizer.

The Clintonian policy wonks don't seem to understand any of this. They have trivialized Reagan's political acumen as an illegitimate triumph of personality over policy. They confuse values with programs. They have underestimated authenticity and trust.

So do the pundits who pose the questions in the debates.

This nomination campaign is about much more than the candidates. It about a major split within the Democratic party. The candidates are reflecting that split. Here are three of the major "issues" dividing Democrats.

First, triangulation: moving to the right -- adopting right-wing positions -- to get more votes. Bill Clinton did it and Hillary believes in it. It is what she means by "bipartisanship." Obama means the opposite by "bipartisanship." To Obama, it is a recognition that central progressive moral principles are fundamental American principles. For him, bipartisanship means finding people who call themselves "conservatives" or "independents," but who share those central American values with progressives. Obama thus doesn't have to surrender or dilute his principles for the sake of "bipartisanship."

The second is incrementalism: Hillary believes in getting lots of small carefully crafted policies through, one at a time, step by small step, real but almost unnoticed. Obama believes in bold moves and the building of a movement in which the bold moves are demanded by the people and celebrated when they happen. This is the reason why Hillary talks about "I," I," "I" (the crafter of the policy) and Obama talks about "you" and "we" (the people who demand it and who jointly carry it out).

The third is interest group politics: Hillary looks at politics through interests and interest groups, seeking policies that satisfy the interests of such groups. Obama's thinking emphasizes empathy over interest groups. He also sees empathy as central to the very idea of America. The result is a positive politics grounded in empathy and caring that is also patriotic and uplifting.

For a great many Democrats, these are the real issues. These real differences between the candidates reflect real differences within the party. Whoever gets the nomination, these differences will remain.

It is time for the press, the pundits, the pollsters, and the political scientists to take these issues seriously.

George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant!