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Obama vs. Clinton on Putting Legislative Machinery to Work

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Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the clear frontrunners in the Democratic primary race, and the comparisons between them are going to be tough-edged over the next couple of weeks.

I have been very critical of both, and applauded both. I did not like Hillary Clinton's embrace of the Bush administration's policy of keeping Cubans isolated from us while nearly every other nation in the world -- even Israel -- is engaged commercially and increasingly culturally with Cuba. Cuba itself may not interest many or may seem irrelevant to the biggest debates of the day, but it provides a template for candidates to demonstrate whether they will sculpt a foreign and national security policy in the future that leapfrogs out of today's morass or whether they are going to continue a policy of incrementalism, thus reinforcing and validating many of the errors and missteps of the Bush administration.

That said, there is a great deal I do admire in Hillary Clinton -- and one of the things that simply can't be disputed is her work ethic. I've met her a number of times, usually at receptions -- and each time I decided not to waste the moment with trivial banter but to throw an idea at her or mention a person or issue that would help me understand how real, how informed, or alternatively -- how contrived -- she was.

Every single time she jumped on the issue I brought up and expressed two or three dimensions to the issue that showed she was deeply steeped in this or that policy. In my New America Foundation role, I helped build and support programs as diverse as debates about genetic scientific advancements to family work issues, health care, and wireless spectrum -- not to mention my own core interests in foreign policy, national security/defense issues, and international economic policy. Hillary Clinton and I have had quick encounters that involved her sharing incredibly diverse and serious policy commentary.

The last time I had such a discussion with her was after she had won her last Senate race in New York, and she and Bill Clinton were a bit early to a UN Foundation reception honoring Muhammad Yunus. We had a really interesting discussion about what should be on a roster of 21st century threats and how our national security and foreign policy resources should be reorganized to deal with future challenges rather than keeping vested interests tied to old threats well funded. Her quick grasp of what I was trying to get at -- and a detailed response that was serious and level-headed -- really surprised me as I'm used to politicians who typically have to fake their way through detail.

I get the sense that Barack Obama is also extremely intelligent, though I've not had the same kind of encounters with him that I have had with Hillary Clinton and thus can't give personal commentary.

But I am convinced of something about HIllary Clinton's commitment to use every lever and every aspect of government machinery to push her legislative and policy work that I'm disappointed to say that I can't find as strongly in Barack Obama's profile. My concern has to do with the fact that as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' Subcommittee on Europe, Obama has held zero hearings -- at least that is how the record appears to me.

Compare this to the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe, which is having constant hearings -- or to the Senate Subcommittee's work before Obama became Chair -- or to a comparative commitment of Hillary Clinton on a Subcommittee she chairs, and the zero hearing detail is disconcerting.

By the way, I have to praise the Environment and Public Works Committee for its website. I wanted to know what role Senator Clinton had played in the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health and not only found testimony of all involved but found photos showing who was there.

I'm not trying to find a minor, nuanced difference between Obama and Clinton and inflate that to inappropriate levels. I am a fan of some of Obama's foreign policy positions -- though I think that I tend to appreciate his speeches influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski that reflect tough-minded thinking and hard choices rather than those influenced by former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake that seem to want America to rush into every global cause without clear delineation of priorities and an accounting of potential costs and consequences to our national interest.

But the question of how a Chief Executive would utilize the machinery of government towards the public good has always been of interest to me. Senators do have the opportunity to demonstrate executive-style leadership (or not) in how they deploy the resources taxpayers provide them in pursuing or informing legislative process.

The first day I started as a staff member in Senator Jeff Bingaman's office more than 12 years ago, I was given a copy of Eric Redman's The Dance of Legislation, a chronicle of Redman's experiences and insights into legislative process during a two year stint he had in Senator Warren Magnuson's office decades ago. Jeff -- as we all called Senator Bingaman -- personally inscribed the book to me with a word of welcome and something along the lines of "we expect good work from you in the Senate."

I found the book gripping -- and it motivated me to move out of the predictable contours of legislative process. Redman tried some creative approaches to getting his legislation pushed, and I tried the same in projects I had to work on. In another essay one day, I'll share some of the unusual tactics and vehicles we used in Senator Bingaman's office to push our agenda while in the Minority.

I was a foreign policy and economic adviser to Senator Bingaman -- but I worked in many legislative arenas and felt that it was my responsibility to use every possible vehicle, legislative technique or trick, and support service -- particularly the Senate Parliamentarian, the Legislative Counsel office and Congressional Research Service -- to make our office an active place and not just reactive, passive, or floundering like so many other Senate and House offices I saw.

Senator Obama has a great team. Some of his staff are friends and former colleagues of mine -- though i can say the same about every one of the presidential candidates in both parties.

But his not calling any hearings in a Senate Subcommittee he chairs ought to raise some questions that he needs to respond to. His Subcommittee deals with Europe, with NATO, with various related political and security matters -- and he's got the gavel and can set the agenda.

Given the stress NATO is experiencing today on many fronts -- from the question of Europe's evolving security identity, to NATO's deployments in Afghanistan, to the evolving question of how to deal with Russia, Kosovo, and other common challenges -- it seems inconceivable that Senator Obama would not want to highlight important policy concerns by way of hearings.

I hope Senator Obama looks at this post as something to respond constructively to -- as we need to understand how this gap would be fixed or translate into a White House setting.

But while I want Hillary Clinton to get more creative (and Nixonian, in the good sense) in looking at foreign policy deal-making through a different lens, particularly on Israel/Palestine matters and Cuba -- which are important opportunities to telegraph change in America's posture to the rest of the world -- I want to commend the fact that she does work every aspect of the legislative machinery and knows these policy issues well.

Next time I see her, I won't be surprised at all when she teaches me a lot I didn't know about the Superfund.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note