Over the next few weeks, the Obama campaign must reframe this campaign,
before it settles into the story that Clinton's team is telling (she's
tough, he's not; she's lunchpail, he's college-campus granola; he's
talk, she's work). The campaign needs a new way to talk about the
fundamental difference between these two candidates.
There is such a story, that the Obama camp can tell from now on, which
has the merit of being neither same-old nor the kind of sudden departure
that looks like desperation. It also has the merit of being true.
It's this: Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the elites. She's the
candidate of people with money, privilege and connections who say, in
essence, Let Me Handle This. You don't have the time or the energy or
the expertise to fight your own fight. I will do it for you, because I
know best. When that phone rings at 3 A.M., I'll answer it. You go
back to sleep. Clinton's is the progressive politics of the last
century: I Will Fight for You. Because, God knows, you can't do it
Many Americans (especially younger Americans) instinctively dislike this
kind of condescension. Dislike being excluded from the work of solving
the problem; dislike the experts who tell us what to do; and dislike the
phoniness of privileged people who declare themselves oppressed. When
Clinton talks in carefully composed sentences about the tribulations of
regular Americans, you sense that for her the story is just material for
the campaign, a lawyer's anecdote. Her story is, these poor little
shlubs need me.
If you really want me to do better, give me the tools to do it myself.
Conservatives have picked up on that kind of feeling and used it
skillfully against Al Gore and John Kerry, but there is nothing
inherently right-wing about a message that says "I trust the American
The Obama campaign can make the case that Hillary is all about keeping
power and privilege for herself and people like her. It is embedded in
every aspect of the campaign, from organization to policy positions. On
health care, Clinton wants a mandate (we can't trust those young people
who think they don't need insurance). In fundraising, much of Clinton's
money comes from the wealthy rather than small donations. In other
words, her financial support comes from people like her -- wealthy
people who sit on corporate boards, run into each other at Davos, go on
junkets together. Obama's campaign, as it likes to proclaim, is owned
by large numbers of ordinary people, each making small contributions.
The hesitation so many people feel about a dynastic sequence of Bush and
Clinton presidencies folds into this story. So does the widespread
unease about both Clintons' manner -- that sense they give of saying one
thing in public and doing another in private.
This is the most important sense in which Hillary would be more of the
same -- a president who would resemble George W. Bush in her reliance on
a closed circle of people like herself to decide our fate.
Consider: Obama and John McCain have had testy exchanges. Hillary and
McCain have knocked back shots together while on Congressional trips.
They're at ease with each other because they live in the same world: the
world of the connected and the privileged, who are comfortable deciding
what the rest of us should do. (Remember, when Chelsea Clinton was
deployed this year, she went to Hawaii with a microphone, not to Baghdad
with a gun.)
This, the Obama campaign should proclaim, is the real meaning of "Yes,
We Can.'' We can make our own decisions, thank you, and answer the
crisis phone ourselves. And the real problem with Hillary is a trust
issue. Not that we can't trust her, but that she's part of a class of
people who don't trust us.