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The Larger Narrative

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007; 8:25 AM

Let's take a brief break, shall we, from the daily dribble of polls, sound bites, ads and quick-hit analysis of the presidential campaign.

Not too long a break, for this is a daily blog. But for today, I'd like to sink my teeth into two longer pieces on the two leading Democratic contenders.

The primary is about tactics and debates and all of that, but it is also about each candidate's effort to spin a compelling narrative. Hillary's narrative is that she is the candidate with the experience and toughness to be commander-in-chief--and, by implication, that Obama is simply too much of a neophyte, just three years out of the Illinois legislature. Barack Obama's narrative is that Clinton represents the same, tired baby-boomer battles dating to the sixties--and is too polarizing a figure to unite acountry in need of fresh face (namely his).

(John Edwards is increasingly portraying Hillary as the face of a corrupt system and himself as a liberal reformer.)

The new NBC/WSJ poll shows Clinton with a 51 percent positive, 31 percent negative rating on experience, but a 34 percent positive, 43 percent negative rating on honesty. And that's the campaign in a nutshell. If it's about the ability of a woman who's already lived in the White House to move down the hall to the Oval Office, she wins. If it's about Wellesley, Whitewater, billing records, Monica and likeability, she's in trouble. (Alleged Bill groping victim Kathleen Willey was on "Hannity & Colmes" Wednesday, recycling her tired charges that the Clintons were really mean to her and may have poisoned her cat.)

For Obama, the question transcends specific issues. True, he was against the war in 2002, but voters want to know whether he's up to the task of managing the Iraq conflict now. His "turning the page" rhetoric hasn't quite worked, so far, in dispelling doubts that he's up to the job.

The recent two cover stories I referred to have interesting authors. Andrew Sullivan, a conservative who has totally defected from the Bush administration and can't stand Hillary, is clearly intrigued by Obama. Joe Klein, the once-anonymous author of "Primary Colors," has fallen in and out of love with the Clintons but always been more keenly interested in their policy-wonk side than the surrounding scandals.

Here's the Andrew Sullivan piece in the Atlantic:

"Obama . . . is no saint. He has flaws and tics: Often tired, sometimes crabby, intermittently solipsistic, he's a surprisingly uneven campaigner.

"A soaring rhetorical flourish one day is undercut by a lackluster debate performance the next. He is certainly not without self-regard. He has more experience in public life than his opponents want to acknowledge, but he has not spent much time in Washington and has never run a business. His lean physique, close-cropped hair, and stick-out ears can give the impression of a slightly pushy undergraduate. You can see why many of his friends and admirers have urged him to wait his turn . . .

"Obama's candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America--finally--past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly--and uncomfortably--at you.

"At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war--not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade--but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war--and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama--and Obama alone--offers the possibility of a truce . . .


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