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The Larger Narrative

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 . . .

"A Giuliani-Clinton matchup, favored by the media elite, is a classic intragenerational struggle--with two deeply divisive and ruthless personalities ready to go to the brink. Giuliani represents that Nixonian disgust with anyone asking questions about, let alone actively protesting, a war. Clinton will always be, in the minds of so many, the young woman who gave the commencement address at Wellesley, who sat in on the Nixon implosion and who once disdained baking cookies. For some, her husband will always be the draft dodger who smoked pot and wouldn't admit it. And however hard she tries, there is nothing Hillary Clinton can do about it. She and Giuliani are conscripts in their generation's war. To their respective sides, they are war heroes."

In that sense, this election may be the last big gasp of the baby boomers.

And here is the Time cover story by Joe Klein, jumping off from her endorsement by Walter Mondale:

"Clinton has been accused of running a cautious front-runner campaign. She is challenged by a pair of dynamic younger candidates in Barack Obama and John Edwards. She has endorsed higher taxes for the wealthy. And more than a few Democrats worry that she cannot win a general election, even against a disgraced and exhausted Republican Party. In other ways, however, Clinton is the furthest thing from Mondale imaginable. A vote for Clinton is, at bottom, a radical proposition. It is a vote for the first woman President, the most dramatic expansion of American possibility since a Catholic was elected President in 1960. In the past six months, Clinton has transformed herself into a far more dynamic campaigner than Mondale ever was. But most important, there is a stark difference in political philosophy between them: Clinton is a pragmatic moderate, and Mondale was an old-fashioned liberal . . .

"Conservatives go ballistic because they don't see Hillary Clinton as a moderate at all -- she's a tax-raising, socialized-health-care-loving peacenik feminazi. She and her husband steal conservative memes and tropes to hoodwink the masses. During the political nuclear winter of the 1990s, Yale professor Stephen Skowronek opined that Bill Clinton was the sort of president who inspires a special frenzy in his opponents -- Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon were others -- because he takes the more accessible parts of their agendas and adopts them. Hillary Clinton inspired an even greater frenzy because she was a gender revolutionary, transforming the cotton-candy role of First Lady into a power position. She wasn't nearly as charming as her husband either. And she seemed . . . tougher.

"But Senator Clinton has trouble on the left as well, especially in a Democratic primary. The Clintons were always perceived, especially by the populist labor left, as Wall Street fellow travelers on issues like free trade and fiscal conservatism. They were seen as ideological trimmers, betraying the interests of the working class. These days, after seven years of Bush extremism, there is a fury in the Democratic base, an impatience with compromise -- with The Politics of Parsing, as Edwards put it in a devastating webcast about Clinton's performance in the Oct. 30 debate . . .

"There is a larger problem with the conventional wisdom that Clinton has been too careful and calculating in this campaign. That charge is often expressed as a question about her 'authenticity' -- that foolish journalistic cliché meant to denote the appearance of informality and spontaneity. But authenticity is not the same as courage. You can fake authenticity. You can't fake courage. Clinton has always had a problem with authenticity. Her laugh, sometimes awkwardly manufactured for public use yet always delightfully raucous in private, is Exhibit A. But her plans on the big domestic-policy issues -- health care and energy -- have been courageous and detailed, more sophisticated than her opponents' -- and very, very smart politically."

But can you ultimately win on issues, as opposed to the voters' sense of who you are?

Both pieces dovetail nicely with this Slate post from Iowa by John Dickerson:

"I've seen Barack Obama's show. I've seen the crowds. I've seen the audacity. I've seen the hope. I knew what to expect Tuesday night at his event at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, and yet after it was over I was still impressed. He was funny and passionate, and he connected with his big audience. When he left the stage, the room was on its feet and chanting with him. Nothing like that happened during the two days I followed Hillary Clinton. Her performances were solid and her audiences were enthusiastic, but they didn't interrupt her with applause the way they did with Obama.

"A talented candidate works with the rhythm of an audience, taking it through a range of emotions--humor, passion, and anger. If the candidate does it right, the room feels more committed at the end of the event than during the opening jokes. That's what it was like when Obama spoke.

" 'Why isn't he killing her?' asked a colleague after Obama's hour-long visit. It's the persistent question for his campaign. He wows the crowds but lags in the polls everywhere but Iowa."

Okay, it's not quite kosher to quote another reporter to frame your story (or for Slate to trumpet the other guy's words in the headline that originally ran with the story), but it was also right on.

The press, of course, is a player in all this, as Salon Editor Joan Walsh observes:

"It was obvious to me even six weeks ago that [Hillary] was being set up for a fall. When I say 'set up' I don't mean anything diabolical, and I'm not blaming sexism or Karl Rove or the MSM. It's just the dynamic of a race like this. The front-runner stumbles at some point. He or she can't keep exceeding expectations when expectations get their highest. Also, it's human (and media) nature: Nobody wants a coronation. Everybody wants drama.

"And in the debate last week, and its aftermath, it happened: Clinton stumbled. I wrote about it at the time -- she seemed evasive, even rattled, at a few points, and she made a genuine mistake in seeming to disavow her support for giving illegal immigrants drivers' licenses. She hasn't quite recovered yet. She admitted to CNN's Candy Crowley that it wasn't her best performance. In CNN and NBC polls taken since the debate, her support dipped a little. So it's the moment for Barack Obama and John Edwards -- and the other candidates, though less likely -- to make a move.

"The question is, will they and can they. The conventional wisdom has to give Obama the best shot -- he's got the most money, the freshest story, and in a year when everyone, including many Republicans, is craving someone new, he is that guy. I'm just not sure he can shoot beyond the 25 percent or so of the Democratic electorate to grab the lead . . .

"In a lot of ways John Edwards is best positioned to surge if the collective Democratic field succeeds in tarring Clinton as the establishment candidate . . . Unlike Obama, he doesn't look uncomfortable taking direct shots at Clinton, with that sunny smile on his face. I don't count him out.

"But I still think the race is Clinton's to lose, and the media, having once overstated the perfection of her campaign, is now overstating its troubles."

Time now for the big news of the day, involving the almost-secretary of Homeland Security:

"The indictment of Bernard B. Kerik is at the very least a big distraction for Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign," the NYT reports from Iowa.

"The only federal corruption case that reporters asked about was the one being built against Mr. Kerik -- his former driver, police commissioner, partner, and, briefly, choice to head the federal Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Kerik was indicted Thursday, and is expected to be arraigned at midday Friday in United States District Court in White Plains on corruption-related charges, according to people briefed on his case.

"So Mr. Giuliani said once again said that he had made 'a mistake in not checking him out more carefully.' He pointed out the successes he had in New York. And almost lost in the mix was Mr. Giuliani's effort to highlight a less well-known aspect of his own biography, and to talk up his new endorsement from Pat Robertson to Iowa voters."

"Kerik," says the Boston Globe, "is not the only member of the administration to run into legal problems after Giuliani stepped down at the end of 2001.

"Another is Russell Harding, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to embezzling about $400,000 and having child pornography on his city computer while head of the New York City Housing Development Corp. under Giuliani. The son of Raymond Harding, a key Giuliani political ally who threw the Liberal Party's support behind his mayoral campaigns, Russell Harding was appointed despite lack of a college degree or expertise in the field. He was sentenced to more than five years in prison."

National Review, a good bellwether for conservative thinking, remains troubled by Rudy:

"Rudolph Giuliani has been zigzagging on abortion all year. First he zigged toward pro-lifers, explaining that he was now against partial-birth abortion. Then he zagged, reiterating his support for taxpayer funding of abortion. He promised to appoint justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Then he said that his justices could, unlike Scalia and Thomas, just as easily affirm Roe as negate it. Lately he has been zigging again, telling a social-conservative gathering that as president he would veto any weakening of existing anti-abortion policies and sign any 'reasonable' restrictions on abortion.

"Pat Robertson, who endorsed Giuliani Wednesday, is pleased with where these zigzags have left the candidate. The veto pledge is a particularly welcome step. The next president will probably face a Democratic Congress. Today's Democratic caucus is much more pro-abortion than it was the last time the Democrats held Capitol Hill. It could try to enact taxpayer funding of abortion, especially if the president says he (or she) favors it in principle. That policy would increase the number of abortions, probably quite a bit.

"Most pro-lifers, however, continue to have concerns about Giuliani. In the next few years we could see the development of an industry in cloning human embryos for stem-cell research. Whatever the odds are that our nation will restrict abortion, they will be much, much lower if we get into the business of mass-producing and killing human embryos. Giuliani has said that he opposes cloning, but that statement of preference leaves him plenty of wiggle room. He has not promised to do what he can to ban it, as Romney, McCain, Thompson, and Huckabee would. He has not even stated a preference against taxpayer funding of other types of embryo-destructive research."

So much for Robertson changing the terms of debate.

And in case you missed him, O.J., back in court yesterday.

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