By Jonathan Weisman
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
The Democratic nomination fight once appeared to be a contest over issues: the Iraq war, Iran, universal health care and economic uncertainty. But as the candidates' positions have melded, they have found themselves agreeing that voters are ready for the changes they are all proposing -- but fighting fiercely over who can deliver.
To Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, it takes experience in the policy trenches of Washington to effect the shifts in health care, economic and foreign policies that Democratic voters are demanding of their president. To Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, that kind of experience is a hindrance, not a help, because exposure to the policy elites diminishes creativity and creates ties to the status quo that are not easily broken. And to former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, experience is beside the point. Change comes through a passion for battle.
"Iraq is still a pretty important issue for Democratic voters and caucusgoers. There's health care, the economy," said Clinton campaign communications director Howard Wolfson. "But I think it is fair to say the overall desire for change out there is now the overwhelming driver."
All sides agree the electorate at least says it is in no mood for a candidate that embodies the status quo, or even incremental movement. Last month, Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff asked voters whether they felt the country needs to keep a steady course, with small adjustments; whether America needs to turn the page and start a new chapter, with moderate policy corrections; or whether the country needs major reforms and "a brand new and different approach" to the problems the United States faces. Twenty-four percent wanted small adjustments. Twenty-nine percent wanted to turn the page. Forty-six percent said they want a brand new book.
A poll released New Year's Eve by the Des Moines Register showed the same thing: When asked to choose, likely caucusgoers are more apt to desire change than an impeccable r¿sum¿. Obama has the edge on change and Clinton holds a large advantage on experience.
As the fresh face in the race who is proclaiming he is beyond partisan politics, "Obama is reading the mood correctly and is playing in a field which is perfectly tuned for 2008," Hart said. "But against that is a second element: We're in a scary time. As much as we want change, we want change with a sense of self-confidence."
That dichotomy crystallizes just why Obama and Clinton seem to be so deadlocked, said Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), an Obama supporter with a political ear to the ground in the Granite State. In 2004, Hodes ran against Republican Charles Bass and was crushed by 20 percentage points. In his 2006 rematch, he won by 8 percentage points.
"If you have one candidate selling her experience working within government -- 'I lived in the White House, and I know what you need' -- versus another candidate saying, 'I organized communities, I know what people are thinking and I'm a relative newcomer to Washington who's seen enough to know things aren't working there,' that's a powerful choice," Hodes said.
But, he added, it's not one with a clear winner.
"We have a chemical in our brain that preserves the status quo," Hodes said. "While we may want change and know we need the change, sometimes it's hard medicine to swallow."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), whose own attempt to present himself as the most experienced Democratic candidate in the race has had little success, made clear last week that he does not think either Obama or Clinton -- or, for that matter, Edwards -- has much to point to as a senator.
"John doesn't have a record in the Senate. John's only passed four bills. They're all about post offices. I mean, literally," said Biden, elected in 1972 and the longest-serving member of Congress running for president this year. "Most freshmen senators don't get much done. Don't get much passed. Barack Obama hasn't passed any. There's not a major bill I know with Hillary's name on it."
From perhaps his most prominent foreign policy perch, the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations European Affairs subcommittee, Obama did not convene a single hearing in 2007. Of the 85 hearings convened by the full Foreign Relations Committee since the Democrats took back control of the Senate, Obama presided over two -- one on June 21, another on Feb. 27, both to consider nominations.
As chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Superfund and environmental health, Clinton has called three oversight hearings. But from her more prominent post, on the Armed Services Committee, Clinton has a mixed record. Of the panel's 55 hearings, a transcript review by The Washington Post found her in attendance at 60 percent, compared with the 71 percent attended by another presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
According to available transcripts, Clinton attended 35 percent of the Environment and Public Works Committee hearings of the 109th Congress, compared with Obama's 59 percent.
Edwards's one term in the Senate was spent mostly in the minority, without even a subcommittee chairmanship.
Clinton has positioned herself as the candidate of experience, the one ready to hit the presidency running and the one with the inside knowledge of Washington necessary to secure an agenda. "I'm not asking you to take me on a leap of faith," Clinton told a packed auditorium in Ames, Iowa, yesterday, listing her r¿sum¿ both as a lawyer and as a first lady.
But it is a tricky place for her. Was she a wife with a front-row seat in the Clinton years, or was she an integral part of the policy apparatus, responsible for her husband's failures as well as his successes? Was her failed effort to come up with a national health plan a sign of her ineffectiveness or a hard-won lesson for the future?
Since the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, both Clintons have been on the campaign stump, speaking of the hair-raising, dangerous journeys Hillary Clinton took as first lady to international hot spots, including a stomach-churning "corkscrew" landing into Bosnia.
"If a place was too dangerous, too poor or too small, send the first lady," she told voters in Dubuque on Saturday. But as she described in her autobiography, "Living History," she was apparently not alone in her bravery. That goodwill flight to Bosnia included comedian Sinbad, singer Sheryl Crow and her own teenage daughter, Chelsea.
Her supporters like to point out just how deeply Clinton was integrated into White House policymaking when her husband was president.
"I can't believe there's any major issue -- in fact, any issue at all -- that she did not discuss with her husband, formally or informally," said Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. trade representative and commerce secretary in the Clinton administration.
But where she disagreed with her husband, she often did not prevail. She advocated intervention in Rwanda's genocidal civil war that never came, and she was "very skeptical" that side agreements for the North American Free Trade Agreement on labor rights and environmental standards went far enough, Kantor said. And while she championed the cause of poor children at the Children's Defense Fund, she was "strangely quiet" during the Clinton administration's debate over welfare reform, a debate that caused open ruptures when President Bill Clinton decided to sign the Republican welfare overhaul into law, said one administration insider involved in the welfare debate.
Mindful of the electorate's anti-Washington streak, her camp also emphasizes that her experience goes beyond her eight years as first lady and her seven in the U.S. Senate. Her r¿sum¿ includes heading two committees for the American Bar Association, longtime service on the board of the advocacy group Children's Defense Fund, chairing the board of the Legal Services Corporation, and her position championing education reform in Arkansas.
That quadrant of her r¿sum¿ puts her more in line with Obama, who is more apt to emphasize his experience as a community organizer in Chicago than as a freshman senator in Washington. To Obama supporters, the emphasis is understandable. Exposure to Washington only creates ties that bind to the status quo.
"The past has hooks," Hodes said.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said that "a willingness to challenge conventional ways of thinking," not a conventional r¿sum¿, is what matters in the election of 2008. "Senator Obama believes judgment is what's most important in office and as commander in chief," Plouffe said.
"Change is a collaborative process," Wolfson counters. "We're not talking about single-handedly making change. We're talking about knowing how to effect change."
But in competing with Obama's pitch as the race's clean slate, Clinton may have effectively shifted the fight to Obama's turf.
"Instead of running her election, she seems to be trying to mimic his election, and she cannot do so," Hart said. "She has a superlative case to make as an agent of change, but she's become a candidate of reaction. She's lost her self-confidence."
Staff writer Paul Kane, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.