Sunday, January 27, 2008

Do We Really Have To Choose?

Over at Columbia Journalism Review's website, Gail Beckerman offers this succinct, vivid account of two South Carolina campaign events--an Obama rally and a Clinton rally--which crystallized for her the differences between the two candidates. Obama comes across as passionate, charismatic, inspiring; Clinton as matter-of-fact, wonkish, and detail-oriented. Beckerman suspects that these differences go a long way toward accounting for the differing ways the candidates have been treated by the press:
It occurred to me that Obama's message was easy to encapsulate, could be boiled down to a very distinct nut graph. And his success, at least in the press, seemed to me very much the result of this convergence of time-pressed journalists' need to tell a succinct story and Obama's ability to deliver it. It seemed a perfect marriage. And even if many of the reporters look bored, pale, and poorly fed, he was making their job easy. . . .

[By contrast,] Where I would have known exactly how to translate Obama's message, Clinton's was much more difficult to distill. If I had to, I might use the same words as the Times used in its endorsement:

"Hearing her talk about the presidency, her policies and answers for America's big problems, we are hugely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, by the force of her intellect and by the breadth of, yes, her experience."

These qualities are not so easy to write about.
This distinction seems right; it certainly encapsulates the impressions of the two leading Democrats that we've built up over the last six months. And maybe for some people Beckerman's formulation makes it easy to choose between them.

I can easily imagine someone saying, "We've lost one election after another with smart, wonkish candidates who can recite laundry lists of policies. It's time we finally nominated someone who can inspire people!" I can just as easily imagine someone else saying, "The country is facing serious problems. We can't afford to nominate someone who is long on charm but short on ideas!" Both arguments make a certain amount of sense to me.

And that's my problem. It seems clear to me we need both: charisma and policy smarts, inspirational rhetoric and mastery of the details. The next president must be able to understand the problems we face (economic, social, military, diplomatic, etc.) and craft or at least recognize intelligent, far-sighted solutions to them; he or she must also be capable of moving a large swath of the electorate towards new attitudes (hope, trust, optimism, and mutual support) and out of the defensive crouch in which seven years of post-9/11 fear-mongering have left us. Without those new attitudes, big progressive initiatives on health care, global warming, international relations, and the economy will be awfully hard to pass.

And so, as this primary season winds on, I find that it's getting harder, not easier, for me to decide where I want to invest my vote. I don't want either Obama's charm or Hillary's smarts. I desperately want both.

And maybe the Democratic electorate, taken as a whole, feels the same way--which is why the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth, from one week to the next, between Obama and Hillary. Collectively, the party is saying: Do we really have to chose?

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