Sunday, February 10, 2008

Obama And "Substance"--A Bum Rap?

Updated below

Lately I've begun hearing some Hillary supporters complaining that the Obama campaign has "no substance"--that he is just "a pretty face" with a kumbaya message of uplift that the media swoons for. For example, several members of my editorial group made comments to this effect during our last meeting.

Actually, I think this is probably a bit of a bum rap. During their Los Angeles debate, for example, I thought that both candidates responded to questions with equal amounts of "substance," by which I mean policy details that appear well thought out and fact-based. And if you visit the "Issues" pages of the two candidates' websites (Obama's is here, Hillary's here), I think the amount of meaningful content is very comparable.

Of course, you might disagree with one or the other candidate on a specific issue (as Paul Krugman and others have disgreed with Obama on health care), but that is not the same as saying that either candidate has no substance. In fact, if there were no substance, there would be nothing to disagree with, which I don't think is the case with either Obama or Hillary.

It's easy to see why people feel the Obama campaign lacks substance. It's an understandable impression based on TV news soundbites and the candidate's own commercials, which are indeed long on inspirational rhetoric and short on policy details. But I think this is a stylistic and "marketing" choice rather than a reflection of the vapidity of the candidate. Obama and his team believe that most voters respond more to atmospherics than they do to policy details, and so they are trying to sell Obama on that basis.

And is there any evidence they are wrong? Would Obama really be more appealing to a large number of voters if his speeches and ads emphasized lists of ten-point plans and statistical breakdowns rather than uplifting rhetoric? I doubt it. We might prefer it if most voters made their choices based on rational, factual analyses rather than how they feel about the candidates, but it sure doesn't look as if that's true.

The old story about Adlai Stevenson still contains a lot of truth. During one of his presidential campaigns, a fan supposedly told him, "Every thinking American will support you!" Stevenson replied, "That's no good, I need a majority."

Dig a bit, and I think you'll conclude that both Hillary and Obama are candidates of substance. However, Obama is choosing not to lead with substance but instead to lead with atmospherics, believing this is his route to the White House. We'll see whether he is right or wrong. But in the meantime, I think it's a bit unfair for Democrats to accuse him of offering nothing but hot air.


Matt Yglesias offers his own take on this topic from a slightly different angle.

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