The election is almost a year away, and already it's come down to branding. In Saturday night's Democratic debate the candidates discussed in considerable detail muclear terrorism, health care, carbon emissions and other substantive issues. But what really got them excited were the vague competing mantras of "change" and â€˜experience." Obama says he stands for change. Edwards, siding with Obama against Clinton for some strategic reason too subtle for me to understand, says he stands for change too. Hillary Clinton, who casts herself as the candidate of experience but actually uttered the word "change" more often than the other candidates, dismissed her rivals as fancy talkers. She said she has 35 years of experience ( which means she's counting everything she's done since getting out of law school) and knows how to make change happen. She points out, quite correctly, that electing a woman president would be a very big change, but nobody seemed too interested in that. After all, electing a black president would be a big change too.
Hillary Clinton was fiery and funny and bore no resemblance to the candidate relentless attacked in the media as rigid, incompetent, Machiavellian and screechy. You can understand her obvious frustration with the ongoing lovefest for Obama: At one point she even compared his "likeability' to that of George W. Bush. In real life, Obama has made the same sort of compromises she herself has made. As she pointed out, he said he'd vote against the Patriot Act, and then he voted for it. He casts himself as the candidate who'd repair our bellicose relations with the world, and then talks about bombing Pakistan. He talks about putting Republicans in his cabinet, as Bill Clinton did. His health-care plan, as Paul Krugman points out every day on the New York Times op-ed page, is weaker than Clinton's or Edwards'. I'm sure Hillary Clinton must be wondering what the difference is between "triangulation" and Obama's calls for unity.
Somehow Hillary Clinton is stuck as the candidate who simultaneously represents excessive compromise and excessive partisanship. For various reasons, John Edwards, who actually represents the most substantive hope for change, seems in some ways a throwback to the old-fashioned class-based politics of the 1930s. Poor Richardson, who actually has the most experience of any candidate in either party, can't get any traction at all. Obama, the black candidate who never mentions his race, gets to smile his mile-wide smile and be a rock star. Somehow he has made himself a great big humongous hope object. People can project on him what they want him to be.