One spoke to the heart. One spoke to the head. But both presidential candidates had the same mission: to prevent Senator Hillary Clinton from claiming the soul of their party.
On Tuesday, at the annual Take Back America conference–a three-day gathering in Washington, DC, of thousands of progressive activists–Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, each an aspirant for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, delivered back-to-back speeches that delineated the stark difference in their political courtship styles.
Obama went first. He started with his own story, talking about his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, when he was paid $12,000 a year by church groups to help establish job training and after-school programs in a neighborhood hit hard by a steel plant closing. He described his subsequent entry into local politics and decried a Washington dominated by special interests where “all you see…is another scandal, or a petty argument, or the persistent stubbornness of a President who refuses to end this war in Iraq.” Blasting lobbyists for oil and pharmaceutical companies, he exclaimed, “They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we;re here to tell them it’s not for sale.”
That was a good applause line. The cynical ways of Washington, he said, are of no use to an Iowa couple he met who own a small business and cannot longer afford health care coverage. Pay-to-play politics in Washington, he pointed out, does not help the workers of Newton, Iowa, who lost their jobs when Maytag closed their plant and shipped their jobs overseas; nor does it do much for the still-homeless in New Orleans, the 45 million Americans without health insurance, and the 15 million American children living in poverty. “The time for the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try style of politics is over,” Obama proclaimed. “It’s time to turn the page.”
And to turn the page requires..hope. Obama, jokingly referring to himself as a “hope-monger,” maintained that hope gets results, and he pointed to his accomplishments as a state senator in Illinois: passing legislation that tightened government ethics rules, that reformed the death penalty, and that expanded health care insurance for children. His big message: hope can cause transformation. Washington can be changed; the nation can be changed. He knows that because his own life marks a transformation in America. “On paper,” he said, it is impossible that I am here–a U.S. senator running for president.” It was obvious what he meant: a black U.S. senator running for president.
Obama touched the right policy points. He promised to sign into a law a universal health care plan by the end of his first term. He called for more money for education. He vowed to place a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. He voiced support for a minimum wage that is a living wage and for legislation that would help unions organize workers. He urged the shutdown of the Guantanamo detention facility. Noting that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start–“we knew back then that it was dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th; we knew back then that we could find ourselves in an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences”–he highlighted his previous proposal to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
But his appeal was not his policy shopping list. He was promoting himself foremost as an agent of change who can bring about “a new kind of politics.” He offered the crowd “a simple truth, a truth I learned all those years ago as an organizer in Chicago…that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”
And he connected. The crowd was jazzed by the combo of personal story, progressive policy proposals, and message of transformation. For an audience member looking to be inspired–to be wowed–Obama made it easy. I am your man, he proclaimed. He was convincing.
Moments after Obama was done, Edwards took to the stage. He said little about himself. But he opened by stating he had been wrong to vote to grant George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Congress, he insisted, must display strength and conviction and shut down Bush’s war. (This was a slight dig at Obama and Clinton, who recently voted against Iraq war funding but who have not been vocal leaders in opposing funding for the war.) But his primary theme extended beyond the war. America, he said, is currently regarded with disdain throughout the world. Instead, it must become a global “force for good.”
He went through the litany. The United States has failed the world in its weak response to the genocide of Darfur. The United States has failed the world by not doing enough to spur economic development in the poorer regions of the globe. (He hailed micro-lending programs.) The United States has failed the world by refusing to limit its carbon emissions. But imagine, he said, if the United States would change its energy policies and reduce its oil consumption. Oil prices would fall and Middle Eastern autocrats would have less money in their pockets. And imagine, he said, if the United States and Europe turned toward biofuels. Africa–a continent full of cheap land and cheap labor–could become a source of such energy supplies. “Millions of children,” Edwards said, “would be lifted of poverty.”
From global warming to biofuels to poverty in Africa. This was a bit Clintonian–as in Bill. Edwards was displaying his policy wonkishness, while offering himself as a man who knows what must be done to lead the United States in the post-Bush world.
Next, he turned to domestic matters. He referred to his antipoverty policy work of recent years. He called for a national housing policy that does not “cluster poor people together.” He proposed a “College for Everyone” program that would provide students money for tuition and books if they worked ten hours a week. He promoted his own universal health care proposal, suggesting it was more universal than Obama’s. “I will speak for the poor,” he said. “I will speak for the uninsured. I will speak for the disenfranchised. This is my life.” Paraphrasing Gandhi, he remarked, “You have to be the change you believe in.” The audience applauded Edwards, but he had not rocked the house as much as Obama had.
Edwards, who became wealthy as a successful trial attorney, was arguing a case. Obama, the former organizer, had delivered a motivational speech. There was much overlap between the two presentations: America has to treat its less-fortunate citizens better; it must repair its relationship to the rest of the world; and all this depends on you. There were no apparent policy differences. (Only health care experts can argue how the health care plans of these two candidates vary.) Yet each speech was a different experience. Obama spoke as if he was addressing people looking for love. Edwards spoke as if he was before people about to make a hire. Either man, though, will have to win votes of both affection and confidence to best the woman in the lead.
UPDATE: To see how Hillary Clinton tried to out-populist Obama and Edwards at the Take Back America conference, see my report here.
JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush’s so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: “Indispensable….This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” The New York Times called it, “The most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations…fascinating reading.” Tom Brokaw praised it as “a bold and provocative book.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.