by Chris Bowers, Mon May 21, 2007 at 08:13:12 AM EDT
"In reality, when they both got to the Senate, Senator Obama's votes are exactly the same as Senator Clinton's," said Mark Penn, the senior strategist for her campaign.I dug up this quote as a way to expand upon Matt's question from Saturday, where he asked why Clinton seemed to be gaining support within the progressive blogosphere and open left. Matt's instincts are the same as mine, that "all the campaigns are blurring their messaging," and so "if everyone is pretending to be the standard wordprocessor, why not just choose Microsoft Office?" Blurring is very much a problem other candidates are facing right now, and the Mark Penn quote shows that blurring is actually a key component of Clinton's strategy. If all of the candidates seem the same on major issues such as Iraq, then why not just choose the most stable, long-term brand? In Democratic circles, that brand is clearly Clinton.
"Let's not try to create false differences when we both agree it's time to de-escalate; it's time to end the war. Let's be clear, Senator Clinton thinks that. Senator Obama thinks that. Former Senator John Edwards thinks that."(...)
"As far as I can see there is very little difference in the Senate - where people actually have to cast votes - in their voting records. So this election can't really turn on these records.
One means of separation would be Iraq, specifically Richardson's Iraq vision of no residual forces. The difference between Richardson and other candidates on Iraq really is the difference between continuing our involvement the war in a limited form, and just ending our involvement in the war altogether. I have little doubt as to where the vast majority of the Democratic rank and file comes down on that divide. However, neither Edwards nor Obama have chosen the path of clear distinction from Clinton on Iraq, as they each want some American troops to stay in Iraq for varying reasons. The problem for Edwards and Obama is exacerbated because we don't know how many troops the Edwards and Obama plans would leave in Iraq. Even if the Edwards plan would leave fewer troops, that is not exactly a rousing claim to make on the stump: "I would probably leave slightly fewer troops in Iraq than Hillary Clinton. Maybe!" The Richardson plan is much clearer and resonates much deeper: "no residual forces." I am certain that if a Democratic candidate kept saying that line for months and got a lot of buzz for doing so, that candidate would really catch on in the polls. The Richardson distinction has a greater emotional and psychological resonance than the many bills being sponsored by Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Kucinich and Obama, and also greater than the call to action currently being pushed by Edwards. Simply put, every candidate is currently using new legislative proposals as a means to demonstrate leadership on Iraq, and Hilary Clinton is no different. Further, every candidate with a functioning campaign is using calls to action as a means of wooing supporters, and Hillary Clinton is no different. The Edwards call to action might be larger, but again, how clear is that distinction ever going to be to a rank and file Democrat? If candidates want to avoid being blurred on Iraq, the Richardson path of no residual forces seems to be the only way to go.
The blurring extends beyond Iraq. For example, when one looks at voting scorecards from major progressive groups, once again drawing a clear distinction between Clinton and anyone else is not easy. Some of this is because Edwards used to be more conservative, or that Obama has a shorter career in the Senate. Mostly, however, it is because such scorecards look at a wide range of votes, and overall Clinton has not voted too badly, especially compared to the other candidates in the field. Also, when one looks at campaign staff, whatever complaints the grassroots and netroots may have about Mark Penn are easily blurred by some of the staff on other campaigns, which are just as DLC-nexus / LieberDem as Penn. Further, calling out Clinton for her husband's history of triangulation does not work very well considering that Obama, Edwards, Richardson and even Kucinich (think Fox News) have all engaged in anti-Democratic triangulation in the recent past, too. Yet further, when one looks at grassroots, activist support, while Obama is clearly ahead, Clinton still draws larger crowds and higher number of small donors than any other non-Obama candidate.
The blurring is well under way, and it will be difficult for other candidates to reverse it now. I have long believed that in order for someone other than Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, there has to be a compelling narrative and cluster of ideas in favor of that candidate--much more so than there needs to be an argument against Clinton. After all, in a variation of what her campaign likes to say, "Democrats love her!" She has a net favorable rating of around +75% among Democrats, and also has a net favorable rating among the progressive netroots (although she is about even within the progressive blogosphere). It has been built up over a long-term, fifteen-year relationship with the Democratic rank and file, and hardened through the most vicious assaults the Republican Noise Machine has thrown at any Democrat, ever (including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry). No candidate is going to surpass Clinton unless s/he is able to tap into something even deeper inside the collective Democratic unconscious than Hillary Clinton is able to reach.
But that dream candidate does not exit, at least for me. Edwards is the only candidate who passes the Hackett litmus test, but he lacks the scope of grassroots energy possessed by Obama, and he also lacks the Iraq distinction of Richardson. Somehow, I think that in order to beat Clinton and tap into that deep, long forgotten recess of the collective Democratic unconscious she can't reach, a candidate needs all three, and at least two, of those attributes. Until a candidate achieves at least two of those distinctions, I expect that Clinton will maintain her national lead no matter how high a number Obama posts in Q2, and no matter how many polls show Edwards performing five points better against McCain than Clinton performs. Hell, after re-reading this piece, she doesn't even sound all that bad to me, at least when compared to Edwards and Obama, and I am a perfect representative of the target anti-Clinton demographic: a youngish, highly educated, liberal, secular white dude who blogs way too much. If candidates want to defeat Clinton, they need to distinguish themselves from her in a broadly positive manner. Otherwise, the blurring will continue, and most Democrats will just choose the established brand over the upstart one.