Friday :: Mar 7, 2008

Sen. Obama's Rhetoric of Experience


by eriposte

Not long ago, Sen. Obama said this:

Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations is the fact I spent four years overseas when I was a child in Southeast Asia.

To which Sen. Joe Biden responded as follows: "I think he's right," Biden said smiling. "That is his strongest [foreign policy] credential." Anyone remember Biden being berated and trashed for that relentlessly? I don't.

More recently Sen. Obama had the following exchange in an interview on CNN (emphasis mine):

Q: Well let me ask you, what specific experience do you have in handling a crisis that would make you the better person to field that 3 a.m. phone call?

A: Well, and that's the point, nobody does, because nobody's been in that situation unless they've been President. The question then becomes who's got the kind of judgment on these critical issues that shows some evidence that you can in fact understand how the world is operating and when we have to deal with issues in a military way, and on question like Iraq, on questions like Pakistan and Iran, I think that the judgment I've shown over the last several, several years has been superior to both Senator Clinton's and to Senator McCain's. And if longevity is the measure by which we determine who's got the best experience to answer that phone call, then John McCain wins because he's been there the longest.

Q: She ...

A: But that's not the criteria. The question is who's got the best judgment, and I think that my record looks pretty good compared to theirs.

The response that "nobody does" (advertising to the world that Sen. Obama believes that he himself lacks the experience to answer a crisis call) - is one of the worst responses a Presidential candidate could have given and that too on TV and on the topic of national security in a time of war. This to me represents unilateral disarmament in front of the GOP (Sen. Clinton at least made a reasonable case for herself - more on her comments vis-a-vis Sen. McCain below).

Sen. Obama and his campaign have only themselves to blame with his foolish response that will be used against him by the GOP again and again and again if he were to become the nominee. As it turns out this wasn't just a slip of the tongue. This is, believe it or not, the Obama campaign's official talking point - to admit that he has no real experience to deal with a crisis - only "judgment"! What's worse, the GOP will misleadingly crop Sen. Obama's statement "...if longevity is the measure by which we determine who's got the best experience to answer that phone call, then John McCain wins because he's been there the longest..." to boost Sen. McCain and hit Sen. Obama (or Sen. Clinton) even harder. This talking point from Sen. Obama was of course intended to undercut Sen. Clinton's invocation of her years of experience and weaken her in relation to Sen. McCain, but I'm certain we won't see a revolt against Sen. Obama anytime from the "progressive" blogosphere and "netroots".

Let me also say a few words about Sen. Clinton's mention of Sen. McCain. I understand the criticism of Sen. Clinton for portraying Sen. McCain in more positive light than she should have and even agree in part with that criticism. As Todd Beeton said:

If I were giving Senator Clinton the benefit of the doubt here, I'd say she means that McCain has crossed this "commander in chief threshold" in the minds of the electorate and I imagine that's probably true. But this language just isn't helpful. There are two conventional assumptions about John McCain perpetuated by the media that Democrats, especially those running for president, have the responsibility to debunk at every opportunity rather than reinforce. One of them is the whole "maverick" thing, the other is that he would be acceptable as commander in chief.

Yesterday, a paragraph in an Obama fundraising ask from David Plouffe began "John McCain may have a long history of straight talk and independent thinking..." I thought that was bad. Hillary Clinton's insistence on reinforcing the idea that John McCain has somehow proven himself as commander in chief is far worse. [Eriposte note: I disagree that it is "far worse" but I do agree that it is at least as bad as the Obama campaign's statement].

What Todd misses here is that this is not just about Sen. Obama. Sen. Clinton's statement will be used by Sen. McCain against Sen. Clinton herself, if she were to become the nominee. How? Well, Sen. McCain will use this to make it more difficult for her to make the case that she is the better candidate on national security. [NOTE: I am sympathetic to Sen. Clinton's intentions - which Peter Daou has explained in a blog post - but there are better ways to say what she is trying to say].

All that said, no amount of Sen. Clinton's invocation of her or Sen. McCain's experience will damage Sen. Obama more than the damage he and his campaign have inflicted upon themselves with his (and Susan Rice's) ill thought-out comments discussed at the beginning of this post. Heck, I support Sen. Clinton but even I think Sen. Obama will use whatever experience he has in his life to respond to crises that might arise! I believe Sen. Clinton will be much better at it than he, but that doesn't mean he has no relevant experience!

Finally, I will include some thoughts from Obama supporter Chris Bowers at Open Left who is critical of Sen. Clinton but is also fair enough to point this out:

It should be noted, however, that Barack Obama had done much of the same thing on Hillary Clinton in order to help establish his advantage in the campaign. Consider Barack Obama on Hillary Clinton and partisanship (more in the extended entry):

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Thursday he would be more willing than Hillary Rodham Clinton to work with Republicans.

"Her natural inclination is to draw a picture of Republicans as people who need to be crushed and defeated," Obama said during a telephone interview from Texas with the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board. "It's not entirely her fault. She's been the target of some unfair attacks in the past."

"I'm not a person who believes any one party has a monopoly on wisdom," Obama said.

Remember Barack Obama going all "crisis" on us over Social Security, or getting all "Harry and Louise" on health care? Obama has played into well-established, right-wing narratives himself, such as the preposterous notion that Hillary Clinton is a hard-left, ultra-partisan instead of what she actually is, a centrist Democrat closely allied with the Republican-friendly-DLC. Obama has portrayed himself as the new alternative to the "partisan wars" or the 90's and our own decade, and at times laid the blame for the partisan attacks the Clintons suffered in the 1990's at their own feet. His rise to frontrunner status involved an effective right-wing attack against the Clinton's that also closed the triangle of conventional wisdom against her, and helped him build up enormous advantages among non-Democratic self-identifiers during the nomination campaign.

Chris has more on this and I don't agree with everything he says (I consider Sen. Obama to be at least as, if not more, "DLC"-ish, compared to Sen. Clinton, for example) but it's worth a read.

eriposte :: 6:52 PM :: Comments (57) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!