Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

09 January 2008

Time to Show Those Brains

Senator Obama’s disappointing loss last night should be a wake-up call to his campaign. It proves what the pundits thought (before Iowa) and what I hinted at some four months ago. You can’t win a major party nomination on a wing and a prayer.

Hope, change and decency in campaigning are powerful themes. But themes alone can’t win. You have to have substance and specifics, especially when up against a self-touting wonk like Hillary.

After seven years of Dubya and Cheney, the public is much too cynical to buy a candidate on vision alone. Dubya himself had great vision, but where are we now? Obama has to accept the risk of taking positions and strutting his brains, even at the cost of appearing brighter than almost everyone else, which he is.

When a columnist as smart and fair as David Brooks twice accuses Obama of lacking substance, you have a problem. Despite being a Republican, Brooks was visibly entranced with the power and emotion of the “movement,” as much as the rest of us. But his rational mind—like that of many voters—kept saying “where’s the beef?”

It may be the fault of the media—even the Lehrer News Hour—which apparently love to capture candidates in vapid generalities. The TV clips make Hillary Clinton look like a robot programmed to repeat the words “experience” and “my 35 years” every thirty seconds at random.

But even she managed to pivot in time by raising a new theme, “talk, not action.” That’s another vapid generality, but it, plus sympathy for her tears, may have won the day. A robot that cries is a wondrous thing.

Obama comes off far less robot-like, and that’s one of his strengths. But repeating the words “judgment,” “hope” and “change” to the point of monotony is not going to win this election. Nor is it going to let the public see what we who’ve read his books and speeches see: a brilliant, once-in-a-century leader with penetrating vision and judgment, who can see around corners, as in Iraq and Pakistan.

On the most important issues of our day, Obama’s judgment has been near-perfect. His speech about Iraq, five months before the invasion, not only opposed the war, but predicted exactly what has happened. Obama shouldn’t just note his opposition. He should quote the key sentences from that 2002 speech in every stump speech.

Over five months ago, Obama suggested going into Pakistan after bin Laden. Hillary derided that suggestion. Now, when Bhutto is dead and Pakistan’s democracy is on life support, Dubya is making serious plans to do just that. While Obama can’t claim that Bhutto would be alive if the nation had followed his judgment, he can certainly note being five months ahead of everyone else.

As for health care, Obama’s judgment is dead right again. Mandates killed Hillary’s 1993 plan. They are inherently regressive. They will enrage Reagan Democrats, alienate conservatives, and give the insurance-pharma-medical lobbies a tool to demagogue reform to death once again.

What is most wrong with our health-care system mandates cannot fix. The risk of young, healthy workers gaming the system is a straw man—speculative, unproven, and improbable. It reminds me of the “welfare queen” canard of the early nineties.

I can’t for the life of me understand why Obama doesn’t trust the public to see how his superb judgment is right on this point as on so many others. Instead, he weakly promises that he’ll ask for mandates if we need them.

So far Obama’s campaign has been far too cautious. The guy who bet his career on an unpopular antiwar speech when the whole country was beating the drums of war has yet to reappear. We need to see him show that same self-confidence again.

I saw glimmers of a new approach in his concession speech last night, which was much more substantive that most of his stump speeches. But he’s got to do more. He’s got to showcase his brains, extraordinary talent and judgment. He’s got to explain to a skeptical public, in detail and specifics, why he has been both right and prescient on every major issue that faces us.

If he does so, he can bust some myths at the same time. He can prove that the American public is not stupid, does not really have a gnat-like attention span, and can be trusted with reasoning. He could start with Pakistan and health care.

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