Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political 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. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 March 2008

Now Let’s See Tough

Whenever political pundits question Barack Obama’s toughness, he has had a ready answer. He learned politics on the mean streets of Chicago, during his community organizing there.

There is truth in that reply. In his marvelous first book, Dreams from My Father, Obama tells of a night early in his work in Chicago. Loud music from a car parked outside his apartment woke him up. The disturbance went on for some time, but no one in the building did anything about it. So Obama, a newcomer, went downstairs to confront the offenders.

The car was dark inside, hiding the occupants’ faces. He couldn’t even see how many there were. It was a tough, inner city neighborhood with the usual rash of pointless gun murders. For the first time in his work in Chicago, Obama was afraid. But he asked the invisible offenders politely and firmly to move on, and they did.

Obama had every reason to believe that his personal safety—even his life—might be at risk. At stake was only the tranquility of his and his neighbors’ homes. But he acted.

Now, the safety and security of our nation are at stake. The hopes and dreams that Obama has so brilliant nurtured, and that only his intelligence and extraordinary skill can realize, are at stake. This time, the skulkers would mislead the American people. He has to summon that same toughness and courage to tell them, too, to move on.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Obama emulate what Dubya did to McCain or Hillary and Bill are doing to him. He should leave the personal attacks—including the awful tangle of the Clintons’ personal finances—to surrogates not directly associated with his campaign. But on vital issues of public policy, Obama can no longer flinch at showing Americans not just why he is better, but why Hillary Clinton would be worse.

Hillary never read the NIE before voting for war in Iraq. She has never denied not reading it. Every voter needs to know this.

The NIE was only 90 pages long, and Hillary had ten days to read it. For a self-confessed policy wonk, who never ceases to remind us how much she loves to master details, there is only possible explanation for that failure. She had already made up her mind, and her decision had nothing to do with the merits of the war.

Hillary voted for war because she wanted to be president of the United States. Period. Her not reading the NIE compels that conclusion and entirely undermines her claim that her vote for war was “sincere.”

This blog drew these points over eight months ago, as soon as the New York Times broke the story. As far as I know, the Obama campaign started making them only in the last two weeks. This failure of judgment on Hillary’s part should be featured prominently in every stump speech and every campaign announcement from now until Obama secures the nomination.

Pakistan provides a similar contrast. Over six months ago, Obama gave a seminal speech on terrorism and foreign policy. In it, he recommended that we stop coddling Musharraf and go after Al Qaeda Cental in Pakistan if necessary. His speech came months before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination wounded Pakistan’s ability to fight terrorism with popular democracy.

What did Hillary do? She responded by calling Obama naïve and inexperienced. In the Cleveland debate, she accused him of “basically threaten[ing] to bomb Pakistan.” But in fact his recommendations for targeted assassinations had become official (albeit secret) government policy. Our recent missile attack in Pakistan, which killed a highly placed al Qaeda leader, revealed our secret official strategy.

Obama’s campaign should be reminding voters of these differences every day. Neither Hillary nor Bill has ever been an inch ahead of the terrorists. They had their chance, and they failed. Obama has proved himself to be at least six months ahead, and in the very place—geographically and politically— where Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons live in closest proximity. Making these points is not fear mongering; it is showing voters how Obama’s foresight and careful planning would actually keep their children safe at night.

The Obama campaign also needs to take off the gloves on economic issues. Hillary’s Clinton’s chief prescription for our mortgage crisis is a five-year interest rate freeze. No one with any understanding of economics believes that ploy will work: it’s straight out of the book of Soviet central planners and Hugo Chavez. It is sheer economic demagoguery. The Obama campaign needs to make this point every day, perhaps with help from Nobel Prize winning economists who care about their country’s future.

The campaign should make similar points about Hillary’s health-insurance mandates. Mandates won’t just hurt the odd citizen who is fined for violating them and still can’t afford insurance. The whole underlying premise of mandates—that “free riders” are responsible for the high cost of health care in our country—is at best demagoguery, at worst a lie.

Making that point is not easy; it requires an understanding of economics and politics beyond the ken of most voters. But the campaign should try, again enlisting economic experts with high name recognition in the cause.

Finally, Obama’s campaign must directly attack the outrageous myth that Hillary has relevant experience by virtue of her tenure as First Lady. Even Bill’s encomium to his wife, displayed on Hillary’s Website, mentions only two important things Hillary did during that tenure: support what became the S-Chip program and make an inspiring speech for women’s rights near Beijing. The rest of it is fluff, smoke and mirrors. To allow the public to continue to believe that Hillary has a commanding advantage in experience—let alone on foreign policy and terrorism—is a disservice to the American people.

Obama may still win whatever happens. But he risks losing unless voters understand all of his many advantage, including his superior intelligence. His value as a candidate and a president lies not only in his well-publicized ability to inspire hope. It lies also in his realism, care, thoroughness, and attention to detail in public policy. Informing voters by comparing his record with Hillary’s (and Bill’s!) is a necessary step in educating the public about who Obama is and who his opponents are.

There is also a more fundamental reason for a more aggressive Obama campaign. Over the last several decades, public relations and Madison Avenue have overtaken substantive discussion of national policy. Clever and subtle lies have replaced serious national debate. The “3 a.m.” ad is just the most recent and egregious of many, many examples.

The facts are that neither Hillary nor Bill has taken any notably effective action against terrorism in their entire politics careers. Neither has even cared much about the subject, preferring to devote their limited attention and resources to domestic policy, with which they are both more comfortable.

Against that well-documented record, the notion that Hillary would keep us safer from “day one” or at “3 a.m.” is not just a campaign tactic or clever public-relations ploy. It is an outrageous lie. The Obama campaign’s failure to refute that lie early and often is not just what might prove to be a failing campaign strategy. It is a rare and subtle betrayal of the American people.


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  • At Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 9:08:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Right again with this one Jay. Sorry My state(Ohio) is full of brain-dead "I will do whatever the popular thing is to do and regurgitate rhetoric instead of thinking for myself" idiots. But we did Ted Strickland proud, co-signer that he is lol
    oh well, there's always the general election

  • At Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 9:09:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Right again with this one Jay. Sorry My state(Ohio) is full of brain-dead "I will do whatever the popular thing is to do and regurgitate rhetoric instead of thinking for myself" idiots. But we did Ted Strickland proud, co-signer that he is lol
    oh well, there's always the general election


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