Achilles’ Heel Check: Hillary and Obama

A brief guide to the weaknesses of the remaining Democratic presidential contenders.

Here is a pithy summary of what worries me about Hillary Clinton (from Fareed Zakaria in the Feb. 11 Newsweek):

She is highly intelligent, has real experience and is an attractive candidate. But she is terrified to act on her beliefs. In fact, she seems so conditioned by what she sees as political constraints that one can barely tell where her beliefs begin and where those constraints end.

Here is a pithy summary of what worries me about Barack Obama (from James Wolcott’s Vanity Fair blog):

I can picture President Hillary in the White House dealing with a recalcitrant Republican faction; I can’t picture President Obama in the same role because his summons to history and call to hope seems to transcend legislative maneuvers and horse-trading; his charisma is on a more ethereal plane, and I don’t look to politics for transcendence and self-certification.

These are both caricatures, and one can argue with each.

The caricature of Clinton’s self-defeating pragmatism isn’t easy to reconcile with the competing caricature of Clinton’s self-defeating rigidity. You can argue that the exaggerated pragmatism is an overreaction to the Hillarycare debacle, in which Clinton, arguably, was undone by her rigidity. But David Brooks offers Clinton’s petty (and wrongheaded) argument with Obama about his health-care plan’s failure to include “individual mandates” as evidence that Clinton is still imposing “Manichean categories on a technical issue, just as she did a decade and a half ago.” Perhaps the resolution of this seeming contradiction is that once Hillary is done eliminating everything brave or original from a policy proposal, she defends it to the death.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

The caricature of Obama’s ethereality shortchanges the bold intelligence inherent in many of his public utterances. Obama has said he favors a single-payer (i.e., government) solution to the health-insurance crisis and elimination or modification of the regressive cap on wages subject to the Social Security tax. He also opposed U.S. entry in the Iraq war. But Obama has hedged on single-payer, he’s kept mentions of the Social Security fix out of his Web site’s policy pages on taxes and the elderly, and he wasn’t in the Senate when the war resolution was voted on. To some extent, Obama’s hedging on many of his more controversial stands is smart politics. But an unfortunate result is that he often ends up hiding behind airy generalities and vague-but-uplifting rhetoric, and I can understand why Wolcott would conclude that Obama is too saintly for the Oval Office.

Perhaps the decision between these two candidates comes down to how you like to see your political candidate hedge. Do you like the candidate pre-hedged, like Clinton, or post-hedged, like Obama? The virtue of the first approach is that it leaves nothing to hide. The virtue of the second approach is that the candidate may think, if not speak.