Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Promise versus Experience in the wake of Texas and Ohio

The Hillary Clinton campaign's dive bombing of Obama's campaign in the past week shows up some of the unavoidable pitfalls of politics.

And after months where people said that Clinton's negative campaigning would backfire on it, it's now clear that her furious shaking of the apple tree has finally forced some fruit to fall.

Candidates have three major commodities to offer to the electorate - personality; their record; and their potential. Obama's record (three years as a Senator)isn't exactly replete.

So he has traded on his charisma and his potential, encapsulated in his message for change. The problem is that a lot of this is aspirational and non-tangible - the 'vision thing'.

Tony Blair did a lot of it. So did Clinton. It was never Bertie's strongest suit (Once nested into government during a boom, FF could easily sit on its record - it won't be so easy next time out as economic fortunes go south). But if you parse any of the Ard Fheis/National Conference speeches from any parties here in the South, you still get oodles of this prose.

An example thrown out from the top of my head:

"I believe in an Ireland of equality, an Ireland of prosperity, and Ireland where people can walk safely on the streets without worrying about being mugged or stabbed. I believe in a strong economy, where there is respect for the individual while we still cater for the needs of society as a while."

It's rhetoric. Pretty vacant and empty. And to a certain extent Obama has been getting away with spewing out this stuff - that sounds incredibly impressive but contains precious little. It's like candy floss - it looks substantial and enticing but turns out to be the next thing to having nothing at all.

Dan Sullivan, in his comment on the last post, was talking about Sinn Fein's constant references to 'equality', one of those catch-all words that sound great but ultimately mean little, unless you are prepared to do the slog-work and define exactly what you mean.

I think if you compare US politics with that of Britain and Ireland, the Americans tend to value the aspirational higher than we do, which is why Obama's rhetoric may eventually outflank Clinton's experience.

Here, experience and record have been the driving factors behind Fianna Fail's facile victories in 2002 and (in the circumstances) facile victory in 2007. Of course, it was easier, as times were good. The 'experience' over the next five years will be undoubtedly rockier. Which will mean that the alternatives will have a real shot at it, irrespective of who the new FF leader will be. But FG and Labour will not get away with vague rhetoric and half-promises - besides showing that they have the 'grist' for the challenge, they will have to spell out all their policies, to almost wonkish detail. And that kind of rigour can only be good. S


Tomaltach said...

Perhaps the aspirational is more prominent in the Us. But if Obama wins I wouldn't agree that its because the American electorate values aspiration higher. Other major factors would be at work. Not least of these is the deep antipathy towards the Clintons in many quarters. Furthermore, America over the last year or so has been (belatedly) awakening to the disaster of the recent presidency. They want to start afresh. Clinton doesn't represent that. Not just because she voted for the War, but because she is a rehash of an earlier presidency and an earlier time. America may feel it wants to move forward, not back, even if the Clinton era was sound economically.

Harry McGee said...

I think Obama is the most exciting thing to happen in politics in a generation. But that still doesn't stop you putting the'where's the beef?' question, made famous (I think by Walter Mondale).

His speeches are vague and when you look behind key words like hope and change and belive there is an awful lot of blank space. Even when he took on his detractors and their accusations of 'empty rhetoric', he used a rhetorical flourish drawing in the plains of Texas and the rust-belt of Ohio (that was almost empty when it came to tangible things) to answer those critics.


Harry McGee said...

Also check out Gideon Rachman the FT's foreign affairs corr. His latest column on the subject of Obama's rhetoric, posted on his ft blog is well worth reading for a contrary view. Here's the url (sorry don't have the tecchie knowlegge to upgrade it to a hyperlink!)