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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"We Need Solutions"

This is an argument aimed at low-information voters. Because many voters understand that the president can't really "fix the economy" or "solve the health care crisis." (I actually heard the former president say "fix the economy" in one of his campaign speeches a couple weeks ago.) The Obama campaign's rhetoric focuses on "the politics," i.e., putting together an actual governing coalition first, and then enacting policies. The politics requires speeches. Because a governing coalition needs to be a bout something--something other than solutions.

I've been thinking about the rhetoric of this Democratic nomination contest for awhile now, and I think that there's an interesting generational aspect of the criticism of the Obama campaign for not offering "substance."

If you've paid attention to politics, you know that stump speeches are stump speeches. They include a little of this (thank you's to local notables), a little of that (background stories, "I was born" crap), attacks on the other party/candidates, jokes, applause lines, and so on. Somewhere in there is the litany of policy proposals. These can be detailed, or not so detailed, but every stump speech includes something about policy. But a lot of other things, too. So, if you're a reporter, you can always say that a stump speech doesn't include much of this, or much of that. Because unless it's very short, it isn't mostly any one thing.

But reporters of a certain age cut their teeth in the 1980s, when Democratic politics really used to be what Lowi called "interest group liberalism." The Democratic coalition was made up of a number of interest groups, and the successful Democratic candidate (for the nomination--it was hard to actually win the White House with this approach) had to put together enough of those groups to win--usually some combination of black voters and labor. And to get there, you had to offer each group something.

Those promises to the groups making up the Democratic rump coalition of the 1980s were what passed for policy proposals in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether you call it interest-group liberalism, or neo-liberalism, or "micro-trends," what passed for policy substance was appeals to particular groups. Not big ideas, but small items on some interest group's wish-list.

If you're a reporter of a certain age, and you listen to Obama's stump speech, you don't hear any of that, or not much of it. The candidate doesn't seem to promise any group in the Democratic rump coalition anything in particular. He talks about "hope," and "change," but not about school uniforms, or assault rifle bans, or midnight basketball. No talk about child tax credits. If you understand politics in a certain way--and many, um, older folks do--then this is just talk. "Where's the beef?" as the paragon of this politics once asked.

This fits with the solutions point. I think. Obama is trying to do something very different from what previous Democratic candidates have done. He is not riding a "microtrend," and he isn't running a campaign aimed at the 3% of the electorate he needs to win to put the Democratic rump coalition over-the-top.

Will it work? Who knows. But I do know that a lot of the commentary out there isn't getting it.

Update: Of course, when Obama tries to respond to the "where's the beef?" line, he can play the game, too. For a contrary point of view, link.


At 9:07 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I am convinced that even if the candidates offered anything of substance, the MSM would not really cover it anyway. They're too busy pursuing stories of alleged plagiarism or hairstyles, or styles of rhetoric (straight-talk vs. hope yadda, yadda, yadda) to bother with substance. And their editors and advertisers like it that way. Which is why the MSM is worthless.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Wilson said...

This is a good analysis; and it's true that Obama can talk serious policy. Yet it's still frustrating to see people get behind him because of his essentially meaningless rhetoric about hope. Especially when that person who is behind him is diametrically opposed to Obama's actual views on policy (see Sullivan, Andrew).


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