Edwards: The Clinton-Obama Pivot

Much has been written about last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. Judging from most of the accounts I've read, the thing everyone seems to be talking about is Hillary Clinton's equivocations regarding the driver's license issue for illegal aliens. To Clinton's credit, the illegal immigration issue is extraordinarily complex--one that is difficult to reduce to bimodal yes-or-no thinking. However, the political consequences of such caution can be quite harmful, as one's thoughtfulness can easily be spun as pandering, hedging one's bets, dodging the issue, trying to have it both ways, or political expediency.

John Edwards picked up on this immediately and attacked Clinton hard for it during the debate. Since then, he has worked hard to drive "Hillary's double-talk" home, as is evidenced by this tough video his campaign crafted shortly after the debate. However, for the Edwards campaign, his attacks on Clinton have had more than just the benefits of getting Democratic voters to rethink their support for Hillary Clinton and changing the media's storylines about her. They also had the added benefit of getting Barack Obama's supporters to wish that their candidate could be as aggressive as Edwards was.

Dan Conley of Political Insider recently wrote about the frustration and anger that Chicago and Illinois politicos have about Obama's "inept" campaign. According to Conley:

"[T]hose more interested in stopping [Clinton's] nomination now feel that Edwards, or even Biden, would have made better use of Obama's hype and money."
Now, to Obama's credit, as I mentioned in my debate analysis, he did a better job of "showing his spine without showing his fangs" when he attempted to draw contrasts with Clinton.

The problem is that voters tend to respond to hardball politics and hardhitting attacks. It is common for voters to say they hate negative politics, but that doesn't seem to be what they respond to. The 2004 swiftboating of John Kerry, the sliming of John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, and the attacks on the patriotism of former Georgia senator and Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland during the 2002 campaign are perfect examples of this. Note that all three of these candidates lost.

Barack Obama is not being attacked by other Democrats the same way Kerry, McCain, and Cleland were attacked by their Republican opponents. However, all three of these candidates lost to more aggressive opponents who engaged in hardball politics. This is not to endorse the tactics of George W. Bush and Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, but it does prove the point that strong attacks can yield good results. Politicians who try to take the high road and adopt a more cerebral strategy often end up in the loser's column. For example, Al Gore's ability to recite the names of the major politicians and power players in the Balkans during the 2000 presidential debates (done in an attempt to distinguish himself as well versed in foreign policy, as opposed to his "I know nothing about the world" opponent George W. Bush) did not help him.

This is why I believe Edwards stands to benefit from possible defections from Obama's campaign. If Clinton can't deliver change because of her "double-talk" and Obama can't deliver change because of his perceived inability to fight for change, then that would leave Edwards as the lone candidate capable of both fighting for and delivering the change the other candidates jawbone about.

The Iran issue provides another avenue through which Edwards can make the case against Obama. One of the most important political columns I've read this year was written by Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report. In his column, Gonzales cited numerous examples from Obama's tenure in the Illinois state legislature that exposes Obama as potentially unable or unwilling to take a stand on several key issues:
"While some conservatives and Republicans surely will harp on what they call his "liberal record," highlighting applicable votes to support their case, it's Obama's history of voting "present" in Springfield--even on some of the most controversial and politically explosive issues of the day--that raises questions that he will need to answer. Voting "present" is one of three options in the Illinois Legislature (along with "yes" and "no"), but it's almost never an option for the occupant of the Oval Office.

We aren't talking about a "present" vote on whether to name a state office building after a deceased state official, but rather about votes that reflect an officeholder's core values."
Gonzales then goes on to talk about how Obama voted "present" on issues related to partial birth abortion and concealed firearms. His column is an interesting and important read that should provide his Democratic opponents (especially Edwards and maybe even Biden) with a way to weaken him.

How does this relate to Iran?

Last month the Senate voted to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The resolution passed 76-22. Hillary Clinton voted for it, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd voted against it, and Barack Obama, who was campaigning that day, did not vote. Obama says he would have voted "no," but for voters who are unaware of the reasons behind Obama's missed vote, this missed vote feeds into the narrative that Nathan Gonzales wrote about earlier.

To continue, senators eager to avoid a repeat of Iraq wrote a letter to President Bush stressing that Bush does not have the authority to launch a unilateral strike against Iran without congressional approval:
"We are writing to express serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration with respect to possible U.S. military action in Iran. These comments are counterproductive and undermine efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through diplomacy.

We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran."
This is an important letter that provides senators with a bit of political cover while attempting to rein in President Bush. Thirty senators, led by Senator James Webb of Virginia, signed this letter. As Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone asks, "did yours?" Clinton and Dodd signed the letter, but Obama did not. Again, recall Nathan Gonzales' column. Real Clear Politics' Reid Wilson also picked up on this:
"The missed opportunity is not the first time Obama's Senate record has been put seemingly at odds with his campaign rhetoric on the issue."
Obama did later introduce a resolution stating that Bush does not have the authority to attack Iran, but this invites the criticism of him being absent from the original discussion during the Kyl-Lieberman vote and not getting on the record then. Not signing the letter drafted by Senator Webb of Virginia provides another point of criticism, especially since Obama's resolution generally says the same thing that Webb's letter does.

In response to Clinton's criticism of Obama's resolution, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "...Senator Obama knows that it takes legislation, not letters, to undo the vote that she cast." However, this new resolution from Obama could be used to portray him as a "Johnny come lately" because his resolution addresses issues that have been hotly debated before. If John Edwards is paying attention, he can pivot from taking down Clinton for her "double-talk" to using Obama's Illinois record of not voting on several key issues, his reticence to hit his opponents (read Clinton) hard, and his missed vote on Iran to paint him as a candidate of all talk and no action.

"All talk" and "double-talk" has a certain resonance. Whether it paints him as a negative candidate in Iowa remains to be seen, but it would definitely tap into the anger and frustration that many Democrats have about their leading presidential candidates and the Democratic Congress right now.

2 comment(s):

oso diablo said...

i'm not an Edwards fan (there's a dissonance to him that turns me off), but this is a very, very good posting. I didn't know that about Obama, and i think you've nailed the game-theory aspect of it. Nice job.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thanks for the comment, Oso.

I think all of the candidates have huge vulnerabilities that their opponents are not quite sure of how to exploit for maximum gain. I think John Edwards' insurgency candidacy could be quite powerful, but he needs to take out Obama first. I've said it before and I'll say it again. John Edwards and Barack Obama cannot coexist. I'm not trying to take out Obama by writing about him here, but I do think that he is just as vulnerable as Clinton is.

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