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Closing Messages--and Closing Doubts

Overnight all three of the leading Democratic presidential contenders began airing “closing messages” to the caucus-goers of Iowa. All three spots are quite good--a reminder, I think, of just how strong this field of candidates is. But I was struck by how perfectly the advertisements captured the essence of each campaign, warts and all. .

Start with Clinton's spot.

It's the least lyrical of the three. You'll hear no memorable phrases, detect no compelling narrative. Clinton speaks in a softer tone than she does on the stump, but even here--at her most communicative--she still sounds like a lawyer giving a brief.

But it's an awfully good brief:

America is at a crossroads. We're a nation at war in dangerous world. We have a faltering economy, an energy crisis, and 47 million people without health care. But after seven long years of this administration, we finally have the opportunity for a new beginning. ... We can end the era of cowboy diplomacy, and bring our sons and daughters home from Iraq ... We can make a new beginning on health care--cut costs, improve quality, and cover every American. ... I'm not running for president to put band-aids on our problems. I'm running to solve them. ... If you stand with me for one night, I will stand up for you every day as your president. I will work my heart out to ”

That is Clinton's candidacy in a nutshell: As Tom Schaller recently wrote at TAPPED, she's the “worker bee”--the no-nonsense, down-to-business candidate. “It comes down to this,” Clnton says, summing up the moment and her pitch. “Who's ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on day one.”

I agree that description best describes Clinton, at least relative to the other front-runners. But does that really seal the deal? Do we need somebody who can inspire the country, think outside the box, or--at the very least--generate more enthusiasm outside the Democratic base?

The John Edwards advertisement could not be more different, starting with the fact that Edwards himself doesn't appear on camera until the very last frame (when he gives the perfunctory “I approved this message” line).

Instead, it features a testimonial from Doug Bishop, one of the hundreds of Iowans who lost his job when a local Maytag plant closed.

Bishop, standing in front of an American flag and apparently addressing a crowd, explains how he met Edwards at a campaign event--and how Edwards looked his child in the eye, promising “I'm going to keep fighting for your daddy's job, I promise you that." Then Bishop makes the case for Edwards as president, choking up along the way:

“You know, that stuff sticks with you. That's the kind of things we need in a leader in this country. Not somebody that's going to go to a big fund-raiser and say, 'write me a check for twenty-three hundred dollars and I'll let you know you have my support.' I want a guy that's going to sit down and look a seven year old in the eye and tell him, 'I'm going to fight for your Dad's job.' That's what I want.”

Much like the Edwards candidacy, it's the most emotional of the advertisements--which is either very compelling or a little too precious, depending on your perspective. (I like it. But, then, I'm very sympathetic to the message.) It's also the most focused of the advertisements--but, by the same token, also the most one-dimensional. And that's a pretty good summary of the Edwards campaign, at least compared to his top rivals.

Although Edwards has laid out detailed policy plans on foreign as well as domestic policy, his campaign has really become more and more about his fight for economic fairness--a fight he's turned into a moral crusade.  It's a compelling argument, at least to somebody like me, because it means he's committed himself to this agenda in a way no other Democrat has.  But it also leaves out a lot. Nor does it address the issue--strangely absent from the debate so far--of whether he's really got the experience to manage the presidency in, say, the way Clinton has.

Then there is the Barack Obama advertisement--which, much like the Obama candidacy, both dazzled and frustrated me. The dazzling part was the way Obama managed to sell himself: I think he comes across as the most sincere, most admirable, and most likable of the Democratic contenders. He does so by offering his typically smooth delivery and by talking up his life story, including the fact that he “passed up a job on Wall Street--to fight joblessness and poverty on the streets of Chicago when the local steel plant closed.” I know he's gotten some grief for saying this, because it echoes the right-wing trope against trial lawyers. But, on the merits, I think it's a legitimate boast. The choice really does speak well of his values.

So what frustrated me? This key passage:

“...the question you have to ask yourself when you walk into that caucus tomorrow is this--who can take us in a fundamentally new direction? I'm running to finally solve problems we talk about year after year after year. To end the division, the obscene influence of lobbyists, and the politics that values scoring points over making progress. We can't afford more of that, not this year, not now.”

Here Obama sounds like he is channeling David Broder, as if the primary reason we didn't have universal health care and stronger environmental protections was hyper-partisanship--rather than, say, the fact that one side of the partisan divide has simply become too powerful in the last few years. And this is one of the reasons why critics like Paul Krugman have been giving Obama such a hard time lately: Like me, they fear that Obama is becoming a “process Democrat” who cares more about transforming politics than he does about delivering a particular set of policies--and who is convinced he can rise above partisan fighting rather than engage it, even though partisanship will eventually become necessary in order to achieve the big ideas he says he endorses.

Of course, that analysis may sell Obama a bit short--as my colleague Noam Scheiber reminded me on Wednesday. When Noam interviewed Obama back in November, he asked Obama about this very issue. Here's how Obama responded:

I'm not interested in good government for the sake of good government. You can make an argument that there were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out and for the immigrant end of America. And, you know, maybe the lace curtain crowd didn't like it, but it really helped in terms of upward mobility. That's not true any more. So when I say I want to change politics, it's precisely because I want to make sure that people have health care, that they've got a job that pays a living wage, that they can send their kids to college, that they can retire with dignity and respect.

...I'm not afraid to get in a big partisan fight. But what I'm not going to do is organize my campaign around the fact that I'm not a Republican. I don't think that gets us to where we need to go. So, look, nobody's been fiercer in going after Republicans where I think they're wrong. I've never been a centrist, middle of the road Democrat. I mean, if anything, both Hillary and John have had their moments, you know, their roles in that. That's not a role I've ever taken. And I've never pretended to take that role. I have always taken the view that my job is to fight for people who nobody else is fighting for. And to fight hard for 'em. And sometimes that's partisan. But sometimes it's not. Sometimes working with Republicans is the best way to deliver for them. Sometimes cleaning up politics is the best way to deliver for them. Ultimately, my goal is to deliver for them.

Naturally, I like that statement better than the one in the advertisement. I want to believe it's who he really is. But suppose that's the case--is there a contradiction here that Obama can't overcome? If his candidacy is so focused on process, can he build a mandate for specific policies?  Having campaigned as a bipartisan visionary--appropriating some GOP talking points along the way--could he then turn around and lead a partisan fight on behalf of Democrats, as would surely become necessary?  

I don't know the answer, any more than I know the answers to my questions about Clinton and Edwards. Good thing I'm not caucusing in Iowa, I guess.

--Jonathan Cohn