I thought Hillary was excellent last night, on all fronts: on message, riddled with the factoids and specifics that I am always hoping other candidates will bring into the discussion, and finally passionate about wanting the biggest job in the world. She looked great and gave far more than she got in the face of a serene, newly-comfortable Barack Obama. I gave her the debate victory on the spot.
In the wake of the debate, team Clinton unfurled the "framework" for her effort to kneecap Obama's candidacy in New Hampshire. It is premised on something she articulated during the debate, that will be getting a lot of play from New Hampshire to February 5: that
Words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that.
I hear that, but also heard Obama's response with interest:
I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. [emphasis mine]
Here I think Obama was right to push back directly on the words versus action challenge, not just because his rhetorical skills are a strong suit among voters, but because it is consistent with an appreciation for "people power" he's maintained since before he was elected to office in Illinois. A 1995 profile in the independent weekly Chicago Reader, required reading for those on the fence about Obama's political pedigree, recounts his belief in amassing human capital for change:
'We have no shortage of moral fervor,' said Obama. 'We have some wonderful preachers in town--preachers who continue to inspire me--preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn.
'But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building. The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures.'
To work, [politics] can't see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces--the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies. [emphasis mine]
As usual Obama was right on pitch for his audience of south side blacks. But this statement also echoes yesterday's point about where Clinton 1.0 fell short. Obama's proposed "working majority for change" is all about numbers and energy--as he put it last night, "we have to bet on [the American people]." Hillary and Obama are both smart enough to know this makes his a risky run--with powerful consequences, or real action, if it continues to be successful.
If Hillary could be honest with herself, she might conclude that the "words" and "action" argument is a false choice. But without more explicit stuff than Obama gave last night, she might pull this spin off. So my main gripe is Obama's hesitance to connect his message to his own experience. The "35 years" thing is ingrained by now--do Americans know that Obama does have the experience to back up the message that is captivating America? He needs to incorporate a new smattering of buzzwords into his speech, but foremost among them: "community organizer." I am at a loss as to why he cannot be more precise about this compelling facet of his experience.
Update: The Reader excerpt has been edited. Do look at the whole thing here.