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Hillary's Valedictory Speech

Manchester, New Hampshire

Many of us in the press now refer to Hillary as the candidate of prose and Obama as the candidate of poetry (after her line on Sunday that "you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose."). But, boy, did that ever be come apparent here last night. It looked like there were a couple thousand people packed into the cavernous indoor-tennis complex we were in. I'd guess most of them were expecting the candidate of prose to break into a little verse for her last big event before the voting starts. Instead we got a pretty tedious laundry list, with almost no attempt at something broader. At one point, in the middle of a riff about creating five million green-collar jobs, restoring the country's manufacturing base, opening up the congressional health plan to every citizen, and getting rid of those long, confusing college financial-aid forms, I actually wondered if Hillary's staff had mistakenly sent her out with the wrong speech. And I wasn't the only one. On our way out, one prominent journalist said to me: "Boy, that wasn't even prose, it was like..." He didn't complete the sentence, but the thought that came to mind was "binary code."

If nothing else, watching this speech directly after an Obama event really crystallized the difference in their speaking styles. The Obama m.o. is to start with the vision and, in the course of riffing on it, use various policies as data points. So, for example, he'll offer up a long reflection of the relative merits of "hope," and, in the course of it, mention his plan for providing $4,000 per year in tuition-assistance in exchange for community service.

Hillary's style is to enumerate at length, then tack on some broader point when she can. But, even when she does, there's rarely any connective tissue. The point just hangs in the air till she moves on. For example, I thought she was pretty compelling when she recalled how, after she'd been elected to the Senate, "there were those who said, 'Well, she'll never work with Republicans and Republicans will never work with her.'" "But they didn't know me," she continued, "and they didn't know what I believe about public service." Having set herself up beautifully, she then offered very little about who she was and what she believes about public service. (Just a perfunctory line or two about it being a "solemn trust.") It was on to a discussion about healthcare for national guardsmen.  

These are differences that become especially glaring when the two candidates engage one another, albeit implicitly. When Obama responds to Hillary's critique of him, he uses it as a way into a broader discussion of what he believes. Take the "hope" theme again. Obama doesn't just throw in a line or two about why people who accuse him of "hope-mongering" are off the mark. He offers a long medidation about what hope is (imagining what didn't seem possible before--an essential ingredient to any change that's ever happened in this country) and isn't (naivete or blind optimism), how it figures into his own life (as someone whose father left him when he was two, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere without hope), and the instances in which it's been essential to historical progress (the American Revolution, the abolition movement, Selma, etc.).  

Now, for comparison purposes, here's Hillary on the charge that she represents the status quo in Washington: "I know there are those running who act as though they can just make Washington disappear. When they arrive, they're going to be able to just order everybody to act right and be nice. Well, I don't think that's going to be the reaction. You've got to be willing to dig in and fight hard to make the changes we need." That's fine as far as it goes, but it's not an argument. It's an assertion, and kind of a snide one at that.

--Noam Scheiber