Many of my friends and colleagues are firmly committed to either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, but I am among those Democrats who shift their allegiance from week to week, and sometimes from day to day, and will probably finally decide who to vote for when I enter the polling booth in Maryland on Feb. 12. And the debates don't help me decide. They exacerbate my indecision, because they invariably highlight the complementary strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates.
Clinton is substantive; a policy wonk who knows what she is talking about even when she is hedging her position. Healthcare certainly, but her discussion of immigration or foreign policy also seems to respect the complexities of the issues. Yet Clinton seems incapable of articulating broader political themes--saying in a novel and interesting way what is wrong with the country and what needs to be done about it. She is running on experience, which is to say on her own past, and on a promise to use that experience to solve problems. That tells voters something about herself, but nothing about how she sees the country or them. The two prior Democratic presidential candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry, had a similar problem.
Obama is the epitome of a thematic politician. He is very much a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan. He captures the essence of his own appeal--and his own biography--in his promise to unite a hitherto divided America and world. But his discussion of policy is perfunctory and plagued with inconsistency. That was evident during this debate. As my colleague Jon Cohn has explained, you can't really have a well-functioning universal healthcare system--or a social security system--without everyone participating. But Obama keeps saying that he doesn't want to "force" people to buy insurance.
Obama spoke seemingly eloquently of America as a nation of immigrants. He said it was "scapegoating" to blame immigrants--and presumably he meant illegal immigrants--for taking inner city jobs, but later in the debate, he justified giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship "because if we don't, they will continue to undermine U.S. wages." Well, if they undermine U.S. wages, they do so by replacing native workers who were getting higher wages. And it's not clear why providing a path to citizenship would eliminate the downward pressure on wages. It didn't seem like he had thought it through--and perhaps like Reagan and unlike Clinton he is not that interested in the details.
Clinton was clearly not at her best in trying to justify her vote for the Bush administration's resolution on war with Iraq. But I have never found Obama's promise to bring the world together through diplomacy very compelling. He thinks setting a specific date for withdrawal will "prompt the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds to actually come together and negotiate." Maybe, but I have my doubts. I am not sure Clinton knows what to do either, but when she refuses to be pinned down on a date for withdrawal, I hear someone who appreciates the difficulty of what she would inherit if she becomes president in January 2009. I worry about Clinton's political ability to get the country behind what she wants to do; but I worry that Obama wouldn't know what to do. And the last debate didn't ease these concerns.
--John B. Judis