Monday, January 07, 2008

The Problem with Edwards and Hillary

First I read Ezra Klein's post about the emotive Edwards.

Edwards is more likely to tour with the sort of guests you'd see on daytime talk: Ordinary people who have undergone extraordinary hardship. Where the other candidates closed their Iowa campaigns with sincere speeches laying out the arguments for their candidacies, Edwards ran a commercial where a burly Iowan spoke emotionally of the moment when Edwards leaned down, stared his seven-year-old son in the eyes, and promised to fight for his father's job.

This irritates the Press Corps. It's schmaltzy and raw. As Mark Halperin put it in his summary of Edwards' most recent debate performance, "His habit of recounting moving stories about anonymous (and, sorry, random) people sometimes makes him sound like a mayoral candidate in a small Southern hamlet."

Yeah, no kiddin'.

While it's obviously desirable that our candidates at all levels of government have a concern with people "who have undergone extraordinary hardship", should a future president pledge to "fight for his father's job"? I don't know all the context here, but there are some 150 million workers in the U.S. Is a president supposed to "fight" for everyone's job?

Similarly, the cases of the liver patient and the person with a 50-year cleft palate are tragic. But are these individual cases--and the probable millions around the country like them-- these specific cases, the sorts of things that presidents should be pledging to eradicate? Can we be sure that a universal, government financed and managed health care system (which I assume is Edwards' focal point here) would have solved either of these two individual cases--or again the millions around the country like them?

One problem with Edwards' campaign is it has sounded at times very close to a one-issue campaign (health care). That would not necessarily be bad, except Edwards has been regarded as among the top tier of candidates, which should presumably signify that he is devoting somewhat equal time to issues for which the president--and no one else in the country--would be answerable to once in office.

All of this is to suggest--at the risk of sounding cold and indifferent to the very real problems he has been highlighting--that Edwards is campaigning as if he doesn't have a strong grasp of the various responsibilities of the president or that he would be able to prioritize very well. His type of campaign also begs the question of how, after having implied that he would solve every individual citizen's problems, he would deal with the fact that such would not be possible, and that other levels of government and sections of society might be better equiped to handle them.

In the case of the liver transplant and cleft palate patients, is it unreasonable to ask what alternatives were available? If that's my gut reaction--and I'm pretty liberal about these things from a policy perspective--you can be pretty sure that many other people with more conservative political instincts than me might also wonder the same thing? Is it a sure thing that in the case of the liver patient that the insurance company is fully at fault? Could the liver transplant have been performed by the doctors/hospital with an eye towards settling the finances of it later on, after the person's life had been spared? Of course most doctors and hospitals are not in the profession completely from altruism. But neither are the insurance companies. They all want to make money. And again, would a universal health care system of the kind Edwards favors be guaranteed to have worked in this case?

Klein implies that he favors Edward's emotive appeals and sense of purpose.

Maybe. But his very next post examines Hillary Clinton's town hall strategy and finds it lacking:

If every voter in New Hampshire could ask Hillary their special snowflake of a question, she'd win the state. No matter what the query, she gives a long, detailed, comprehensive response. But it is a response specific to the question, to that voter and the six others interested in a disquisition on that issue. The rest of the crowd sort of stares at their feet. Then a new question comes up, and a new set of nine voters are engaged, and the rest of the crowd gets a soup-to-nuts explanation of No Child Left Behind.

Unlike Obama and Edwards, who step before a crowd and try to convert them all at once with a rousing speech, Hillary is trying to convert them all one at a time, with a demonstration of mastery over their issues. As a wonk, I love this tendency to speak in policy. Her answer on NCLB was the best explanation of the policy that I've ever heard. But I also watched voters begin to trickle out after 45 minutes, even as Hillary continued to talk, to answer, to convince. It's too much detail, too overwhelming, too disconnected from themes.

But these individually-focused approaches by Edwards and Clinton are both problematic, no? They sound very similar to me. One candidate appears to show that he would respond to every individual citizen's unique problems and the other candidate appears to show that she would respond to get the idea?

Both Edwards and Hillary seem too lost in specifics, the nuts and bolts of policy or the peculiarities of any individual's situation. I don't think this is necessarily healthy for a presidential candidate. Like Mark Halpern, I can see why some observers are made uneasy by such campaigns.

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