Words, it turns out, are important. Saturday’s Democratic Debate revealed the most striking difference between the leading candidates I have seen yet. Obama and Edwards have long said that people want change. The caucus entrance polls agree—so now Clinton too wants to be a candidate for change. By and large, they want the same sorts of changes. Sure, their platforms differ in nuance and emphasis, but in terms of overall direction, they’re essentially looking in the same direction.
Each candidate has offered a different reason why they think they are best situated to bring about the change everybody seems to want. These different philosophies are telling.
In the days leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, Edwards tried to label Clinton as part of the establishment and Obama as well intentioned but ultimately ineffectual. He painted himself as a fighter who would take on special interests and, David-meets-Goliath style, emerge victorious. I’ll give him credit for spunk—but I wouldn’t vote for him unless you like losing. I won’t say that the he’d antagonize the wrong interests and end up crushed and ineffectual—but I will say that when David met Goliath, the smart money was on Goliath. Assuming Edwards retains his populist zeal after an election, he’s going to have trouble wrangling with big business and the vast majority of Congress that it is keeping in power. If you label the opposition as evil and don’t give them a stake in the process, you’re likely to end up in a morass. Edward’s domestic plan is the equivalent of Rumsfeld’s Iraq plan. Fight, topple, hearts and minds be damned.
In this clip (in which Edwards says “change” ten times in a minute and a half), Edwards talks about how the “forces of status quo” will attack. He is prepared to fight them. I can admire his spirit—but I don’t think this preemptive war on the status quo is a productive use of energy. Why commit yourself to avoidable battles? Enough of Edwards. He’s hanging onto the race by a fingernail. (Maybe two fingernails after a stronger-than-expected Iowa finish.)
Now that Clinton is also a candidate for change, she has offered a different way to change things. She says that she has the experience and record to actually bring change about. If you look at this clip (in which Clinton says “change” nine times in just over a minute), she essentially argues that saying “Let there be change” won’t change anything. She thinks she is the only one with the political saavy to accomplish their shared goals. Usable experience, she claims, can be a better agent of change than a pretty speech. Clinton has connections. Clinton is part of that old political system. She knows the ins and outs of Washington. She knows how to get things done.
The unspoken implication is that while Obama has a pretty face and a strong voice, he does not have the political experience to actually get things done. This is not a new critique of Obama. Others have dismissed Obama’s campaign as “just rhetoric.” He is compared to Howard Dean, who surged with the support of young, idealistic voters, and then crashed with a scream.
The comparison isn’t exactly fair. Obama does have a full policy outline (PDF). He also has the organization that Dean lacked. He has even managed to keep up with Clinton on the fundraising front. And on the experience front, Obama’s record of consensus-building, from the Harvard Law Review, to the poorest parts of Chicago, to the Illinois Senate, to Washington, D.C., can stand its own next to Clinton’s or Edwards. But even knowing this, I still think of charisma and inspiring rhetoric when I think of Obama. He has a lot of it.
Remarkably, rather than agreeing with Clinton that bulldog politics will bring about change, Obama disagrees. He says that words themselves can inspire changes. He actually puts it much better than I can in this clip (Obama only manages to get out four “changes” in about a minute and a half. Perhaps he didn’t get the memo). If you watch Hillary Clinton’s face while Obama’s talking, she gets sort of a smug look as if Obama has just slipped up. I genuinely believe she does not get it.
Our country is not great because we have competent politicians. It is great because we have great ideas—and we have the will to make them reality. A President is leader. The leader is not the guy who cuts the backroom deal. The leader is the person who sets the direction. The leader is the person who inspires everybody watching to be more than they thought they could be. As Obama said, “When the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens.” And one powerful speech, whether it is “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” or “I have a dream” or even “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” can do more for the country than a lifetime of traditional politicking. From “in the beginning was the word” to “the pen is mightier than the sword,” we believe in ideas. We believe in ideals.
Of course, rhetorical power isn’t enough. It has to be genuine. It has to inspire. We’re about six years into the “War on Terror” and the country is tired of being afraid. We are tired of marginal improvements in one direction or another by political parties more concerned with maintaining their hold on power than in serving the people who put them there. We are sick of voting for the candidate with slightly better or slightly more realistic campaign promises. It is time for somebody we can believe in.
Words are important because they can outline a larger vision for the country. They can take us beyond the drudgery and in-fighting of party politics. When we are inspired and united, things happen. In Iowa, tens of thousands of young people suddenly cared enough about something to get involved in politics. That is only the beginning. We walked on the moon. With a bit of national direction we could do even cooler things now.
We have a few major issues confronting us. Take global warming, for example. I’m sure any of the candidates could bludgeon through some sort of carbon emissions cap. That is not enough. It will take motivation and sacrifice on an individual level as well as a national level. It will also take international cooperation as well. It requires leadership. It requires somebody who can persuade individuals at home and countries abroad that the danger is real but that the problem is solvable, somebody who can bring people together around a common cause.
Not every speech—and not every speaker—has the power to change the world. But once in a while somebody truly exceptional can speak with the power to change people. And people change the world.