2008 Substance vs. Substance
posted by January 17 at 15:24 PMon
Originally posted yesterday. I’m moving this up because I posted it last night after everybody was in bed. Juicy debates in the comments thread about nuclear power and merit pay for teachers, if you’re interested. —Annie
The charge that Obama lacks substance is completely specious. It’s become a commonplace in this campaign, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. The accusation stems from the relatively modest number of policy proposals Obama enumerates in his stump speeches—speeches which help set the tone of a campaign but which are not the primary source of information for most voters. (We can’t all live in Iowa or New Hampshire.) There is an enormous amount of detail available at his website for anyone who’s interested in specific policy matters.
Further, let’s keep in mind that promises made during campaigns are not magically realized after a president is elected. The proportion of voters who buy into a candidate’s vision (and the enthusiasm they exhibit) has a huge impact on the feasibility of that president’s agenda once he or she takes office. I believe Obama’s reticence about wonkish detail on the stump is part of how he’s able to appeal to such a wide audience: The greater the precision with which you describe policies, the more chances a voter has to disagree with you. This was, as many have realized, George W. Bush’s exact strategy in 2000—and guess what, it worked. (Well, except for the whole winning the election thing.) He made a sharp right turn upon taking office, and thanks in part to a roll-over-and-play-dead Congress (which included first-term senator Hillary Clinton), he was able to ram his agenda through. Obama’s agenda would be both progressive, in contrast to Bush, and innovative, taking on some entrenched interests that Clinton is afraid to touch.
To address Erica’s specific points:
On the environment. Erica points out that “Clinton voted for higher fuel efficiency standards for SUVs (S 517, 2002)”—but somehow overlooks the fact that more recently, in 2005, Clinton voted against an amendment which would have boosted CAFE standards to 40 mpg by 2016 and moved SUVs out of the “light truck” loophole. At the time, Grist noted that Clinton had “presumably done some electoral math and decided [she] didn’t want to piss off Michigan.” Obama voted yea on that amendment (alongside Cantwell and Murray, if you’re curious). Yes, Clinton’s newfound support for tougher CAFE standards brings her to a goal of 40 mpg by 2020 and 55 mpg by 2030 (Grist has a good graph on all the candidates’ positions on enviro issues). Obama has so far matched only that first milepost—40 mpg by 2020—but, crucially, he would also toughen the standards for SUVs to 32 mpg by that same date. Clinton hasn’t touched the light truck category. Moreover, Clinton has never, so far as I can tell, sponsored legislation on this issue. Working with Washington’s own Jay Inslee in the House (and a number of hawkish Rs in the Senate), Obama introduced the Health Care for Hybrids Act in 2005, 2006, and 2007, along with the Fuel Economy Reform Act to increase CAFE standards and close loopholes in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Erica slams Obama for promoting nuclear power without mentioning that Clinton claims to be “agnostic” on the subject (talk about lack of substance!). I share some doubts about nuclear power, but when the most pressing issue facing the planet is global warming and the most accessible fuel source is coal, issues like nuclear storage NIMBYism start to look less insurmountable. Oh, and speaking of “pie-in-the-sky” notions like “clean” coal and ethanol, Clinton LOVES ‘em (her Strategic Energy Fund would fund 5 new coal-fired plants; you can read all about her love for corn-based ethanol at her website). Barack Obama’s energy plan is available here (download the PDF at the bottom).
On foreign policy. I am one of those liberals who has not forgiven Hillary Clinton for voting to authorize the war (especially because she continues to insist that it wasn't a vote to authorize the war!). Senators who voted to go to war with Iraq were not misled by the pathetic evidence presented by Powell, Rice, et al. They were, rather, persuaded to put aside their skepticism because it was politically expedient. That kind of reasoning is reckless and irresponsible, and it's not what I'm looking for in a president. But that's in the past. More pressingly, Clinton's hawkishness has not diminished as a result of her wanton adventurism in Iraq: She voted in favor of declaring Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization.
On health care. I don't like mandates to pay into third-party health care plans and I'm not convinced that HRC's government would be able to guarantee full subsidies for people who can't afford those plans. But we've already beaten this issue to death. I assume everyone knows where the candidates stand.
On choice. Hillary Clinton has flagrantly distorted Barack Obama's record on choice. I find this behavior sickening, and about as far from substantive debate as you can get. Obama may not sponsor much pro-choice legislation in the Senate, but it should be obvious that it makes for smarter public relations to cede leadership on choice issues to female senators. He has a perfect voting record on choice, and there are zero indications that he would be weak on the issue as president.
On gay rights. Again, Erica has purposefully omitted one of the primary points of contrast between the candidates. Obama favors the full repeal of DOMA. Clinton wants to keep section 2, a states' rights provision that expressly permits states to disregard same-sex marriages granted in other states. (DOMA was signed into law by one Bill Clinton.)
And I'll venture into one additional topic: I do think it's important to look at Obama's education proposals, which are far more ambitious and innovative than Clinton's. Clinton is very much toeing the line set by teachers' unions, and she's been rewarded with endorsements and even lawsuits favorable to her campaign. (Obama has not courted the unions so assiduously.) Her education proposals include universal pre-K (Obama also has a plan to dramatically expand access to pre-K and Head Start) and expanding mentorship programs to reduce the drop-out rate (Obama favors a more comprehensive approach: "Obama will address the dropout crisis by passing his legislation to provide funding to school districts to invest in intervention strategies in middle school, such as personal academic plans, teaching teams, parent involvement, mentoring, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time"). But the most interesting parts of Obama's plan have to do with teacher recruitment, training, and retention. He wants to fund scholarships for future teachers who pledge to serve in a high-need field or location for four years. He wants to create Teaching Residency Programs that funnel talent into high-need districts via partnerships between public school systems and area universities. And he supports individual merit pay for teachers, including extra pay for skills like bilingualism where needed. Clinton's rejoinder? She doesn't care to pay individual teachers what they're worth, but "school-wide incentive plans" pass muster. Yeah, that's a fantastic idea. Make it even more attractive to teach at a high-achieving school--that'll totally
address exacerbate the achievement gap.