The Democratic Presidential candidates are sounding more and more like Wisconsin's Bob La Follette as they search for votes in Texas and Ohio. And despite the pleasant sensations evoked by listening to the populist pitches, there is also, when you come right down to the voting booth, an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance between the progressive base the candidates are appealing to and their actual records.
Take Michelle Obama's appearance at Madison's Overture Center for the Arts last Monday. Obama skipped wonky policy talk and went straight for the heart. "The last thing I'll ask you is to dream," she told her audience, dismissing the notion that being a dreamer is no qualification for the Oval Office. She instructed her 1,000-plus listeners to close their eyes and imagine "a man like Barack Obama standing in front of the Capitol and putting his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office."
"If we can do that for the kids of this nation, imagine what image we send around the world."
She mentioned Obama's unconventional childhood: his white, teenaged mother, his working-class Kansan grandparents and his African grandmother who still lives in a little village in Kenya, his firsthand view of Third World poverty in Indonesia when that unconventional mother of his was studying anthropology and taking her young, African-American son around the globe. "Imagine a President of the United States who understands and respects other traditions without fear, " she said.
She talked about the community organizing days in Chicago: "He spent years taking single mothers to city hall to fight for a little fairness in their lives."
It is an appealing picture, no doubt about it. The music is nice, too: "Your Love Is Lifting Me Higher," for Michelle. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," for Barack. Who can resist?
But there are the little blips here and there that you must overlook. There's the awkwardness about Michelle’s dwelling on her own family's financial difficulties, for example. The debt she ran up at Princeton and Harvard Law School, and that Barack accumulated, also at Harvard Law, was only partly paid off when they started saving for their own children's college education, she said. "The only reason we're out of debt now is because Barack wrote two best-selling books." Not exactly a predicament the financially strapped families she talks about in the rest of her speech can relate to. But she doesn't seem to notice.
Then there's her description of her husband's eight years in the Illinois legislature, which she claims, a little tenuously, means "he has more legislative experience than his opponent does."
In Chicago, she says, Obama got into office, and thanks to his unconventional, grassroots background, said, "Let me try something different. Let me try working really hard and telling the truth. Let me develop lines of trust with independents and Republicans."
It was this unconventional, across-party-lines thinking that yielded his successes, among which Michelle Obama counts expanding health care for kids, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and--here's the dissonant part-- "he helped mend a broken death penalty"--one of the hottest issues in Illinois during Obama's tenure in the state legislature.
Obama does not oppose the death penalty. Instead, as a state legislator, he pushed for videotaping of police interrogations and confessions, to guard against the execution of innocent people, a phenomenon that made national news and caused then-governor Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions. Obama's effort was aimed at "fixing" the death-penalty process, as his wife points out, not doing away with it.
In a funny column in last Tuesday's New York Times, David Brooks diagnoses what he calls "Obama Comedown Syndrome." "Obama says he is practicing a new kind of politics, but why has his PAC sloshed $698,000 to the campaigns of the superdelegates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics?" Brooks writes. "Is giving Robert Byrd's campaign $10,000 the kind of change we can believe in?"
Brooks, who has been one of the chief Republican cheerleaders for Obama, is on to something--the emotion that drives Obama supporters, which he calls an addiction to "hope-amine," leans heavily on biography and leaves behind a feeling of vague dissatisfaction.
In her speech Monday, Michelle Obama left a lot of policy details fuzzy. It is this lack of specificity that Hillary Clinton has made the selling point of her campaign.
Clinton, despite being badly behind in the battle for sheer enthusiasm from voters in Wisconsin, gave a very strong speech the night before election day playing on this theme.
Doing a creditable impression of John Edwards, she described people she met, like the little girl in Kenosha who is afraid of homelessness, and her hair-stylist mom who is likely to lose her house because of her ballooning variable-rate mortgage. Calling for a moratorium on home foreclosures--something Obama has not done--Hillary offered concrete relief to people who are struggling.
Unlike Michelle Obama, who holds up her own life as an example of struggle, because there were people who thought (wrongly) that her test scores might not get her into Princeton, Hillary told the crowd in Madison, "I didn't have to worry about being ripped off by a for-profit student loan company." She cited college loan rates that "shock even me" when her supporters tell her what they are paying--as high as 29 percent. These predatory lenders should be put out of business, she said.
When Wisconsin’s progressive Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton describe Hillary as "the only candidate in the race with a universal health care plan" they have a point.
Still, if there's one thing eight years of Clintonism taught progressives it's that big promises and correct diagnoses can lead to very unsatisfying, incremental policy results.
Maybe the sheer magnitude of disaster of the Bush years accounts, in part, for the more progressive talk from the Democratic candidates this year. What happens after the voting is over? If we want big changes we'll have to do more than close our eyes and hope.