So far, the media presentation of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton candidacies has been one of oppositesâ€”the fresh newcomer versus the Washington elite; progressivism versus Democratic Leadership Council centrism; grassroots campaigning versus the biggest war chest in the game. But looking at the two Democratic frontrunners now shows how money, power and political clout have the ability to erase all such distinctions, making both candidates more similar and less interesting.
The opposites myth would have been much more valid long before the campaign, before Obama was a member of the U.S. Senate, a place where principled people and fearless progressives are not easy to come by. The Senator’s October 2002 speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago, having showcased a passionate condemnation of the march to war in Iraq, shows an Obama willing to take a politically unpopular position, confronting not only power but the consensus.
In the speech, neoconservative war architects Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz are "armchair, weekend warriors" and Karl Rove is a "political hack." Saudi Arabia and Egypt are our "so-called allies" who commit human rights violations. These are strong words, and one can’t help but be disappointed when remembering that this is the same guy who weaseled uncomfortably out of a simple question that arose after controversial comments by Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace: is homosexuality immoral? We had to hear it later through Obama’s spokesperson that he disagreed with Pace’s remark that it was. It appeared that the climate of Washington had claimed yet another progressive victim.
Eight days after Barack Obama delivered his anti-war speech in Chicago, Senator Hillary Clinton gave a speech of her ownâ€”on the floor of the U.S. Senate, explaining her vote in favor of the war authorization. In the speech, she says, "I come to this decision from the perspective of a Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year’s terrible attacks on our nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am."
Just as Obama’s speech is a reminder in our vapid and endless election season of how he once acted on principle, Clinton’s speech is a reminder that it was not only the Bush administration that evoked September 11th in their support of a wholly unrelated war in Iraq that acted on instinctâ€”as Obama says, a war of "passion"â€”rather than facts.
The distrust– and indeed loathing–by the left of Hillary Clinton goes beyond her war vote and subsequent refusal to apologize for it. She also voted twice to authorize the Patriot Act and co-sponsored legislation that would make flag-burning a crime, an unconstitutional law according to Justice Scalia.
Given just the above, it’s quite clear as to who is the better pick for president in 2008. But a lot has changed since 2002.
Now, the former antiwar community organizer and Illinois State Senator is a presidential candidate who supports a slow withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but not the cutting of funding for the war, which is the only way to really end it.
Hillary Clinton is a former unabashed hawk who has since grown critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict, and supports a troop withdrawal but not fund slashingâ€”the same stance as Barack.
On other issues, neither candidate is willing to say what both most likely believeâ€”that to deny gay Americans the right to marry is discriminatory religious pandering. Both Senators support "universal and affordable health insurance," but neither supports the means to get us there: a single-payer system. Both think that we must deal with Iran diplomatically, but neither are leaving out any options.
Both of their websites are written in the language of campaign management: that banal, humorless, and odd code that sees "strengthening families" and "supporting parents" as key "issues." It’s the language that says a lot but means nothing, and in a political campaign you can always identify the candidates with the littlest chance of winning by how little they take refuge in its blandly safe vernacular.
So this, then, is what voters are left with: two mainstream Democrats bent on talking points but short on specifics, in favor of reform but not revolution, critical of the establishment only to a point.
The last scene of George Orwell’s Animal Farm famously described pigs dining with men and the rest of the animals unable anymore to tell the difference between the two. Looking at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton now is a little like being outside that window, trying to remember which one is the establishment candidate and which is the outsider.