Total Pageviews

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In Clinton and Warren, Competing Messages for the Middle Class


If you're a candidate for president, the convention affords you a fleeting window of opportunity, about three hours total of network airtime, to present speakers who will get across your one central message to the wide section of America. In the case of this Democratic convention, though, Wednesday's lineup reveals the essential dilemma that has often made President Obama's re-election campaign, and much of his presidency, seem as muddled as a Clint Eastwood monologue.

The opening festivities on Tuesday, at least before Michelle Obama's emotional prime-time appearance, were about dispensing with all the speakers whom Democrats didn't really want the rest of the county to notice. Jimmy Carter did a video. Nan cy Pelosi and Harry Reid took the stage to remind Americans of how much they love Congress. There was a moving tribute to Ted Kennedy.

Wednesday, though, begins the hard sell of President Obama to the middle class. And for this task, the campaign has juxtaposed two prime-time speakers - Elizabeth Warren and Bill Clinton, one right after the other - who in their core philosophies represent contradictory, even irreconcilable strains of American liberalism.

Mr. Obama's strategists will tell themselves what they have said since the president first ran in 2008 - that there is no real inconsistency in these two wings of the party, that both Mr. Clinton and Ms. Warren speak to the same imperiled middle class, a category so broad and ill-defined that the vast majority of Americans would say they belong to it.

In truth, though, Mr. Clinton and Ms. Warren speak to different audiences and reflect inescapably divergent perspectives on how to confront the epic challenge s of globalization and inequality.

Mr. Clinton is the president who made the sustained case to Democrats that they had to be pro-growth and pro-Wall Street, not just to get elected, but also to build a more modern economy. He was the one, as spokesman for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, who told Democrats again and again that they couldn't succeed as a party that “loved jobs and hated business.” Mr. Clinton transformed welfare, balanced the budget and declared an end to the liberal era of government, which is why a lot of conservative-leaning independent voters would re-elect him if they could.

As a Harvard law professor during the Bush years, Ms. Warren, who is now a candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, came to represent a rebuke of such Clintonian expedience. Her indictment against the excesses of Wall Street and the abdication of centrist Democrats became popular among a new generation of old-style economic popu lists (most notably John Edwards and then Mr. Obama), who often cited Ms. Warren's arguments in making the case that the party had to reverse course from the Clinton years and rein in a business community that was prospering at the expense of the middle class.

The contradiction here isn't perfectly stark, of course, and there are ways in which the two overlap, politically and culturally. Mr. Clinton, for instance, lambasted the rising pay of executives, in relation to their employees, as far back as 1992, long before anyone had heard of Ms. Warren. And Ms. Warren isn't the privileged, effete liberal her critics would make her out to be; like Mr. Clinton, she's a self-made product of Middle America.

But in their essential worldviews, Mr. Clinton and Ms. Warren nicely embody the enduring confusion over what it is Mr. Obama really believes about the direction of his party and the country. As a candidate in 2008, Mr. Obama took advantage of an extraordinary moment to run as all things to all people; beneath the airy notion of “hope and change” lay an implicit appeal to disaffected independents and fatigued liberals. And this noncommittal strategy worked spectacularly.

As Mr. Clinton himself once told me, however, there are consequences for not clarifying one's own beliefs as a candidate and then trying to make it up as you go along in office. He wasn't talking specifically about Mr. Obama, but he might as well have been. As president, Mr. Obama has often seemed to veer between “postpartisan” pragmatism and anticorporate populism, confounding his supporters and satisfying neither constituency.

This time out, as a candidate, it seems unlikely that Mr. Obama can count on winning a majority of independent votes and turning out the same historic numbers of younger and minority voters. In the weeks ahead, he may have to finally decide whether to speak principally to the fickle voters who gave him a chance in 2008 or whethe r to fire up the more ideological types who want a more Warren-like champion.

You can probably pursue both objectives behind the scenes, and this is the kind of multitasking at which modern campaigns excel. But at a convention or during debates, when everyone is tuned to the same message, the divide is harder to bridge. Is Mr. Obama, at bottom, the Clintonian candidate who tried to hammer out a “grand bargain” on the budget with Republicans, or is he the more traditional Democrat who skewers Wall Street bankers as “fat cats” and pretends he can fix inequality with gimmicks like “the Buffet rule?”

A coherent convention should answer that question. On this night, at least, it won't.