(A belated comment. …) I don’t think last week’s exchange of accusations was particularly significant; by itself, it won’t affect either campaign. But it did reveal weaknesses that both candidates should address.
For Senator Clinton (whom I refuse to call “Hillary”), it should be a reminder that three of her strengths have concomitant disadvantages. She represents an administration that looks pretty good in retrospect. She has been popular in Hollywood. And she has lots of powerful and wealthy supporters. However, she needs a forward-looking vision, some distance from Hollywood, and a way of mollifying voters who dislike money in politics. Last week, she seemed to be angry because a movie mogul who used to give her lots of money had criticized the Clinton Administration. That was dangerous territory for her.
For Senator Obama, the spat underlined the importance of going far beyond “civility.” When the Senator calls for a new type of politics, the press hears a promise to be more polite to other politicians. That is a promise that Obama will not be able to keep in the heat of a competitive national campaign. Thus he will inevitably be branded as a hypocrite. Besides, although civility may have some value, it is far from adequate. We won’t see civic renewal in America just because our candidates reduce their mean-spirited personal attacks.
A sympathetic reading of Obama’s speeches and writings suggests that he wants to change the role of American citizens in politics (not just the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail). He wants to unleash Americans to develop their own responses to fundamental problems. The press ignores those parts of his speeches because they assume that he is just spouting democratic bromides–it’s all throat-clearing. All they hear is a promise to be more polite to his rival candidates. In order to show that he is serious about civic renewal, Obama is going to have to be concrete about it. That means making arguments for national service, broader economic roles for municipalities, land-trusts, net-neutrality, civic education, public participation in the response to Katrina and future disasters, and possibly charter schools.