Poetry vs. Prose

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POLITICS JANUARY 8, 2008

Poetry vs. Prose

CONCORD, N.H.--Hillary Clinton may have unintentionally written the obituary for the Iowa and New Hampshire phase of her presidential campaign, and perhaps her candidacy, when she told voters on Sunday: "You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose."


Clinton has not heeded her own lesson. She is campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama. She has answers to hard policy questions but he has the one answer that voters are hungering for: He offers himself as the vehicle for creating a new political movement that will break the country out of a sour, reactionary political era.


The most telling laugh line in Obama's stump speech is his description of the dreadful charge his opponents make against him. "Obama's talking about hope again," the candidate says, mimicking his foes. Then his tenor drops to a low, conspiratorial pitch: "He's a hope monger." His audiences roar.


There is a certain melancholy in watching Clinton do battle, aware that the bottom is falling out from under her here. By way of proving her tenacity and the depth of her policy knowledge, she subjects herself to unremitting rounds of questions from voters about every issue from health care to global warming.


Clinton knows her stuff and would pass the most rigorous test available under any "No Policy Left Behind" program for politicians. If we chose a president by examination rather than election, she would win. In Hampton on Sunday night, Maggie Wood Hassan, a prominent state senator, said of Clinton's savvy on health care: "There isn't a single piece of the puzzle she hasn't figured out." True, but voters right now are not thinking about intricate puzzles.


There is compassion in Clinton's wonkiness. At a rally in Penacook on Saturday, she spoke with energy about the struggles of foster parents and the suffering of foster children. She pledged to make their problems a priority of her presidency, even if there are no headlines in it. She sounded absolutely believable.


Yet if Clinton's answers come off as well-intended lectures, Obama is offering soaring sermons and generational opportunity. In 1960, the articulate Adlai Stevenson compared his own oratory unfavorably to John F. Kennedy's. "Do you remember," Stevenson said, "that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke,' but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, 'Let us march.'" At this hour, Obama is the Democrats' Demosthenes.


It is no accident that the two best preachers on the trail, Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee, broke through in Iowa -- even if Huckabee's prospects here and in the long run are dimmer than Obama's. And it has to be painful for Bill and Hillary Clinton, who saw themselves 16 years ago as the heirs to John and Robert Kennedy, to watch Obama march off as the champion of a vast band of young and practical idealists.


The Clinton campaign is rooted in the idea that "Experience Counts"--ironically enough, Richard Nixon's slogan against John Kennedy in 1960. But it is Obama who may have precisely the right experience for the mood of the moment. As a community organizer early in his professional life, Obama understood his task as catalyzing citizens into building movements for change. Obama's speeches are about citizen action, assembling coalitions, forcing change through popular demand.


"I'm betting on you," Obama told a rapturous audience in Derry on Sunday afternoon. "I don't believe change comes from the top down. It comes from the bottom up." Change will come "if you believe," Obama declares, an inspiring line for this state's many Red Sox fans.


"When you've got a working majority behind you," he says at another point, "you can't be stopped." Transformation is not about policy details, but about altering the political and social calculus. Obama presents himself, in one of Karl Rove's favorite phrases, as a game-changer.


If Obama seems to have history's winds at his back, Clinton is carrying history's burdens. In trying to push her way back into the contest by Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states vote, Clinton would have to press her sober case that as good as Obama sounds, she's the one who is vetted and tested. "If you want to know which kind of change we will make," she pleaded to her Sunday night crowd, "look at what we've already done."


Here again, the echoes of the past are eerie. It was Hubert Humphrey, on the aging side of the generational divide in 1968, who declared: "Some people talk about change, others cause it." Hubert Humphrey was a great man. He did not become president.


E. J. DIONNE, JR. is a columnist for The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

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