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Tempest in the Democrats' teapot

By Lance Selfa | March 2, 2007 | Page 7

VERY LITTLE news emerged from the joint appearance of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in Carson City, Nev., on February 21. But fireworks nevertheless erupted that day.

They came in the form of a brief war of words between the camps of the two current frontrunners, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

On the day after entertainment mogul David Geffen hosted a multi-million-dollar Hollywood fundraiser for Obama, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted Geffen disdaining the Clintons for Bill's recklessness and their collective ability to lie.

Geffen's comments set off a response and counter-response between the two candidates that ended in Obama's public repudiation of his spokesman Robert Gibbs for a statement blasting Clinton. In the Washington game, all of that amounted to a victory for Clinton, because she had been able to drag Obama--who has been presenting himself as a messenger for a new type of post-partisan politics--into the partisan mosh pit.

The Geffen flap itself is likely to be forgotten in a few weeks, but it did offer a window into the Obama-Clinton showdown.

First, it showed that Obama's semi-celebrity "above the fray" campaign has its limits. "For now, Obama is a cipher, an easy repository for the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere," wrote Ezra Klein in the American Prospect.

"He had the good fortune to run his first statewide (and nationally noticed) election against Chicago investment banker Jack Ryan, who dropped out because of a sex scandal, and then the brilliant performance artist (c'mon--you don't really believe that guy's serious, do you?) Alan Keyes. It's easy to focus on lofty ideals and shining rhetoric if you don't have an opponent and need never enter the muck of a competitive campaign."

Second, it illustrated how a well-connected "establishment" candidate can use her influence to reshape the political environment in her favor.

Third, Obama's ease in tapping into the Hollywood connections that were underpinnings of the Clintons' support in the 1990s shows that Hillary and Obama are a lot more similar than they are different.

There's no denying that Obama has created excitement. The tens of thousands who turned out in Springfield, Ill., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, at a series of rallies were certainly enthused.

But it bears remembering that similar crowds turned out for Howard Dean in 2003 and 2004, after he seemed to come from nowhere and capture the momentum in the Democratic race for the nomination.

Dean styled himself--and his supporters promoted him--as a maverick antiwar tribune with an unorthodox grassroots following. Which left aside the fact that he was a longtime governor and former chair of the National Governors Association, and that his campaign spent millions to generate those "spontaneous" crowds who showed up to cheer him.

By the time the actual primaries arrived, Dean faced an assault from the Democratic establishment, and his campaign went up in smoke.

Dean's experience is certainly no prediction on the ultimate direction of Obama's candidacy, but it should temper notions that the Obama phenomenon is completely unprecedented.

To many, Obama appears as a politician with "the audacity of hope" to challenge the triangulating, unprincipled, sleazy Washington politics that the Clintons personify. But Obama himself is very Clintonian in the way he approaches politics--and not just by his methodical assembling of a network of pro-business and wealthy supporters.

He has a liberal image, but he voted for such conservative pieces of legislation such as restrictions on class-action lawsuits. His senate mentor has been Sen. Joe Lieberman. He has made national health care a theme of his campaign, but has refused either to specify what his plan is--other than to say about the progressive "single-payer" option that he is "not convinced that it is the best way to achieve universal health care."

Even on the signature issue of the war, the position of the "antiwar" Obama and hawkish Clinton are not as different as their campaign rhetoric makes them seem. Both Clinton and Obama support a troop cap in Iraq and a "redeployment" of forces from the region. Neither favors Congress cutting off funding for the war.

The main difference between them is that Obama has put a date on the redeployment. On the other hand, both are hawks when it comes to the approaching U.S. showdown with Iran.

Ruth Conniff of The Progressive recently wrote that having a woman and an African American as the Democratic presidential frontrunners was "uplifting." "But," she continued, "as the candidates raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Hollywood (Obama) and lock up the most veteran political advisers and ad men (Clinton), we ought to realize we are kidding ourselves, a little bit, when we imagine that the new-kid-on-the-block candidates represent real, radical change."

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