Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama
Evan Vucci  /  AP file
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign agenda leans toward the the blue-collar voters and seniors while Sen. Barack Obama's aims for voters with more education and fewer economic needs.
updated 10/22/2007 6:23:18 PM ET 2007-10-22T22:23:18
Political connections

Proposal by proposal, Hillary Rodham Clintonand Barack Obamaare constructing policy agendas that present their party with mirror-image choices.

On domestic policy, Obama has shown much greater willingness than Clinton to challenge liberal orthodoxy and the powerful Democratic interest groups that defend it. On national security, though, Clinton has pushed against the party's left-of-center consensus while Obama has embraced it. One candidate offers conformity at home and apostasy abroad; the other, the opposite.

Historical parallels are never exact, but with her tough-minded foreign policy, populist-tinged domestic agenda, and electoral coalition centered on blue-collar voters, Clinton looks like a 21st-century version of such classic New Deal Democrats as George Meany and Henry Jackson. By contrast, with his reformist domestic agenda, generally dovish foreign policy, and appeal to voters with college degrees, Obama recalls brainy neoliberals such as Gary Hart who emerged in opposition to the New Deal vision three decades ago.

Obama has taken greater risks than Clinton across a broad range of domestic issues. When asked by ABC News in May whether the long-term solvency of Social Security might require benefit cuts or tax increases, he sensibly replied that "everything should be on the table." Clinton at first appeared to rule out both benefit cuts and tax increases -- an approach that essentially leaves no policy except the hope that something will turn up -- before shifting to insist she won't tip her hand on Social Security until she's in the White House.

When the two candidates spoke in March to commemorate the 1965 Selma, Ala., civil-rights march, it was Obama, not Hillary Clinton, who echoed Bill Clinton in insisting that new measures to expand opportunity must be coupled with greater personal responsibility in the inner city. After releasing an impressively comprehensive energy plan last week, Obama exceeded all of his rivals in acknowledging that the shift toward a low-carbon economy will raise electricity prices. And although both Obama and Clinton have bent toward teachers union pressure by unduly criticizing the tests used to measure student performance, Obama has challenged the unions by proposing to link teacher pay to student achievement.

Clinton hasn't dodged all confrontations with Democratic interests. Her carefully constructed universal health care plan would require all individuals to buy insurance -- an idea that most labor unions loathe. (Obama's health plan has no such requirement.) She has also pledged to uphold fiscal discipline. But nothing in her domestic portfolio challenges Democratic sensibilities as much as her husband did by embracing welfare reform in 1992. Obama, even with his recent jab at "triangulation," has been closer on domestic issues to the spirit of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, when he promised to unite the country by challenging "brain-dead" thinking in both parties.

On foreign policy, Obama and Clinton have reversed roles. Obama has championed new approaches, but they predominantly lean left: He has pledged as president to negotiate personally with outlaw regimes and to pursue the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons, and he has denounced Clinton for supporting a tough-on-Iran resolution that the Senate approved last month. His foreign-policy message, centered on opposition to the Iraq war, reflects the quickening current of doubt in Democratic circles about military solutions to the terrorism challenge.

Clinton is resisting that tide. She accuses President Bush of slighting allies and emphasizing arms over diplomacy. But, with an eye on next November, she also refused to apologize for her vote authorizing force against Saddam Hussein, led the Democrats in acknowledging that Americans will remain militarily engaged in Iraq after 2008, and supported the hard-line resolution on Iran. Her foreign-policy criticisms of Obama all suggest that he's soft or naive. Toughness is her lodestar.

In all these ways, the candidates are targeting different Democratic parties. Clinton's bread-and-butter domestic agenda and muscular internationalism match the inclinations of the blue-collar voters and seniors at her coalition's core. Obama's collaborative foreign policy and somewhat nouvelle domestic policy capture the priorities of his base, voters with more education and fewer economic needs.

Ironically, Clinton is speaking primarily to the Democratic coalition that existed before her husband's presidency, while Obama is closer to the upscale new voters that Bill Clinton attracted to the party.

Democrats will need both sets of voters to recapture the White House -- which means that, for all their tension today, if Obama or Hillary Clinton captures the nomination, the winner will need to learn from the loser before this marathon ends.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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