Campaign Rhetoric

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC….Is soaring campaign rhetoric enough? Atrios says this:

Yes, I’d like to know that Barack Obama was truly committed to a health care plan which matched his rhetoric on the subject, but presidential campaigns, especially this far out, aren’t won on policy documents.

I agree completely, but I still think there’s an important distinction to be made here between cheap campaign rhetoric and serious campaign rhetoric. Among Republicans, cheap campaign rhetoric includes things like attacks on activist judges or support for a culture of life. Among Democrats it includes paeans to the importance of education or a commitment to keeping Social Security safe.

There’s nothing wrong with stuff like this, but it’s a freebie. It doesn’t really tell you anything beyond the party ID of the speaker. Conversely, serious campaign rhetoric commits you to something. “No child should go without healthcare” is cheap rhetoric, something nobody disagrees with. “I think everyone over the age of 55 should be covered by Medicare” is serious rhetoric. It’s not a 300-page white paper, but it clearly delineates a policy priority that not everyone else shares. “I think every man, woman, and child in the country should be covered by Medicare regardless of age” is really serious rhetoric.

This was my complaint about Obama’s speech (here). The cheap rhetoric was fine. I’m all for it. And if he didn’t want to get into details right now, that’s no problem. But as it happens, he did get into details, and his details turned out to be pretty timid. They didn’t distinguish him in any way from any other Democratic candidate who’s ever mounted a podium. In fact, they made me less prone to view him as someone who’s likely to stake out a genuinely aggressive position on healthcare in the future.

To repeat myself: I’m not trying to slag Obama here. A speech is just a speech, and he may very well have more to say about healthcare later when more people are listening. Maybe that’s the smart way to play it. I’m just not sure he deserves any special brownie points for what he said today, that’s all.

And now to literally repeat myself: I know that endorsing a serious universal healthcare plan is politically difficult, and maybe Obama is just working up to it slowly. That’s fine. But high-profile candidates have a special obligation here. Dennis Kucinich can yell “Medicare for All” until he turns blue, and nobody’s going to listen. That’s not fair, but it’s reality. High-profile candidates like Obama, Clinton, and Edwards can change that. If they commit to a genuinely bold healthcare initiative, it becomes a legitimate topic overnight. Until they do, though, it stays on the fringe.

Ezra Klein has a complaint similar to mine here. Mark Kleiman has a different complaint here. If you have a complaint, comments are open.