The conventional wisdom regarding the Democratic primary campaign is that there is very little difference between Obama and Clinton on the issues, and the differences come down to matters of style and feelings about change. As is so commonly the case, the conventional wisdom is totally wrong. There is a tremendous difference between the two, which explains why so many people say they will vote for Obama in November, but not Clinton.
Hillary Clinton is a self-described government junkie who sees more and bigger government programs as the solution for all problems. Barack Obama is a liberal and his goals overlap with Clinton’s on issues such as expanding health care. However when the specifics are reviewed, on issue after issue it is Obama who takes the side of freedom and justice while Clinton falls on the opposing side.
On foreign policy the most obvious difference is over Iraq. No matter how Clinton supporters try to distort the issue, the simple fact is that Obama opposed the war from the start and Clinton supported it. Clinton appears ready to make the same mistake on Iran with her vote for Kyl-Lieberman. Clinton frequently repeats the neocon line connecting the Iraq war with 9/11 and tries to use fear of terrorism to obtain votes.
There are differences in foreign policy in less high profile areas. David Rees compares the views of the two on cluster bombs in civilian areas:
Over 150 nations have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. It pains me that our great nation has not. But in the autumn of 2006, there was a chance to take a step in the right direction: Senate Amendment No. 4882, an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill that would have banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.
Senator Obama of Illinois voted IN FAVOR of the ban.
Senator Clinton of New York voted AGAINST the ban.
Once again, Barack Obama takes the side of justice, while Hillary Clinton takes the opposing side.
Besides the disastrous war in Iraq, we have a foolish war here at home as the war on drugs has been a terrible failure. While Obama has shown signs of willingness to change US policy, Hillary Clinton is as much a hawk on the war on drugs as she is on foreign policy. For example, Barack Obama has supported needle exchange programs while Hillary Clinton has been opposed.
Hillary Clinton has a well-deserved reputation for being a supporter of the nanny state. Hillary Clinton wants to use the power of government to protect us against all sorts of dangers. This includes the dangers from cartoon sex and video games. Hillary Clinton has even introduced legislation to ban flag burning.
After George Bush, it is important to have a president who will scale back the increases in presidential power. While Obama’s experience as a professor of Constitutional law will be valuable here, Clinton has been a backer of executive privilege. When the Boston Globe surveyed the candidates on their views of presidential power they found, “Clinton, a veteran of congressional investigations of her husband’s administration during the 1990’s, embraced a stronger view of a president’s power to use executive privilege to keep information secret from Congress than some rivals.” While Hillary Clinton cites her experience as First Lady as reason to vote for her, she is keeping the records of her activities as First Lady a secret until at least 2009.
The Washington Post compared the candidates on ethics reform, finding that, “On this issue, Obama leads the pack.” When Obama pushed ethics legislation, Clinton was opposed. Once again, Obama is on the side of justice as well as change, but Hillary Clinton is opposed.
Both Clinton and Obama have plans to make health care more affordable, but Clinton’s plan is centered around achieving universal coverage by forcing you to join her plan. Obama has taken on the challenge of developing a health care plan which most people will find of value, and if they don’t like it they don’t have to join. Here Obama shows both a respect for freedom and the courage of his convictions in needing to have a plan which people will voluntarily participate in. Plus Obama’s plan won’t have to waste money better spent for health care on new government bureaucracy to enforce Clinton’s mandates.
These differences on health care are just one example of their considerable differences on economic issues. The Guardian explained:
Obama’s preference for reducing healthcare costs while preserving the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in the healthcare system, as against Clinton’s (and Edwards’s) insistence on mandating participation, is not a one-off discrepancy without broader implications. Rather, Obama’s language of personal choice and incentive is a reflection of the ideas of his lead economic advisor, Austin Goolsbee, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago, who agrees with the liberal consensus on the need to address concerns such as income inequality, disparate educational opportunities and, of course, disparate access to healthcare, but breaks sharply from liberal orthodoxy on both the causes of these social ills and the optimal strategy for ameliorating them…
Similarly, while Obama’s support of immigration and immigrants undoubtedly derives in part from straightforward internationalism and humanitarianism – Obama’s lead foreign policy advisor is Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell, under whose guidance Obama has directed far more attention to the Darfur genocide than any other candidate – it’s likely that part of Obama’s embrace of immigration stems from a Goolsbeean view of free movement of labour as inextricable from and essential to a free global market.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Obama’s belief in freedom in labour markets and freedom in capital markets, sets him apart from the Republican field as well as the Democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect Republicans at least to respect free trade, but alas, they are inconsistent at best. As for freedom in immigration, even in politically propitious times, the modern GOP makes tactical concessions toward its xenophobic wing; in this season of famine, the Republican candidates, even those who have supported immigration in the past, have set up their nominating contest as a race to see who can take the most thuggish and contemptuous possible attitude toward Mexicans (the euphemism for this posture is “out-Tancredo-ing Tancredo”)…
In other words and in short, Obama’s slogan, “stand for change”, is not a vacuous message of uplift, but a content-laden token of dissent from the old-style liberal orthodoxy on which Clinton and Edwards have been campaigning. At the same time, Obama is not offering a retread of (Bill) Clintonism, Liebermanism, triangulation, neoliberalism, the Third Way or whatever we might wish to call the business-friendly centrism of the 1990s. For all its lofty talk of new paradigms and boundary shifting, the Third Way in practice amounted to taking a little of column A, a little of column B, and marketing the result as something new and innovative. Obama and Goolsbee propose something entirely different – not a triangulation, but a basis for crafting public policy orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis.
If this approach needs a name, call it left-libertarianism. Advancements in behavioural economics, public and rational choice theory, and game theory provide us with an opportunity to attend to inequality without crippling the economy, enhancing the coercive power of the state, or infringing on personal liberty (at least not to any extent greater than the welfare state already does; and as much as my libertarian friends might wish otherwise, the welfare state isn’t going anywhere). The cost – higher marginal tax rates – is real, but eminently justified by the benefits.
This helps explain how Obama can appeal to liberals, independents, and even some conservatives and libertarians. Those who try to figure out whether Obama is more or less liberal than Hillary Clinton are missing the point. As the above selection explains, Obama’s views are something entirely different, orthogonal to the simplistic liberal-conservative linear spectrum. Andrew Sullivan has made similar observations about Obama:
He is not a traditional top-down big government liberal. He’s a pragmatist who believes in finding ways to empower people to run their own lives. No, he’s no libertarian. But his view of government’s role has absorbed some of the right-wing critiques of the 1970s and 1980s. Hence the lack of mandates in his healthcare proposal and his refusal to engage in racial victimology. This nuance is worth exploring. Unlike Hillary, he doesn’t believe he is going to save anyone. He thinks he has a chance to help some people save themselves.
It is understandable that many supporters of out-dated, big government, tax and spend liberalism who prefer Hillary Clinton do not understand or support Obama. Paul Krugman will continue to write his columns attacking Obama for using “conservative frames” and continue to totally misunderstand what Obama is all about. Those who accept his arguments fail to understand that freedom is not a conservative frame–it is a fundamental liberal value.
In contrast, those who wish to combine traditional liberal values of liberty and justice with progressive economic ideals find in Obama a candidate who can develop ways to achieve the goals of the left while respecting the legitimate objections of those on the right. This is the solution we need to beat the Republicans who have attempted to govern with 50% plus one as well as those Democrats who believe they can do the same by electing Clinton. Obama’s calls for change is not an empty slogan, but a path to move away from this type of hyper-partisanship and polarization. With Clinton we will continue to be divided by the red/blue state map. Even many Democrats who do not see a major difference between the candidates as I do are realizing that a candidate like Obama who can appeal to those beyond core Democrats can produce strong coattails in November and build a new Democratic majority that can accomplish change.