I attended Campus Progress’s National Student Conference in 2005, where I heard Bill Clinton give a keynote address on the topic of how progressives can win again. Whatever you think of Clinton, you must concede his knack for electoral victory. The conference took place at a depressing time for many Democrats – Senator John Kerry had just lost the presidential election the previous year and the party seemed weak. Clinton gave a thoughtful, almost philosophical speech, strangely relevant to the party today. (A video and transcript of the speech is available.)
In the speech, he described the necessity in politics to ask and answer four big questions:
1. What is the status of the modern world?
2. What do I want the world to look like for my children and grandchildren?
3. What are the values that underly that vision?
4. What is the strategy for getting there, and what is the role of government in that strategy?
Clinton outlined in general his answers to these questions. The character of the modern world is one of interdependence, and the three most significant trends are the spread of worldwide democracy, the internet, and the rise of NGOs. His vision for the future is an integrated community, where diverse societies can coexist through shared respect, shared benefits, and shared values. And it is government’s role to create the conditions and tools to encourage these values.
Clinton’s framework reminds us of the intangible character of politics: campaigns are not exclusively exercises in aligning voter’s views with well-crafted talking points, not exercises in media strategy, not even exclusively about fundraising or organizing. Of course, successful candidates must do all of these things to some extent to win, but they are not sufficient for victory.
I thought of this speech while listening to Barack Obama’s speech at the University of Maryland on Monday. The most powerful aspect of Obama’s speeches are not the policy proposals (which do earn dutiful applause), but the parts where he describes what kind of America he wants. An America that plays the role of a respected leader internationally. An America where those who work hard have economic opportunity. An America based in mutual tolerance and respect. An America where citizens are called upon to help government solve difficult problems. In short, his rhetorical approach the follows closely Bill Clinton’s questions, moving beyond a policy discussion and share with voters a philosophical outlook.
I’ll allow my political guru friends speculate about the possible relationship between Clinton’s 2005 speech and Obama’s campaign, only point out the irony it is being used so effectively against Hillary.