Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mostly For Obama Rather Than Against Clinton

Having outed myself as an Obama supporter in the comments yesterday (no surprise there), here I want to give an explanation. The short of it is that I knew Obama a little in law school and have great respect for him. What impresses me the most is how genuine and consistent across time his convictions are. Even back in the late 80s, he had a core belief in problem solving and dialogue, a point that Larry Tribe and I made in our book On Reading the Constitution, in which a footnote thanked Obama for elucidating for us an account of constitutional interpretation as an exercise in dialogue. So my support of Obama is principally that: support for Obama rather than opposition to Clinton.

Still, it would be odd to make a judgment about who should be President solely based on respect for a candidate's excellence as a law student. So let me turn very briefly to what I regard as the key weakness in the Clinton case. Clinton's argument that she is the more experienced candidate has been challenged in some quarters on the ground that her experience as First Lady shouldn't count for much. Maybe yes, maybe no, but there is a better argument about that experience. As First Lady, Clinton's most important policy responsibility was the formulation of the health care plan, which was a colossal failure.

Yet somehow, she campaigns on that experience as though it should count in her favor. She makes two points: 1) She has cared about this issue for a long time, which seems true enough; and 2) She has learned from her mistakes, which is open to doubt.

So what about the defining foreign policy issue of our time? The Obama campaign points out that because of Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq war (without even reading the intelligence reports), Clinton is in a much worse position to make the case for a change in party leadership in a general election against McCain than Obama is, given his early opposition to the war. The Clinton campaign response is unpersuasive. They point to the fact that Obama voted for spending bills to fund the war once a Senator. But Obama has consistently said, quite rightly, that even though it was a mistake to go in, that doesn't mean it would be the right thing to pull out precipitously or to put our troops in danger.

The best that could be said for Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq war is what John Edwards said about his own vote: It was a mistake. Clinton has not said this, instead blaming the Bush administration for hoodwinking her with cooked intelligence that she did not read. But she could say she made a mistake, and voters might forgive her, on the theory that the question facing us now is not what should have happened in 2002/2003, but what to do in 2009, and hope that Clinton has learned from her mistake.

But doing so would make apparent a disturbing pattern of poor judgment by First Lady Clinton and then Senator Clinton on crucial questions. As Sherry Colb put it to me in a recent conversation, the Clinton argument from experience is a little like someone who cooks two dreadfully bad dinners, and then invites you to a third, assuring you that this time the meal will be delicious because cooking the bad dinners taught her how to cook a good one.

I realize that there is some real unfairness in my evaluations. On many issues, Clinton has been an effective, consensus-building Senator. Her judgments aren't always bad, and I certainly prefer her judgments and her values to those of Senator McCain, on most issues. But if we're talking about electability, then judgments on the top issues---and health care and the Iraq war have to make the top 5 list, at least---are going to take center stage.

Posted by Mike Dorf