Web exclusive | Scot Lehigh

Democrats emphasize style over substance

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scot Lehigh
Globe Staff / January 8, 2008

MOST CAMPAIGNS' are fought over issues. But this Democratic presidential campaign has been focused on something a good deal less concrete: professed governing styles.

John Edwards, 2004's sunny optimist turned 2008's angry populist, declares that the only way to bring about real change is by electing a political warrior who is determined to battle the special interests and beat them.

With eight years as first lady and seven as New York senator under her belt, Hillary in Washington will make her most able to navigate the Byzantine ways of the capital in pursuit of progressive goals. Change requires experience and hard work, she says.

A relative newcomer to Washington, Barack Obama argues that what voters really need is someone who hasn't let its dysfunctional ways limit his own hopes for change, someone who can transcend the bitter partisan culture in pursuit of common goals. In his formulation, good judgment and a sense of the American people are more important than Washington credentials.

Viewers heard the outlines of those approaches again on Saturday night, when the Democrats squared off at Saint Anselm College for the final debate before the New Hampshire primary. Each argument is obviously crafted to maximize an individual candidate's strengths and minimize his or her individual weaknesses. And each appeals to different segments of the party.

But let's step back from the campaign trail to consider this question: How would each of those styles work as actual approaches to governing?

Edwards sounds something like Franklin Roosevelt, who, after waging a moderate campaign in 1932, emerged as a populist battler during the dark days of the Great Depression. By 1936, he would declare: ''We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.'' But those were desperate times, and Roosevelt enjoyed huge Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Although there's the prospect for a sizable Democratic victory in 2008, a new president almost certainly won't command majorities of anywhere near those of FDR's time.

So is Edwards's description of the way he will operate realistic for modern times? I put that question to US Representative Barney Frank, a man with strong liberal credentials but also a keen sense of the realities of governing. (Frank, I should note, is a Clinton supporter, but he's also a student of government and a straight shooter.)

Frank is skeptical of Edwards's assertion that a president can demand change without negotiation with affected interests.

''Nobody has the power to do that,'' he says, and for a simple reason: the American style of government keeps power divided and fractured.

''I don't think it is realistic,'' concurs Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. ''We are a government of separated powers.''

Here's the verdict of Garrison Nelson, professor of political science at the University of Vermont: ''No - but he wouldn't be the first person to campaign one way and govern another.''

Nor is it illegitimate to think that insurance companies or drug companies should have the chance to make their case in the public policy arena. In Edwards's eyes, they may be the enemy, but if one is an elected official from, say, Connecticut or New Jersey, they are an important part of the employment base.

If Edwards's approach is suspect, some of his specific promises are ransparently tailored for campaign-trail appeal.

One popular Edwards applause line is the promise that in January of 2009 he'll tell Congress that ''if by this summer - July - you haven't passed universal healthcare, you lose your healthcare.''

How would he bring that about? I asked him last fall. His answer: He'd file legislation to do so, and then, ''anybody who opposes it, I will personally go into their congressional districts everywhere in America and make sure that their voters know that they are standing up for their own healthcare but they are not standing up for the healthcare of the American people.''

Doing so would certainly have the effect of alienating Congress and making Edwards some enduring enemies, but it's almost impossible to imagine Congress passing such legislation. And even if it did, as Frank notes, it's a remedy that would punish the new administration's congressional friends along with its enemies.

In short, it's one of those stump-speech standards that quickens the blood of the partisan faithful, but which a moment's examination reveals to be surpassingly silly.

As for the other two modes of change: There's something to say for each.

Frank says Clinton's model is the most accurate description of how things are actually accomplished in Washington.

Hess thinks Hillary's essential argument reduces to this: If you like the way Bill governed, I can do it too.

She can rightly claim to have watched how a president operates pretty close up, he says, but the two have different pluses and minuses.

''She is far more decisive than he - and far less skillful as a olitician,'' he says. ''She could come up faster with sharper legislative proposals, but she would not have his skills in getting from here to there.''

Frank makes an interesting point about Obama's talk of moving beyond partisan battles: If the differences that provoke those battles endure, there are only three ways of dealing with them: ''Either we give up or they give up or we keep the fight on.''

But Nelson sees merit to Obama's argument that Washington experience isn't necessary to be a good president.

''If you look at some of the 20th-century presidents who have been well-regarded, the outsiders have done every bit as well as the presumed insiders,'' he says, citing Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. They all had experience as executives, though. Ronald Reagan was also an outsider who was very effective in getting what he wanted George H.W. Bush, a Washington insider, proved nowhere near Reagan's equal.

Of course, there are also contrary examples. Jimmy Carter, for example, was an outsider who made a mediocre president, while Lyndon Johnson, the consummate insider, was highly successful in getting his domestic program through Congress.

An awful lot would depend on Obama's instincts, notes Hess.

''While that is very risky, it is also very possible,'' he says of Obama's model. ''It is risky because we really don't know how good his instincts are, but possible because he has the Rooseveltian sense of rhetoric and h can move people.''

So what can we conclude?

First, that though a candidate can campaign as a populist, he'd be unlikely to govern successfully that way.

Second, there are credible arguments to be made for either Clinton's experienced-based or Obama's judgment-based approach - though other modern outsiders have at least had some executive experience.

And third, as Frank notes, when candidates are consumed with arguing over the best way to make change, it speaks to their basic agreement on the substantive changes that should be made.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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