For conservatives, watching Barack Obama challenge Mrs. Clinton’s claim to the Democratic Presidential nomination provides no small amount of schadenfreude. It’s good to see Hillary grind her teeth as Obama calls her on some whopper during an otherwise tedious Democrat debate. It is sweet to watch Bill’s face turn puce when questioned by some reporter about one of his sly racial allusions. And it is truly satisfying to see the gruesome twosome writhe in frustration as Obama accepts the endorsements of former allies like Ted Kennedy.
It would, however, be far less pleasant to watch the eventual Republican Presidential nominee grapple with Obama in the general election. The Illinois Senator would be much harder to beat than Hillary. He is not only younger and more charming than Mrs. Clinton, he also carries far less political baggage.
Moreover, Obama’s positions on most issues are wrapped in gauzy, soft-focus bromides which would make it hard to yoke him to the scary, big-government liberalism that most voters already associate with Clinton.
Health care reform provides a useful case in point. Although Obama’s views on the issue are, as Shawn Macomber has pointed out, informed by the same nanny state philosophy that animate those of every other Democrat running for President, his “reform” proposals are deliberately packaged to seem far less threatening than Hillarycare 2.0. On a variety of health care issues, including insurance mandates, tort reform, and even federalism, Obama’s positions are deceptively innocuous.
Obama’s refusal to overtly endorse the kind of comprehensive health insurance mandate that figures so prominently in Hillary’s “reform” package is typical of his “don’t scare ’em” approach to policy. His plan to “cover every American,” as his campaign website puts it, “will require that all children have health coverage.” It does not, however, include a mandate for adults.
“The reason people don’t have health insurance,” Obama often says, “isn’t because they don’t want it, it’s because they can’t afford it.” Thus, his “plan” consists of low-voltage platitudes about “lowering costs.”
IN ADDITION TO making him seem far less threatening than Hillary, Obama’s mandate position would serve him well in the general election. As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in the New Republic, Obama’s argument resonates not only with “liberals who worry a mandate simply cannot work in practice,” but also “among conservatives who simply don’t like the government telling anybody what to do.”
Ironically, that gives him an advantage over at least one of his potential Republican opponents. In a general election campaign against Mitt Romney, Obama could claim to be the more moderate of the two on the issue. Romney did, after all, sign into law a universal health care program whose many pernicious features include a health insurance mandate.
The Illinois Senator also makes “moderate” noises on malpractice lawsuit abuse. His web site stays within the bounds of liberal orthodoxy: “Obama will strengthen antitrust laws to prevent insurers from overcharging physicians.” But his speeches have occasionally included heresies such as, “Anyone who denies there’s a crisis with medical malpractice insurance is probably a trial lawyer.” In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, he explained that his career choices have been animated by a commitment to public service, adding “That’s why I didn’t become a trial lawyer.”
Like his position on mandates, Obama’s stance on malpractice abuse would be harder to run against than Hillary’s orthodox Democrat position. It would be an easy matter to depict Hillary as a bought-and paid-for mouthpiece for the trial lawyers who have contributed so much to health care inflation. In addition to her opposition to serious tort reform, she has received more campaign cash from lawyers than any other presidential candidate, including John Edwards. Obama, on the other hand, can cite his heretical statements as proof that their considerable generosity to him has had no effect on his positions.
Running against Obama’s health care positions is made more difficult still by the presence in his plan of what could be termed “Federalism Lite,” which his web site describes as follows: “Due to federal inaction, some states have taken the lead in health care reform. The Obama plan builds on these efforts and does not replace what states are doing. States can continue to experiment…” That sounds sensible enough, and it would be much harder to attack than Hillary’s clear intention to swamp state reform efforts with a tsunami of federal regulations.
Obama’s notion of “flexibility for the states” comes with a caveat to the effect that they can create their own version of reform only if “they meet the minimum standards of the national plan.”
That caveat wouldn’t be a liability in the general election because it echoes the positions of his potential Republican opponents. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney have put forward proposals for encouraging state-level health care innovation that are in many ways similar to Obama’s brand of watered-down federalism.
This soft-focus federalism, like Obama’s views on tort reform and mandates, is of a piece with his positions on most other issues. On Iraq, he criticizes Bush but doesn’t advocate a precipitous withdrawal of American troops. In fact, he won’t commit to removing all U.S. troops during his first term as President.
On the economy, he is similarly reluctant to call for radical solutions, confining his remarks to the usual bromides. He has gone to great pains to appear unthreatening.
Thus, while it is indeed pleasant to watch Obama bedevil the Clintons, conservatives should not become so drunk with schadenfreude that they forget how much harder the Illinois Senator would be to beat than Hillary.
Mrs. Clinton’s capture of the Democratic Presidential nomination could unite conservatives, generate an avalanche of cash for the Republican nominee, and produce a record-breaking turnout of Republican voters on election day. Obama’s nomination would bring none of these benefits. Indeed, his presence at the top of the Democratic ticket could mean a Democrat victory in November.