Presidential candidates and "substance"

Whether a presidential campaign is "substantive" is determined far more by its relationship to the Beltway culture than by any specific legislative plan it issues.

Published March 31, 2007 2:28PM (EDT)

Time's Karen Tumulty has an informative post analyzing the race for first-quarter fundraising among presidential candidates, and in the course of assessing how each candidate is doing, she says this:

Hillary Rodham Clinton looks certain to blow out the competition, raising $30 million or even more for the quarter. (And this doesn't count the $11 million or so that she can transfer from her Senate campaign account.) Barack Obama will disappoint if he fails to reach $20 million, while Edwards will make the over-under if he doubles his 2004 total.

Also keep an eye on Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who has a ready supply of donors by virtue of his chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee--a post he probably will continue to hold if he doesn't make it to the White House, which makes his campaign a good investment for contributors, win or lose.Word is that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson are struggling in the fund-raising race.

The fact that banks and large corporations give money to Senators in order to influence legislation is hardly news. But still, that we acknowledge this fact so seamlessly and nonchalantly -- as though it's the most unremarkable thing that donating to Dodd's campaign is a "good investment" because of his position as Senate Banking Committee Chair -- is fairly compelling evidence of just how rotted and broken our whole Beltway culture is. I'm not criticizing Tumulty's reporting here. To the contrary, what she conveys is an accurate reflection of how things work.

That is precisely why I found the media-concocted uproar over Barack Obama's "lack of substance" -- all based on the fact that he has not yet formulated a detailed health care plan -- to be so misguided (just incidentally, here is an interesting Las Vegas Sun article detailing the blogger pushback against the predictable emergence of that media narrative). It is perfectly fine and reasonable to demand -- as liberal bloggers such as Taylor Marsh and Ezra Klein have done -- that Obama provide more details, more "meat," on his health care plan. The first vote is still almost a full year away, and he will undoubtedly have a big, heavy policy proposal for health care policy experts to pore over to their heart's content.

But issuing detailed legislative proposals on specific, isolated issues is by no means the only way -- or even the most important way -- to run a "substantive" presidential campaign. Our political system and ruling Beltway culture are broken so far beyond any specific issue, and can be addressed only by ideas and critiques that far transcend any specific policy proposal. A truly "substantive" campaign will stand in stark opposition to the whole tone and mindset of Beltway orthodoxies.

All of the candidates, including Obama, are going to issue a detailed health care plan soon enough. But the political system in which those health care plans -- and every other specific legislative proposal -- are going to be assessed, debated and processed is profoundly corrupt and broken.

Thus, any candidate who does not address those systemic political diseases is not actually being "substantive" at all, no matter how many thick white papers they issue chock full of think-tank-developed "plans." Between (a) a candidate who understands our fundamental political problems but who has yet to issue a detailed health care plan and (b) a candidate who has all sorts of detailed, wonky legislative policies developed by aides but who has no real critique of our political culture and will do nothing but feed off of it and perpetuate it, candidate (a) is clearly the more "substantive" candidate in the way that matters.

At least in my view, Howard Dean's 2004 candidacy prompted such passion and excitement not because of any specific policy plans or even views on issues which he advocated (even including Iraq). Far more important was the fact that he looked, sounded and smelled like (and I think actually was) an insurgent candidate -- someone who emerged outside of our corroded Beltway system and seemed legitimately opposed to it, even hostile towards and disgusted by it.

He sounded like an American citizen who was running in opposition to the prevailing Beltway political culture and its rancid operating procedures, not as someone who was a by-product of it eager to prevail within it by adhering to its rules. That was the real "substance" of Dean's campaign, what distinguished it and made it interesting.

It's for that reason that the only presidential candidate, at least among the (credible) Democrats, who seems truly odious is Hillary Clinton, and that is true not so much because of her, but because of the people with whom she has chosen to surround herself and who will run our government should she be elected. To understand why that is so, just read Matt Stoller's superb and important story about how the Clintonistas operate.

The people who are attached to the Clinton campaign and who will be swept back into power with her -- the Terry McAuliffes and Mike McCurrys and Howard Wolfsons and Chris Lehanes and James Carvilles -- are pure embodiments of the whole corrupt and principle-less and worthless edifice. They're the people who, both when they were in power and throughout the Bush presidency, sleazily fed at the trough and they believe in nothing. Cheap and deceitful cynicism is the nourishment which sustains them and, most of all, they love the Beltway power system and can't wait to resume their place in it -- fully preserved and unchanged.

I agree entirely with Kos' view of the Clinton campaign: "just take a gander at all the Clintonistas in that cast of characters. What a lot of unsavory characters. And those are the folks currently surrounding Hillary Clinton." All of that is true even if she issues the most detailed health care plan in history. The point here is not to develop a specific view of Hillary Clinton as a candidate -- that is comletely secondary given how far away we are from any voting -- but the important point is what Stoller said in a subsequent post: "Clinton's personnel choices and general way of doing business reflects a very successful political strategy and is a proxy for the establishment."

Presidential campaigns, by design, are relatively rare opportunities to re-assess the direction and core political values of our country. Any campaigns which confine themselves to incremental policy disputes over their health care plans may (in the myopic and satisfied eyes of the Mike Allens and Joe Kleins) have the appearance of being "substantive," but they will be anything but.

It is way too early (at least in my view) to know whether he is sincere about it and willing and/or able to follow through -- and there are plenty of valid criticisms of him one can make -- but at least thus far, Barack Obama is the only candidate even thinking and talking about the deeper and more fundamental diseases plaguing how our political system works. Whatever criticisms of his candidacy thus far are valid, a "lack of substance" isn't one of them, and that's true even if he hasn't yet developed the details or even broad contours of his health care plan.

When assessing "substance," the first, and arguably most important, issue is whether someone intends to perpetuate the Beltway mentality for how our country is governed, or whether they will be critical of it, hostile towards it. Within that framework at least, there are numerous campaigns that "lack substance" and will clearly continue to -- including ones that have issued and will continue to issue all sorts of shiny, super-detailed legislative "plans" on specific issues.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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