In the Arena

But the melody lingers on

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State College, Pa.

I’ve spent the weekend with the Democrats–yesterday with Obama, today with Clinton. I’ll have a lot more to say about the race in my print column this week…but a few quick notes from Pennsylvania:

Substance: Both Clinton’s and Obama’s stump speeches have collapsed into blatant pandering. Obama doesn’t talk about hope much anymore. He’s spending a lot of time attacking Clinton for being part of the DC lobbying, special interest and same old politics culture. Then he makes his offers–mostly on things he can’t do anything about (loss of manufacturing jobs) or won’t have much money for (middle class tax cuts). He leavens this, happily, with some hard truths about how long it will take to reduce energy costs (although the truth is, energy prices are more likely to go up than go down) and how difficult it will be to get something like health insurance reform through Congress. Clinton has honed her pitch to almost pure laundry list: she’s got a program for everything–and blithely plays into the lower gas tax dreams of her audiences, as well as their protectionist fantasies and panders flat-out to the teachers’ unions by saying that she’s going to end No Child Left Behind (a flawed piece of legislation, but is she, like, against basic reading and math standards?) All in all, pretty depressing. Both these candidates were far more eloquent and substantive in the month before Iowa. (Clinton, for example, has honed her excellent alt-energy pitch down to one semi-comprehensible sentence about “green jobs.”)

Energy: Obama seems either bummed or pissed or exhausted. He could be near death and still be a pretty good speaker, but he’s very much off his game right now. Clinton, by contrast, is on fire–as energetic and passionate as I’ve seen her.

Music: Fascinating, this. Both Obama and Clinton have appropriated theme songs used by John Edwards back in the day: Clinton–John Mellencamp’s “This is Our Country.” Obama–Bruce’s “The Rising.” What does this mean? Could it be…something significant? Actually, no: both are perfect for the populist pandering of the moment.

More about the campaign in a few days…but presidential politics sure can get tawdry in a hurry when the candidates are desperate.

Update Reader Stuart Zechman wants to know:

A “laundry list” of what problems a candidate intends to solve (and how) is bad for voters…how is it bad for voters, again?

Answer: Because it doesn’t set or convey priorities..and sooner or later actual voters begin to say to themselves: This candidate wants to spend money on everything! A loss of credibility ensues. It’s best to pick a few priorities and stick with them…You might, indeed should, have ideas about a whole range of issues, but that’s not how to convince people to vote for you.

Update: No sooner do I write about all the laundry-list pandering than Clinton hauls off here at Penn State and gives a rousing, high-minded stump speech–as good as I’ve heard her. Of course, this is a university campus and she’s doing intellectual pandering…but I can live with that. Easily.

Although… She’s now drifted back into the same old, same old. Still, not bad.